Where is great audio going? - Headphones and Mid-Cost

I've been thinking about this for a while. If CES is any indicator, the high end audio market is shrinking.
However, music consumption is not. Where is the disparity?

In my humble opinion, it is going to headphones and mid-cost gear.

Before I go too much deeper, let me say that I feel there is a big difference between "high end" and "very expensive."  Not everyone agrees with me. If a cable costs $30K it MUST Be high end right? That's not me.

The modern audiophile is much more likely to be into headphones. Discussions about headphones, and DAC/headphone amps have incredible high participation. I'd venture to say that there are a lot more headphone audiophiles today than traditional 2 channel.

This is for a couple of reasons. Cost is a factor, but also space. You don't need much more to have a great headphone setup than your desk. To get a great stereo setup you need the space, the acoustics, and considerate neighbors. The average apartment dweller (like me, sadly) just does not have the resources to build a home, with a separate listening room. Also, we spend so much time in front of our PC's, that if we are going to enjoy music, it makes sense we optimize for it rather than a listening room.

My point I think is that we are going to have to stop looking to $50k amps to drive the high end. We have to disconnect ourselves from the idea that price = value and start thinking about our community as being able to encompass more music lovers in the way they live today.


Also, kind of related, is the whole Dolby Atmos, 11.2 channel receiver thing. The more channels, the more cost, the more speakers the more this is driving the average worker away from being able to enjoy. 

Technology and innovation should be driving the cost of excellent reproduction down, not up.
I Guess I am fortunate enough to have a music room and enough disposable income to indulge my wants to a modest point so I have my speaker system and constantly updating it.
However sometimes the mood for cans does take me so all my systems have to have headphone capability as well.
But could I live with a headphone system only?
Absolutely not!
Even with all the pains and hassle of reproduction of music through speakers , listening through cans just does not move me in the same sense.
Just my opinion....
But could I live with a headphone system only?
Absolutely not!

I don't think we should either!

What I am saying is that headphone sales and headphone related gear is volumetric ally much higher than stereo speakers and their gear.

I think you're right Eric.Young people seem to be into headphones and small desktop systems.My two grown children are and their friends.But they also really enjoy listening to my system.I have two decent systems to pass along to them someday.So hopefully they will get the grandkids interested and a couple of friends and so on and high end 2channel will never become extinct.
Yeah, these days the system in their car is the best sound most people ever heard. Everything is downsized and portable now; convenience over quality. Also, I don't think very many people actually sit and listen to music anymore; it's more of a background to whatever else they're doing. Back in the 60's and 70's it was pretty much the opposite; friends would get together and actually listen to music and appreciate it. It's a shame. Also, the high end in audio these days seems to be geared to the 1%ers like the Watson speakers that cost six figures; the only thing that tells me is that Watson only has to sell two or three pairs of their speakers. I will not be one of their customers.
I don’t think downsizing is necessarily a compromise in sound quality. Quite the contrary. There are many obvious and maybe not so obvious advantages going to a small system, especially a small portable battery powered system as I have. Going to a battery power CD or cassette system has the following advantages for sound quality alone, not even counting cost and real estate.

If thy eye offend thee cut it out. 

1. No speakers required and their distortion.
2. No speaker cables and their high distortion.
3. No house AC and it’s noise and distortion.
4. No power cords and their high noise and distortion.
5. No interconnects and their noise and distortion.
6. No room acoustics anomalies.
7. No fuses and their noise and distortion.

For MANY people music is a social event NOT a musical one !
Whoa!, rpt Whoa! Geoffy, cut me some slack Jack! Last time I checked the headphones you use with your ‘80’s Walkman / Discman still have transducers in them, which aren’t immune rpt aren’t immune, to the evils of distortion. Same goes for your headphone cord. And, like it or not, you are still operating your Walkman / Discman and headphones in the same environment with EMI and RFI basting your little beanie just as much as of you were listening  to an AC powered hifi system of any price. 
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Erik, are you talking HEA, or economics; from my point of view, poverty is walking up the ladder of success. High end is what it is, and it wont change; the percentage of people who can afford it has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.

While the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, along with the shrinking middle class; hence the lowering of expectations for HEA for the masses.

In the meantime, there is a demand for 350K amplifiers, and 14K cartridges; that tells me something, I don't know about you?
Orpheus......Exactly. In the period of about 1965 to maybe 1985 high end audio was by no means out of reach for the serious audiophile. Not so today. Just as in anything else, there is a point of diminishing returns. I’m not convinced by gushing hype about six figure speakers or components. If they were that good, I think a bunch of folks would pool their resources, buy one, and take it apart and replicate it......for a hell of a lot less money.
  hence the lowering of expectations for HEA for the masses.

Or just shifting of the price point at which we think HEA exists.

Personally, I'd rather sit with people who love music and can put a fabulous system together for peanuts than sit alone with a million dollar room and equipment.


I spent a lot of time in high end emporiums talking and listening to components with prospective buyers of high end audio in the early 90's, and they were like firemen, and postmen; people with solid jobs and good taste in audio who were willing to sacrifice for good sound. Of course there were some some high rollers.

Since that time, salaries have gone down relative to inflation, and so have the number of good solid jobs.

From my point of view, in regard to economics, everyone here is living in a "wannabe" reality as opposed to a real reality.
I've spent the last 22 years of my life ANALYZING music on multiple two channel systems from buying and selling equipment endlessly while losing money in the process.

I sold my expensive two channel system and replaced it with a VERY modest system. 
I've gone into the high end headphone arena and couldn't be happier.  
Why?  Because I'm ENJOYING music instead of analyzing. When I think back to those 22 years of my life and realize it's time I'll never get back, it breaks my heart. 

Just remember... At the core of our obsession is a love for music. That's why we get the stuff we do.
So, just enjoy yourselves and be grateful you were given this gift of appreciating beautiful music. I know more than a few people who have no love for music and I'm so sad for them.

Not long ago at all, a Grado Master Cartridge cost $800. now they cost $1000, that kind of price increase occurred for all the solid, but not extremely expensive components in the high end.

PrimaLuna; the brand that's considered budget high end electronics, has almost doubled since it came out.

You will see Koetsu Urushi in sterophile listed at 4K, but it's now 6K.

While I consider that Urushi extreme high end, others may not; I don't consider Grado and PrimaLuna extreme high end, but their cost, while relatively high, is near the bottom of true high end audio.

I know that based on my income, I wouldn't even consider those components, but one must maintain one's standard of living whether one can afford it or not.

When people who consider HEA a necessity are dead, you can forget about it.

I think the manufacturers especially in the 'digital' domain are squeezing an already fairly small market with prices that are just not for the common person. All my friends have everything on their cell phones and are quite happy. You only have to see the people who go to Hi Fi shows to know that the much younger than I set are nowhere to be seen. 
With the advent of companies that are catering for the average Julie or John I applaud you for making reasonably priced Items of high sound quality for 'we the people', not 'we the few(er)'. 
Also, US dollar is over valued simply because it is the reserve currency . Taking 15% of "pie" off and allocating that to Chinese
is hand writing on the wall for financial markets .Trust in US in general is at all-time low .
High-end manufacturers and retailers have the same increased costs in health care, housing, daycare, college tuition, autos and food as the rest of us, so they have had to increase prices on products that are, for us, a luxury hobby.  

Phones with good DACs and hi-res streaming have largely replaced components for millennials and gen x-ers, born after '96, and I can hear why--bought an I Phone XR for my wife, and does it ever sound good, even through the stock buds.  All of the sound is there, plus some I wish I had in my system.  

I think that's called "inflation".
High-end manufacturers and retailers have the same increased costs in health care, housing, daycare, college tuition, autos and food as the rest of us, so they have had to increase prices on products that are, for us, a luxury hobby.  

Should their chosen private life (for the most part) Impinge on the products price? I am not meaning the business over heads or expenses either. Naturally, a profit has to be made.

HEA is at an impasse but the audiophile market, hobby and lifestyle is alive and well. How many more folks are going to spring for over built/over priced components is an issue that belongs only to HEA now. Quality of sound is no longer an issue with the lower priced systems. I don't see the decrease in in-room listening either. From where I'm sitting it appears that listening to music is increasing on all fronts, again except for HEA.

One of the big shockers hitting HEA is the development of Class D amplifiers and that kind of has some shakin up and defensive to a degree. How can a $50.00 amp compete with a $50,000.00 one? Well they do and that turns HEA on it's ear. The bright side to this is, it gets listeners looking into the other low mass changes taking place that maybe haven't yet been talked about as much. But lets not be mistaken, the hobby of listening is growing and learning more about quality sound then it ever has.

Michael Green

I'm recently separated, so my living situation has changed big time.  Right before I left I picked up a pair or Grado RS2e headphones and Rupert Neve RNHP headphone amp.   Best $1000 spent on audio in a long time.

While my gear sat there in storage for the last 6 months I was enjoying my music on a hard drive through my BluRay player, streaming from my tablet, etc.  

While we are on the topic of mid fi, I just picked up a Bluesound Vault 2i and it is awesome.   So between that and my headphone rig I have a setup that is pretty enjoyable within the context of what it is.   
I think if there was a law stating you had to listen to a say, $1500 headphone system
for a least a year before you could buy anything else there would not be many speakers sold .

Schubert, a $1500. headphone system sounds better than speakers because you don't have to deal with the complexities of the room, but I can only wear headphones for so long. No matter how good Grado headphones sound, they are uncomfortable to me.

My son only uses wireless headphones, which he wears every where; he's done this for years now.
Same here , O-10 .My point is that if we all had to do a year on "phones most of us would be comfortable with them as would our bank accounts .

Not me

I would take a spare bedroom, empty it out except for one chair (leather). Loosen the AC outlets around the room. Make me an Audio Platform to set components on. I'd install a RoomTune TunePak. I'd then go online and get me Dayton Audio 652's (probably the air), wood stands and speaker Platforms. I'd get one of the matching DA subs (with platform). MGA cables and cable grounds. Some Tuning Blocks and pick up a used Maganavox 2100 CDP. I'd pick out my Class D amp, tune it up and say goodbye to complicated for ever.

Never has there been a better time to be an Audiophile Cheapskate.


Loosen the AC outlets around the room? Whoa! You don’t see that one too much. Bravo!
Yep, open it all up. Crack the screws barely on speaker screws as well. Do the drivers, tweeters and binding post cups and plate amps. That first year or so you want the system to resonate as much as possible (within reason), especially during breakin periods. Get all the vibrations active even if it sounds wooly and loose. After a nice settling period, then come in and tune things back up.
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Agree. Same reason you should loosen bolts on big transformers to reduce transmission of vibration (isolate) to the printed circuit boards.
Or get rid of big transformers in audio systems altogether, which is where things are heading, bout time.
I dumped everything I I'm jumping on headphones asap.
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EBM was not being serious, hardly ever is ...lol

But I think even though you can spend silly amounts on a headphone system, no way can you reach the stupendously silly amounts you can blow on a full speaker system!
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I've been arguing that this is a shrinking hobby, but for some reason people want to argue with me though the evidence seems obvious.
I don't think the hobby is shrinking at all. It's evolving - which is a good thing - and was always a niche pursuit. Yes, there are fewer brick & mortar audiophile emporiums, but retailing has also been evolving. Music industry sales have tumbled since the 1999 peak, but consider how during that same time many of HEA's biggest names have flourished, and many others have entered the realm.
Listening to music on a good stereo is one of the finer things in life and it's never going away.
Maybe I should have included DIY speakers as part of the new high-end, or at least what may save it.