A lot has been said about the importance of headphones for the future of our audio enthusiast hobby. With nearly 100,000,000 Apple iPads sold through 2012 – not counting iPhones, other smartphones, other tablets, and beyond – the mobile world is a rapidly expanding market in need of upscale audio. Earbuds just won’t do it for a good percentage of that 100-million-plus audience. The mobile device category is certainly an important market but, for the hobby of audiophila to make it, we need more.
Problems abound in the land of audiophila. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing up shop. The ones that are left are often run by owners who are risk-averse to bringing in new products and/or out-of-the-box marketing strategies; additionally, they are addicted to high profit margins that keep prices high for the consumer. The average age of an audiophile is high. Audiophile print magazines, once the engine of consumer demand, talk too much about esoteric, expensive products, lame music, and dead low-resolution audio formats.
Before you warm up a bath to go slice your wrists (up and down works better than across, they tell me) over the outlook for the specialty audio industry, I’ve got a ray of sunshine for you. A bright one. It’s called car audio. Yes, I said car audio! I don’t mean that we all should go out and install some 18-inch subwoofer boxes in the trunks of our cars. What I am saying is that, the next time you buy a car, a highly evolved, well-tuned, good-sounding audio system will likely be an investment option along with the vehicle.
It can be argued that the most successful deal in the history of high-end audio was the Lexus/Mark Levinson deal. Never before could mainstream (albeit somewhat up-market) customers buy a meaningful audio system already installed in their cars. I knew of a guy in the late 1980s in Philadelphia who deconstructed a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 800s and figured out how to power them with Krell amps in his 7-Series BMW … and he had more money than good sense. This is not what I am talking about. Krell in Acura is what I am talking about. Mark Levinson in Lexus. And these aren’t the only ones.
People will scoff when I bring up a third-rail topic, but it was Bose that first figured this game out. There was a time when you couldn’t buy a Ferrari, Mercedes, or Porsche without getting a Bose system installed. Audiophiles burp up lines like, “No highs … no lows … it MUST be Bose,” but try telling a luxury buyer like Dr. So-and-So who just popped $125,000 for a Twin Turbo 911 that the stereo in his car is crap. Are the tires crap? The transmission? The engine? No, it’s just the stereo. He’s not going to believe you, and he might just outfit his home with Bose equipment to match his pride and joy.
Today, the car audio market is owned by Harman (the parent of Mark Levinson), as the company didn’t stop with the Lexus deal. It expanded to all sorts of brands, including Mercedes, Chrysler, Toyota, Porsche, and many others. Harman is the leader, but it isn’t the only player in the game.
Here’s a list of some high-end audio companies that have made car audio deals:
- Acura – Krell
- Audi – B&O
- Bentley – Naim Audio
- Bugatti – Dynaudio
- BMW – Harman/Kardon
- Chrysler – McIntosh (John Varvatos)
- Fiat – Beats by Dre’
- Land Rover – Meridian
- Lexus – Mark Levinson
- Lincoln – THX (Harman)
- Maserati – Bowers & Wilkins
- Jaguar – Meridian
- VW – Dynaudio
There is a lot to like about the world of luxury and/or high-performance cars embracing audiophilia. These car companies have marketing budgets, reach, and sophistication that no specialty audio company has today. Inherently, people love music. If their cars bring music into their lives in more meaningful ways – be it via satellite, phone, hard drive, whatever – it gets them thinking about how they can have the same luxury at home. It wouldn’t be crazy for a new audiophile store to rent space at a high-end car dealership. Imagine a few demo rooms adjacent to the service area of a Lexus dealership, set up with Revel’s latest speakers, an Ultra HD television, and some Mark Levinson electronics. People who can afford an up-market car can afford up-market audio. Have these people ever played with a Kaleidescape? Sonos? A well-programmed Crestron remote? Have they seen Ultra HD from, say, a Red-ray server? I bet not. One dealer here in Santa Monica, The Audio Salon, is riding the coattails of the local art dealers in Bergamot Station on the argument that someone who can pop for a $35,000 Andy Warhol “Soup Can” or Damien Hirst “Opium” print can also buy some Magico, Spectral, and Transparent. In effect, the dealer’s rent becomes marketing. Car dealers have lots of parking. They tend to have lots of space. People with money and good credit often have time to kill at car dealerships.
Is this too crazy an idea? I don’t think so. It’s time to start thinking beyond marketing to the 56-year-old guy who wears a worn-out Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt and goes to the stereotypical record store with a copy of Jazz at the Pawnshop on 180-gram vinyl for hours-long demos to then buy basically nothing. This guy might be the target customer of some of these regional audiophile shows, but he’s not the future of high-end audio. Not even close.
Don’t get me wrong, headphones are a great (and affordable) way to get people into high-performance audio. But high-end car audio offers a way to bring the emotion, the art, the luxury of high-end audio to the well-heeled but still mainstream consumer. If we can get people energized or re-energized about music and audio, then there’s a reason to swing by the old stereo store or to call that custom installer. Car audio has the chance to make household names of companies that we all know, but which aren’t often as well-known to mainstream buyers … and that’s a really good thing.
By Jerry Del Colliano, HomeTheaterReview