Let's be honest with each other - audiophila has become more of a geeky hobby than a serious business or luxury goods market like it was in its hey days in the late 1970's through the early 1990's. Baby Boomer men inspired by unquestionably the best period of music (1967 through much of the 1970's), a hopeful new world of global opportunity and local American prosperity graduated from college and returned from Vietnam - viewing audiophile gear as a sign of status as much as a way to enjoy vast volumes of incredible new music. Having coffin sized Infinity speakers, some McIntosh tube amps and a killer Linn turntable was as much a sign of "making it" and affluence as having a gas-guzzling muscle car in your garage. As Boomers enjoyed booming economies decade after decade their wealth grew as did their taste for better audiophile gear. The audiophile business came into its own in the mid to late 1970's powered by the likes of Bob Carver (Phase Linear, Carver and Sunfire), Bob Stuart (Meridian), Mark Levinson (Madrigal, Cello, Red Rose), David Wilson (Wilson Audio), Jim Thiel (THIEL), Gayle Sanders (MartinLogan) Karen and Jack Sumner (Transparent Cable), Dan D-agostino (Krell) and many others. With the advent of VHS, AV receivers packed with Dolby Digital and big screen TVs, Home theater only made the high end audiophile business grow more. Yet today, only fifteen to twenty years from its pinnacle, the audiophile business is listed in Critical Condition with ailments ranging from a lack of good dealers, declining online sales, few new high resolution audio formats and consumer demand being close to nil. Dramatically, speaking...there needs to be a draft (to use a term that will get a Boomer's attention) of sorts to get a new crop of people who love music into loving audio and the art, passion and luxury (less the geeky hobby) of being an audiophile the same way I learned about all things audiophile.
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970s through the very early 1990s - music was a major part of my upbringing. My father was the program director of WFIL and WIBG in the late 1960s and he always had rock and roll radio playing in the car and at home through a quality audio system. My stepfather had (and still has despite a few blown drivers) a pair of AR3a speakers on Dynaco Stereo 70 tube amps that he bought in 1964 after hearing them in Grand Central Station (the story tells like Al Bundy talking about four touchdowns at Polk High but I will save you that anecdote). But it was my childhood best friend's Dad, Ken Longo, who got both his son and I absolutely hooked on quality audio. It all started for us with Mr. Longo's addiction (I am putting it politely) to buying classical music and the opening of Tower Records on South Street in Philadelphia. Ken must have 2,000 LPs and easily 5,000 classical CDs at this point as he was an aggressive collector of music first, a lover of fine audio second. It was not uncommon for us to all drive from the idyllic and conservative confines of the Chestnut Hill section of the city to the punk rock inspired South Street area of Philadelphia to buy CDs almost on a weekly basis. Along with these CDs came an appreciation for better and better equipment as we stopped into esoteric stores near Tower Records including David Mann and Sassafras Audio to hear Revox, Kyocera, Adcom and Dalhquist products playing our latest new records from new bands like Guns and Roses, Metallica, the latest from Rush, catalog records from Jimi Hendrix, the Police, Pink Floyd and so many others. With Mr. Longo, the trips got more and more adventurous as we showed an interest in both music and audio as we frequently headed out to more obscure record and audio stores in the suburbs. We sometimes trekked to the amazing Princeton Record Exchange and on the way back would hit up the then legendary SoundEx which had every audiophile component, CD and magazine known to man. As a pair of 14 or 15 year olds watching Mr. Longo one day bring home a Nakamichi Dragon and learning how to use it along with him as part of his Linn, NAIM and B&W based system was, in parts, test driving the audio equivalent of a Ferrari, a lesson in how to save and manage money, and science project that was a hell of a lot more fun than either of us got at prep school. It didn't take us long before we had our own systems with NAD, Polk, Celestion, KEF, AudioQuest, Nakamichi, Fosgate, Perreaux and Acoustat gear cluttering up our bedrooms and keeping us up at night thinking about and talking about the next and most significant upgrade. It was 1990 and we were hooked, 16 year old audio junkies and inspired by both of our fathers we both got jobs in the audiophile business working in specialty retailers which only fueled our passions even more. Chris went to work for a neighborhood store called Community Audio and I went to work for the more mainstream retailer, Bryn Mawr Stereo in nearby Abington where Chris and I suckered the manager into letting me work Friday evenings after school.
Despite the stone cold fact that music today isn't anything close to as good as it was when I was a teenager and certainly not what it was when Baby Boomers were in high school and college - more people today love music than ever before. Don't believe me? There are more than 170,000,000 Apple iPods and iPhones sold to date backing up my argument. Those numbers don't even take into account the Microsoft Zunes, music centered cell phones, smart phones like the Blackberry and any of the hundreds of other ways people listen to their music at will. Ask a teenager today to give up their music files or their laptops and they will fight you to the death. Think about the last time you saw a teenager without their earbuds planted firmly in-ear. Without question today's youth truly love music. They love the excitement of new media. They love the brave new world that comes along with today's best new technologies and they love everything in high definition. To be clear - they are the perfect audience to show the world of audiophila through a shared passion of music, the science of AV and the life lessons that come from aspiring to a "better" system without the geeky side that has traditionally been there.
Too many audiophile companies insist on marketing to the same audience of aging clients who already own and know their products, an effort that can best be described as an attempt to win a pointless religious audio technology war that never needed to be fought. Since this strategy will never drive new (Gen Y) consumer demand, I am suggesting that every music lover and home theater enthusiast who is worried about the business of high end audio going away should invite a teenager out for a day of good music. Perhaps it could start with a trip to the best record store to buy a few records or to download some files onto their phone or a hard drive. Then perhaps a stop by an AV store to play the music back to hear the differences between speakers. How about taking apart an entire home theater system to learn how the parts work and then reassembling it with new add-ons like a Sony Playstation 3 or Apple TV added so that they can see new school technology merged with old-school two channel or home theater system right before their eyes? Maybe at the end of the day take the kid to hear some live music at a local venue or concert hall for a dose of the real thing so they never forget that live music is always better than the reproduced music they have sadly become accustomed to.
Today's kids love music but they have been raised on short-attention-span media like DVD players, the Internet, video games and beyond. While they are too young to be buying a pair of WATT Puppies right now - they aren't too young to learn about the technology, passion and value of a good AV system. Thanks to my Dad and Mr. Longo, the lessons we learned from audio have served us both very well in our lives and careers. Regarding the audiophile business - all you have to do is take one look at the overall readership of the main audiophile print magazines (between 15,000 and 55,000 total readers) combined with their soon-to-be-on-Social-Security demographics to know that audiophile companies can't make a living selling to a tiny market of sixty-plus year old Boomers when there is enough good used gear on Audiogon to meet their needs for the rest of the their lives. But what if we all showed one kid the power of what we love so much? What if 5,000 new college students fell in love with tubes or media servers or video calibration? What if a few thousand kids started a group on Facebook and getting into high end AV became a status symbol like it was in Boogie Nights (set in the 70's) for Generation Y? There would be a whole new audience of computer savvy and soon-to-be upwardly mobile kids to live on the audiophile tradition. While these kids aren't going keep up traditions like sitting in a darkened room listening to Jazz at the Pawnshop on 180 gram vinyl like a hermit - they could learn about music, audio and merge it with their all-digital lifestyle while saving what's left of the audiophile business at the same time. The challenge is up to you. Will you reach out to a son or daughter, niece or nephew, neighbor or young friend and take them out for a day and show them the best the AV business has to offer? If so, as they say with You Tube - we might have a viral hit on our hands.