KEN KESSLER: Dixons, morons, FM and shoddy thinking.

(Slightly revised by the author 22/08/06)

When you see the words ‘An era ends’ and ‘Dixon’s’ in the same headline, something unpleasant must be afoot.

After all, the mainstream press usually pays attention to home entertainment only when it can sneer, like the time David Beckham spent £10,000 on a home theatre system and the papers were moved to write about his profligacy. Considering that £10k won’t pay for a 5m pair of top-of-the-line speaker cables, it shows you just how far apart are the real world and audiophiles.

If those same scribblers knew that we don’t blink an eyelid at £100,000 turntables (take a bow, Continuum and ClearAudio), £100,000+ speakers (the line forms here), or £325,000 valve amps (hello, Wavac!), they’d be petitioning Parliament to have us outlawed or committed or both. And considering that Beckham’s life partner – I don’t want to court legal pursuits by calling her anything else – probably spends that amount every couple of months on handbags, I’d have to say that Beckham’s A/V outlay is positively downmarket.


But we are, after all ……


dinosaurs in every sense of the word, and there’s no new blood coming into the hobby to ensure that there will even be a serious market for two-channel, high-quality sound in, say, five years’ time. An entire generation believes that good sound equals compressed music through ear-buds, and that it’s OK to rip off musicians by downloading from pirate sites, or burning CDs off a mate’s iPod.

Thus, music has no value for today’s under-35-year-old consumers. So they’re not inspired to embrace it with the same all-encompassing passion of earlier generations. To them, it’s as disposable is the latest version of Grand Theft Auto. They’re not inspired to play back Goldfrapp or the Zutons or Franz Ferdinand over sublime sound systems. They regard the music which they access off a hard drive the way everyone looked at radio for the past 85 years: an inconsequential freebie.

Which brings us to the Dixon’s-related quasi-obituary.

The article appeared in the 17 August Daily Mail, a new features about the death of analogue radio … at least, as far as Dixon’s is concerned. Why is this important? Because Dixon’s is still one of the biggest outlets in the UK for home entertainment equipment. Although this won’t have much impact on quality tuners from the likes of Sequerra, Marantz, McIntosh or anyone else, it does tell the punter that analogue radio is dead or dying.


Given that the man on the street is a moron, he will also assume by default – Dixon’s stopped carrying FM radios! – that analogue radio is either switched off or about to be. But even I, who only use radio for traffic reports, rue the day that it happens. Why? Because digital radio, even upsampled by Musical Fidelity and others, still sucks big time when compared to a good analogue signal, and the millions who do listen to music via radio, especially classical and world music fans, deserve the option of analogue vs faeces.


If this sounds like the ravings of a hardcore vinyl user ……


then so be it. But I have A/B’d analogue vs digital radio to non-audiophiles, and analogue wins every time. Indeed, DAB is so dire-sounding that my wife – who embodies technofear and electronic Luddism (she still prefers a VCR) –prefers a mono analogue Tivoli for her radio pleasure over a digital stereo set.


As you’d expect, the Daily Mail article claims that digital radio sounds better, yadayadayada, but that’s what you get when the quotes come from a retailer and the writer takes it at face value. No-one can deny the remarks of Dixon’s spokesperson when he says that digital now outsells analogue 30-1, but he doesn’t say why beyond Digital Is Wonderful. It’s because the format has been shoved down the public’s throat, with plenty of disinformation and government backing and taxpayers’ money. What’s true is that digital offers nice features, like informative displays, but the sound? Gimme a break. It’s risible.


The good news?


The article also reports that, unlike analogue TV which will be switched off in 2008, there’s no pending date for the shutdown of analogue radio. For once, the cretins in Whitehall understand something properly: there are far too many analogue radios out there. The landfill sites required, should analogue radio die, don’t bear thinking about.


Equally portentous is news that the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the single most-important trade-only showcase in the world for consumer electronics, is doing more to squeeze out the little guys. I reproduce below a segment of an e-mail that just arrived from Reference Recordings’ Jan Mancuso.


“As you may know, CES has declared that it will no longer overlook the selling of music (or any products) by exhibitors at the Las Vegas show. They have proposed a selling scheme that creates a CES store and a voucher system so that Nevada tax can be collected on each transaction. Exhibitors are to be charged a fee for this ‘convenience’. In my opinion, it resembles a combination of airport security, customs clearance and a duty free shop from hell.


“Both of my clients, Reference and MA Recordings, have declined to participate and withdrawn from the show and we have informed the other music people of their decisions.


“A great many changes have occurred in the music and audio industries over the 30 years [that] Reference’s Tam Henderson, Keith Johnson and Marcia Martin have been in business. That music is now ‘software’ and not welcome in the Consumer Electronics Show is a great pity, indeed, and does not bode well for the future of art or commerce.”


I’ve yet to hear from other music labels, but …..


I suspect that we’ve lost one of the nicest parts of the event, the huge hall filled with booths, where everyone congregated and schmoozed. It was always half music labels or vendors and half accessory manufacturers. And there are plenty of other exhibitors besides Reference and MA who’ll be affected: Chesky, Classic, Acoustic Sounds, Mobile Fidelity, Cisco, Telarc, Music Direct and more.


What harm were they doing?


These are smallish companies, not like Sony or Panasonic, and space at CES is expensive. They used the sales of discs at the show to subsidise their presence. They actually performed a service for visitors, who loved buying new titles fresh from the suppliers, and this in turn must have influenced them when they got back to their stores in Boise or Poughkeepsie or Duluth – like, uh, spreading new formats … But, no, the CEA in all its wisdom wants to collect a bit of tax out of them.


Were this to reach the CEA ….


I’m sure a reasoned corporatespeak explanation would be forthcoming. Sales pie-charts of plasma screens vs moving-coil cartridges, DVDs vs 7in singles. And, lawyer-like, they’d make their case. Increasingly, and tragically, the CEA prefers to forget who populated the first CES: hi-fi companies. Not computers, not VOIP phones, not disposable MP3 players, not programmable remotes. Pure audio is at the core of the consumer electronics business. Records pre-date radio, and both predate TV, wi-fi, downloading, online gaming and whatever other dreck is out there wresting dollars from punters.


It’s not enough that evolution is squeezing out pure audio. Accelerating it helps nobody. This latest fiscal wheeze is simply depressing.

To be fair to the CEA, I was also informed by Reference Recordings, that
'CES did try to provide a way to allow continued selling of "software"
while placating the Nevada sales tax authorities. It was much too
cumbersome and the music companies could not see how it could work for
dealers, distributors or press.' Imagine the logistics of providing review
copies to legitimate reviewers or samples to distributors, who would have
to declare possession somehow without incurring taxes.

Hmm. I wonder which member of the current Labour government is moonlighting at CEA.



2 thoughts on “KEN KESSLER: Dixons, morons, FM and shoddy thinking.

  1. Ken,

    What should the Hi-end world do about the seriously top heavy demographic of the people who are intrested in quality sound reproduction. I often wonder at hifi shows why I feel like one of the youngsters when I am now 26! In most other walks of life I feel quite old!

    Over the last 10 years I have been to many a dealer and most UK hifi shows that have taken place. The dealers/industry folk genrally pay me no attenetion as I do not look like the regular 50+ executive type who could afford this stuff. In turn, this has meant I have bought most of my big rig via the net, it cost a fair bit and is high quality (ARC Amps and CD player, Totem speakers, Townshend turntable, dedicated listening room). Absolute Sounds look at me with distain at the heathrow shows, which is a shame as I love most of the gear they supply! It suits me fine as it means I can just move from room to room listening to some fine equipment without being hasseled and it is always a privilege to listen to flagship models etc.

    I think the industry’s attutiude needs to change before fresh blood can be bought into the wonderful world of hign end audio. There are plenty of twentysomethings will large disposable incomes, if dealers could tap into this market they could make a killing!

    James Ryan

Leave a Reply