Hit the one in the middle. And I’m not just saying that having just consumed the hottest chicken sandwich ever at a Houston’s Howdy Hot Chicken. Nice people. Seriously hot chicken sandwiches that can cause hallucinations. So do high-end audio systems that cost nearly $600,000. We have listened to a few of those over the past 18 months. It disturbed us. Not in a good way.
Perhaps Paulie and Tony “Duke” Evers had it correct in Rocky IV.
Sometimes, when you have too many moving targets in front of you – the best strategy might be to hit the one in the middle.
High-end audio has battled through that for a few decades.
The inability to convert a new core generation of audio enthusiasts; both male and female who are emotionally connected to their music collections but completely turned off by the perceived price of admission to join the high-end club.
It is easy to point fingers at manufacturers who charge $3,000 for cables, or $20,000 for loudspeakers, but the reality is that they wouldn’t make such products if there wasn’t a customer out there willing to buy them.
The problem is that they are selling to the same customer. All of them.
And that customer base isn’t getting any younger. Or larger.
The high-end press doesn’t get a pass here either.
While there have been positive changes over the past few years thanks to the growing influence of YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, the reality is that the press is still too focused on the portion of the industry that has zero chance of growing the base.
How do I know this?
We made a strategic decision back in 2020 to shift our focus to more affordable high-end audio, vintage audio, system building, a much bigger emphasis on music, and we brought some amazing new staff writers onboard who have contributed in a huge way.
All of them shared a few things in common which they expressed with a sincere degree of frustration.
Their audience loves music but has almost no idea what to buy and is completely turned off by the “insane” prices at the top of the audio pyramid and the lack of quality on the ground floor.
Their audience reads hardware reviews but walks away without any real understanding of how to assemble a system.
Their audience reads reviews about $3,000 cables, $4,000 record cleaning machines, $3,000 power conditioners, and $8,000 phono cartridges – and completely tune out.
Our Music Editor, Lauren Halliday (with close to 12,000 followers on her Instagram vinyl page) started laughing when we said you could spend over $1,000 on an Ethernet cable.
She replied, “that is just dumb.”
And she’s not wrong. Dumb beyond.
The audio industry needs to become more inclusive and stop paying lip service to women and the 25-45 age segment who want to spend between $5,000 – $10,000 on a complete system.
That ceiling can be expanded but retailers need to ask themselves a simple question.
Do they want 100 new customers in 2022 who will spend in that range for the very first time and upgrade slowly over time or do they want the same old customers who will upgrade a solitary component after a favorable review?
Some will get that answer wrong.
The middle is where we are going to succeed with this group.
Hit the one in the middle.
Offer customers quality products from the middle. Because the quality is there and that’s what they can afford to spend.
If I am wrong – then why did Sonus faber introduce the excellent Lumina I loudspeakers?
Why does ELAC sell a lot of loudspeakers in this range?
Schiit Audio, iFi Audio, Rega, Naim, Focal, Wharfedale, Pro-Ject, Bluesound, NAD, Magnepan, Q Acoustics, PSB, Topping, Rotel, Polk Audio, Quad, Cambridge Audio, Klipsch, Heed, Decware, Omega, and many others offer excellent sounding products that fit into this system range.
Some brands like Naim & Focal are offering loudspeaker/network amplifier or network amplifier/headphone amplifier/headphone packages for a price in the middle of our range and do you know what — they are moving a lot of product and most of the sales are to new customers.
I like that Focal and Naim are focusing on personal audio with their headphones and Naim Uniti Series. I tried the new Uniti Atom HE Network Headphone Amplifier with both Focal headphones and my own HiFiMAN and Meze Audio cans — it was perfect for people who want a hi-res streamer/DAC/headphone amplifier that can also serve as a preamp with active loudspeakers. Same tactile volume dial and one of the best control apps available from any manufacturer.
People gravitate to headphones and I can see this being a very successful gateway drug for people who want to use premium headphones instead of loudspeakers.
Naim & Focal get it. Both on the hardware and software side of the streaming category.
Rotel and Pro-Ject have expanded their offerings to include more affordable integrated amplifiers, turntables, CD players, and even streamers — and the results speak for themselves.
The Future is Now
We’re going to continue on our new path because it’s working. We have published almost 1689 articles in 2 years (on pace for over 800 articles again this year) and our focus on vintage, vinyl, affordable systems, headphones, and the changing face of the audiophile community is having a huge impact on our traffic.
Our publication has more than tripled in readership in less than 2 years and we are very grateful to our readers for their daily support. We are on pace for over 500K monthly readers by the end of Q4 and that comes with a degree of responsibility and the willingness to have more open conversations with all of you.
Tell us what you want to see going forward. Let us know whom you would like us to interview on the ecoustics podcast.
Ian White & Brian Mitchell
June 7, 2021 at 11:08 am
A pair of Sonos Ones would be all most people need or want. A pair of Sonos Fives and a Sonos Sub would work for all but the most diehard music lovers. Forget all the cables, power conditioners and vinyl. Way more than 99% of folks wisely don’t give a Schitt. This industry is dying.
June 7, 2021 at 11:33 am
The problem is that people think they have either the option you suggested or the $$$$ nonsense that some in this industry push.
The industry isn’t dying. The problem is that music became a background activity for a lot of people when it used to be THE activity at home for most people.
People will spend money. You’re wrong. But we need to stop talking about $3,000 cables, power conditioners, and $100,000 speakers and focus on the middle.
I spent last week on the road visiting dealers. Including a new one that Naim/Focal have created and will be rolling out. COVID helped folks in A/V survive in 2020 because consumers were stuck at home and were bored — but the opportunity exists to build a middle and we will die if we don’t.
April 13, 2023 at 8:32 pm
Follow the attached link to debunk the lies, lies and insanity prevalent in the ‘high-end’ audio scene. High, in this instance, being defined by the delusions resulting from what they’re smoking!
July 11, 2021 at 6:00 pm
Great piece. $10k system is a perfect range for folks with the funds, I being one. Beyond that is living in la la land, I feel.
More importantly, thanks for the heads up on Houston’s Howdy Hot Chicken. As a frequent business travel there, it’s now on the list along with Turkey Leg Hut.
As for Sonos mentioned above, these brands take the joy out of owning, caring for, swooning over “true” hi-fi, whatever budget. Wireless? Powered speakers? Get lost.
October 12, 2022 at 1:29 am
“Wireless? Powered speakers? Get lost.” The new KEF LS60 system is amazing. KEF is a brand to swoon over, no? Powered speakers is another name for active speakers. Linn, ATC (among many others) have been manufacturing active systems for a long time. Please don’t tell us that these brands are not true hi-fi. Good to know that you have 10k for a system.
October 12, 2022 at 10:40 am
The KEF LS60 and new Dynaudio Focus Series are both amazing.
Wireless is finally catching up and that will make it easier for people to spend under $10,000 and create a great sounding system. Active and powered loudspeakers (which are not the same thing) have also taken huge strides and I’m presently listening to 3 different speakers from 3 different manufacturers that are superb at very different price points.
October 12, 2022 at 12:58 pm
Here is a handy primer re: powered/active and passive speakers.
From the article: “… powered stereo speakers (also known as “powered monitors” or “active speakers”) …”
Thanks to you and your colleagues for a great site.
December 9, 2022 at 10:05 pm
Ian is correct, there is a difference between active speakers and powered speakers.
Powered speakers may still use a passive crossover network. Most inexpensive powered speakers do – like the ones with a single AC inlet on one of the speakers and an amplifier terminal to connect the other speaker with speaker cable. But there are also some more expensive speakers which may have internal amplification and yet still use a passive crossover in the signal path, after the amplifier. Many of the so-called “smart” speakers are not “active”, they are passive speakers with in-built amplification.
Active speakers filter the music signal for each respective drive unit prior to amplification.
A better link would have been this one: https://blogs.qsc.com/live-sound/what-are-the-differences-between-passive-active-and-powered-loudspeakers/
December 18, 2022 at 4:24 pm
Audio forums are sometimes helpful, in most instances not. In all realities (yes realities) we each have our own, most everyone fails to mention the most important component in any audio system; One’s own pair of ears. These most important components need to trained, just as a wine expert develops his/her palette over many years of tasting and smelling. Even then, what they tell you is a great wine you may hate. Enjoy the music and have fun. That seems to be getting lost in all this equipment centric focus. Disgusting really.
April 13, 2023 at 8:36 pm
The difference between an audiophile and a music lover is the music lover listens to the music through their hi-fi, NOT vice versa!
October 12, 2021 at 8:45 pm
Thx, nice read and I agree… I am in my early 50’s have been assembling my first real HIFI system. Gave myself a $5k budget. I am fortunate as to work in a HIFI store as a commercial sound engineer (our red-headed stepchild division). I have Focal Utopia, Sopra and Kanta speakers in the showroom as well as Sonus Faber and JL Audio. For electronics we carry Gold Note, Naim, Jackson, Chord, Marantz, TEAC & McIntosh. We even have a Meyer Sound 9.2.4 theater system… Plenty of ways to enjoy my lunch hour. I live in a small space and chose the following for myself.
Focal Aria 906 stand speakers, JL Dominion 8″ sub, TEAC AX-505 integrated amp and Brennan B2 CD jukebox. I already have a Clarus CODA DAC for streaming HiRes from my phone or PC. Got my eye on a RME ADI-2 DAC down the road when they add the ability to unfold MQA files, but for now I think I am set with a strong 2ch system. The Brennan came in yesterday, Focals today, waiting on the amp and sub!
On the edge of my listing couch, can’t wait!!!
October 11, 2022 at 12:04 pm
Interesting. If there is a future in high end audio I think it probably looks like a KEF LS60 wireless. Two petite towers with everything contained inside. Plug and play. Throw in room correction, even something as simple as a Sonos system where you walk around the room with an iPad. The modern ethos is minimalism and efficiency. Even furniture nowadays is lite and airy (Scandinavian). No one wants grandma’s heavy, dark, imposing stuff. I don’t think many people are going to want a bunch of boxes with cables everywhere.
I’ve always considered high end a bit of a fetish hobby: Spending a lot of money to get a small “improvement “ in the midrange kind of thing. Recently I did an experiment by accident. I accidentally sent my Tidal stream to my little Sonos Beam soundbar instead of almost $25,000 of high end gear. I was shocked. The little Sonos didn’t sound as good as the sound coming out of my handmade Italian speakers, but it gave pretty good accounting of itself.
Don’t get me wrong. I love high end. But I think for most people, that little Sonos Beam will be all they want. I live in Silicon Valley, where people have absolutely endless supplies of money. They can have anything they want. But in nearly 25 years I I have never had a single convert to the high end life. They hear my system and like it, but when I tell them how much it cost, they get this look in their eyes that says “what a f****n waste of money”.
October 11, 2022 at 12:41 pm
I’ve been playing in this hobby for 50 years, and I agree completely. My main rig is about USD 10K, and my second system is about USD 2k. I have spent much more in the past, but I really believe you can get a terrifically good system for 10K or less. And now, with streaming, I spend all my time listening to music and exploring new artists, and not obsessing about equipment. I think the industry can draw a lot of new customers with the all-in-one speaker/amp/DAC/streamer products from the likes of KEF and Dynaudio, etc.
October 11, 2022 at 1:29 pm
The last time I looked audio did not appear on “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”.
The best of luck with your saner direction.
October 11, 2022 at 3:44 pm
Mrs. White would agree 1000% with what you just wrote.
October 11, 2022 at 3:55 pm
This article is everything. I’m 47. I’ve assembled a system that I LOVE for around $5K. I’ve tuned it to the room with proper speaker placement and normal, decorative acoustic control (rug, curtains, etc.). Snobbery and defining high-end hi-fi with price points is just egregious gatekeeping. I sell wine and liquor for a living. The biggest mistake in my line of work is just assuming that price buys happiness. There should be expectations at different price points but by no means does that preclude a $10 bottle from rocking your world. Niche interests are rife with gatekeeping and snobbery. A recent video by the Urban Gentry Watch Channel https://youtu.be/i4K2BwS01Cs really hammers home this point. It’s about watches but its no big leap to apply it to Hi-fi/Home Theater.
October 11, 2022 at 4:06 pm
You nail it exactly.
Price doesn’t mean anything. I’ve listened to some of the most expensive (Ferrari level prices) components in the world and left the room stunned that anyone would pay for that. If you need that extra 3-5% of performance and can stomach that big of a financial hit — all the power to you.
It just doesn’t reflect reality for 99% of us who understand what you can get for $5000 or $10,000.
October 11, 2022 at 4:24 pm
I love your website and I appreciate your focus on more value-oriented equipment. Personally, I would never consider spending $5,000-$10,000 on my hi-fi or stereo system. I suppose, therefore, I am not the target of “high-end” manufacturers so take my comments as they are.
I am a guy in my late 50s who has been into quality playback for about 20 years. In that time period I went from a $500 Fisher rack system with cassette player and tower speakers, which sucked, to a Harman Kardon AVR and CD changer with PSB Alpha and then PSB 400i speakers, which was a revelation. Currently I use a Marantz AVR with a crown amp for powering the front channels with Polk r200 speakers. I do have an inexpensive Sony Blu-Ray player I use for the occassional CD I play but most of my music content is streamed via Spotify (tried Qobuz but missed the native Spotify app) through the Marantz. This sounds fantastic to my ears. The total cost was maybe $1600 and another $600 for an SVS sub which makes the system sound even better.
Do I wonder what “true high-end” would sound like in my room? Yes. Would I shell out multiples thousands of dollars to hear the possible differences? No.
In fact, it would be very easy to put together any number of great sounding systems for well under $5,000 using many of the components from the manufacturers you mention in the article.
I guess I am into “hi-fi” not “high-end”.
October 11, 2022 at 4:56 pm
Thank you for reading us.
“This sounds fantastic to my ears.” — The only opinion that matters.
I’ve been on the high-end merry-go-round for 25 years. I made the decision 5-6 years ago to jump off and build smaller, more affordable systems that bring me as much joy as the $$$$ systems I once owned.
I have 5 such systems scattered throughout our home and guess what — my children use them. The dog even likes two of them. Not in a good way.
October 11, 2022 at 5:04 pm
I have observed 3 recent and very successful trends in the industry: Headphones, Streaming, Lifestyle positioning. Young people realized their ipods could sound better if they used better headphones. The industry caught on, and with help from media influencers, young people were convinced to spend 3-4 figure sums for headphones. Sure Beats sold a lot of product, but Beats blew open the door to a growth industry that has served a large number of new customers. Streaming is ubiquitous, and was led at the bottom (migration from napster) and the top (high end digital). What was important was that streaming was sold to the masses as both higher quality than MP3, and as a personal convenience….similar to the model was used sell headphones. In the current environment people are complimented for spending $5k on a wristwatch, but are laughed at for spending the same amount on a “stereo”. Why ? Because the watch industry has marketed wristwatches as lifestyle aspirational purchases- something to mark your success or reward yourself with. McIntosh among others has been very successful in marketing their (excellent but expensive) audio equipment as aspirational purchases. Their components are designed to be displayed, and owners are very proud to display their Macs. Ask yourself how many online pics do you see of user’s Mac equipment compared to other brands? How many other brands have done as well in positioning their product. The industry has to do a better job of positioning mid to low high end equipment as helping one to enjoy a better life, and change the narrative to “you spent how much on a stereo!” to “wow, that sounds great; where did you get it”.
October 11, 2022 at 5:53 pm
October 11, 2022 at 7:15 pm
This article is right on the money and I really want to emphasize the point that was made about the audiophile press’s complicity in this. Way, way, way too much space is given to products that are absurdly priced and will only be of interest to the 1%, or less, because they’re the only ones that can afford them. It’s really nice that these uber high end products bring us ever closer to audio nirvana but personally, I couldn’t care less, because I will never come close to owning any of these products. If this industry is to survive, the next generation is critical. So start writing about that middle ground that is spoken of in this article or there will be no market to sell any of this stuff to.
October 11, 2022 at 8:18 pm
Amen, brother. Every time I visit a friend who is listening to music on his TV speakers, I cringe. Fortunately I’ve helped most of these friends upgrade to affordable component-based audio systems, if not for their benefit, for my own ears when I come to visit. 🙂 Many people are intimidated by the complexity of a component system but once it’s in and up and running, they get it.
October 11, 2022 at 8:54 pm
I’m retired but used to work in a very nice audio shop (Linn, McIntosh, Wilson, Magnepan etc.) My experience was that the cost no object systems were rarely satisfying. For example, I preferred the smaller Wilson models. The same with Magnepan. Just my opinion of course. This article is right on the money. We live in a golden age for hi-fi. Easy to put together a 5-10k system with wonderful sound quality. Here is a classic essay by the late, great Art Dudley. Written ten years ago, he slammed the value proposition of the most expensive equipment.
October 13, 2022 at 7:06 pm
Ian. A lot of the comments talk about value proposition and over-priced gear. That gets me pondering. The audiophile world seems unduly and weirdly obsessed with the value proposition and what other people spend their money on. You know what seems outrageously expensive to me, pickups. Their exists a sea of those expensive 4 door pickups on the road. Our employees litter the parking lot with them. They don’t need them for their jobs. The beds are usually empty. It’s a style thing. Some of them have hitches and they may tow a camper or a Boston Whaler boat for fishing. They spend well into six figures for these setups, yet would generally be considered salt of the earth type of guys. Is spending $7,500 on an amp worse than spending $75,000 on a Ford F-150 Harley Davidson Edition?
Secondly, aesthetics matter, and are worth money. Attractive people aren’t provably any better lovers, better suited as mates, or any smarter than less attractive people. Yet being attractive is a huge advantage in every culture on earth. A Rolex doesn’t tell time any better than the $49 watch you bought at CVS. So even if your $2,000 speakers sound as good as my $8,000 speakers, (and I’m skeptical about that) I don’t care. My speakers with their fancy woods, embossed leather, and extruded aluminum bits, all put together by hand in Italy, matter to me. Let’s stop pretending equipment aesthetics are a minor byproduct of equipment evaluations.
Thirdly, one of my economics professors had a saying: To a drowning man, a life preserver has infinite value, and all the gold in the world is worthless. Get it? All of these “it cost twice as much, is it twice as good” and diminishing returns arguments don’t pass economic principle muster. You can’t know what the utility of the product has for a particular consumer, nor the utility and preciousness each dollar has for that same person. Let people spend money the way they want, without judgement.
Lastly, so many audiophiles talk about audio like they are lucky to have escaped the “addiction“ of expensive gear. One of the most popular YouTube reviewers officially calls his site The Recovering Audiophile. They sound like some of the other recovered alcohol/smoking/gambling previously addicted groups to me. Hey mofo, I can have ONE glass of wine with dinner, and TWO beers at a barbecue and be fine. Just because you drank three bottles of Gin a day, doesn’t mean I need you to save me from my glass of wine. I’m sorry you spent $4,000 on speaker cable, but I spent $109 on Blue Jeans cable, so I’m good. Don’t need the intervention. If that sounds mean, I apologize. I don’t want to belittle the very real problem of addiction. Just using the comparison for effect.
October 14, 2022 at 1:39 am
You make some valid points. I once a owned a $75,000 hi-fi system that I saved for 3 years for. I was also single and living by myself. It sounded fantastic and it was my pride and joy.
But then I got married (divorced and then remarried) and had 3 kids.
I also get to play with a lot more audio components than the average person and I just came to the realization that I would rather have 4-5 affordable systems versus just the one. I also own 3,700 movies so home theater is a huge priority for me.
I agree that people should spend what they want and g-d bless them if they can afford a $1M system. I’ve listened to a few of those and wasn’t impressed.
My issue is that the industry isn’t attracting new blood because the focus has been on $$$$ equipment and the move to more affordable components is rather recent. I’ve been reviewing for 24 years and I know this to be true from both a reviewing context and as a consumer.
I want to see 0000s of new audiophiles. Not 100 rich guys keeping the same 10 brands in business.
I also don’t think you were belittling anyone with addiction. I had one — so I understand what you were saying.
October 15, 2022 at 12:23 pm
I compare audio to decorating a room/house. Sometimes too much budget can give you opulent, flashy yet cold and pretentious results. A more restrained budget, when well thought out, can yield a warm cozy and inviting atmosphere that makes you and your guests want to relax and enjoy the surroundings/music. I aim/pride myself in the latter.
October 16, 2022 at 11:16 pm
The industry has been successful in convincing some people that things that don’t matter, do.