“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” ― William Gibson
Uncomfortably numb. Middle aged white dudes – they’re the dominant force at almost every event on the Stateside hi-fi enthusiast’s calendar. At regional shows like RMAF and AXPONA, we see an abundance of middle aged white dudes showing off their wares to other middle aged white dudes with music that, in the main, only appeals to middle aged white dudes. Exhibitors know their audience and the audience knows exactly what to expect. Covering the event are members of the press – more middle aged white dudes (myself included).
It’s not just the USA. This same middle-aged-dude-dominated audiophile bubble exists in Hong Kong, Australia and Germany. You’d probably find it where you live too.
It’s the perfect echo chamber where members might easily mistake industry buzz about the next big thing as genuine mass-market relevance. Remember DSD? Remember Blu-Ray Audio? I ‘member.
Pragmatism many years behind them, idealist audiophiles appear to relish knocking the very technologies that might bring more people into the fold: Class D amplification, the smartphone, active loudspeakers, Tidal.
However – when the audiophile echo chamber rubs up against the mainstream, as it does at CES in Las Vegas each January, it is laid bare for all to see as a tiny fish in an enormous sea of consumer electronics. Also exposed is the audiophile bubble’s paucity of attendee and exhibitor diversity. Where are the young people and where are the women?
The problem, according to the middle aged white dudes of the high end audio world, young people, with their MP3s and portable speakers, just aren’t interested in better sound quality. They dig the convenience of on-demand lossy streaming, fired with a single click over a Bluetooth connection from one palm-sized device to another; or to headphones that assert tribal allegiance before they commit to source material fidelity. Young people spin thirty dollar records on fifty dollar turntables. Form and function are prioritised over sound quality.
We can hardly blame them. Recorded music sees ongoing subdivision by format and quality – vinyl, hi-res, lossless and lossy. It’s a similar story with hardware. A turntable, CD player, amplifier and speakers are no longer mandatory purchases to get music up and running at home. Nowadays, any laptop or smartphone will do; it just won’t do it very well.
Hi-res audio has almost zero relevance for the music fan listening via a UE Boom or Sonos Play:1 where even lossless audio (e.g. FLAC) struggles to make its absence of perceptual coding heard (e.g. MP3).
In 2017, we see some audiophiles getting worked up by the tiniest sliver of MQA news whilst the mass market is barely aware of its existence. The gulf between the high-end audio world and the mainstream has never been wider.
This problem isn’t unique to audio. If we’re to believe NPR, the opera world rarely draws younger, more diverse audiences. NPR’s Tom Huizenga makes the point that an opera whose story diverts from the norm and whose cast is diversified in terms of gender and ethnicity appears to attract a more diverse audience. Who’d have thunk it?
That doesn’t mean Terence Blanchard’s opera – Champion – is without its flaws:
“It didn’t really bother me that some passages of the libretto were predictable, that a few of the voices weren’t at their best, or even that the opera might benefit from a little judicious trimming.”
“What was more important Saturday night was that for once at WNO I felt like I wasn’t part of the opera elite but instead sitting with the citizens of my city.”
Transposed onto the audio world, Huizenga’s words might read: “It didn’t really bother me that some rooms sounded a little off, that the bass was a little flabby here and there, or that some of the longer dub-techno or extended metal workouts might benefit from a little judicious trimming.”
“What was important last weekend was that for once at an audio show I felt like I wasn’t part of the audio elite but instead sitting and listening with citizens of my city”.
Could it be that the high-end audio world’s obsession with sound quality at the expense of everything else has driven it into a hole from which it struggles to climb out?
Is the pursuit of impeccable sound quality (and impeccable sound quality alone) not why many of us, several times a year, end up in a hotel room on the edge of town listening to music we profess to dislike – Diana Krall and her ilk – surrounded by other middle aged white dudes (some of whom we also profess to dislike)? Can we really blame the next generation of would-be audiophiles for walking in the other direction?
This train of thought let me to an imaginary audio show: a smaller one; invite only on the exhibitor side; the hardware and music programme heavily curated by yours truly as well as a handful of more mainstream and alternative-aiming tastemakers. This imaginary event would reflect the broader market’s need for form and function, as well as better sound quality brought to bear on music with which they like.
As this event so far only lives in my head, it has no venue. Yet.
The name of the show? Future-Fi Now – a little corny but it gets the message across that this audio event’s focus is on gear that reaches beyond the audiophile echo chamber to engage the wo/man in the street. The show’s watchword is ‘relatability’.
Relatability isn’t only a function of more affordable pricing but something more indefinable. We might call it a ‘cool factor’ if the terminology didn’t paint us as relics trying to get down with the kids.
Consider California’s Schiit Audio – not only their hardware offerings but their disruptive attitude. Schiit Audio’s success stems from an ongoing determination to bring higher quality audio gear to market at increasingly lower price points. There is also something more subtle at play than their Dad-joking brand name. In buying a Schiit DAC or headphone amplifier we’re also buying a feeling that we’re somehow sticking it to the man; the man who would have us believe that we need thousands of dollars in order to realise good sound.
Bringing it back to NPR’s opera op-ed:
“This is no opera where handsome, white tenors portray kings or beautiful European sopranos play consumptive heroines. Instead, Champion tells the true story of Emile Griffith, the resourceful Virgin Islands native who moves to New York to become a hat maker but ends up the welterweight boxing champion of the world throughout the 1960s. He also happens to be gay.”
Similarly, Future-Fi Now won’t be a show run by handsome middle-aged white dudes for other handsome middle-aged white dudes, dutifully tailed by their consumptive heroines. It will feature real-world hardware that sounds great but also breaks from the norm of wood-veneered cuboids powered by black-box electronics. Some of the loudspeakers happen to be active and use DSP.
Future-Fi Now can’t start with Schiit. A mass market hook calls for a more familiar brand, one already in possession of significant market penetration. That brand is Sonos.
Our first demo room would show off the importance of having two loudspeakers instead of one. A single Play:5 would be augmented by a second to demonstrate the potency of stereophony proper. And then that second Play:5 would be subtracted so that attendees might hear the soundstage collapse and stereo separation vanish.
We might use the Sonos app to stream from a number of online services or use Spotify Connect for a more familiar interface. Yes, lossy audio.
One regularly fortified barrier keeping newcomers from joining the audiophile world is audiophile snobbery; that MP3s, Bluetooth and modern music, for example, are all rubbish. The message heard is “You’re not good enough!”; that certain standards must be met before a metaphorical audiophile membership card can be issued. Not at Future-Fi Now.
One can only realise lossless audio’s benefits with better hardware. Is Sonos gear good enough? Perhaps this would be one room in which listeners could find out for themselves.
What about hi-res audio? Not at this audio show. Sonos’ Sound Experience Leader Giles Martin recently told What Hifi: “I’d like everyone to start listening to 16-bit/44.1 kHz [CD-quality, lossless audio] and stop listening to MP3s, and experience those differences before they start talking about high-res”.
And the DAR readers of Twitter agree 3:1…
Hi-res can be addressed down the line and at more traditional audio shows. Talk of MQA can wait too. For mainstreamers and newcomers, it’s more important that they first feel the benefit of CD quality (lossless) over lossy. Spotify will soon make that a whole lot easier.
Resolutions greater than 16bit/44.1kHz are at best a distraction and – in the wrong hands – used by elitists as a wedge to force daylight between Us And Them. It’s a record we’ve heard a million times and it’s stuck: “You’ve not heard Dark Side Of The Moon until you’ve heard it in Quad DSD!” What rot.
For those who still shop for records comes a trick used by Sonos’ very own advertising campaign/s: a turntable; one with an in-built phono pre-amplifier hooked up to the Play:5’s line-level input. A phono-pre can be specified as an order-time option with U-Turn’s Orbit and it remains price commensurate with the Sonos gear.
The U-Turn team are (almost) all under thirty. How about they orchestrate this demo with music of their own choosing? Hopefully, some modern-day pop interspersed with a little indie rock.
A substantial chunk of modern music isn’t particularly well mastered. That might be painful for the engineer doing double duty as demo handler at a traditional audio show but hardly noticeable by the incoming attendee in awe of hearing his favourite tune being played big and beautiful (for him) for the first time on a bigger, better hifi system.
People buy – and don’t buy – with their emotions. The audio demonstrator must decide if the music programme means sacrificing a few degrees of sound quality in order to gain a fan is acceptable. At Future-Fi Now, it is.
A turntable isn’t included here to appease those who espouse the safety blanket pomposity of “Vinyl is the only way to listen to music”. Future-Fi Now isn’t interested in your analogue vs. vinyl debate. The U-turn shows up to highlight just how a turntable can be integrated into a digital audio environment.
A recent survey of 400 DAR readers confirmed that less than one fifth enjoy a dedicated listening room:
Flipping it around, over 80% of an audiophile-centric website’s audience listen in a room that is also used for purposes other than listening to music. In other words, real-world spaces. And such spaces should be reflected as much as possible at Future-Fi Now.
It also means we need gear that doesn’t intrude on these spaces. Multi-level racks of gear are out. In their place come simple headphone rigs, powered loudspeakers, passives dressed in a more modern aesthetic and powered by integrated amplifiers that put network audio, DAC and phono stage inside the chassis.
For our second loudspeaker-based room, I imagine a modestly sized space kitted out with only IKEA furniture: a couple of POÅNG chairs; an EKTORP couch; a REGOLIT floor lamp; some KALLAX shelving loaded with a couple hundred vinyl records.
A gloss black Peachtree nova300 – chosen for its handsome looks – would sit atop a red LACK table. Flanking the super-integrated and mainlining the IKEA vibe, a pair of Spatial Audio’s Hologram M3 (or M4), also in red. Only loudspeaker cable would be required to join the dots.
Post setup, neither the Peachtree’s David Solomon nor Spatial’s Clayton Shaw would be called upon to play music.
That responsibility would fall to a DJ charged with spinning everything from classic rock to new wave to soulful-house across a pair of Technics SL-1200GR (the more affordable model) hooked into a DJ mixer whose output would be connected to the Peachtree amplifier’s line-level input. The DJ would be under 30 years old. He would preferably be a she.
The Technics is featured because of its iconic status and its robust build quality. Moreover, it’s more instantly recognisable than any turntable from Pro-Ject or Rega and we don’t need to manually lift the platter and move the belt to change the spin speed from 33rpm to 45rpm and back again.
The neighbouring room would be a mirror image of this but with one significant difference: the vinyl rig would be swapped out for a digital front end. The Spatials would remain but replacing the nova300 comes another super-integrated with in-built phono stage and DAC – the Polaris from AURALiC. Why? Its internal Roon Ready network streamer.
Very good sounding playback software can be found via the most casual of Google searches. However, the likes of Audirvana+ and Amarra don’t do network streaming. JRiver does but it’s interface is a long way from being mass market ready – just ask Neil Young and Team Pono (who recently retired its use). Roon sounds great, handles network streaming and has the finest UI in all of audio land. It’s so intuitive in setup mode and in use that even your Mom could work it.
In this room, an Intel NUC, tucked away out of sight, would run Roon Core. Music selection and control would come from an iPad. For those wanting to go ultra-minimal and dispense with the NUC, demonstrations could cut over to the Polaris’ Lighting DS software platform with music pulled from Tidal or a hard drive connected to the AURALiC box’s rear panel.
Across the hallway, another super minimal rig: a rotating playlist of dub, reggae, Northern Soul and a little classical would, curated by KEF’s Global Brand Ambassador Johan Coorg but not presented by him, would spill from pair of LS50 Wireless fed by the Roon Ready Sonore microRendu. Once again the Roon Core would run on an Intel NUC hidden behind the curtain. More eager attendees would occasionally be invited to play something of their own from a smartphone via the LS50 Wireless’ Bluetooth input.
Coorg would only be called upon to direct proceedings and to show off how the KEF iOS/Android app can be used to ‘on-board’ and configure the LS50 Wireless according to the room’s size and acoustic make-up. I imagine this room to be like one of KEF’s lifestyle photo shoots: simple and uncluttered with mid-century modern furniture pieces channeling seasons one and two of Mad Men.
The Devialet Phantom running as a stereo pair have the ability to deliver bass depth and propulsion that rival what we might hear from a much larger floorstander. The Devialet however possess that indefinable cool factor. Disagree? Consider how the Devialet range is sold in high-end department stores the world over and your favourite floorstander is not.
The Phantom can also play really loud without signs of stress of strain. Like the aforementioned KEF LS50 Wireless, the electronics – amplifiers, D/A converters, digital crossover and network streamer – are built into the speaker cabinets. Unlike the active KEFs, the Phantom don’t call for a subwoofer in fleshing out the sound in the largest of rooms.
Running through the Phantoms, a strictly scheduled programme of classic albums starting at the top of each hour: What’s Going On, The White Album; London Calling; Hot Buttered Soul; OK Computer; Young Americans; The Chronic; Madvillainy; ().
The young folk from Vinyl Me, Please would be brought in to host the next room – a Shinola Runwell turntable; a microMega ONE amplifier and a pair of the Andrew Jones Uni-Fi F5 in their European slimline incarnation (of course) – and choose the music.
Or perhaps Team Vinyl Me, Please could do shifts with Alex from Metal-Fi. Of all the genres, metal is the most underrepresented in the audio scene.
Or perhaps Alex needs his own room with a pair of loudspeakers from Zu Audio* [see footnote 1] and a tube amplifier from G Lab Block (via Well Rounded Sound).
Heck, the Naim Muso would need a place to strut its stuff.
Relatability hinges (more than we’d like) on the age/gender/ethnicity of the people doing the selling. Almost impossible to relate to as a twenty-something is a group of middle aged white dudes huddled ’round fifty-thousand dollar loudspeakers playing Hotel California.
Younger guys and gals are more likely to buy audio gear from someone with whom they identify – that is, people just like them. [Sound] Quality is a secondary concern. Just look at Beats by Dre. Jack White is on a similar trajectory. Back to Tom Huizenga’s opera coverage for NPR:
“The opera’s themes of self-discovery, sexual orientation and the American Dream seem to resound even more loudly today than when the opera premiered in St. Louis in 2013. Perhaps as a result, audience members — straights and gays, many African-Americans, Hispanics and many young people — realized they would see characters who looked and acted like themselves on the stage.”
I’d assert that the headphone world is booming because a BYO approach to music is built into its design. You aren’t subjected to my audition music and its delivery format and I’m not subjected to yours. Music and format snobbery don’t get a look in.
This is where the Future-Fi Now dream might jump the shark for some readers. Enter Schiit Audio again. Their advertising slogan “For the music you own, not the music you have to buy” would help define the Future-Head-Fi component of this show.
Mainstreamers don’t want a second device for music playback. Pono proved that. Pono also showed that the mass market remains as yet unmoved by the music industry’s hi-res audio overtures. Furthermore, the man in the street does not want to hear that his new DAP might also require a third party strap-on amplifier.
That means Astell&Kern, FiiO, iBasso and Sony can all stay at home. Ditto Onkyo and Pioneer’s portable audio division.
Future-Head-Fi’s focus would be on smartphone add-ons, some of which work double duty as a USB DAC for a PC or Mac: AudioQuest’s DragonFlys and – for bigger spenders with (quite literally) larger pockets – the Mojo from Chord Electronics or iFi Audio’s Black Label micro iDSD.
Sony could demonstrate their Bose-spanking noise-cancelling headphones. The MDR-1000X sound great with iPhones – and not just a handful of aptX-capable ‘Droids – thanks to Sony’s inclusion of the AAC codec.
Master & Dynamic’s MW60 powered headphone might show how the pursuit of better sound can be successfully married to fashion. Ditto Sonus Faber’s passive Pryma.
Audeze would bring their Sine on-ears and iSine 10/20 IEMs, not only to talk about their in-house designed planar-magnetic driver tech but to show off the audible alacrity of their Apple Lightning-terminated Cipher cable whose in-line DAC/amp delivers sound quality that bests some high-end DAPs (like Sony’s NW-ZX2).
How about being able to hear first hand what increasing dollops of cash dropped on headphones gets you? Start with the HiFiMAN 400S before moving up to the Sennheiser HD650, then the MrSpeakers Ether Flow and finish with the HiFiMAN HE-1000. For this, we’d need every headphone playing from the same amplifier. Only one model does that and boy does it do it in style: ALO Audio’s retro-futurist Studio Six.
Future-Fi Now isn’t imagined to supplant traditional audio shows but to complement them. The hardware featured here has been selected to best channel the spirit of mainstream crossover potential whilst keeping unnecessary audiophile sideshows (MQA, digital vs analogue), snobbery (and its cousin, elitism) as well as the same old same old dudes and their music choices out of the picture.
One last time to NPR’s opera piece: “But what does it matter if the only folks in on the “discussion” are the same older, white audiences we usually see at the opera house?”
Similarly, what does it matter if the only folks in on the audio show conversation are the same middle-aged men we usually find at RMAF, AXPONA, Munich High-End or Hong Kong? Answer: it doesn’t…just as long as we lock away the desire to see a new generation of younger audiophiles, greater female participation and/or ethnic diversity.
The likes of Audeze, Sony, Chord Electronics, iFi Audio, AudioQuest, ALO Audio, Master&Dynamic, Shinola, KEF, Spatial, Devialet, Technics, Peachtree Audio, Zu Audio, G Lab Block, Roon, microMega, AURALiC and many more (not name-checked here) point to a different kind of future where diversity isn’t only good for the audiophile world’s longevity, it’s good for business.
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Footnote 1: Zu Audio are personal friends. Any professional impartiality with respect to their products is inherently compromised.