If you go to a Hi-Fi Show – least within the United States of America – what you're likely to see is lots of fine, pretty, new equipment being ogled and lusted after by a lot of older men. That's not necessarily the case in other parts of the world, where High-End HiFi is new, exotic, and appeals to a much broader audience – still largely male, as it is here – but, happily, generally much more youthful. Here's one way we can start to bring young people (and maybe even some women) back to our hobby.
The big boom years for USA Hi-Fi popularity began after 1957; after movies were already regularly being shown with stereo soundtracks, and when the very first stereo LPs and the first home equipment for playing them became available. Then, and for decades thereafter, LP ownership mushroomed, and everybody had to have a "Stereo" (the more up-to-date successor to the mono "Hi-Fi" that people had just been learning to buy, before.)
The stereo LP boom continued until 1982, with the release of the first CDs, and their promise of "perfect sound forever." That boom, though, lasted only for a little less than a decade until, by 1991, the year in which I started XLO Electric (Aw, come on – you knew that I used to have a cable company) the American public was finding other things than stereo to be passionate about and the industry was, by 1992, experiencing its first general decline.
Since then, other things have caught the fancy of younger Americans – a great many of those things, like video gaming, social media, and constantly yakking on cellphones, being computer-based or related, and Hi-Fi, especially, has, at least in the United States, become, ever-increasingly, an old man's sport.
I'm not the first to notice this and write about it. In fact, in recent years, more and more people that I've either spoken with or read postings from on the internet have been asking what can be done about it, and even offering suggestions of their own on how to bring about a USA Hi-Fi renaissance.
And, of course, I have a suggestion, too.
Just recently, I re-read an article about bass that I had written for another publication. It was a couple of pages long, but can be summarized quite simply:
Until I was about twelve years old, I had never heard bass; not just deep bass, but bass of any kind. I had never been to a live concert; I had never heard a church pipe organ; and the only sound sources I had ever had access to were radios, open-back TV sets (that can't make bass, even when they have a big driver), and local movie theaters whose mono horn speakers probably didn't, at the time, even get down to 80 Hz.
Then, one night in 1954, a friend asked my father to go with him to help pick out a Hi-Fi set. My father invited me to join them, and on that night I heard bass – deep bass – from a Bozak B-310a speaker, driven by a McIntosh amplifier, and capable, even then, of a real, live, glorious, wall-shaking 24 Hz. On the spot, I became an instant audiophile, started grinning so hard my cheeks hurt, and still haven't stopped yet.
I'm not sure if bass is the right thing anymore, but there's something about Hi-Fi that can do that same thing to almost anyone, even today. Why not use it to help bring them into the audiophile fold? Don't you want "new blood" for our hobby? Wouldn't it be fun to go to a Hi-Fi Show and actually see some young people?
Christmas (Or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or whatever floats your boat) is coming very soon. Why not use it as an excuse (if you even need an excuse) for buying someone or some group of someones a present that might be the "hook" that introduces them to our hobby?
Even now – or perhaps, especially now – the very best sound that most non-audiophile people have ever heard is either the music on their smartphone or (as it was for me) some other kind of playback of a recording; the music in their car, in their church, at a concert (of whatever kind of music), in a live-music club or bar, or in a movie theater.
In fact, though, even when they think that what they're hearing is "live", the odds are that it's "reinforced" by electronics and speakers more likely to have been selected for their ability to play loudly than for their terrific sound quality. Odds are, too, that whatever they've heard "live" has either been in "mono" or has had its stereo speakers spaced way too far apart for any kind of effective imaging or soundscaping. And, if they were at the Hollywood Bowl, a coliseum, or some other very large venue, there were probably more than just a single pair of speakers playing at the same time, probably without digital delay to approximate natural arrival times and to keep listeners from hearing sound "time-muddled" by differing distances from multiple speakers to their ears.
In short, even if they've heard "live" sound, they may never have heard "good" sound, and will thank you for giving them a taste of it.
There are some remarkably good products out there for surprisingly little money. The speakers (Pioneer or ELAC) designed by Andrew Jones give huge value and great enjoyment for the money as do many others. So do, if the person you'll be buying for is now listening on a smartphone or portable device with just the ordinary lo-fi earbuds such things tend to come with, the earbuds and over-the-ear headphones offered by companies like 1More. Those are superb and, topping out at just a couple of hundred dollars a pair, offer performance far beyond their price point – performance that might very well "grab whoever you give them to by the ears" and drag them, smiling, into our hobby.
If they've already got good 'phones, how about one of the truly very good headphone amps now on the market at just about every price point? Or, to improve their headphone listening experience in a different way, how about an upgraded cable? Kimber and others offer some fine headphone cables at very affordable prices.
For someone who already has a system, but just for entertainment instead of as a hobby (a receiver and speakers, perhaps, or a modest Home Theater system), new speakers or new cables (particularly upgraded speaker cables) might make enough difference to raise their interest to a higher level and get them to "join the club". (Full disclosure here: As I said, I am a cable designer, but I'm no longer involved with XLO, my original company. That was sold fifteen years ago, back in 2003. I will, though, soon be starting a new cable company. That will be named RSX Audio, and will offer a very specialized product line, not including either speaker or headphone cables.)
Finally, if you've been an audiophile for a long time, you might, as most of us seem to do, have enough good-but-no-longer-used equipment lying around that you could put together a whole system – or maybe even more than one – out of your "spares". If that would please you, you could give that as a gift to some special person for no additional expense at all.
Think about it. You might wind up creating a new audiophile – to the lifelong satisfaction of both of you. And even if they don't "get the bug", think how much more they'll...