How Hi-Fi has changed (Hi-Fi+ issue 100)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

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The interest in post-CD music replay solutions varies from country to country. In the US and UK, for example, CD player sales are dropping by between 25%-40% year on year (because so many people are now turning to computer-DAC or streaming solutions), but in China (where computer audio is still rare) sales of CD and CD/SACD players are still buoyant. This can lead to large and complex product catalogues, in order to meet the demands of different parts of the world.

The vinyl frontier

A recent reaction to the shift to file-based audio has been a return in interest in all things vinyl. Sales of new turntables have increased by as much as 50% per annum in recent years and is looking set to stay buoyant for some years. While this interest is largely directed at the lower and second-hand ends of the market, latest indicators suggest that – just as audiophiles started small and built up their systems over time – the newly minted vinylphiles are beginning to look beyond their Pro-Ject Debuts, Rega RP1s and trusty old Pioneer PL-12Ds and at more up-market turntables.

The economic forces are fairly easy to document. Until 2008, the audio world was close to a continuum; there was an entry-level, a mid-price, an upper echelon and a millionaire’s club. It had been that way for decades. And, while there are still products that fill all those categories, the level of interest in some of those categories has changed significantly. The entry level has always been dominated by the price of individual components, but this has become an overarching concern as the economic turmoil began to bite. However, in line with that well-documented ‘squeezed middle’, interest and activity in the mid-price market has been weak in the years following 2008. Things pick up as the price rises, however; although the market for top-end products is small, it is steady and savage recent economic forces seemingly have less of an effect. As to the millionaire’s market… well, there seems to be no upper limit to the spending power of the exceptionally well-heeled, despite the recent financial maelstrom. We’ve been constantly surprised that in the high-stakes poker game the audio industry seems to be playing, no-one has folded… yet.

Fortunately, as the world begins to recover, there are signs of new growth in the value end of the audio market once more. The recent flourishing of new, hungry brands with high-performance without high-cost has begun the process of transforming the lower to middle ends of the market. We’ve already seen some of these products in print – brands like Just Audio ably demonstrate a commitment to performance that is every bit as strong as from existing brands that supply products costing 100x more than Justin’s fantastic little headphone amps.

Small world

It’s impossible to extract the influence of geopolitics on audio’s recent past. Although throughout the 1990s, famous names in the audio business were being bought up at knock-down prices by wealthy Chinese businessmen, and manufacture was increasingly moving to the East, the overall market was still principally designing products for Western buyers; the design, implementation and sticker prices of these products were filtered through the tastes and pockets of enthusiasts in the West. That has changed significantly of late, but whether that change is a temporary one (reflecting the shift in financial clout from West to East in the wake of the economic turmoil of recent years) or reflects a more fundamental change in tastes and trends across the planet is hard to detect.

The reaction to this in the West, has been to create a curious and relatively recent return to the fractured and parochial nature of the audio market as it was 30 years ago. Walk into an audio store in the UK today and – chances are – you’ll be faced with products from Linn, Naim or Rega. Do the same in Germany and you’ll see Burmester, ELAC and Transrotor, while in the US, you’ll find Audio Research, Wilson and VPI. Fortunately, scratch the surface and you’ll find dealers who are more receptive to a global view, and in some respects ‘twas ever thus, but despite living in a truly connected world, it remains difficult to find a retailer in the West that rises above this kind of parochialism.

The dealer space itself has changed inexorably, both for the better and for the worse. Dealers have declined in numbers fairly significantly (although this varies from country to country), although there have also been exciting newcomers into the fold too. There are still hold-outs; companies that established store policies in the 1970s or 1980s and see little interest in changing. “If it worked then, it will work now!” seems to be the (deeply flawed) maxim at such places. But for the most part, retailers surviving – and, in some cases, thriving – in 2013 have become more encompassing of change and are actively providing a service, over and above simply processing orders. I have to declare my own interests here: I have been the chair of a new industry body known as The Clarity Alliance since its foundation a year ago. Among the goals of this alliance of audio trades is the attempt to drag the audio industry – sometimes kicking and screaming – into the 21st Century.

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