The high-end audio industry is having a midlife crisis. At least, it hopes the crisis is midlife rather than a prelude to death throes. Either way, the aging, self-limiting supply of one-percenters, especially in the U.S., has the industry contemplating its mortality. Survival depends on either catching the ears and wallets of younger, budding audiophiles, or expanding the number of one-percenters willing to divert some of their considerable resources from boats, cars, and trinkets to audio.
This year's Munich High End Show highlighted the various strategies manufacturers are pursuing to realize one or both of those goals. There was a notable thrust, even from the industry's most storied and traditional brands, to expand the customer base beyond the "sit-down-and-listen-to-a-big-stereo" set (a.k.a. "us"). At first, the many ways in which companies were trying to reach new audiences looked like a hodge-podge. However, thanks to the large sample size a show like Munich provides, it became clear that virtually all efforts fall into four basic categories:
1. Portability. Young listeners are accustomed to taking their music with them, so high-end audio must find a way to travel along. No surprise, then, that Munich greeted visitors with a cavalcade of portable DACs (AURALiC, Chord, Oppo), scaled-down headphone amps (Enigma, Blue Aura, ADL, KingSound), new hi-res pocket players (Questyle, Opera, Astell&Kern, FiiO), and—the ultimate mobile stereo—audiophile-grade car systems (Burmester, Dynaudio, B&O) built into everything from VWs to Rolls-Royces.
In addition to offering portable gear, the audiophile world has also realized it must seamlessly interact with those products customers already own. And since smartphones and tablets aren't big on wired connectivity, wireless interfaces are emerging in wares across virtually every category—including loudspeakers. Forget USB and Ethernet. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth aptX, and AirPlay are taking over. One day we may even look back on USB, with all its sonic problems, and lament its passing in favor of limited-bandwidth wireless alternatives.
2. Simplicity. Personally, I've never thought of audio systems as being particularly difficult to operate. But many hi-fi purveyors have clearly decided that complexity—or at least perceived complexity—is an obstacle to high-end purchases. In response, Munich's ground-floor exhibits—the ones farthest from the intimidating upper-floor listening rooms—featured one easy-to-use, all-in-one system after another. These sprouted not just from relative newcomers like Lyravox, but also from stalwarts such as Micromega, Pro-Ject, and Naim.
The idea behind these systems is to minimize boxes and controls; many had no controls and were operable solely by a remote (or mobile-device app). Dealing with physical media, too, is passé because it means added fuss and space. Most of the new integrated systems I saw were designed with an "if you can't download/stream it, you can't play it" philosophy.
3. Aesthetic Compatibility. If you live in a New York City or Tokyo apartment, you need something small but chic. If you live in an Upper East Side penthouse, you're not going to mess up a very deliberate design aesthetic with a bunch of clunky silver and wooden boxes—no matter how well-crafted. And if you're somewhere in between or have less disposable income, or especially if you're female (remember them?), you still might appreciate being able to have your audio system complement the décor. Munich was the first show where manufacturers were visibly falling over themselves to blend in.
Most of them came upon a one-word solution: colors. Many of Munich's exhibits (Amphion, Sonus Faber, Revox, Micromega, TAD) more resembled a collection of lollipops than of audio components. Other companies went further in trying to understand their customers' environments by offering equipment that would complement their spaces. Burmester was particularly bold in this regard, and the attendee response, especially from Asian visitors, was reportedly enthusiastic.
4. Solitude. In case you haven't noticed, younger music lovers view listening as a solitary affair. Ear buds, their primary audio delivery system, can't be shared. These listeners don't seem to mind; it's what they grew up with. Meanwhile, baby-boomers now have kids or grandkids, and may seek both the privacy and the shelter of headphones.
This explains Munich's plethora of new headphones (many planar) and headphone amps (many tube) from companies such as Enigma, KEF, Sennheiser, Lyrus, and Oppo. There were also a host of tiny speakers, such as the Dali Pico series, designed for desktops rather than rooms.
Interestingly, of all the strategies on display, rock-bottom pricing was a relative rarity. Exhibitors told me over and over—perhaps hoping to convince themselves—that Beats Audio has proven that youngsters are perfectly willing to shell out large sums for products that pass their muster. A case in point: Astell&Kern introduced, without blinking, a new $3500 flagship player.
Nonetheless, some of this New Age gear is a great bargain. The AURALiC Aries Mini DAC is just $399. The aforementioned petite Dali Pico speakers are but $150 a pair. And NAD's HP50 headphones, complete with a mic (to take calls) and iPhone transport controls on the cord, run $299. All of them sound much, much more expensive than they are.
Still, as someone who makes his living in marketing, I have to point out that all of these approaches aimed at new audiophiles, soundly researched and implemented though they may be, are missing a key element: image. The fact is that Beats Audio isn't selling the daylights out of $1000 headphones because they sound great. They're moving them because they're hip. A company like NAD (or any number of others) could be hip, too. But would-be high-end suppliers of New Age audio to New Age listeners are going to have to spend a lot more of their resources building a New Age image if they hope to succeed.