KEN KESSLER: From the archives – Ken Kessler / Why does the audio business suffer so many fools?

Previously published on October 9, 2012
Gossip and rumour have always …

fuelled the audio industry. For the hi-fi press, it’s partly excusable, because the mags and blogs live on information exchange rather than producing or selling equipment. But the world of hi-fi is noticeably more gossip-driven than most. Why does this concern me? Because I’ve been subjected to it more than once, the latest being tittle-tattle suggesting that I was fired from a magazine from which I had resigned. It was even elaborated to include an argument with an imaginary engineer.

Better it would have been that I was caught in flagrante delicto with someone’s wife. Or mother.

Turns out that another journalist was spreading the story. And I heard about it from a friend in – get this! – Australia. What I find so irksome about this is that the rumour started at a hi-fi show across the road from one I was attending. The creator of said rumour could have asked me in person, just by crossing the road; I’m not hard to find at shows. It’s what I do every time I hear something controversial: I call up the subject of the story for straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth facts. But I digress.

This column is about …

the hi-fi industry taking its eye off the ball. The question is: why does the audio business suffer so many fools? One argument is that too many people in it have too much time on their hands. Which suggests that business sucks. This smacks of the truth because specialty hi-fi components per se are very much on their way out – according to most authorities. (Note: ‘Specialty’ is the preferred euphemism for ‘high-end audio’ in current industry parlance. It’s the term the Consumer Electronics Show uses to identify what they probably call ‘dinosaurs’ behind closed doors.)

Pure hi-fi has, for more than a decade, been squeezed on one side by the genres it spawned: first home cinema and multi-channel, then iPods and MP3 players, downloading, and increasingly by custom-installation. Equally, squeezing the hapless hi-fi store form the other side, disposable income that might have once found its way to a hi-fi purchase is being absorbed by an unprecedented amount of non-audio diversions, including computers, gaming consoles, extreme sports, increased foreign travel (due to in no small part by budget airlines), ever-more-complicated mobile phones and truly upscale luxury goods that are experiencing phenomenal growth.

For the seriously wealthy …

circa 2006, attractions for their high-ticket spending include exotic cars, complicated watches, cutting-edge furnishings, private planes and yachts. Even fountain pen sales are up. The phenomenally wealthy, those who should rank high-end audio products alongside goodies from Cartier and Hermes and Chopard, don’t even know that high-end audio exists. And if they did, they wouldn’t care. Brilliant marketing has convinced them that all they need in their yacht or Chelsea townhouse is a two-speaker, sperm-white receptacle for an iPod.
Think about it: high-end audio systems haven’t figured in the Top 10 in consumers’ ‘wants lists’ for at least two decades.

It survives solely because of an ever-decreasing core of audiophiles; the mere fact that you’ve logged on to this cite identifies you as someone who’s probably 1) male, 2) over 35 and 3) still an audiophile. You’re part of the last generation who cares about two of the only things that justify the existence of high-end sound systems: sound quality and, by extension, non-compressed formats, whether LP or CD.

Attacks on pure audio …

or, for that matter, mere evidence of evolutionary change away from pure audio have been increasing. In the past month, a couple of the greatest record stores on the planet have announced their closure, one of them being the legendary Beano’s in Croydon. Whether you attribute this to the diminishing number of hard-core collectors or the success of on-line sellers is moot. If Beano’s can’t or won’t cut it in the 21st Century, who can?

From a completely different angle, I just read a feature about Blu-ray vs. HF-DVD in one of the Sunday colour supplements.

The writer’s conclusion? That the battle between the two new formats was meaningless from the outset because downloading and HD-calibre satellite will further erode any desire (let alone need) for physical software within the next couple of years.

Given downloading’s effect on software (music) sales, why should films be any different, once broadband enables truly fluid real-time viewing?

Tragically, even …

the custom-installation guys have proven to be more of a nail in the coffin than a boost for the high-end. Most are so obsessed with the easy sale that they opt for low-end crap rather than the superior equipment that their customers could easily afford. They exhibit, for the most part, an unwillingness to convince an apathetic, yawning gazillionaire customer that amazing, free-standing speakers from the likes of B&W or Wilson or Sonus Faber would provide a better experience than some tacky, sub-£1000, plastic in-wall ca-ca from a company barely suited to fitting speakers in cars.

Am I making this up?

Not at all. I have witnessed with my own eyes custom installers who sold down rather than up. Why? Because it’s easier to hawk the wares from some household-name, mid-fi Japanese giant than a cutting-edge, high-end brand with zero recognition factor. Just what lobotomy was undertaken to have these so-called salespeople sell a £10,000 system instead of a £50,000 package I don’t know, but it kinda contradicts every tenet of retail.

Reaffirming this was an article in another ‘lifestyle’ magazine. It featured some showbiz mogul crowing about an £8000 home theatre and its alleged state-of-the-art properties. Now here is a guy who spends that amount every time his Italian supercar car is serviced. His watch costs three times that. And he’s in the goddamned music business!!! To him, that £8000 expenditure was positively sybaritic. The system? Mid-level poo-poo not one of you would allow in your homes.

Am I exaggerating?

Not at all. Remember when David Beckham was photographed next to a stack of boxes last year, the pile containing his home theatre? Here’s a guy who’s six-year-old son wears a £35,000 watch. He buys six-figure cars the way normal people buy underwear. And yet his home theatre cost a risible £10,000.

True to form, the newspapers reacted as they did when Richard Burton gave Liz Taylor the world’s most expensive diamond. Such extravagance! Children are dying of hunger in Sierra Leone! There are homeless people in London! All of which are true, but that’s another argument. It wouldn’t aggravate me so much if the same papers exhibited the same disdain for £600 shoes that will be worn once.

It’s all about perception.

The reason why the well-to-do need to be targeted by the audio industry is because they can easily afford the high-end goodies that most of us can only dream about, and then save for over a period of years. The fact that the majority of six-figure-plus home theatre installations employ components that most of you wouldn’t use for landfill is part of the larger picture. And that larger picture is one of a ship that has sailed.

For every one of you who loves music, and who gets more pleasure out of music when it sounds more realistic, please do us all a favour: The next time you hear of a friend about to buy some equipment, steer him or her away from shops that sell fridges. Or computers. Sit said friend in front of your rig and let him or her hear decent sound quality. As I said in my first column, do not scare them away with audiophilic concerns about cables. Just play the friggin’ music, without preamble or lecture.

If every dyed-in-the-wool audio fanatic saved just one soul a year, who knows? Hi-fi might live beyond 2010.