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What Happened To HiFi?

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The Rantings of an Old Audiophile

I guess it’s time for me to retire. Not because I am old, or because I am tired of being in Audio Sales, I’m not; but maybe it’s time because the industry is just falling apart. Let me explain.

There was a time, let’s call it the 60s and 70s during which time if you wanted to listen to music in your home, you would go to an Audio Specialty Store. Sure, you could go to a department store and find an RCA, Electrophonic, or some other piece of crap but musically they were just terrible, and what’s even worse is they were of poor quality from the transistors to the turntable to the speakers.

If you wanted a good system, you would go to your local HiFi Store. There, you would find a collection of High Fidelity equipment ranging from compact stereo systems from companies like Fisher, Harman/Kardon, KLH, Kenwood and Sony which actually qualified as good quality sound at the low end to very finest available at the time.

The first store I was introduced to back in the 60s was Emmons Audio in Studio City, California. It was located close to Burbank Studios, the heart of the film and TV industry. They sold lines like McIntosh, Bozak, JBL, Dual, Thorens, and more. At the time Emmons was considered one of the best dealers in the Los Angeles area.

The store was run by Jean Emmons in the front and her husband in the shop. It was Jean who sold me my first real stereo system. It was a used system, but it opened a door that has not shut to this day. The system included a Kenwood KT-10 (what I remember as Kenwood’s first transistor AM/FM stereo receiver), a Dual 1009SK record changer with Shure M55E cartridge and a pair of KLH 17 speakers. I actually kept the speakers for a long time and when I sold them some twelve years later, I actually made money on them. Come to think of it, I think I made money on all of the used gear. What the KLH ignited in me sparked my entrepreneurial nature and within a few months I was buying and selling used audio gear.

That was the week I discovered I could actually hear music and tell the difference between what sounded like music and what didn’t. It took me two weeks to realize I didn’t like the sound of the Shure cartridge and I quickly replaced it with a Stanton 681EE. What an amazing improvement in sound.

But I digress. The point is, if you went to just about any good HiFi store back then, you would meet and talk to a professional. I stress that title, because today, finding a professional in a place that sells audio equipment is getting to be damn near impossible. I would often visit stores like Stereo Mart, or Woodland Stereo, and just talk about the gear and what works best with what. They knew about cartridge interactions with tonearms. They could explain the differences in amplifier or speaker design. You could sit and listen to music and actually hear what they were describing to me.

Can you imagine being able to find a salesman, who actually understands and can explain the difference between IM and Harmonic Distortion? Or what is square wave rise time and slew rate? How about how an electrostatic speaker works compared to a ribbon or dynamic speaker? In short, one who understands and could explain the technology of electronics.

As it turns out, I spent so much time at Stereo Mart that the manager decided to put me to work. I was young and stupid at the time and was delighted just to be there, and oh yeah, I did it without being paid. Today they call that being an apprentice. It was worth it, because Glenn Yingling (the manager) became my mentor, and I got to meet people like Saul Marantz, Stu Hegeman, Joe Grado, Rudy Bozak, and Paul Klipsch to name but a few.

Back then it wasn’t unusual for the industry founders to actually go to a store for a visit. These industry greats where who I refer to as the First Genners. Meaning they where the very first generation of engineers and inventors that started the HiFi business. Over the years I had the pleasure and privilege of being on a first name basis with many of these industry pioneers. I am what I call one of the Second Genners, who consist of engineers like Mark Levinson, Richard Vandersteen, Carl Marchisotto, John Dahlquist and the Bedini Brothers, plus reviewers like the late great Harry Pearson. Also, most of the top executives for all the major Audio and Video companies are part of this group.

It was from this start that I learned the basics, and eventually over many, many years pretty much everything else audio related. The point is that what started as an interest grew into a hobby, and ultimately into a passion and a lifelong career.

Along the way I was able to share my knowledge with many employees and friends. I have trained a lot of professionals. At least by the time they moved on within the industry they became audio professionals. Some became HiFi store managers and owners, others went to work for factories as trainers and executives, and even one of my Padawans created and runs one of the world’s highly respected audio review sites.

I am also happy to say that over this last 48 years I have helped tens of thousands of HiFi enthusiasts to better understand what they are buying and listening to. So I can say I have been very lucky with my career. I have gone to work, spent my days talking about my hobby, listening to music and managing to make a living. But things are changing.

I guess what I am saying is I have become obsolete. Maybe people today don’t want to know the difference between a moving magnet and a moving coil cartridge or how to properly position their speakers in their room to achieve the best image and stage within the music.

Today, the vast majority of the buying public seems to be satisfied walking into a Big Box store and getting anything from vaguely accurate to downright misinformation. It’s not that the salesmen are trying to lie to you, it’s just ignorance about the technology.

As an example, a few years ago Best Buy shut down their local branch of Magnolia HiFi. Then about a year later re-opened it inside the Best Buy store. What I now call Best Buy Guys with Ties. When both McIntosh and Martin Logan sent their factory regional mangers to train the new hires for Magnolia, both men stopped to visit me after their ordeal. What I found interesting is both men said exactly the same comment about the training: That it  was like they were training salespeople who looked like “deer in the head lights!” In short, 80% of what they were teaching went right over the heads of these salespeople.

I think it comes down to passion for the hobby. I am afraid that there aren’t enough people coming up in the industry who love the hobby and love listening to music and are willing to be underpaid doing it.

 

What happens next?

I’m not sure. With the development of new technologies that are directed at people that want music in their home, but are not necessarily interested in how good it sounds, high quality performance isn’t important. Additionally, this type of product doesn’t require any expertise to describe or install.

The first product like this was introduced in the 1980s when the phono cartridge industry developed the P mount cartridge. Up until then if you wanted to properly match a cartridge to a turntable, you needed to know the mass of the arm and the compliance of the cartridge and what goes with what. But as stores like Pacific Stereo and Circuit City were hiring salespeople without the required training, and turntables were still the major source of music, something had to be done. The answer is taking the guesswork out of the equation. All P mount cartridges are the same weight, have the same compliance and are the same size and geometry, plus since it’s plug-in you don’t need to know where the wires connect. So any turntable designed to use a P mount cartridge accepts any P mount regardless of the manufacture. Furthermore, turntable manufacturers can take the adjustments out of the hands of the buyer by presetting the weight, overhand and anti-skate. The result is there is no need for a professional.

My fear is this type of design has and will continue to proliferate throughout the industry. I see a continued expansion of the low end of the market at the expense of the High End. This in not to say that the Audiophile market will disappear, but like any endangered species the illusive audiophile is harder and harder to find, and even worst, the now nearly extinct Audio Professional Salesperson.

 

Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden

We would also like to thank readers Dan Rubin and Russel Dawkins for providing additional editorial insights. – Publisher, 12/20/2016.

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21 Responses to What Happened To HiFi?


  1. Andy says:

    Magnolia at Best Buy has no idea how to demo speakers. I was disappointed with their demo of B&W speakers here in suburban Detroit, Michigan. The salesman also mistook me for a married guy…

  2. Michael Graw says:

    In the age of radio and Grammophone it was the quality of sound that was important. In the era of video, tv and home cinema it is the visual appearance that dominate things. Who cares about the number of computers and servo motors built into a modern car? Who cares about the internal component in a Tablet PCS, smartphone or desktop computer? Things just have to work as promised. The art of marketing is to make the consumer believe that every new product is better and innovative. The consumer who only believes in marketing messages fools himself.

  3. Marty Leamon says:

    Great article. I am grateful that in the Milwaukee area we have a great hi-fi store in UltraFidelis. I can stop in to talk about whatever hi-fi topic I want and they have an answer or will find one. When friends want to know why I only deal with them when I buy new equipment that is one of the main reasons.
    So don’t write off all of the brick and mortar stores. The good ones are worth the effort to find.

  4. Rusty Miller says:

    I’m a little younger, at 40, and I always identified the proliferation of multichannel audio as the Beginning of the End. Home theater in a box: a $150 solution from Wal-Mart with so many speakers features that you forget to even CARE about how the damn thing sounds.

    But I like your commentary on the P Mount — that was just before I gained awareness of audio.

  5. What a wonderful article. Our paths are very similar Marc.

    I started at Ametron in Hollywood when I was 13 – worked there for years and went on to work (and later own) Woodland Stereo.

    I visited Jonas Miller Sound to talk to Jonas and learn from Ken Kreisel. Those were The Days. It was fun and exciting – and the people I met were super cool also.

    Time has marched on – but I remember some of those early lessons. Louis Berkman (and owner Eli Harari at Paris Audio where fountains of information. Louis invited me to his home in Beverly Hills to hear some Magnepans – I almost wet my pants when Joni Mitchell’s voice appeared between those panels.

    Those were the days…

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane…

    Best wishes,

    Mark

  6. SS says:

    HiFi is doing fine. On the one hand you have people who just want to listen to music and not obsess over the equipment that brings it to them.

    On the other, you have the typical frAudiophile™ who wants to strain at a digital bit and swallow the snake oil.

    The former enjoys life and the soundtrack that their music brings to them. The latter? They’re too busy putting M&Ms on the corners of their speakers and still coloring the edges of their CD collection with a green marker to be bothered with fun.

    It’s all about the music and the memories we associate with it.

    SS

  7. BradleyP says:

    Lots of industries are disintegrating in similar fashion. When there are no more professionals left doing much of anything, then who will have the money to buy this stuff apart from the rich men on the coasts who shuffle money around for a living? Oh, and the rest of the world, which apparently still cares about good audio.

  8. Robert G. Raynor, Jr. says:

    As a 62 year old ex-audio consultant, I can tell you that the only reason the audio industry is doing bad is that when music and music appreciation was eliminated from public schools, young people did not know music appreciation. From this came rap and hip hop. This music is primarily driven by computer generated sound (noise) not real instruments. You do not need fidelity for this kind of sound so younger people have no appreciation for accurate sound. This affects the hi fi industry as far as sales.

    • Sheldon says:

      To RGRj,
      I couldn’t disagree more.
      I’m 55, listen to jazz, electronic, rock, alternative, rap and hip hop and I think there’s brilliant music being made in ALL of these genres today, and much of it is being made, undoubtedly, by those younger people with “no appreciation for accurate sound.”
      In my humble opinion, we’re in a golden age of music creation, largely due to the erosion of the power of the record label’s ability to control/decide what we hear and from whom, while at the same time, we’re in a golden age of sound, where there’s an incredibly wide variety of good quality audio equipment at affordable prices that makes great playback sound quality incredibly accessible.
      Like many of us, I’m sorry to see the erosion of bricks and mortar audio shoppes but frankly my experiences in said shoppes was typically enjoyable despite the “audio consultant” rather than because of them.
      On the other hand, to each his own and best wishes for a wonderful holiday season to all!
      Sheldon

      • Robert G. Raynor, Jr. says:

        Thankfully, you are an exception. But, as being a little older than you, my perception is different. When rap came on the scene, it did not require accurate sounding equipment. In fact, it did not require too much fidelity. I was a disc jockey during the transitioning from funk/disco to rap. Rap did not contain much musical instruments. In fact, many of the younger folks don’t know how to play instruments. They could care less about fidelity, stereo imaging and the like. In any event, when rap dominated the music scene, I got out the business, but maintained being an audiophile. By the way, have you listened to a rap and/or hip hop station lately. Its intolerable to listen to for more than a few seconds.

      • Marc silver says:

        Granted there is a boom in music. Some of which is amazing, but also, along with the freedom of self promotion comes a plethora of no talent hack musician whose parents didn’t have the good sense to crush the dreams of their no talent children. I guess we have to accept the good with the bad. My emphasis is more on the reproduction of music (good or bad) and not the music itself. Where does one go for professional help and what do they buy. But thanks for your comment.

  9. David Spella says:

    Marc,
    Great commentary.
    But, much sour grapes lamenting the loss of the retail Audio Professional Salesperson.
    Yes. The retail Hi-Fi environment has both changed and remained the same.
    You lament that there is a lack of technical expertise in the “big box” stores. Was there ever, even in the heydays of the hobby?
    And how does a burgeoning audiophile become educated these days? By a local b&m? Sure. But, of course there is so much more availability of information than existed back then. And this DAGOGO website is a great representative. The internet gifts us with a plethora sources through webzenes, blogs and manufacturer sites. Technical discussions are plentiful.
    But what then? How might an audiophile HEAR equipment? Once again, there remains, yet, the best retailers who provide a multitude of “value added” services, not the least of which is demo-ing equipment.
    Considering myself an audiophile of over 30 years, I don’t consider myself alone when I say I’m not as concerned with the “why”. Rather, the “what”. What does it sound like?
    The popularity of audio shows is evidence that consumers want to hear the vast possibilities of Hi-Fi .
    Putting aside the multiple challenges associated with temporary setups for a three day show, I found my “end ” speakers and amplifier at AXPONA. How? Not by knowing the technical details of high efficiency horns or SET amps, but how they SOUNDED. Magical. And, by the way, the manufacturers of both of those pieces cannot afford to sell through retailers. They sell direct.
    I might also suggest that the Hi-Fi world is more healthy than might appear.
    But enough.
    Thank you for a stimulating article.
    Dave

  10. Steve Dougherty says:

    Hi,, Im surprised you’d ask the question “what happened to hi fi” when you inadvertently answered it in advance in your Dec 14th article about the Nordost cables. What happened to Hi Fi is when we got away from honest value and started singing the praises of $20,000 interconnects. I have heard several and I’m mean several cables that better what Nordost offers for a mere fraction of the price. The moment that audio writers started to validate the Nordost type product we also validated any emperor that wants to stand before us with no clothes on. We have gotten to the point that if you charge a ridiculous price then it must be good, and you sire have validated that point by writing your Dec 14th article. I’ve have been in rooms in CES where the maker of a overly valued audio accessory will proclaim that “you aren’t serious about Hi Fi if you don’t use his product”. Such shameless lack of integrity if what happened to Hi Fi. Your self and others would be helpful to shun the clothless emperors, call a spade a spade and lead the consumer to, God forbid, a soldering iron and DIY cables, many of which will best the Nordost product. Hi Fi in its purest form is making music fun to listen to, however the consumer want to do that, it is not providing dishonest value to consumers. That is just lining someones pocket and nothing to do with music.

  11. Leo Jacob says:

    Great article! It’s not just the P-Mount. I think hi-fi (for some people) is buying speakers, amps and digital sources, connecting them together, running something like Dirac to set the levels… and that’s it! No need to understand any of the technology involved.

    A percentage of people who do this will want to learn what happens when you position speakers by ear, change amps, switch to LP’s, etc. If that percentage is very small, then hi-fi may go back to the days that predated the 1st Genners – when we used to make our own gear in garages and basements. So it may be the hi-fi companies that are now obsolete.

  12. gimemorebass says:

    Well I am not going to blame the workers on the problem with HiFi. When I worked for Sound Track in Colorado, a major player, we initially sold some good products. Vinyl was king. Then came the ” house speaker ” to add margin to our sales. So as a sales person we lost our soul. Fast forward 45 years and I have my own shop in my home, that means no worries about sky high rent. No house brands here. just the most advanced products I can lay my hands on that are not obscenely priced. High margin ” house brands ” have gone stealth. You may think your are purchasing a very high end speaker, but some are simply the old three drivers in an MDF box.
    After being out of the business for thirty years I opened my shop. So difficult to separate the wheat from the chafe. Lots of chafe. So many speakers did not improve on those from thirty years ago. Oh sure drivers had gotten better but they were still stuck in that MDF box. I really had to look hard to find high quality speakers.

    Shouldn’t the reviewers be leading the charge for this? Don’t let me review products or all %$^ will break loose.

    Don’t blame the salesmen. Most I know can set up a turntable.

  13. Wim says:

    I’m a 62 year old HiFi Consultant/Salesman who got out of the industry around 10 years after I saw the first consumer come into the shop wit a laptop. The decline started and I lost the zest for it.
    Now I’ve retired and HiFi is still one of my hobbies but minus the Digital side of things.

  14. peter jasz says:

    Hey Marc: Nostalgia often outwits reality. The 1960’s/70’s equipment (and salesmen) were anything but seasoned pro’s. In reality, both were learning in a hit-and-miss fashion. With my 35-year association in the business, I can call upon so called industry “experts” that couldn’t even tell if their speakers were out-of-phase ! One gentleman, a co-owner of a very-well known Canadian loudspeaker brand. The other, a gentleman who owns/runs a Ultra-high-fidelity distributorship.

    The P-Mount idea was excellent for those who had non-audiophile aspirations. There remained premium tables, arms cartridges that required some skill to assemble/set-up.

    Your assertion that knowing about “slew-rate”, “IM & Harmonic Distortion (I assume you are referring to Inter-Modulation Distortion –IMD and Total Harmonic Distortion –THD?) Regardless, it’s would be foolish to assume superior specifications results in better sounding equipment.

    Beginning in the 1980’s, some progress was being made, and by the turn-of-the-century, every aspect of audio equipment improved significantly –particularly the higher-end stuff. Today? The equipment is light years ahead of 1st/2nd gen. (1960-1990) gear.

    Who would have thought the simple AC power cord could impact a components power-supply so significantly –resulting in stunning, night/day difference in tonality, definition and overall sound-quality ?

    The fact that there are a plethora of new makes & models of equipment today, many with exorbitant prices, suggests there is a market out there. A Toyota Corolla will always outsell Porsche, yet both remain available. Take your pick.

    The fact that consumes can research an item (in great detail) from the Net, and of course pricing, the fabled “experienced” salesman is all but a distant relic. The fact is, there are, truly capable, bright and experienced Hi-Fi experts out there, but they are few and far between.

    If manufacturer’s would respect the brick/mortar dealer with far more respect and support, there would remain some excellent Hi-Fi shops. As it is, you either buy new from a store, or search the Internet for information –and purchase. Why anyone would fork over thousands-of-dollars without seeing, touching and/or listening to audio gear is remarkable.

    We will see a “new” retail landscape in the near future. The old model is failing. It’s time for a fresh rethink. In the mean time, let’s pay tribute the past for what is was, and enjoy some of the great equipment available today.

    Happy Listening,

    peter jasz

  15. Timmo says:

    I’ll tell you what happened to high fi…
    The stupid ..absurd prices of components now !!! Duh…!!!
    When you could have a home and a Porsche 911 for less than some of these systems…
    The conversation is moot…

  16. Dan Midcap says:

    I spent 10 or so years in the higher end retail audio in Tucson . I fell in love with recreating music that was true to its sound. Magnapan was a major contributed to this. Offer free tickets to concerts of your choice. I also loved B&O and own their products. Educationting with out preaching was fundamental. Of course this was 80’s & early 90’s. I went on to custom home design & installation. Did the first Sony DST systems etc. Now its all subs and surround sound not recreating. Too bad.

  17. Tim says:

    Interesting article and perspective; thank you for sharing it. I can say that some of this has been coming about at least since the late 1980s. At the time I was a musician and audio engineer and had returned to my home city after some time trying to break into the industry in larger ones. Looking for some steady income I answered an ad asking for salespeople at the best known local chain in the area. And and a group of other hopefuls were as an audience when the company’s general manager walked in, stood before us and shouted, “Welcome! We sell toys to rich men!” Shortly later in the one-on-ones I was told that my background would most likely be a hindrance, as I would have likely develop strong opinions on certain products and brands, especially concerning some of their largest sellers. I couldn’t disagree with them on that. So I walked outside into the frigid air a bit more jaded and wiser.

    As an addendum I found a job as a mastering engineer and returned to school for another degree. I also found a good local shop that was happy to help me put together a good but modestly priced system. I thought I’d return someday when I had the financial means for some of the equipment which wowed me, but by the time that day came the shop–and some of the manufacturers–were gone.

  18. Bill Baker says:

    I.ike the anology about the Toyota and Porsche. Spot on. High end audio will always be around and the price points will continue to be all over the map. However, I do beleive there will always be a market for everything ranging from the most basic Toyota Corolla to the most exotic Lamborghini. Any manufacturer that expects to sell 1000 pieces of a $100K amplifier every year is just as delusional as a car dealer expecting to sell 100 Lamborghinis every month…..but they will always be available.
    There are a lot of reasons we can come up with for what is happening in the industry but in the end, I feel it has more to do with the direction society itself has taken. Its far too fast paced. People no longer know how (or maybe cant afford) to step back, take a deep breath and enjoy the music.
    Even I got caught up in the high pace, never restimg lifestyle but now have come back to reality. What good is living life if you’re not enjoying it. I think society would be much happier if tbey brought music back i to their lives.

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