Like many audiophiles, I fell in love with this hobby as a teenager. To purchase my first audio system, I spent an entire summer cutting grass and any odd jobs the neighbors kindly employed me to perform. I kept my earnings in an envelope ubiquitously named "stereo fund."
Audio was pretty simple in those days. I lived in a town that had less than 30,000 residents. Despite the relatively small size of my hometown, we had, if memory serves, three high-end audio dealers from which to choose. As far as music goes, one could purchase an LP almost anywhere. Buying music and audio gear back then was profoundly simple.
Contrast that to today. I live in a city with a metropolitan population of almost 2 million and there is only one brick and mortar high-performance store, one home-based dealer, and three official stores to buy a CD or LP. Big-box stores, if you count them, may sell a few CDs but the available selection is prohibitively small. As for their brands of audio, well, that's best served as a topic for another time.
In 1972, after cutting Joe Estes' huge lawn for an entire summer, I finally had saved enough money for my system. My Mom drove me to the store, I paid for the components, put the boxes in the car, returned home to set it up and inside an hour -- from start to finish -- I was playing music.
Contrast that to today. I have purchased equipment from audio dealers in NC, VA, PA, NJ and CA. I have paid for equipment, in full and in advance, and waited as much as 12 weeks for the component to arrive. I once purchased an audio rack and after 24 weeks with continuing promises and no product, I had to threaten a lawsuit and finally get the bank to actually remove the funds from the company's account for reimbursement. What happened to the simplicity enjoyed in my audio youth?
High-performance audio is a remarkably rewarding hobby. I doubt many proponents of our hobby could ever be convinced to sell their system in lieu of something different, emergencies notwithstanding. I also doubt there would be much in the way of disagreement that the pursuit of luxury audio has grown more difficult. It almost seems like it has become more complicated to spend increasingly greater sums of money.
I am firm in the belief that the manufacturer / dealer paradigm is one that has value. Reputable dealers can provide realistic advice on all matter of audio subjects. They can help and assist with system set up and fine tune things for optimal results. Finding a good one in close proximity has unfortunately become more difficult.
Dealers are not just around the corner any more, or at least not for most audiophiles. They are often hundreds of miles away, if not in neighboring and even distant states. As such, most dealers are hesitant to travel very far for a relatively minor sale. While visiting a client is a business practice and a planned expense for most dealers, the sale amount must be of sufficient value to warrant travel. All too often, the customer goes to the dealer.
This has almost forced audiophile consumers to make their own choices. Quite often, those choices are guided by one's own ingenuity and by recommendations and product reviews read in the audiophile press. Unless you are somewhat knowledgeable about such reviews, and how such a reviewed product may interact with your system, you may find your purchase akin to a turkey shoot.
For some audiophiles, largely based on their own recommendations, it has become almost commonplace to buy a component secure in the knowledge that it will be "the one." Unfortunately, an all-too-frequent occurrence is that after installation, the component proves unsatisfactory and is ultimately replaced. Steven Stone calls that the "hunt and peck" method. I would hazard to guess that many of us are guilty of that even if only to a minor degree.
Cost. How can cost not be considered? Well, of course luxury audio is costly. While a debate about cost could go on indefinitely, this hobby is widely recognized as expensive. Even when comparing entry-level system cost to mid-fi, let alone a world-class system, yes, the price of admission is high. Whatever difficulty cost presents is obviously a major consideration.
Finally, there is participation. Many regard high-performance audio as a hobby practiced by increasingly older men, and believe that today's youth are just not interested. Perhaps to a certain extent this may be the case. Yet despite this assumption, high-end audio survives. New products offering high resolution and portability may introduce many of the MP3 generation to the sonic wonder of our hobby, and may win over a few of them.
Audiophiles face in today's time a series of challenges. Such challenges include cost, ways to obtain music (another topic all unto its own), where to purchase equipment and making the right equipment choices. Some would say this is all what makes the hobby fun. On that, I'd wholeheartedly agree, because the reward is, in this audiophile's opinion, certainly worth all the effort.