The Swarm

January 31, 2012

Sonic Satori: Dear Audiophile Industry, Please Advertise in Playboy!

Michael Mercer


Dear Audiophile Industry, Please Advertise in Playboy!

That request may sound ridiculous, but there’s actually sound reasoning behind it: let’s face it – the marketing of high-end audio needs to be sexier to consumers, period. While Playboy may not be the cultural juggernaut it was, at one point it was a tastemaker publication – filling a lifestyle void that Wired and The FADER attempt to fill today: one read Playboy not just for the articles (ahem) but for the ads between them. There was big money on display in those pages, and there continues to be in discerning publications. We’re talking fine timepieces from Rolex and Breitling, luxury automobiles like Cadillac and Mercedes, and leading-edge technology companies like Acer, Apple, and Lenovo. What are these companies selling when they showcase Leonardo DiCaprio sporting a TAG Heuer watch? They are selling lifestyle. They are justifying your desire to buy these things that nobody really needs. They are saying to you that your unbearable grind does in fact earn much-needed rewards.



Now, this may all seem materialistic, but it’s the truth. Sure, you may not need a new Rolex or another Patek Philippe watch, but wearing them makes you feel like a champion. It’s not the thing itself, but what it represents that’s so appealing. It’s the ability to say that “I got some cake too, Jack, so I’m going to enrich my life with gadgetry and accoutrements.” Does it speak to our humanity? Who gives a shit? Bottom line: these magazines and the products advertised in their pages speak to everybody, rich or poor. They set goals for us whether we like it or not. They set the bar, and many of us spend our lives trying to reach it – or rise above it.

What does this have to do with the audiophile industry? Somewhere along the line, hi-fi lost its way. High-quality stereos used to be considered lifestyle products as well! In the ‘80s – and I’m sure in the ‘60s and ‘70s as well – you saw ads for stereo equipment in all sorts of magazines and periodicals. I remember seeing these ads for hi-fi and video components in Playboy magazine when I stayed at my dad’s place every other weekend. As I said in a recent article in Positive Feedback: I was just a kid, looking for those thought-provoking editorials. I remember two-page color spreads advertising huge TV consoles and the brand new “VTR” machines (yeah, that makes me feel old; it is what it is). The marketing minds behind these ads were creative: they figured out a way to present the components as high-value items while humanizing the interface experience.

I remember a very specific ad for an Aiwa CD player that exemplified this pursuit; it was very catchy, verbally and visually. The ad featured a CD player with its transport open, and huge text screaming “Say Ahhh!” Brilliant. I wasn’t even a teenager, and yet I wanted one (or at least I wanted my dad to go out and buy one). Stereo equipment was something you bought to enrich your life – just like hand-rolled cigars or watches, motorcycles or sports cars: it was all about success, and the progression of man’s universal drive to innovate. Yes, innovation was also at the heart of many of these marketing campaigns – like going to the moon, or capturing a moment in your families life forever on magnetic tape and playing it back on your television screen.

So what happened? Many of these other fine products still remain at the center of the widely proliferated notion that success equals more stuff. Let us never forget the slogan of a popular ‘80s bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Somehow the audiophile industry morphed into such a niche for only the self-chosen few: Not only did the average consumer who reads all the popular magazines become completely disconnected from the whole experience of high-performance audio, but also from larger, consumer-level lines like Sony and Panasonic that became what audiophiles referred to as “mid-fi” or “entry level.” Those brands no longer represented the state of the art for many hi-fi enthusiasts, and so the audiophile community broke from the masses, and that separation has only grown over time. One result of this split is limited sources for information about high-quality audio. Dedicated hi-fi journals like Hi-Fi News & Record Review, Stereophile, and The Absolute Sound became the only resources for information on state-of-the-art stereo equipment. Hi-fi became a hobby; as the hobby became increasingly exclusive and expensive, it also became less and less attainable. Did you know there is speaker cable out there that costs $10,000 a meter?



There was another strange phenomenon occurring during all of this. Prices were skyrocketing, but the innovation behind the high costs seemed to stagnate. When you need to have a trained ear in order to tell the performance differences between a five-thousand dollar CD transport and DAC (a two-piece CD playback system) and an one-thousand dollar CD player (your standard-issue one box solution), the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and you’ve lost your ability to grow. With that mentality, newcomers began to feel alienated the moment they stepped into the retail environment! Ever try going to a high-end audio store wearing a pair of flip-flops, faded t-shirt, and shorts, and then discover you’re getting the cold shoulder from the salesman? You’re not alone. For years, audiophiles have been telling average consumers that what they have at home is not good enough (hence the popular audiophile catch-phrase: “no highs, no lows, it must be Bose”) and that the buy-in to musical nirvana was far beyond the reach of the mere commoner. Well, karma is indeed a bitch, and the hi-fi industry has been paying dearly for these alienating and polarizing behaviors for years.

However, never before has this industry had access to a host of universal products with specific focal points that everybody can instantly relate to. Say what you want about the iPod, but it sparked a cultural revolution, one that made the Walkman seem like a blip on the pop-culture radar screen. You can traverse the globe, and in most every country you will find a person walking around, earbuds blaring, with an iPhone, iPod, iPad, Kindle Fire or other similar device in their pocket or backpack. And what is the most essential mechanism behind those listening experiences? The products that allow them to not only hear all the wonderful music they’re spent years discovering, but also the components that help them store and catalog all that wonderful music. The battle is half-over. The potential customer already has the most important part of their stereo system: the source!

This is the light at the end of the audiophile tunnel: Headphones and computers (iDevices and Androids are just smaller computers) are the accessible entry point. Almost everybody owns a pair of headphones – either they’re using them w/ their iPhone/Android, or they have a Bluetooth headset, or iPod earbuds. A big problem that high-end audio has is when you introduce somebody to great stereo sound during a demonstration, say, many consumers don’t have a reference point. When they hear a killer stereo, it might sound good to them, but if they don’t have a system at home, they don’t have a barometer for which to measure just how good, and whether it’s worth the investment. It’s difficult to justify buying something if you don’t experience the impact, the value, the thing that makes you say “Wow, I need that.” With better quality headphones, headphone amplifiers, and DACs (digital-to-analog converters) we have the ability to show people differences in quality through components that are familiar. Look at all those white earbuds out there! That’s vital: being able to show somebody they can improve the performance of something they already own, which enhances its value. Now you can say “bring in your headphones or iPod, and we’ll show you just how much better the sound can be.”



An example of higher-quality in-ear headphones is the Etymotic hf3 (I’ll be doing a full review on this model soon). Etymotic actually invented the in-ear headphone in 1984, and that experience allows for a lot of value for the money. The hf3 costs just $179.00, and the cans have a sweet midrange, where most of music lives. They also make a great seal, and provide different tips for varying ear shapes, which is crucial for proper bass response. An example of a great over-the-ear headphone is the Sennheiser HD-25–1 II, which costs anywhere from $180.00 to $250.00 online. They are light, and isolate sounds very well without the aid of a powered mechanism. These are very popular with DJ’s around the world, and I use them to spin as well. They are also highly recommended by Jude Mansilla, founder of Head-fi.org, an authority on headphone quality.

Now, it’s difficult to discern what your headphone is actually doing or not doing without a proper headphone amplifier and DAC (digital-to-analog converter). Thankfully, with the advent of all these portable music devices, there is an explosion of new products in the headphone-listening community/industry. Think of a headphone amplifier like a power amp in your stereo system. The amp powers your speakers, and a headphone amp does the same for your headphones. A solid choice would be the Headroom Total Bithead (which I previously reviewed here). This model can run off your computer or four AA batteries, making it perfect for travel; as well, the Total Bithead sounds far better than it should for the money. I’ve put it up against headphone amplifiers costing twice as much, and it smoked them. Good sources for information on these products are Head-fi.org and a great review site called Headfonia.com.

Another important component in the headphone listening chain is the DAC (digital-to-analog converter). If you’ve ever owned a CD player, then you’ve been listening to the DAC inside that player for years. This is a crucial element, as it transfers the digital bits to analog so we can interpret the sound as music. Many companies are combining DACs and headphone amps into one product; the Headroom Total Bithead mentioned above is also a DAC, for example. USB DACs are becoming increasingly popular, as they can be connected to your computer (and sometimes your iPad, iPod or iPhone). You can find them on audio retail sites like Audio Advisor and Music Direct, or Amazon.

One example of an affordable USB DAC/headphone amplifier is the Audioengine D1 (full review coming soon). The D1 is small, stylish, and sounds terrific, with a suggested retail price of $169.00. There are loads of these types of products out there. In order to direct people to components like the ones mentioned above the hi-fi industry needs to get back to basics, showing people how to improve the performance of their personal systems through gear that interfaces with products they already own. People get to know their favorite gadgets like they get to know their best friends, so hi-fi companies need to show them they can have so much more in terms of sound quality, and they can have it without breaking the bank. This is another key factor: a major obstacle that’s been standing in the way of achieving great sound is the cost of entry, which has been crushed. You can buy a decent playback system today for a fraction of what it would have cost you five or six years ago. That is not to say that there aren’t still high-dollar components that are something to aspire to, but finally we have the ability to get somebody excited about sound quality without telling them they need to mortgage their house in order to have it. That is a huge breakthrough for the audiophile community.

People respond to quality sound when you present it with enthusiasm and passion. You also need to pay attention to what the potential customer is listening to: if you want to turn an eighteen-year-old kid onto a better quality stereo, odds are they aren’t looking to hear the twelfth re-pressing of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Ask them what they are listening to, and use their favorite music in your demonstrations. I’ve turned more young people onto hi-fi in the last five or so years than I ever have. How do I do this? I found out what they use, and what music they listen to. Then I take their iPods and computers, and play them back using simple tools like better headphones, headphone amplifiers, USB DACs, and other accessories that are easily installed and operated. Once they hear their favorite band in a way they didn’t think was possible – with proper timbre and imaging, not to mention better dynamics – they won’t be able to turn back.

The other side of this is the audiophile industry needs to recognize the fact that potential new customers are not all reading hi-fi magazines and websites. What gets you into better sound in the first place? Usually it starts with the music. Music addicts are reading mags like Filter, The FADER (check the Sonos ads in these two magazines for examples of forward-thinking marketing by the way – bravo, Sonos!), and other publications/websites like Rolling Stone, Under the Radar, Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, Gorilla Vs Bear, and Mojo. And yes, some of them are also still reading Maxim and Playboy. The lesson? Think outside the speaker box you’ve encased yourselves in. Go to where the music is, where listeners’ earbuds are, and show them there is such a thing as sonic integrity. Check out websites like Head-fi.org (now the world’s largest audio site, currently getting over 1.2 million unique visitors a month) and see what the users are talking about.



Often they’re talking about the Beats by Dr. Dre phenomenon, and frequently negatively. Quality issues aside, the success of the Beats line provided a great lesson for the audiophile industry – and one it’s still catching up with. Beats took a product that was already in the hands of millions of users, made a slicker, more expensive version, and then attached a big name artist to the brand in order to increase it’s visibility. Think what we want about Beats headphones, but how many of them do you see out there, around the necks of kids and adults, regular consumers, and celebrities?

I’m not saying that paying a star to pimp your brand or that advertising in lifestyle magazines are the only ways to grow your company. These are examples, however, of ways to reach an audience that the high-end audio industry is missing. There are other ways as well, like setting up a booth at a music festival (think of all the open-minded music fans that attend Coachella) or host events at local hi-fi shops and record stores, and ask the customers to bring their friends and families. The world of commerce has changed drastically in the last decade, so the old models just don’t work anymore; people need to experience the difference and feel the product they’re investing in is cool.

Now, at 37 years of age I’ve done nothing but work in high-end audio and the music industry my whole life, and I can say with great confidence this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. Millions of people are listening to and consuming music at a pace never before imagined. The greatest thing about all this is we can show them they don’t have to settle for shit anymore. They can have systems that are easy to use, high on the convenience factor, and even look good – again, Sonos is a great example here. Yes, many hi-fi companies are also starting to pay attention to design! The days of the ugly big boxes are starting to fade (though I’m sure they’ll never completely disappear). So, are you going to be part of the solution, or continue to be an elitist snob? The potential customers are out there: I see kids wearing $300.00 headphones everyday. Don’t you think they would spend money on better quality hi-fi gear if they knew it would enhance the way they experience their favorite music? I think they would. All we have to do is show them the possibilities, and we’re not going to do that if we expect them to come to us. We have to take it to them. Why can’t we all just get along? Or rather, “Why can’t we all just get along without $10,000 speaker cable?”




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