For years, the magazine trifecta of Stereophile, Sound and Vision, and Home Theater have graced my home. A few months ago, I received notice that Sound and Vision Magazine and Home Theater Magazine were merging. Henceforth the new publication would be known under the single Sound and Vision Brand. Declining revenues, a changing market, and others were put forth as reasons for the merger.
Since I’ve always been a firm believer in supporting the trade publications that in turn support my hobbies, I tried to find an substitute for Home Theater. I couldn’t find one. Both the combination of the magazines and the dilution of topics the new Sound and Vision would now be covering all led me to a single question: “Is the audiophile hobby dead or dying?”
HiFi and home theater specialty dealers, long the refuge of the audiophile, continue to close up shop. In some cases, those same stores have shifted their business model to focus more on home automation. One dealer I know well recently told me that their core business is now mostly home automation—lighting, shades, security systems—and that the audiophile sales market is shrinking each year.
Ultimately, I don’t think that the audiophile market is shrinking or dying. I think it’s evolving and being redefined. In particular, I think that the audiophile isn’t dying. Rather, I think that the audiophile is shifting to a headphone-centric experience.
I can site all sorts of anecdotal and statistical observations—from the meteoric rise of portable players and the unprecedented headphone products by high end speaker manufacturers to the explosion of headphone sites like headfi.org and headphone-only audio shows. Would you have ever thought ten years ago that B&W, Paradigm, Cardas, PSB, Martin Logan, and others would now be making audiophile headphones?
Have you also taken a look at the seemingly ever-increasing number of headphone amps that are being introduced? Solid state, tube amps, amps that have integrated DACs are everywhere.
Industry observers can say what they want about poor mastering quality, MP3s, and the like leading to the apparent demise of the audio hobby. I agree with everything they say from a technical perspective. However, I don’t think that those things are a causal link to the perceived decline in the audiophile hobby.
Young guys aren’t investing in expensive stereo systems because they don’t appreciate good recorded music. They’re not investing in expensive stereo systems because they are impractical and they are… well… expensive. Why spend $500 or $1,000 on a fixed, unmovable set of speakers when you can spend $400 and get a premium set of headphones that you can listen to in your dorm, at home, on a plane, or at a coffee shop?
I think what we’re seeing isn’t the death of the audiophile. Rather, lifestyle, necessity, and practicality are catalysts transforming the traditional definition of the audiophile from a fixed stereo system to a more portable experience.