Adieu to the true audiophile?

True connoisseurs of home stereos will take exception to the notion, but complicated home stereos may be going the way of baby boomer taste-setting.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read

I'd bet the average person under 30 hasn't purchased a serious home stereo system in the last five years.

And it's not because they don't like music. Quite the opposite, actually. The popularity of online streaming music sites, rise of music blogs, and skyrocketing digital music sales from places like iTunes, Wal-Mart.com, and Amazon.com show that young people are voracious music consumers.

But are they true audiophiles? No, at least not in the way people who came of age trying to find the perfect sound on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon were. They'd buy high-fidelity speakers and systems that play back music in a quality as close to the original performance as possible.

And why not? If you think about it, the equipment that has traditionally defined the audiophile is antithetical to the way we experience music today. Speakers are clunky and immobile, and expensive shelf systems don't play easily swappable digital files. Instead, stereo shopping nowadays often means picking up an iPod and a speaker dock. The combination is cheaper, mobile, convenient, and, for better or worse, cool.

The effect is that it's slowly killing an industry.

Home audio sales have been in decline for the past half decade, and have drooped even lower in recent years. Home CD player sales totaled $36.2 million last year, but that's 35 percent below 2005 sales figures. Home speaker sales are down 2 percent, but home shelf systems sales are down 40 percent in the same time period, according to data gathered by the NPD Group.

"Before, people would listen to music through their stereo system, or 10, 15 years ago over their home theater system; that doesn't happen anymore," said Steve Guttenberg, who writes The Audiophiliac for the CNET Blog Network. "People have sort of moved away from that sort of mindset. It doesn't happen except for audiophiles."

While it's unclear if it was the cause or simply a response to a new generation's needs, the runaway success of the iPod played an important role in this change. The iPod either tapped into our desire to listen to music on the go--and bring the entirety of our music library with us--or told us that's what we should want.

In the face of slowing sales and brand awareness, the industry has responded by consolidating many of the original home audio brands and manufacturers.

Electronics companies like JVC and Kenwood, known for their audio equipment, said last week they had officially set up shop together after what seemed like a yearlong dance. They will fold the brands into one company, JVC Kenwood Holdings, in hopes of reducing costs and scaling their distribution in the already crowded Japanese consumer electronics market.

But those two are not alone in their plight. Last month it was revealed that D&M Holdings, known for audio brands like Denon, Marantz, McIntosh, Snell Acoustics, and Boston Acoustics is up for sale, and that Harman International, which already operates dozens of brands, is interested, along with JVC Kenwood, in snapping it up.

Little brand awareness
The problem is that the awareness of audio equipment beyond the iPod and its ilk is disappearing, according to Guttenberg.

"If I stopped people on the street and asked them to name (an audio) company other than Bose, 80 or 90 percent wouldn't have a clue," he said.

Companies like McIntosh, the original high-end audio company, catered specifically to audiophiles. Begun in 1949 in Binghamton, N.Y., it still builds its speakers by hand, just as it always has. If any of its products were ever in need of repair, the company would take it back and fix it, not just replace it. The products were made to last for decades, not just the length of a one-year warranty.

The brand is now on the block, its personalized service, handcrafted products, and attention to detail no longer as relevant to the majority of music consumers.

Music today is a commodity--ripped for free track by track, or bought for 99 cents and eventually added to a vast digital library, either destined to become a favorite, or more likely forgotten for good after a couple of listens. Today's music players are regarded the same way--mostly as disposable. Either the player will work for two or three years before sputtering and dying, or a newer, faster, smaller, better player that has far more cachet will be released in six months.

"I often wonder about the 30-year-old iPod," Guttenberg mused. "Will someone still use an iPod in 30 years," like audiophiles do high-end speakers?

The answer is, of course, not a chance.