This last Sunday, March 18, 2018, I attended a birthday party for Bob Levi, former President of Turner Broadcasting, and now, since his "retirement", President of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (LAOCAS), which (with now more than two-and-a-half thousand members, up from twenty members and two cats, when he took it over in 2003), is almost certainly the biggest hi-fi club on earth.
The party was for Bob's 70th birthday (you'd never guess it by looking at him), and was held at one of Southern California's finest audio dealers, in conjunction with a regular monthly meeting of the Society. As can be imagined, the turnout was substantial, and included, not only regular members of the Society, but also writers and reviewers from the audio press and even representatives (and in some cases, the actual owners) of some of audio's leading manufacturers.
All in all, it was a great party and, in at least one respect, it was also, for me, both a surprise and a revelation: If you've been reading the articles that I and many others have been writing over the last few years, you know that we've been bewailing the fate of our hobby and trying to find ways to make it better known to the general public so we can bring new people in to share it and our love of great music reproduced in great sound.
That already did happen once, you know: More than half a century ago, in the 1950s, stereo came along – first on movie soundtracks (as a way to lure people back into theaters and away from the growing dominance of television), and then in the form of the stereo LP (Long-Playing record) – and suddenly everybody had to have a "stereo" and the Great Hi-Fi Boom was on.
And Stayed On For Decades
Familiarity did, in fact, breed if not contempt, at least invisibility, and as people came to take good (or at least better than it had been before) sound for granted, two significant things occurred: On the one hand, as people stopped noticing the quality of the sound they were hearing, they lost interest in it, and as they lost interest, their standards were lowered to the point where they were willing to accept whatever was offered to them as "hi-fi" to be good enough if it was cheap enough; with the inevitable result that our once-vigorous industry went into decline. Famous brands died or were compromised and cheapened to attract ever-less-discriminating buyers; dealers went out of business; record stores – even those as big as Tower Records – went away, and each passing year – starting even before the turn of this century – brought seemingly bleaker prospects.
Something is happening, though, and although I had started seeing clues to it years ago, never, until Bob's birthday party, did all the clues come together into any kind of comprehensible pattern: Good sound is experiencing a silent (yes, the pun is intended) renaissance! Unlike past years, when dealers were dying like flies, three new, large, well-stocked and well-funded new dealers have opened in the Los Angeles-Orange County area in just the last twelve months. Upscale Audio, which hosted Bob's party has moved, just last year, from a converted house to very large and very impressive new facilities, and Kevin Deal, its owner, told me that business is not just better, but substantially better now than it ever was before. Ray Kimber (Kimber Kable), who was also at the party, told me the same thing about his own business, as did a number of other high-end audio manufacturers and longtime personalities.
Why is this happening, not just here in California, but all across the country? Frankly, I have lots of ideas, but no definitive answer. Certainly, some of it is due to the resurgence of vinyl records and the gear to play them. Some of it also has to be the result of the vast boom in headphones and related gear that Dr. Dre's not-all-that-good-but-certainly great-selling 'phones originally made big. That, for years now, has been spreading both up and down the price and quality spectra into a very broad range of products, ranging from cheap-and-okay to violently-expensive-and-glorious – all of which are finding eager buyers, some of whom must certainly be finding their way into our kind of high-end audio. Some of it may also be due to all sorts of new audio products coming to market and new consumer hi-fi Shows popping-up all over the country to promote and display them.
Are all of these things happening because new toys and new recordings are attracting new audiences? Or is it that the industry and the Shows are prospering because a new audience already exists and is demanding them?
Or could at least part of it be because of people like Bob Levi, whose Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society co-sponsors the Los Angeles Audio Show (LAAS) and is having great success in attracting new people to our hobby?
Just last year at LAAS 2017, more than 200 people (that's bigger than most entire big hi-fi clubs) joined the Society at the Show; either becoming new audiophiles or gearheads at the sight -- and sound – of all the toys and goodies on display or, already having been Hi-Fi Fans, Music Lovers, or Equipment Crazies, wanting to be with others like themselves.
The Society encourages this new membership and invites new people to our hobby by offering free or discounted memberships for show-goers. This year's LAAS (June 8th through 10th, 2018) will also have a Society-sponsored room featuring several complete systems at a number of entry-level price points to show newbies or wannabes that big sound doesn't have to cost big bucks, and encourage them to "come to the party". To show what can be done if cost is no object, there will also be one Society-sponsored room with a real-live Million Dollar System to show us all what's possible; to give us a sonic standard to strive for; or to make us sorry that we'll never be able to afford it. And, to give the manufacturers of all these fine things still another incentive to keep on making even better sound available to us, the Society is offering – as was Bob's great idea last year – "Audiophile Awards" ("Alfies") to the companies exhibiting the best and most innovative new products at the Show.
On top of everything else, there will also be lots of live music, great food, exotic cars, and other
I truly don't know how much LAAS and the efforts of others all around the country are doing to create the great new vitality we're seeing in our hobby and our industry. Neither do I know how much can be credited to other factors – or even, necessarily, what all those other factors are, but I do know that we are coming back; that there's a real "silent renaissance" going on; and that that's going to help everyone and bring-in lots more people to join our hobby; buy from our industry; and...
Enjoy the music!