For most of the history of “high-end” or high performance audio, the equipment and the resulting listening experience has been decidedly non-mainstream. Then as now, systems on this level were not all that widespread. In the sixties and seventies, audiophiles almost exclusively used turntables for musical reproduction. To a lesser degree, some of the better systems may have also made use of a reel to reel player. As far as recorded music was concerned, that was pretty much it.
Again, back in the sixties, high performance audio was basically the province of a more affluent audience. While not mutually exclusive to wealthy practitioners, high performance audio systems would more commonly be found in homes where the median income was higher than the national average – sometimes much higher.
These days, there are multiple options available to all audiophiles – analog, including LP’s, the surprising resurgence of reel to reel and of course digital. It is in the digital realm where technology has made the listening experience so varied and has enabled multiple choices among the proponents of high quality musical reproduction systems. Many would argue that the times and the modern day cost compared to income of high performance audio have not changed in the last fifty years. Is that necessarily true?
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. There will always be a market for hyper expensive gear. Amps, speakers and turntables that cost six figures and up, cables that are in the mid five figure range, total system costs of seven figures – components and systems in these categories will always have a market. There are enough people with incredible financial means to ensure a continuing sales outlet for such luxury components. Number of units sold? Small to be sure. But there will always be a customer. What about the rest of us?
Our industry faces a number of challenges. One, of course, is system cost. While the efficacy of cost proportional to performance might be endlessly debated, let’s make it simple and agree that cost is the overwhelming determination of a user’s willingness and ability to assemble an audio system. There are other conditions as well.
I’d venture to guess that most audiophiles have a significant other and very likely children living in the home. Needless to say, family requirements will always come first. I find it very difficult to believe that any mindful parent would neglect the medical or educational needs of their children so a new amp might be purchased. Audio will always take a second seat to the needs of the family, as well it should. This condition plays an obvious role in the proliferation of high performance gear.
Another issue in audio land is available space to house a system. Most homes these days are not possessed of a dedicated listening room. In fact, for most home builders, the need to put more reasonably sized homes on smaller parcels of land exceeds the need to have larger homes with a dedicated listening room – assuming of course that is even a remote consideration of the average builder. All of these conditions point to a new market segment – the “Lifestyle” product category.
Many “audiophiles” these days are desirous of a system that accomplishes multiple goals – a pleasing sound, lower cost, smaller in size, more functions in fewer components, and having the ability to fit out of the way and basically not be seen. I’m curious if the historical multi component system on a massive equipment rack with looms of cables and large floor standing speakers are giving way to a bookshelf system the other family members can hear but not see? Are we, as audiophiles, changing the mindset on how we view an audio system?
Manufacturers, to whatever extent they are, have begun to offer some segment of their product line that is smaller, multi-function and can easily and neatly be stored mostly out of sight – yet also with the goal of producing high quality sonics. Perhaps best of all, these products may be sold at a price point that, while more expensive than mid-fi, is infinitely more affordable to a greater number of potential customers. That sure sounds like a “Lifestyle” product to me.
That said, manufacturers also have the very real need to generate income. Engineering developments very often take time and commonly, significant amounts of capital. Any company building a $250,000.00 speaker system needs the time (sometimes years) and fiscal resources to bring this class of product to market. So if they also introduce a low cost, more easily affordable system that sells in higher volumes and generates income, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Our little cottage industry is decidedly a niche market. Moving up the cost ladder proportionally reduces units sold in dramatic fashion. This is, of course, not at all unusual. Care to guess how many cars Ferrari builds annually compared to General Motors? It would seem the pervasive remaining question is what is best for the longevity of our industry?
It’s a foregone conclusion that high performance audio manufacturers will attempt to offer products, separate and apart from world class components, their customers want and to an obvious extent, products they firmly believe will sell. That condition is conditional across all manufacturing. As it relates to high performance audio, one question that might and probably should be asked: Is a “Lifestyle” product a positive product offering or a class of components that will detrimentally change the traditional audiophile hobby? If it is a positive thing, will this represent a wholesale change in the landscape of what has historically been a high performance audio system?
For me, I’ll stick with my big multi component system in a large audio rack with floorstanding speakers in a dedicated audio room. However, I keep wondering if my system set up is going the way of the dinosaur- forever gone and replaced with a Lifestyle product.