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Positive Feedback ISSUE 23


Sex, Drugs and High-End Audio- Part 1: The Good Fight
by Josh Ray


"Dude, hemp speakers! Mary Jane for your ears! 420 foreva!!!!!1111" And on and on went a post by some pothead about my coverage of the Omega HempTone 8 speakers. Ah, the youth of America. What will become of them?

But I digress. If you don't know me, my name is Josh Ray, humble narrator of the audio gossip rag and this article is the first of many to come about a 20-something audiophile's view of hi-fi and its tenuous courtship with the unwashed audio ignorant masses. My simple goal with SonicFlare is to bring high-end audio to the iPod generation. Easy, right? Laughably difficult, but I sincerely believe a mass conversion can happen that will turn iPodders into audiophiles. Or, at least, into audio consumers rather than audio idiots.

So what is the iPod generation? For lack of a better description, iPodders are the "latest and greatest" generation, spending every last penny earned from midnight shifts at Starbucks on the newest MP3 players, video games and cell phones. We love cutting-edge technology and we're willing to do whatever it takes to get it. One would assume that would translate into audio equipment but, alas, the "foolish amounts of disposable income" generation doesn't even know hi-fi exists.

Let's talk numbers to see just why I believe there's a market for hi-fi. First, his High Apple Holiness Steve Jobs announced at the recent Macworld Expo that 42 million iPods and 850 million iTunes tracks have been sold thus far. Additionally, the iPod accessories cottage industry racked up an estimated one billion in sales over the holiday season. And that's only the iPod-centric world to say nothing for the car audio and home theater titans. Naturally, these consumers are all potential hi-fi customers. They are listening to the music which means the first great hurdle has been overcome.

Now, some will say it's impossible to turn these low-end consumers into tweaky audiophiles. After all, who cares about cabling, power conditioning or clear sound to begin with? I say it's absolutely possible and one need only look at Monster Cable and their empire built on convincing people to buy cable and power upgrades for their lack-luster systems. And let's not forget "Bigger Profits Through Advertising." Bose has a nice schtick and people eat it up to the tune of $1.5 billion a year. It's clear consumers are ripe for audio-specific marketing, but the high-end has yet to speak their language and take off the way it should.

But high-end audio has a high-end price, iPodders and Best Buyers can't be expected to drop high-end coin on a "worthy" system, right? Right, but if we take a look at the pop consumers a few years older, we see outrageous numbers of big ticket plasmas, sports cars and expensive threads flying off the shelves. BMW sold 1.3 million vehicles last year. Is it too much to believe more than 0.1% of BMW owners could spend a couple grand on an audio system? Not at all. The median home price in California surpassed $500k, the least expensive BMW is $30k and the most popular Gucci product ever is a $500 iPod case. Relative to their entire luxury investments over a few year period, a $5k system is chump change.

As for how the revolution will happen, it's hard to say, of course, but I've always wondered why musicians and actors are never identified with their high-end systems the way they are with cars, clothing and houses. We know they're rocking Wilson, Martin Logan, Linn or McIntosh so let's see it or, at least, read about it. Hell, 50 Cent has a new music video, why aren't his groupies grinding his Ferrari red Alexandrias? What, not phallic enough? And what about the musicians out there? Are they really content with letting people listen to their art through tiny plastic shoeboxes?

There are problems, of course, and no single spark will ignite the conversion. A mass public awareness campaign with a half billion a year would do the trick but, next to that, I can tell you what I'm doing at the grassroots level. First, I'm trying to perk the audio neophytes' interest in cool, unusual products while, at the same time, connect with the new school audiophile community from the open-source Positive Feedback Online to the hard-core underground of 6Moons. I've become involved with which is finally answering the age-old question: "if the tortilla industry has their own God-damn association ( why don't we?" iPods and MP3s are rapidly changing the music industry while the audio industry is in a massive flux of its own. The key is to get the two industries jamming in harmony.

Interestingly, the reaction to myself, my site and my cause has been mixed and very enlightening. There are those who, after hearing what I'm all about, say, "it will never, ever, ever, ever, ever happen." And then there are those who say, "Dude, iPod users! Tell them about high-end audio! 300B foreva!!!!1111" Who is right? Time will tell. But if the little outreach I've done so far is any indication, the world is ready to embrace hi-fi, hi-fi just has to embrace them back.

In my next column, I'll look at some of the major barriers to entry and potential ways to break them down. Stay tuned and send your ideas, comments or rants to