Is high-end audio dying, if not dead already???


Without sounding like the mad prophet of the airwaves, I think high-end audio is in its death throes. I would like to hear other opinions on this issue, but I think it is time to raise the question and also some hell as to what is happening to the high end audio and audio in general.

Here's why: Most of the major audio publications spend a great deal of time on romancing the "absolute" fidelity of computer audio and music that is digitally processed. On the other hand, you have critics, reviewers, celebrating the comeback of vinyl, analog, and turntables. The mantra goes: "it really does sound better, like real music", so chuck out your CD player, and buy a $5000 analog rig, and have fun again cleaning, preserving (a medium) searching record huts worldwide for pristine vinyl gems. Maybe, there are some shellac gems out there also

It seems the CD format has "OUTLIVED" its usefulness in the pursuit of the absolute sound because its technology and soft ware has never convincingly improved. It is like the BB King tune "the thrill is gone" or saying kids let's just change the channel for something more exciting and new.

High-end audio seems to now ( as the old joke goes)require a degree in engineering or rocket science to understand the circuitous (bad pun) route to audio nirvana. Equipment has gotten more expensive over the last 15 years, under the pretext that the electronic functions have increased and become more complicated. Take a look at the back of a 5 channel receiver or amp, or home theater receiver, a digital processor, etc. and you will see the future of audio. It might be easier to hook up a heart and lung machine.

Ironically, as high end audio and audio in general evolves, the music industry delivers more shit to the public's ears, Geez, I never knew that in order to really enjoy Shakira, JZ, Pharell, and the rest of the talentless trash discovered and pushed by American Idol, The Voice,and the popular Mega media, would require hearing it in absolute sound.
sunnyjim
"11-19-14: Oblgny
At least you didn't buy a car because it had a good CD player in it..."

Correct. But as luck would have it, I wasn't happy with the CD player I sold my car for. A few weeks later, I traded up for something better.
At least you didn't buy a car because it had a good CD player in it...

Then there's that urban myth about thieves who broke into a car and stole everything but the stereo. Seems they didn't recognize the brand McIntosh.
I hate to admit it, but I actually sold my car to but a CD player. Wasn't enough, of course, but it was a start.
The last few years of my life in cars....
Mercedes E350, BMW 528i, Caddy CTS, GMC Terrain....
At the time I was driving the Merc and BMW my audio gear consisted of various integrated amps and associated equipment.
Once I bought the Terrain - the 4 cylinder model to boot - ...
Pass Labs, Audio Research, Thiels,....
I don't miss the more costly vehicles and I love having the money to blow on better audio!
I thought that's what many audiophiles do! They have an expensive system, and drive a modest car or even a clunker! That certainly describes me!
Schubert is absolutely right. Yes, there can be an ocassional exception, but other wise he's right.

"+1 what Onhwy61 said. See, I can't imagine someone buying a $24k turntable; but wearing a $20 timex digital watch or driving a 20 year old Jeep. Show me someone that hard core into audio that every dime they have goes into way out there equipment."

I can provide you with a very long list of people that would do just that. Myself included. But I will concede a specific point. My purchases would define me as an audiophile. I'll admit that.
"11-17-14: Tonywinsc
Hi ZD, it's true; I really do liken fine watches to high end audio :). You make generalizations and say a watch's only function is to tell time. By that same logic, a CD player's only function is to play music and most people would argue that they all sound the same."

Sorry. After reading my post again, I don't think I did a good job of explaining my point. With a watch, the subjective function of the product varies greatly per person, and per watch. That all watches tell time, is a generic function. You don't upgrade from a $50 to a $5000 watch because the expensive one keeps better time. Its for some other reason. Looks, status, whatever... (Yes, with anything, there will always be an occasional exception. A scientist may need something super accurate. That type of thing.). My CD player was meant in context of this thread, and website in general. Of course, most people will think all CD players sound the same. But not on this web site. People (here) usually don't buy an expensive CD player like they would a piece of jewellery (or watch). We want better sound for the money.

Just to clarify, an expensive watch is usually bought for aesthetix reasons alone, where as an expensive CD player, is usually bought for an increase in performance.
Tonywinse, speak for your self,
Anyone who thinks their purchases define them is a complete, total and utter fool of the highest order.
+1 what Onhwy61 said. See, I can't imagine someone buying a $24k turntable; but wearing a $20 timex digital watch or driving a 20 year old Jeep. Show me someone that hard core into audio that every dime they have goes into way out there equipment. Maybe I'm wrong; but I think someone really into audio and not anything else puts his money into a Lenco tt with modified plinth and tonearm (just an example, because that person knows he will get great sound for his money and effort.
And anyone who doesn't think that their purchases define who they are is just kidding themselves.
Onhwy61, to say your purchases define you is as foolish a statement as I ever heard.
Truly insane.
A good watch is not only about telling the time anymore than an expensive luxury car is only about transportation. In a consumer focused society your purchases and the fetish like rituals that accompany them are a critical part of what defines an individual. Pulling out a mechanical watch and winding it is a ritual that sends a message to those around you about the type of person you are. And it also tells you the time. How is it any different than the ritual of setting VTA for individual records?
I think the analogy is silly.
A ten buck watch or a 20K watch can both just tell time.
Difference between a great audio system and average best buy
HT setup is night and day.
ANYONE can tell the difference ,just that for most music is not that important.
IMO if you only listen to pop/rock it isn't.
11-16-14: Zd542
The only thing subjective about a watch is how it looks. Its function, or purpose, is to tell time. In that respect, all watches are the same regardless of cost. Not so with audio. With audio, the product is subjective in use. 5 people can have different watches, at different price points, but they'll all give you the same time.

The only thing subjective about a watch is how it looks. The only thing subjective about audio is how it sounds. So what's the difference again?

If you are judging subjectivity, will all 5 people feel the same about the looks of the watches, or the sound of an audio system? The vast majority will say they are all the same, only the 'philes would argue differences between the two.
Hi ZD, it's true; I really do liken fine watches to high end audio :). You make generalizations and say a watch's only function is to tell time. By that same logic, a CD player's only function is to play music and most people would argue that they all sound the same. As for my last sentence, just compare the original retail prices of some high end equipment from decades ago, factor in inflation and the prices today for new hi end equipment are about the same or a little more. It's true for fine watches as well. Yet, the basic technology for these luxury items hasn't changed. Compare that to TVs, refrigerators or other such appliances and the prices today are a fraction of the cost of these items from decades ago. Even low end receivers and speakers are a fraction of the cost of their equivalent products decades ago. I'm just saying that luxury items are in a different business model. The market may grow or shrink depending on the economy; but there will always be a market.
When I was growing up...
There were far less formats to choose from for audio... We had Pioneer, Sansui, Marantz...to name a few. And them was good. In fact I still have fully functioning receivers from them good old days, a Pioneer SX950 and a Marantz 2250b. Sigh.
Now ya gots iPods, streamers, HDR, compact disc, vinyl. Sheesh.
Remember cassettes? 8 track? Reel to reel?
My point is that today's "Hifi" is less important to the gens behind me because they are able to take their music anywhere they go - and they don't truly concern themselves with fidelity as they do with bass. Volume is king, fidelity...well that might come later.
I agree fully with the comment above that this site gives people like myself the opportunity to grab stuff we might not be able to afford if purchased anew. My current system is approaching $10k or so, but if new it would be around $16k.
"11-16-14: Tonywinsc
I liken high end audio to fine swiss watches. The technology has existed across many decades. The updates are mainly in style and materials with some breakthroughs in design here and there. The focus in high end audio is on workmanship and style, not economies of scale or reducing the cost in the next generation product."

That's really not true. The only thing subjective about a watch is how it looks. Its function, or purpose, is to tell time. In that respect, all watches are the same regardless of cost. Not so with audio. With audio, the product is subjective in use. 5 people can have different watches, at different price points, but they'll all give you the same time. Listen to 5 different CD players, and you'll get 5 results that are not the same. Also, with regards to the last sentence, I'm not sure how you came up with that. Can you give me an example?

"11-16-14: Macrojack
It would appear that the average age of the audiophile is rising by the year. The inevitable stopping point of the aging process will coincide rather identically with the stopping point of that individual's consumption of new audio products. It will, in fact, have double-edged effect of further damaging the market place with the addition of more used gear to the inventory. Supply and demand dynamics will cause opportunities for those who are entering the market place to purchase wonderful used gear at a fraction of the prices being demanded by boutique charlatans and genuine innovators alike. This should cause an extreme cleansing of the manufacturing ranks."

I understand why you would think that, but the opposite is true. Audiophiles are always upgrading. If they can't get rid of their old gear, they won't be able to buy new. A good supply of used gear is a very good thing. Take Audiogon for example. This web site allows someone to buy a component that they may not be able to afford if they had to get new. After the sale, the seller will usually upgrade. Also, and more importantly, a website like this increases the number of audiophiles that exist overall. Audioqon is a source for gear that many people all around would not otherwise have access to. For proof, just look at all the threads started here, where the poster asks for advice because they can't buy equipment any other way. I remember when I sold my Rotel 1072 here. Rotel is extremely difficult about not shipping to customers.They would rather loose a sale than ship something to someone that doesn't have a local dealer. I got close to full list price for it from someone who didn't have a dealer anywhere near them.
It would appear that the average age of the audiophile is rising by the year. The inevitable stopping point of the aging process will coincide rather identically with the stopping point of that individual's consumption of new audio products. It will, in fact, have double-edged effect of further damaging the market place with the addition of more used gear to the inventory. Supply and demand dynamics will cause opportunities for those who are entering the market place to purchase wonderful used gear at a fraction of the prices being demanded by boutique charlatans and genuine innovators alike. This should cause an extreme cleansing of the manufacturing ranks.

On another front, there appears to be a burgeoning DIY community being fed by a sensible modular component manufacturing contingent. The Hypex success will not go unnoticed and the charlatan fringe will be outed by the audio hobbyists who know their stuff.

And, I believe, we need to consider the possibility of a greater world wide economic collapse than the one we are just beginning to emerge from. The banksters will give us some amount of time to recharge our financial batteries but we can be sure that there will be another taking, since nothing in the forecast is present to prevent as much. Batten down the hatches. Audio will be your least concern if that happens.
I liken high end audio to fine swiss watches. The technology has existed across many decades. The updates are mainly in style and materials with some breakthroughs in design here and there. The focus in high end audio is on workmanship and style, not economies of scale or reducing the cost in the next generation product. Just the opposite, in fact. Luxury items, unlike TVs and refrigerators, seem to rise in cost with or slightly above the rate of inflation. Those of us that have tracked this hifi hobby over decades may lament the sticker shocking prices of today's gear; but was it really any different in the 50s through the 2000s? The hobby will live on with the dedicated few who also have the means, and perhaps go back to more of a DIY kit business to help manage costs. I used to do my own mods and upgrades years ago, and some mods that were above my skill level I had done. Thats what real hifi used to be.
I'm too lazy to read all the posts just coming back from a wine tasting but as of now I feel that high end is not so much over as the "emperors clothes" no longer hide the fact that "high end' audio is alive and well and had been living all along with the mid priced gear.

All it took was to suss out the right gear and carefully pair it with all the ancillary stuff and Bob's your uncle. Just as there are cult leaders in politics that people tend to follow, waiting for instructions on what to say and believe, audio has it's fair share of wannabes that strive to make their mark on an unsuspecting public.

It amazes me just how much correcting it took to pen this. :-)

All the best,
Nonoise
Perhaps in this debate there is an assumption that there are absolute improvements every year, and this is challengeable.... In just about every aspect of hi-end audio there have been landmark products (going back to the 1960s) which are still held to be definitive. If this is so then the debate should be differently defined: the Hi-End Industry, if it is a 'good' business, should innovate and this year's products must somehow be better than yesterday's products.
My thinking is that we have been producing superb components for a very long time. Improvements, if they do indeed exist, are sometimes microscopically small and insignificant. If this is so then the industry might not be on the best shape?
After all, there have been a lot of great minds devoted to our getting the best possible sound digitally or via analog - and for a long time. There will always be passionate individuals in this business who have something to offer - thank God! - but I suspect it is more difficult than ever to re-define what is achievable. And so, I think the OP might have a point...
"but the music ....will always be there"
And we will buy it over and over and over.......to fit every technological iteration that comes down the pike, ad infinitum. No I'm not bitter. 8^)
"I believe its time to start thinking about "high end audio" a little differently and get back to what made us love the hobby in the first place. "

Well put. I agree 100%. Technology and user habits move on but the music that has always been the driving force will always still be there.
I believe its time to start thinking about "high end audio" a little differently and get back to what made us love the hobby in the first place. The Music!! I recently purchased a Long Range Bluetooth Receiver (Aircable Audio XR) from www.aircable.net and I gotta tell you, this thing sounds GREAT!! I know most audiophiles frown on Bluetooth enabled devices for streaming audio but the convenience and functionality of this little device makes it well worth the slight difference in resolution. Its simple to hook up and pair with cell phones and tablets which makes it easy for my 20 year old daughter to enjoy her music on a truly high end system. If we want new blood in this hobby then giving the kids an opportunity to stream their content over a Bluetooth device like the Aircable Audio XR will make it that much easier to convince them of the difference a hi end audio rig can make. I have a $5k BAT preamp, a $6K PS AUDIO Perfect Wave DAC, PASS Labs SS amps as well as BAT REX tube mono blocks so I totally understand hi-res audio and the snobbery sometimes associated with it. The cool thing is for around $100 bucks you can just plug the Aircable Audio XR directly into one of the coaxial inputs of a DAC and let the kids stream their music then simply switch inputs when youre ready to do some critical listening to your hi-res files or analog rig etc. The other nice thing about the Aircable Bluetooth receiver is that it works at a much longer range than most of the other products out there. It allows streaming from anywhere in the house and also from outside on the deck without any noticeable degradation in the sound!! I know this sounds like an advertisement for Aircable but I just felt the need to post a quick review of this device especially when so many feel the "high end is dying or already dead" I say its time to start thinking outside of the box and give the convenience and popularity of Bluetooth a chance! You may be surprised at the response you get from the kids and possibly start to put a halt to the death spiral of high-end audio...
Agreed! HEA is NOT about bragging rights it's about passion for music. A modest home theater set up with grotesque reclining seating, multiple channels and subwoofers would likely impress the mainstream music/movie buff not a Soulution power amp(lol)!
"10-21-14: Taters
A lot of the high-end is about ego. I can afford it and you can't."

I hear that one all the time but no one can ever give me an example. Most people have no idea that high end audio even exists. If someone wants to show off, there's other ways to do it than with audio equipment. I think its remotely possible that one could buy expensive gear just because they like the way it sounds, and no other reason.
But then you are always making payments. You are never ahead of the game.
That's why you don't buy expensive cars. You lease them and give them back in 3 years.
More expensive cars are bigger and have more stuff in them. . The bigger and more stuff in anything, the more there is to break. And cost more to fix as well. Its all part of the club.
It seems like the more expensive a car is the less reliable it is. I have never understood this. I have a Honda Civic with 217k miles and it runs like a top.
Taters

It's all that over-engineering that kills them. I had a BMW Z4 a year ago. The thing had 60K miles on it and I had to replace the starter on it because I let it sit too long during the winter. I'll never buy another expensive car again. Why be bothered with that headache?

Well maybe a Lexus.
It seems like the more expensive a car is the less reliable it is. I have never understood this. I have a Honda Civic with 217k miles and it runs like a top.
Try driving 217k miles on a Ferrari. Even if the ferrari will go 217k miles the repair cost with be astronomical. I spent 300.00 on my car this year for repairs.
The high end is pretty far behind what is possible. Just saying.
Taters, Amem.
Case in point, when Mercedes first came to USA they sold cars for what they sold for in Germany. Couldn't give them away, pulled out of US market.
Few years later came back in selling them for twice the German price, rest is history.
P. S. having owned several they are less reliable than a Ford or Chevy and cost 3x to maintain.
The high end is good for helping determine what is and is not possible at any cost and using that to establish a reference sound.

Once you know what that is , then I find that there are practical ways for most to achieve it in most cases with a little investment in time and knowledge as much as in buying stuff.

In many cases, with the kinds of rooms most people have to deal with, there is a tendancy to always go bigger becasue that is perceived as needed or better. Sometimes, smaller works best. It should always cost less to do good sound on a smaller scale than on a larger one. I think that is always true in all cases. SO its useful to keep in mind that bigger is not always better, even though on paper it may always appear to be.
At a certain point it's about what you like. But I would never compare a corvette to a ferrari.
A lot of the high-end is about ego. I can afford it and you can't. Similar to someone spending 300k on a Ferrari when you can buy a new corvette for 80k and it will keep up with the ferrari and possible be quicker.
Any body remember the old days when magazines did not accept advertising from equipment manufacturers and they went out of their way to give the consumer the benefit of their experience and expertise in order guide them into the hobby with an eye toward keeping the end user between the ditches on almost every conceivable technical and practical matter? My how things have changed, of course. But, if you think about it, that may really not be all that surprising, I suppose. There was a much more finite number of makers in those days, for one...and a limited number of mags. But, I think more than just the increasing pressure to accept advertising as the number of makers began to steadily grow, was perhaps the underlying technical complexity of the hobby -the nature of the beast - (that could only be counted on to grow) that began to make it clear to industry editors that there might not be any real way to continue to truthfully fulfill that promise since, there was for them I suspect, increasingly the argument that not every piece of gear could be counted on to sound the same in every system. Sure, they could go out on a limb and state categorically what they felt the sonic positives and pitfalls were, but could they say that assessment would always hold true?...for every system?...in every country? Of course, we've seen that previous standard conveniently slip into the practice now of just mentioning the sonic positives and glossing over, or not mentioning at all, the sonic negatives (heh, heh). And we've seen the number of those technical and practical issues mushroom since those days.

These days the number of internet publishers is all but uncountable and there is still far more gear out there than ever gets reviewed. From the publishers there is an inexhaustible supply of information, but not so much understanding, experience or crucial explanation. Add to that, that most contemporary makers apparently must walk the line between giving potential buyers the gist of how they can claim their products work, but without letting the cat out of the bag for their competition and, for prospective buyers looking to gain reliable insight, this is just about a perfect mess. About the only place you can try to find info based on actual experience is in the forums...and even then it takes time for having to proceed cautiously. I've even heard of makers that confide that they will have to raise the expected price of their new, "breakthrough" product in order for it to be "taken seriously" in the market. For all of this there doesn't seem to be any end in sight. But, overall, maybe the question isn't whether high-end audio is dead, but whether or not it is now a victim of its own hype.

Also, I don't think there is any shortage of stoopid-rich people (I'm NOT saying stoopid, rich people!!) and makers can try to sell to hobbyists or to professionals who will not really have the time or inclination to do anything else but go through a dealer (or both groups, of course...hopefully...). But, I don't think high-end audio is dead by any stretch, not yet anyway. About the only thing I see dying is mp3, and it's about time. It's slated to be replaced by hi-rez portables which with any luck will eventually become affordable enough for most of the music-buying public to feel good enough about to ditch mp3 for good. Maybe then we can look toward a reversal of the current industry insanity of recording music to sound good through cheap-as-$#*! earbuds.

But, I agree with the post that Almarg pointed out above in regards to the fact that you can spend more money and get better sound quality and you can spend less money and get better sound quality. I think as long as you can continue to say that there is a ray of hope. But, these days maybe the high-end is trying to kick its own @$$.
"What makes you think that people will buy $1000 $5000 power cords just because you make them?"

Any elixer needs packaging, claims of a special recipe that creates the miraculous, and a good hawker. True, I'm being cynical and simplistic, but if I was in the game, I'd choose cables and do something to make them sound different, like very high capacitance. Then the game would be to sway a fairly small number of people that Different + Packaging + Elevated Price = Better, and that the listener was enlightened in their discernment. Ka-ching .

Does it happen? I think so because this is an area where a desire to believe, an ephemeral 'better,' and greed can intersect.
Hi end audio will never die but as the upper middle class diminishes there will be less people buying the very hi-end (expensive) gear. I believe this is why prices also keep increasing b/c there are less people buying so manufacutures have to ask more to keep their margins and stay in business. (This is just my opinion). Also these days as many before have said great unbelievable sound can be had for not huge sums of money, you start paying more and more for 1% and 2% increases in sound plus the 1" solid face plates and great aesthetics.
Compared to hi-end watches hi-end audio is but a pimple on ones butt! I know more guys that buy 20-50K watches that would never think of buying a 5K amp.
Finally if you are willing to look and buy from small unknown manufactures from other countries (i.e. Poland is just one example) that have been in business for 10-20 years already you can get sonics that rival the well know "standard" manufacturers for fractions of the price. I know I have and have not looked back!
There are still many US manufacturers that have been in business for a very long time that make gear at very realistic prices that must not be ignores, AtmaSphere gear is but one example.

(Dealer disclaimer)
@Schubert - All you have to do is sell 10 $120K speakers a year and you've made $500K. And all you have to do is hit a single every third time you get up to bat and you're a multi millionaire. Sounds real easy on paper.
Better example might be clearing 500 K on sales of 10 120K speakers a year.
"There seems to be a new price model targeting this new, narrower customer base of concentrated wealth around the world. Outrageous markups can make the vendor rich when the customer base is not price sensitive, and also be an easier business model than dealing with higher volume at lower margins. Sell 1000 $5000 power cords and you're done."

What makes you think that people will buy $1000 $5000 power cords just because you make them?
This thread is dying.
I agree. I don't see the fan base dwindling per se. However, I think there's too much worrying about what type of moves people in their 20s and 30s are gonna make. I remain optimistic that at least a small percentage will get into high end audio. I'm in my early 40s, and back in the 70s and 80s, stereo systems were more highly regarded. But, it mostly was *not* high end, it was more mid fi and low fi.
I don't think the high-end is dying although it may be changing.
IMO: There's as much great stuff available now as there ever was.
For context, back in the 60's and 70's, the sound possible out of most home gear in use for listening to music outright sucked in comparison to today. The shortcoming were clearly apparent in most all cases. From tube tabletop radios to transistor radios to phonos to 8-track to cassette to FM to compact systems to even most component gear available in teh day, all were limited compared to even the most common and simple portable gear available today, which may also have limitations, but largely due to the scale more so than most anything else IMHO. Sure mp3 is limited as well, but I would love to have had an IPAD and headphones even back then.

Today, good sound is a commodity. PEople get it many ways as it suits them best.

We are all spoiled by all the good things we have available these days IMHO and none of us here most likely should have any real reason to complain about sound quality available IMHO. There are much bigger issues out there worthy of our attention.
A better question might be how "high end" must gear be to sound like it?

My thought is that like with most technology, good sound is more a commodity item these days and less of a luxury, and it is easier than ever to approach the best the "high end" has to offer for most.

A lot of cost still has to do with scale though. It will always cost more to get high end sound in a larger venue than in a small one. That is for sure! Toss in aesthetic issues that concern home audio mostly and that ups the cost as well.

ON the smallest scale possible, I have a pair of Audio Technica headphones I paid less than $30 for that delivers a lot of delight at lower volumes even when used with commodity level computer gear these days.
I agree with Charles 8/17 post. There is so much great gear at all price points, analog and digital, that I believe it hard not to enjoy this hobby. Also true for the quality of music. The fun is seeking out what you like. One needs not get consumed with the preferences of others.
You can't be high end if too many others are higher than you.
The 99th percentile is grander and more high end then I suppose, and that 100th even more so.