How Healthy is the U.S. Audio's Future?

AR-emographics6a.jpgI've read at least a half-dozen rave show reports from AXPONA, heralding it as the new premiere U.S. audio show. And that may be true, but if it is true, I'm not sure there will even be a "high-end" audio market in the U.S. in twenty years. Heck, it could collapse in ten...how do I know this? I look at pictures...

First disclaimer - I did not attend Axpona this year although my bags were packed, plane-ride booked, hotel room secured, and hit-list of rooms I had to stick my nose into prepared. But I was not well enough to go - stuffed head, no energy, coughing, and waterworks for a nose...the night before I was scheduled to leave, I had to pull the plug. 

AR-HowHealthyAMAVersion225.jpgSo where does my current sour grapes rant come from? Comparing photos of the Axpona crowd with the photos of crowds at a recent Asian hi-fi show. It's not that the crowds looked bigger at the off-shore show, but the average estimated age of the people in the crowds was noticeably and consistently, from photo to photo, younger than the crowd at Axpona. Very noticeably younger.

So what?

The so what is that the vast majority of the people in the Axpona photos will be dead in twenty years. And dead folks don't buy a lot of stereo gear...

AR-HowHealthyDemographics225b.jpg

Again, so what? 

The so what is that not only will current customers be defunct, the new customers may not be interested in the same gear as the old ones. Do you really think "the vinyl revival" will still be going strong in twenty years? 

While many small audio firms are lucky if they can map their future development paths for the next five years, let alone twenty, some old-school audio firms are already considering the transition from traditional products to new-school products.

AR-HowHealthyHeadphones225.jpgTake B&W's recent announcement of a whole line of wireless Bluetooth-enabled network-aware small-footprint powered loudspeakers and soundbars. B&W began making headphones for the first time just a few years back. Even the venerable firm of Conrad Johnson just introduced a headphone amplifier.

Other companies that just a few years ago were exclusively room-based loudspeaker manufacturers, such as Focal, have expanded aggressively into headphones. Why? Because that is where the growth and future of audio lies. I have to wonder when companies such as Wilson, and YG, will enter the headphone market...because I do not believe that any company can or will survive long-term if they only make traditional large room-based loudspeakers.

AR-HowHealthyDemographics225a.jpgThe future financial health of audio firms will depend far more on portable and personal audio than on room-based loudspeakers or turntables just as streaming will continue to grow to become an even more dominant music source. And while the U.S. market doesn't look, on the surface and at audio shows, much different than it was ten years ago, it is in the middle of big demographic changes that will have major impacts on not only who buys audio gear, but also what audio gear they buy, and who they listen to on the gear they own. Even Record Store Day will not reverse the sands of time or the current tastes of young music fans...

Some firms, such as B&W, have seen a vision of the future that demands changes in what they make and how they make it. Other firms that wish to still be extent in twenty years need to do the same...

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