It’s the time of year for saving money!
If you talk to executives in the audiophile business, they take this hobby pretty seriously. Many have made themselves wealthy selling the concept of high-performance audio playback and the support products. Speakers, electronics, source components, cables, and accessories (oh, Jesus) – it has been a wonderful business that has morphed into much more than merely an enthusiast’s hobby as the industry has struggled to evolve from the messy, cluttered, and esoteric; with odd habits that appeal to its Baby Boomer roots.
Millennials haven’t gotten the memo yet. Gen Xers, like me, are far more into the concept of CI (custom installation) meaning AV systems that integrates lighting control, HVAC, rack-mounted gear, invisible speakers, in-wall subwoofers, home automation and more. All of these are poison pills for hardcore audiophiles and that is a problem, but that’s not the point of this post.
In a recent sales pitch of mine, the topic came up of just how many audiophiles are there (in the English-speaking world). Said prospect suggested roughly a million. Respectfully, he is higher than Cheech & Chong combined after a trip to the Malibu dispensary for the sticky-icky-icky. There is no way. Not even close.
AudiophileReview.com is one of the most well-read blogs on the topic, with years of data from trusted metrics like Google Analytics. I have personally spent many tens-of-thousands of dollars on SEO (search engine optimization), specifically creative link building, to make the blog site a powerhouse, and we pull anywhere from 65,000 to 75,000 readers per month. That isn’t half bad performance, even if I am patting myself on the back a little.
Our friends (and yes, we are friends) at Stereophile in print are audited at about the same rough number. Maybe they do a little more online, but I am not sure. The Absolute Sound (also in print) has never been audited, but have postal records (nothing close to an audit) suggesting that they reach about 25,000 readers, the last time I heard. There are all sorts of other audiophile publications in print and even more online that suggest that 75,000 is not a crazy number if we limit our search to the U.S. Remember, we all share readers.
We can look to other markets like Canada and the U.K,. and that is a good place to run the numbers up from the baseline 75,000. Canadians tend to read the U.S. content like I read Canadian hockey websites, so logically some of them will run the numbers up. The U.K. promotes different audiophile products and a whole other way of looking at the audiophile hobby, which brings new people into the mix, and that is a good thing.
If they double the market, we are at 150,000 total. Maybe that is too ambitious, but then again there are other English-speaking audiophiles in smaller markets like Germany, South Africa, parts of Japan, and Australia that make 150,000 feel like the right-fit number.
Let’s go back to the U.S. for a bit. If one of the annual audiophile shows pulled 10,000 attendees, that would give credence to our estimate of sub-150k audiophiles out of the 7,200,000,000 people on the planet Earth. Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Axpona, Capital Audiofest, THE Show, and so many others bloviate, but if they had 10,000 attendees, they would be killing it as a “hotel show,” and these shows are increasingly important in terms of the hobby as we head towards 2020.
The scarier concept is the actual demographic of the roughly 150,000 audiophiles out there. They are getting old and not replenishing with new blood – at least in the United States. The audience is mostly Baby Boomers. This means guys who, by actuarial charts, A) aren’t likely to have hearing above 10 kHz and B) are likely at 70-plus years old are not in desperate need of yet another $10,000 audio component.
That is frightening news for the business of audiophilia and a comment that none of the aforementioned audiophile print magazines have the balls to verbalize.
Yes, there are the people whom have made their money selling voodoo cables and other audiophile components already, and they are on their gluten-nut-oil-advertising-free retirement final lap. And that’s fine, I guess. But who is next for the industry/hobby? Vinyl lovers? Physical media makes up 12 percent of the total $8,900,000 in music sales and vinyl is only $400,000,000 of that, so that’s unlikely. Streaming (especially in HD) is far more hopeful, but traditional audiophiles cling to vinyl and/or silver discs when master tape quality downloads of damn-near every recording every made are now accessible thanks to Amazon, Tidal, and Qobuz for $15 to $20 per month.
There is some hope, I guess. Perhaps even more hope comes when trusted industry people like Dave Gordon at Audio Research email me photos from the Munich High End show with Millennials and Gen Xers bringing their kids to check out the latest and greatest our hobby has to offer. That is a rare feeling, but I am glad that I have felt it.
So, I throw the question out to you: How many English-speaking audiophiles do you think are out there? More importantly, why do you think that number is correct, if you don’t agree with my back-of-the-napkin calculations? I have made my case here. We want to hear from you if your guess is different.
Just a couple of items, so as not to offend or trigger anyone with any short attention span or related issues. With regard to the 10 kHz comment; while true that high frequency hearing loss is common with age, there is a quantum difference between hearing and listening. Any good musician can attest to and expound on that one. Great hearing acuity often bears no relationship to great listening skills. Secondly, it may come as a complete and uncontemplated shock to many that older things are not necessarily irrelevant or inferior simply because they are older; and newer things are not necessarily more relevant or superior, simply because they are newer. Many audiophiles in my “Boomer” demographic are watching many good and valuable things in the audio universe quickly fade to obscurity, marginalization, and extinction, not because they deserve that fate, but largely due to “the new thing” mentality that simply has its way over “the old thing.” It is an old and repetitious phenomenon, but worth a reminder, given the ever-increasing advancements in technology and gadgetry, the increasing rapidity of the cycles of product feature obsolescence, and the demographics, consumer demands, and budgets of the new buyers buying new gear. I may have reached the maximum attention span and/or retention threshold for many readers. I will now take my leave and my aged and diminished old musician’s hearing to relax with a nice old glass of the good old stuff and actually listen on my old gear to a very nice old recording of Beethoven’s old “Emperor” piano concerto – in all of its gloriously old, “boring,” and irrelevant entirety. Cheers.
Jerry. Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. You know I love you man but I gotta take issue with a few things here. First, I’m not sure why English-speaking has anything to do with it. Yes, most people able to buy $10K toys have some English, but in certain important markets like Japan and China, even Russia, that is not necessarily so. The China market especially is big and getting bigger. Second, I take issue with defining audiophiles so narrowly as those who subscribe to an audiophile-targeted publication. I think oenophiles are similar to audiophiles in the sense that many wine lovers, myself included, do not subscribe to anything wine-related. We read about it in various ways but otherwise are content to explore and consume at our leisure. Many buyers of our cool toys are not hobbyists at all. They simply buy great systems and enjoy them. Consulting the back of my napkin, I’d say that there are indeed 10X as many people who buy audiophile-grade systems as subscribe and make a true hobby of it. So the size of the market, in my experience, is loosely proportional to the number of subscribers, not limited to it. I think your prospect was right, if not shooting maybe a bit low.
As organizer of an audio club, I’ve met many audiophiles who don’t subscribe to Stereophile or TAS, but who made the effort to find and join our club. Many have never been to an audio, show. (I was 30 years between show visits, myself.) So I think Dave is right about the number’s being larger than an estimate based on subscriptions or show numbers. I do worry, though, that the voodoo stuff is turning customers off and clouding judgement about what it takes to get good sound. It’s lucrative for the vendors but an unfortunate part of our hobby.
A lot of hard-line audiophiles are aging out, I’m one, and coming to the decision that it’s not worth paying for things you can’t hear. The tough question is, are these folks being replaced by younger generations? My guess is they are not, too many other diversions competing for their time and money. Another buggy whip story? We’ll see.
Jerry. Your articles are always thought provoking- so thanks for that. I am at the end of the boomers. 1961. I love my gear and I do embrace new technology. I think your numbers are spot on re: English speaking audiophiles. Our hobby is not alone. I know train geeks, muscle car geeks, model T geeks, wood worker geeks, classical music geeks, folk music geeks, and on and on. Go to any of their shows or events and see a see of grey hair.
Mr. Nauber makes a good point re: Asia. That’s a huge market, for sure.
I don’t know enough “young” people to figure out why they don’t care to get into these things. Screens have taken up a lot of everyone’s time. As usual, there are no easy answers. I do know that when non-audiophiles walk into my home and hear the music in the living room, they almost all comment on how good it sounds.
Young person here, 16, I got into being an audiophile from using my phone actually! Having access to so much music whenever I wanted had me listening constantly but it just wasn’t enough, it sounded garbage to me so I got into headphones and bought myself a pair of HD598 then a Fiio K5 pro. That was about 4 years ago? Now I’ve got myself the HD660s, Sony MDR-Z7M2 and Fiio Q5s; I’m saying all this because when I show my friends they are blown away, they are more blown away when I tell them some TOTL cans are 2-3k+ and high end speakers can be 200k. The price definitely plays a factor as to why young people don’t get into this kind of stuff, most students can’t afford 10k equipment. I’m not really an audiophile for the music though, I think the tech and design is fascinating. The designs of the Sony MDR Z1R, HD800S/820, Sonus Faber Aida, Beolab 90, Meze Emperyean, Fiio FH7/M11 Pro/M15, Hiby R8, Klipsch RP series, Cambridge audio Aeromax series, Focal Kanta, and the Sennheiser HE1 are some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. Planar magnetic, dynamic, and whatever that magic in the Emperyean is just amazes me.
Lower quality is also a big factor, we sacrifice on quality for space. An MP3 takes substantially less space than some DSD512 or even FLAC. That being said means that there is no point for high end equipment because for the most part people stream from Spotify or Apple music, not Tidal or Primephonic like myself which allows me the oh so good uncompressed glory. Because I use these platforms I have a justification for expensive equipment that’ll make a difference whereas the majority of people my age don’t. That’s my experience at least, I’m sure there are other reasons as well.
As someone who has been an audiophile since I was 15,( I’m 59 now), I have seen this industry grow from being a tiny section of the electronics market to today, where its over a 10 billion dollar per year industry. I am currently a part of the ” dark side” of the market: 12 Volt audio. For over 25 years I have been a part of the 12 volt side of things professionally. My job has taken me to every state in the Union and my own personal experience with the state of the “Audiophile” side of the industry is that its in pretty good shape. Granted, the demographic breakdown is skewed more toward the baby boomers, no question about it. What is surprising to me is how many people below the age of 35 have discovered what great headphones with fantastic headphone preamps can sound like! Obviously, personal playback units, ( phones primarily), are the reason for this. They are discovering what higher-resolution playback is all about. People are still needing music. It’s still important to people. Thats what I have discovered during my travels. Within the car audio world, more and more of the industry is understanding what Higher Resolution Sound Quality is all about. The 12 volt industry grew up with Boom. Not so much anymore. Its matured like all of us who created the industry have. Imaging, staging, timbre….these have become paramount in creating a proper sounding vehicle in the 12 volt aftermarket. This has happened because a number of us within the 12 volt world decided to TEACH our clients just what they were missing with the music. Once these people became exposed to ” Audiophile ” sound, they can’t go back to just hearing music played, it becomes more than that to them. They become emotionally involved. Thats the key to this folks. People still love music, all kinds of music and if we are to keep this going, then we who are Audiophiles, have a responsibility to TEACH as many people as possible just what this is all about. Be it salespeople or a consumer who has been a part of this crazy hobby. Keeping this going is up to US! ALL of US!! If we in the industry quit teaching and reaching out to the masses, then we lose this. I disagree with the premise that there are only 100K of us in this country. Far from it. A mentor of mine told me this over 45 years ago and it still applies to today: “Everyone is an Audiophile, they just don’t know it! “