The Rise of the Casual Audiophile
Imagine you just entered the home of a self-proclaimed audio enthusiast. What do you imagine you might see?
Tower speakers, stacks of components, thick cables, all-tube amplifiers, turntables, bookshelves teeming with LPs? These are the traditional trappings of an audiophile's listening space. You might even see the owner dutifully tweaking settings, positioning (and repositioning) speakers.
In a 2015 New Yorker comic, a man standing before a wall of vinyl accouterments quips that “the expense and the inconvenience” were what attracted him to the hobby. There is no instant gratification in audiophile-dom.
Or is there?
Lowering the Barrier to Entry
In many ways, human progress has been a quest for increased convenience. Indoor plumbing, electric lights, refrigeration, airplanes – all of those advances transformed previously difficult and time-consuming activities into routine events. Everything from washing your hands to vacationing in New Zealand has become more convenient.
So, too, is becoming an audiophile, even if some critics think there's something not quite right about not owning stacks of audio equipment. “When exactly did we, as a nation of music lovers, stop wanting to tweak and tailor our sound to make it just right?” asks one analyst.
We think the answer may be that we didn’t stop wanting to – it’s just that it’s easier than ever to do so, and in many cases (thanks to technology) we don’t necessarily have to. Decades ago, building a great sound system was a major undertaking. A lot of people who would have appreciated the experience likely never got involved because of the significant barriers to entry. An understanding of the in’s and out’s of building a system, space to assemble it, time to tweak it, a natural inclination to experiment – you needed all of those things just to get started.
On the flipside, a whole generation of kids drooled at the prospect of a nice sound system, the way kids today do about computer gaming systems or video game consoles. Even the most basic systems worked the way high-end systems did -- the quality of the components (and thus the end result) just weren’t as good. This whole generation was raised knowing how to do this. There simply wasn’t any other way.
Convenience created the casual audiophile.
Today, a healthy convergence of technologies is helping the masses enjoy better sound. Smaller equipment with more features, quick setup, high-resolution files, and reliable streaming services make it incredibly simple to achieve excellent sound quality.
Every self-proclaimed audiophile has a story about the demo that changed their life. You simply can’t catch the bug until you hear what great audio can sound like. Until you hear something you’ve never heard before in a song you’ve listened to 1,000 times. It moves you in a way few other things can.
Nowadays, there’s a middle ground between a passive listener and hardcore audiophile. More people have the space, the budget, and the time allowance to enjoy great sound, and they’re happy to exploit those advantages.
Are all of these “casual” audiophiles dyed-in-the-wool equipment junkies? No, but the next generation of people who will become die-hard audio enthusiasts may right now be listening to their first hi-res audio track on Tidal with a pair of $99 Grado SR80e open-back headphones through a $200 AudioQuest Dragonfly plugged into a MacBook Pro. It’s simply easier today to get something that provides the experience that starts so many music lovers on a journey toward audio bliss.
Casual audiophiles’ habits and preferences lie somewhere between the iPhone-with-earbuds set and the traditional (albeit stereotypical) enthusiast with a basement full of stereo equipment. They likely won't settle for the cheapest Bluetooth speaker. Instead, they'll have a pair of Sonos PLAY:5’s. And they'll stream lossless audio from TIDAL. When they're on the go, they'll don in-ear headphones and listen to FLAC files stored on their phone.
In other words, they savor the authenticity of quality recordings. Great dynamics, accurate timing, perfect timbre… Casual audiophiles “get” this stuff. And it brings them the same sort of joy that audiophiles of every era have experienced.
Does lack of effort make you less of an audiophile?
It’s easy to imagine a muscle-car enthusiast with a garage full of Camaros and Grand Sports laughing mercilessly at a well-heeled urbanite in a shiny new Tesla. “He might accelerate fast,” mutters Camaro man, “but he doesn’t know a thing about the Rochester fuel injection system.”
What Camaro man doesn’t realize is that Tesla man relishes hitting 60 mph in fewer than 2.5 seconds. Tesla man also enters a state of existential bliss every time his car drives him to work. He loves a different car for different reasons, sure. But he still loves a car.
Does it really matter that an exciting driving experience is easier to achieve with a Tesla than with a ‘68 Mustang you painstakingly restored yourself? It’s still just that – an exciting driving experience. Tesla man and Camaro man are made of the same stuff.
So, too, are the millennial graduate student with a hard drive of FLAC files and the baby boomer with a stack of separates.
They’re not totally the same, but they are the same where it counts. Neither way is right or wrong, and neither audiophile is more real than the other. Times, they are a-changin'.
One thing leads to another
Some people will never move along in their “audio journey” beyond a Sonos system or a $200 pair of headphones, and that’s OK. But for some, perhaps it’s a transitional status – a kind of springboard for even greater musical immersion. One thing is for certain -- Everyone has to start somewhere.
If Jimi Hendrix never picked up a guitar, there would be no “Voodoo Chile.” No “Red House.” No amateur “guitar gods” making their Stratocasters snarl and pretending it was the ‘67 Monterey Pop Festival.
Likewise, if a typical music lover never upgrades from basic equipment to something better – casual audiophile-grade, say – there’s practically no chance they’ll train their ears to listen for the intriguing nuances buried within a quality recording. There will be no long, focused listening sessions. No “aha!” moments when they discover something new inside a familiar song.
In other words, you have to start somewhere if you’re going to start at all.
As diehard enthusiasts ourselves (we’ve been selling high-performance audio in our North Carolina store since 1978), we can’t help but feel a sense of ownership, hope, and optimism for the hobby itself.
You can see it happening right here inside the walls of Audio Advice. Ten years ago we only sold high-performance gear locally, and most of our sales team had decades of experience, having cut their teeth on vinyl and stacks of equipment in the 60’s and 70’s.
Today our company is teeming with a mix of veterans and young, hungry, up-and-coming audio junkies. Many of the younger folks are the ones behind our cutting-edge eCommerce site, which over the last year has made us the fastest growing audio consumer electronics online retailer in the US.
They’re digital natives who grew up listening to portable CD players with 10-second anti-skip, and then MP3s on their iPod. Today most of them have caught the bug. Some simply love the experience of listening to great-sounding music while others get completely lost in the details of the gear itself. Some even have a growing vinyl collection!
They’re learning from our veterans and gaining a whole new appreciation for the art of listening to music. And the old-timers? If you catch them on a good day, even they themselves might admit they’ve learned a thing or two about portable music players, or up-and-coming brands from the newbies.
It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the hobby itself. Facebook groups, online forums, Subreddits, and even Audio Advice’s own Facebook Page are teaming with audiophiles of all ages and experience levels. They’re helping each other, learning from each other, arguing about cables and the potential benefits of bi-wiring.
It’s a beautiful thing to see and an extremely rewarding thing to be a part of. Some of us may look vastly different than we would have a generation ago, but what binds us is a love of music and gear that lets you hear a song or album as the artist intended. Our hobby lives to see another day, and we have high hopes for its future. Greater convenience means greater participation. Greater joy -- and that’s a good thing.