Occupy Hi-Fi: Part I

I missed the golden age of stereo.  By the time I got a job at Pearson Publishing/The Absolute Sound magazine in 1994 (where other mags also lived, like The Perfect Vision and Films in Review) the party was nearing its end.  Don’t get me wrong – I met some amazing people during that time period, and I’m in touch with almost all of them today.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been seeing many of them at various trade shows since my first CES in 1996.  But something’s changed in the high end audio industry: There’s no more unity.  Sure, a few of us who’ve known each other for years spend time together at shows, but for the most part the high end audio community (meaning: journalists, manufacturers, marketers, reps and so on) has become so detached from consumer-culture that it has become an almost cartoon-like, microcosmic world.  One of the pieces of fabric that binds this world together is apathy between peers … and an apathy for the user, to be brutally honest.  Magazines and editorial departments are holding onto archaic formulas because they don’t have enough faith in their audiences.  They seem to think that if they change their approach they might lose their core audience.  Well guess what:  Your core audience is aging itself out of existence anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

LISTEN-ElitistIt’s the elitist attitude that brought the high end to its knees.  Not to mention the current cost of entry for a would-be audiophile in the worst global economy since the Great Depression.  Add outrageously-priced gear to a separatist attitude and it’s no surprise the demographics for high end two channel in-room playback have been waning since the late eighties.  Then came the iPod and mp3 files and it all went to shit.  The audiophile industry started poo-pooing the iPod generation so badly that they broke almost all ties to pop culture.  Then came high-end computer playback, and desktop audio. Now, thanks to a sea of innovation and excitement swirling around it: Personal Audio is king.  Why?  For many reasons. 

  • One: Generations have grown up listening to headphones, whether Beats By Dre or Sennheiser, it’s irrelevant.  That’s how they relate to their music on a daily basis. 
  • Two: We want our music with us at all times, and we also seek sonic integrity in our portable rigs.  This is a new concept.  Portability in music was strictly a convenience before now. 
  • Three: There’s a global online gathering place, for the world’s most dedicated personal audio devotees and newbies alike.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  That place is Head-Fi.org.  Having a gathering spot where you can interact with a tribe of like-minded people is a powerful thing, especially if you share love for a common denominator.  That provides a connecting point to bond over.  In Head-Fi.org’s case, the common denominator is headphones and personal audio (DACs, headphone amps, digital audio players, and also a decent amount of Hi-Fi as well). 

One of the keys to keeping the tribe moving forward is proper policing.  There’s just no way around it.  People will be people, but if you place some emphasis on decorum, and also dedicate time to enforcing it, the results are far better than if there’s no policing at all.  The same could be said of society.  Unfortunately, in many high-end audio forums, such as Audio Asylum, numerous trolls spend most of their time cutting reviewers and editors into pieces, and they’re left unchecked. Even worse, many of the editors waste their time responding to the madness.  You can’t reason with someone who takes time out of their life to complain about yours.  The younger generation on Head-Fi?  With the occasional exception: they’re too busy seeking out information on the latest set of ortho-dynamic closed-back headphones, or the new portable DAC/amp combo that gives the user even more options.  What’s even better than that: They get to interface with the manufacturers that are designing and building the equipment they adore. 

LISTEN---headphone-rowYou see, Head-Fi works as a community, and the manufacturers are just as engaged as the end users.  That’s another difference between personal audio today and high end audio.  In the high-end, manufacturers design esoteric products in their ivory towers, come down, and tell the end-user they need to buy it to have the best.  On Head-Fi manufacturers are interfacing with their users before, during, and after the development of their products. Why?  Because they actually want to know what the user wants!  Imagine that novel concept: Going to your demographic to see what it is their looking for, instead of tossing something built in a vacuum down their throat.

We’re talking about the democratization of the Hi-Fi hobby, and it didn’t come from the old school audiophiles.  It wasn’t preached about by a select few of audio journalists who think that they’re rock stars and that their words are to be accepted as gospel. We’re not, by the way.  We write about music and Hi-Fi. Get over yourselves.  This was built by a community with over 300,000 active members and over 2 million unique visitors a month. It was developed and has evolved organically through interaction and participation.  It’s also not limited to online interaction or trade shows.  There are Head-Fi Meets across the globe, where users bring their own equipment to play with and check out new stuff they may not have access to through their fellow Head-Fi’ers.  The best part of these meets, and I bet most Head-Fi’ers would agree with me here: The People.  I love heading to a meet with a group of good friends, eager to meet new ones.  We talk about everything, but mostly music and gear. 

However, the biggest, and admittedly most refreshing difference between the personal audio community at Head-Fi.org and the audiophile industry:  There isn’t just talk about music and audio.  I actually hear lots of modern music when I head to a meet. I’ve been hearing the same damn records at audiophile conventions since 1996.  That’s not an exaggeration either.  It sickens me.  Nope, I can find myself listening to anything from James Blake to The Beatles, from Burial to Bob Marley.  Bottom line: I can listen to the music I grew up on and the music I play now.  We (and I say we because I’m a proud Head-Fi member) don’t constantly look to the past to sing it’s praise and get hung up on ego trips.  The collective is in it to have a good time, and learn something about their hobby along the way.  They also enjoy educating each other.  Imagine that, too.  Now you’ve got an informed collective. 

Think this is a joke?  When was the last time a major consumer electronics manufacturer showed up to an audiophile convention not to merely exhibit there, but host focus groups pertaining to an upcoming product in order to gather data directly from their customer base?  I’ve never attended a high end audio convention where that happened.  But Denon showed up to the last Los Angles Head-Fi Meet last month.  Not only did they show they’re latest line of headphones, but they held focus groups as well.  This wasn’t even a convention.  This was just a local event put on by a couple of dedicated Head-Fi members.  I was lucky enough to be there, and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had at an audio event period.  We felt like a giant tribe.  We went out to eat together, shared drinks and late-night chats in our hotel rooms.  This is what I used to hear about with regard to the community involved in the early days of the High-End.  What happened?

Whatever it was, I think it’s reasonable to say the high end community could learn alot from Head-Fi.  Will they pay attention?  If they can lay down their egos and pull their heads out of their asses.  Seriously: I hope they do take notice and stop pretending like everything is as it was just seven years ago. 

It’s time for the High End Audio Elite to WAKE UP.  Mortality is staring you dead in the face, and that happens to us all.  The difference is: Are you thinking about the people coming up behind you? 


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Michael Mercer is a veteran reviewer of music and audio components. He got his start working for The Absolute Sound as a teenager and then made his way over to Atlantic Records, working with the legendary producer Arif Mardin. Considered one of the leading "crusaders for personal audio", Mercer can be found writing for many audio publications on the Internet.

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