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The Future of Audiophile Systems Explained In Explicit, Painful Detail

by Jerry Del Colliano November 02, 2020
Future of Audio

Future of Audio

Audioholics.com owner Gene DelaSala and I have known each other for decades as competitors, but it wasn’t until I learned that he contracted COVID-19 that we got to talking on a more personal level. He was kind enough to send his congratulations to me for selling HomeTheaterReview.com (as well as AVRev.com, back in 2008), which I always viewed as a classy gesture. When I heard that Gene was sick with this insidious virus, I reached out and, thankfully, he was well on his way to what looks like a full and complete recovery. The buffed-out photo that he sent from the gym in Florida a few nights ago helps make my case. In a number of conversations we had this spring, we were able to brainstorm some new ideas for his publication, his pending new Smarthome, and beyond. One theme that was simply unavoidable was: no matter how good the specialty AV publication business has been over the past twenty-five years to both of us, things were going to be different, very, very different going forward, and that might be tough for an audience that isn’t big on change.

I have hammered in millions of keystrokes in the past talking about how the demographics of audiophiles are getting old – and getting old fast. The hobby of collecting stereo gear and displaying it in a way that looks like Motley Crue just finished an all-night recording session in your living room is one of the key reasons that the male-female demographic leans almost (as close as you can get to) 100 percent male. Circling back to age, one of my former readers who is a physician in Arkansas asked me an interesting question. “Are there any people in the audiophile hobby younger than us [currently in our mid-forties]?” Perhaps there are, but not in any volume that can sustain the way things are or have been – with the “have been” being way too important part of the hobby for far too long. Boomer hobbyists, executives and retailers don’t want to accept this concept, but it is true.

Going a level deeper into the “Times They Are A Changin’” segment is the reality that today’s gear has gotten really, really good, while at the same time much more affordable. What a $2,000 pair of speakers can do today is simply mind-blowing versus, say, even 10 years ago. Today’s Class-D digital amps have absurd amounts of power, and don’t sound anywhere near as “cold” as the early ICE-chip amps did a decade or so ago. Today’s subwoofers blend acoustically into your room, thanks to room correction, but don’t decimate your bank account, or land a 24x24x24 poorly-made black box in your living space. Put aside all of the technical issues that vinyl has (lousy 65 dB dynamic range and high distortion). For $15 to $20 per month, you can have access to pretty much every recording ever made with easy iPad cover flow art control, stunning meta-data, and many files in master-tape-quality HD formats. Lastly, with really good digital room correction making its way into more and more consumer audio products, even a $500 receiver can make sound that can mathematically destroy legendary audiophile products from a few decades ago. 

A lot has changed in recent years in the audiophile hobby, but the most important factor in how people enjoy their systems has kept with the times for many audiophiles, and that is going to have to change, or the hobby has no midterm future. Here are some easy-to-swallow changes for the audiophile world that would appeal to younger, tech-savvy, music-loving clients, who might today own a turntable, or a nice pair of wireless headphones, or a Sonos system, but might aspire to more (and better) if it were presented in the right way.

Embrace UHD Televisions for Audiophile Systems 

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If you go to any audiophile show in a hotel suite or dolled-up ballroom, you can count on one hand (out of the hundreds of active displays and demonstrations) the number of companies using a real-world television or video monitor as part of their demo. Mainstream consumers, whom the audiophile audience often foolishly snubs, just don’t see some purist disconnect between audio and video. This sought-after new group of potential clients doesn’t think having a really cool-looking 4K or 8K UHD TV neatly hung on the wall between some gorgeous and great-sounding speakers is a problem. In fact many, including the forty-nine percent of women who think the audiophile hobby as it stands today is downright lame like televisions such as Samsung’s The Frame or really slick LG models that hang nicely on the wall. Even if the next generation of alleged audio enthusiasts are cord-cutters, they still likely will have a TV for streaming content from the growing range of online providers like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney +, Apple TV+, and so on. Moreover, millennials stereotypically love concerts and “experiential” events. With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire in many parts of the country, a concert is pretty much unthinkable in person, but viable on your gleaming OLED 4K set. Now are you picking up what I am putting down? Specialty AV retailers have the chance to appeal to a whole new consumer base, but it is going to take change. Change can be hard for anybody, but it’s harder still for audiophiles in particular.

Rack-Mount Your AV Equipment

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Another old audiophile concept that needs to die is the idea that your AV gear must be on display in a way that dominates the aesthetic of your room. Men with design sensibility and women of pretty much all shapes and sizes simply hate the idea of a messy rack of components, snarled cables, and poorly-placed speakers. I get emails from my friends at Audiogon.com, often on Saturdays (the day we all used to go to the stereo store back in the day), and they show systems that look pretty much the same as they did thirty years ago. These traditional audiophile systems have big-ass, floor-standing speakers (often with no subwoofer), and a huge equipment rack between said speakers simply loaded with electronics. Preamps, amps, DACs, turntables, and silver disc spinners often clutter these open racks. Cables are dangling everywhere, including on small stands on the floor, and almost never tied down or neatly organized. Power cords are plugged into monstrous AC power devices. Tube amps are on pedestals, ready to electrocute a cat.

Friends, this isn’t the look of the future, or the way forward for the hobby.

Allow me to pave the road ahead. Mount your 4K TV on the wall. It doesn’t affect your sound in any meaningful way if it is on the wall, other than perhaps a little reflection, but that is nothing compared to having it sitting on top of a rack. Oh, and that traditional audiophile rack: dump it, donate it, or recycle it. Look to options like taking over a nearby closet and installing a professional, air-cooled rack, the kind you’d see in a room full of servers. This is a bit of a project, but calling in the electrician and getting some dedicated circuits run for your amps, electronics, and perhaps your source components is a solid, proven performance upgrade. Installing a rack from the likes of Middle Atlantic allows you the ability to have custom shelves and faceplates for your gear that make it all look impressive to anyone. Look into options like battery backup, which can be physically heavy, but anchor the bottom of your rack. You can use free software to measure out how and where to install your rack. Install a “fart fan” from the likes of Panasonic that is heat-activated. This nearly silent fan mounts in your ceiling (most likely), and can suck out hot air to keep your gear running cool as a cucumber. Look into upgrades for your rack like POE (power over Ethernet), which allows you to plug your gear in with aftermarket AC power cables that are neat and clean, and then control or restart your gear without getting out of your easy chair. Install a drawer into your rack, so that you can keep remotes neatly labeled, with a Brother P-touch for those rare times you need it. Look into affordable lighting options that install into your rack, so that you can have light when you need it, assuming that you go the closet route. These solutions are game-changers for your AV system, and aren’t massively expensive. They also can mostly be done on a DIY basis.

Embrace Entry-Level Home Automation

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As much as I preach about just how good specialty AV gear has improved in the past decade, home automation at the Home Depot, Best Buy or Lowes’s level that anybody can access has made even more strides, and should be incorporated into your home theater or audiophile system. A few hundred dollars’ worth of parts can get you new LED lights that dim from an iPad or other mainstream device (and/or wall switch). Any of the aforementioned stores or any good electrical supplier can deliver on this. Shades are the same situation, as you don’t have to have to go to Crestron or Lutron (though both companies are good) for ones that you can control. Even IKEA has motorized shades these days. Something that I used in my old office on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles were D battery-operated, fully silent, blackout shades from Lutron. They were a game-changer when the sun was going down over the Pacific. They come in custom colors, and can be easily remote-controlled. They helped keep my office cool, as the cheapskates who ran the building would turn the AC off early and literally dare us to pay $400 per hour to keep it going. Universal remotes are much easier to DIY program. Control4 has less than $1,000 (including programming) solutions that are pretty impressive, too. Remember, you want a good handheld remote for channel surfing, but you might also want an iPad Mini (or hell, a bigger one) for cover-flow movie and music experiences. All of this can be had within a reasonable level of investment. It also can be added to over time as part of taking a new path in your AV journey.

Invisible Speakers Are Better Than You Think They Are

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The category of speakers that I am most enamored with right now are invisibles. Many companies make them, but I have higher-end offerings from the likes of Nakymatone and Stealth Audio, as well as ported, in-ceiling subwoofers from Gray Sound, which sound great running Sonos in my distributed audio system. The way I go about this is to pair these high-performance but behind-the-drywall-skim-coat transducers, not just with subwoofers, but to additionally connect them to Sonos via a distribution amp, with room correction like the Anthem MRX-8 (they have a sixteen-channel one, too). This gives me the ability to fully hide the speakers, but still get not just full-range but room-corrected, bespoke sound for my kitchen, dining room, living room, and beyond.

Another trick with invisibles is to use them for effect speakers. Yes, you are going to make some drywall mess and will need to “mud” over them, or cover them with wallpaper, but the idea of having thirteen channels of object-based surround sound, when the only speakers you see in my media room are left and right (with a hidden big SVS SB-4000), is refreshing. I can make the surround sound rain on you, but you can only see two physical speakers. It is a very cool effect.

Furniture Is Your Friend

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Investing in meaningful furniture for your media room is a good idea when done with design sensibility and some mindfulness of budget. At the advice of Sandy Gross (the founder of Polk, Definitive Technology, GoldenEar and a major art collector), I bought an Adolph Gottlieb print at auction recently. At that same auction was an Eames Chair (lounge with ottoman), which is about as iconic as, say, a Le Corbusier chair (think Maxell ad from the 1970s) for about $2,500. You can buy one new at somewhere like Design Within Reach for around $5,000, but this one was vintage, cool, comfortable and iconic. I don’t recommend the Le Corbusier chair for main seating as I have owned one, and it isn’t amazingly comfortable for long periods of time.

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One of the social problems with the audiophile hobby is that it is often a solo hobby. What if you arranged the furniture so that other people could join you for conversation that has gorgeous, well-curated music in the background? Imagine how a wife might feel if two couples met (social distanced, of course, in this world) and could enjoy music, conversation, ambiance, design and more? Might there be less objection to that than going into a room that looks like Dr. Brown’s lab in “Back to the Future”? I’d bet on it.

Get Your Room Right

HD2020Room acoustics factor into this conversation, too. There are so many good options that aren’t crazy expensive or visually disruptive, like a pile of Tube Traps. Plants help. Book cases on the back wall break up standing waves. Fabric walls are good. Coffee tables are an absolute no-no as they reflect. Gear between your speakers is also a no-no. Move it. Buy new cables or do the rack idea from above.

We’ve come a long way with this hobby, and had a lot of good times, but things need to change for it to be viable going forward. It is time to move beyond the throw-away, commodity-based AV products that are sold next to your three-pound box of Cheerios or forty-eight pack of Quilted Northern toilet paper at Costco, and embrace thoughtful installation, and careful yet reasonable home automation tricks. Consider how a media room is used beyond just solo listening with your “head in a vise.” Look to seating that makes everyone feel part of the show, and allows them to experience the art in a way that leaves them saying, “I want that in my house.” This is the way of the new audiophile.

How do you plan to upgrade your system along any of these lines? What changes have you made to your system to embrace the future? Has your system or media consumption changed during COVID? Comment below, as we’d love to hear from you.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

rhunt posts on November 28, 2020 00:42
I think this op ed is right on the money. Ultimately, I think it is the manufacturer's failing to sell younger consumers on home audio. But, we're still here. I'm 26, bought my first pair of “audiophile” speakers when I was 16, and ten year's later I'm still going strong in the hobby. I have friends who are into it as well, but it doesn't seem to be nearly as popular as it was in the 70's, from what I can tell at least.
killdozzer posts on November 23, 2020 04:05
Auditor55, post: 1434399, member: 76893
I love two channel stereo. I'm the type that will sit on my sofa and listen to music, but I'm old school.
Me and my lady belong to the same club.
Mark E. Long posts on November 22, 2020 21:35
I listen to a lot of music in my down time when the wife isn’t home a lot of multi channel too not much 2 channel anymore got all them channels may as well use them . As far as it dyeing out there are old gear heads out here and there bu and large the younger set seem to want good car audio and go home and listen to decent ear buds now more than ever at least with my kids it’s that way these days .
lovinthehd posts on November 22, 2020 20:39
Auditor55, post: 1434399, member: 76893
I love two channel stereo. I'm the type that will sit on my sofa and listen to music, but I'm old school.

I enjoy multich audio from my sofa. Or I turn some of the speakers off and listen to it in 2ch. No magic in limiting it to 2ch IME.
Old Onkyo posts on November 22, 2020 16:37
Auditor55, post: 1434399, member: 76893
I love two channel stereo. I'm the type that will sit on my sofa and listen to music, but I'm old school.
Worse, I sometimes listen to the same song for hours on repeat. I mean active listening.
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