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American Audio Ages: The medium is the message [DRAFT]

Copyright © 2017 Mithat Konar. All rights reserved.


We establish that a relationship exists between an age's predominant audio delivery media and the sociology of that age. Implications of this relationship for successful audio system design are explored. It is posited that the decline of the high-end audio niche in the United States owes predominantly to its failure to recognize the sociological shifts in the mainstream market as represented by shifts in dominant audio delivery media.

The following is a descriptive analysis of factors that have impacted developments in consumer audio over the last several decades in the USA. These accounts are not based on specific or targeted research. Rather, they reflect the author's observations and experience as a direct participant in the field. This is followed by a discussion regarding the implications for high-end audio.

The conclusions reached are (1) that there is an intimate relationship between audio delivery media and sociological changes in user bases; and (2) the sociological shift(s) embodied by a change in preferred delivery media is possibly the dominant factor that must be considered in successful consumer audio equipment design.

The major ages of audio

Phonographs and urban flight

The LP (long play) phonograph is a large form medium that proved popular with consumers when it was introduced at the end of the 1940s. It was inexpensive to manufacture and distribute but delivered performance of a high standard. One of the consequences of its 12“ diameter was that any sizable collection of music resulted in significant occupied physical volume. It also meant any playback system for the medium would necessarily have a non-trivial physical footprint.

The postwar introduction of the LP coincided with a time of rapid increase of bedroom communities in the U.S. This shift from urban to suburban living provided large living spaces for families. Thus, while the size of the LP media conditioned users to the need for a certain amount of space for music listening, the rise of bedroom community living provided it. As a result, a context that could tolerate, or even welcome, large furniture-quality systems was born. And it was in this context that the formal paradigms of high-end audio in the U.S. were set, seemingly in concrete.

Cassettes and portability

The first major challenge to the LP was the compact cassette. While originally it was incapable of delivering results comparable to the LP, several technological innovations led to it performing well enough that its physical advantages over the LP began to assert significant appeal. The greatest of the physical advantages was the medium's portability, and this was leveraged initially in car audio. However, it didn't take long for the portability to be leveraged in other ways.

Around the time that the cassette started to approach hi-fi quality, people in the U.S. stated becoming more concerned with physical fitness. As a result, many began to make activities like jogging, running, and other solitary workouts part of a regular routine. This led Sony to develop the Walkman, and this ushered in a whole new way for people to engage with recorded music.

The audio performance delivered by the Walkman and similar products that followed was high enough that users began to use Walkman-like devices over a broad range of activities. And because the Walkman demonstrated that reasonably good quality audio could also be portable, a big shift in user expectations regarding portability resulted.

One class of product resulting from the increased expectations of portability was the boom box. While small and portable LP systems had existed for some time, their convenience was limited by that medium's format. The boom box didn't suffer from those inconveniences, and for a large number of users it provided sufficient audio quality. The combination of a Walkman-like device for personal listening and a boom box for social use had additional appeal for some users since it meant they didn't need to duplicate media. Owing to the low acquisition costs that resulted from its high level of functional integration as well as the ease with which it permitted sharing of music, the boom box also let a large social demographic who normally wouldn't or couldn't purchase music playback systems become active music consumers.

This rise of low-cost personal and social cassette-based playback equipment put pressure on the kinds of systems that evolved around LP playback for bedroom-community lifestyles. Mainstream manufacturers of these systems started to look for ways to maintain profits, and one ways they achieved this was to lower quality. Thus, the audio high-end niche came into its own as a reaction against the resulting “low-fi” (boom-box) and “mid-fi” (mainstream component) audio markets. A strong marketing differentiation between audio-for-everybody and audio-for-audiophiles began, narrowing the high-end niche to only those who “really cared about sound.”

CD: quality and competition

The digital CD (compact disc) was introduced as an alternative to the analog LP in 1982. Unlike the other delivery media discussed here, the introduction of the CD didn't coincide with sociological changes in its target user base or general population; it represents almost entirely only a technological innovation. However, a strong nod to the portability requirement brought about by the cassette age is evident. Retail distribution channels were clear in their desire that any new medium designed to supplant the LP not force them to change their existing handling and merchandising. A form of optical disc about the same size as the LP was already available for video content delivery, and this seemed to match the requirements of music retailers. In spite of this, Philips and Sony opted for a format that was less than half the diameter of the LP.

The launch of the CD was accompanied by promises of “perfect sound forever” that neither the cassette nor the LP were capable of. And while it quickly became evident that for the first generation of players those promises were hyperbole, it did establish in users' minds that there was a potential standard of audio that was significantly higher than the LP and cassette status quo. Many consumers were captivated by this potential, and this no doubt benefited the high-end niche for a time.

About the same time, the increasing availability of video media and equipment for its playback provided increasing competition for consumers' disposable income and space in the home. Given the choice between having a home audio system and a home video system, an increasing number of users opted for the latter. Eventually a new branch of audio developed to target video-centric systems, and the high-end audio niche (now differentiated as audio consisting of only two-channels) narrowed further.

One user expectation raised by the rise of video-centric systems was in the area of remote control. As remote control of televisions and VCR players became standard and ever more capable, consumers began to have similar expectations of convenience from their audio equipment. High-end audio manufacturers were generally slow to adopt to and sometimes dismissive of this user expectation of higher convenience.

Computers and convergence

The personal portable path of audio consumption embodied by the Walkman eventually lead to the introduction of portable devices that played back data-compressed digital audio files — the first of which was released in 1998.1) The primary means that music was loaded onto these players was the personal computer, and it wasn't long before vast legal and illegal networks for distributing digital music files came into being. The rise of the “MP3 player” was fueled by a youth market that was increasingly interested in information technology and beholden to increased expectations of data availability brought about by the World Wide Web and other Internet-based services. One listening innovation made possible by the MP3 player approach to content management was the playlist, and it quickly became a feature valued by many users.

An almost immediate consequence of the rise of the MP3 player was that for a new generation of users the personal computer became their master repository of music. A consequence that rapidly followed was that since the master repository of music was the computer, the computer itself could serve as a master source of music playback too. Thus for users embracing this new delivery medium, a large physical collection of music was no longer necessary or desirable. A single virtual repository of media and source of playback was much easier to maintain, and with playlists and other player features it was more adaptable to different listening contexts.

Concurrently, the quality of soundcards available for personal computers approached and sometimes matched the performance of dedicated consumer audio equipment. Thus the perceived need for separate equipment for listening to music (or watching videos for that matter) was significantly challenged. In addition, since many of the users embracing this new paradigm were young people either still living in their family homes or living with roommates, they would be more prone to listen on small nearfield speakers and headphones than on large speakers.2)

In sum, for a new group of tech-aware users, the personal computer presented the opportunity to virtualize their media collection — and thereby grow its size and convenience of access phenomenally — as well as to converge the required hardware, with a single source acting as the master repository and source for all media in both personal and social contexts. This opportunity evolved almost organically from available technological innovation interacting with shifts in user competencies and requirements.

The high-end audio field as a whole missed the major opportunity to leverage the growth of computer-based audio. This was likely due to two factors. First, the captains of high-end audio were often too far removed demographically from the generation where this behavior was growing to fully appreciate that it was happening. Second, computer-based audio required different marketing channels and methods than those that were in place for high-end audio, and those channels and methods were very slow to develop, possibly owing to the condition stated previously.

A headphone-centric market that embraced (or possibly resulted from) computer-based audio did manage to establish itself. However, efforts in this area were typically made by those not directly involved in high-end audio, and to this day there is not significant crossover between the headphone audio and high-end audio markets.

High-end audio would eventually begin to embrace the possibilities in computer-based audio, but by then the ship had already sailed. Users who had pioneered the computer as music source had moved on to the next innovation (discussed below), leaving no user base to champion the change. Had the industry embraced rather than denied its users, the medium, and its general applicability earlier, the high-end audio niche might have developed to have relevance to a significantly greater number of users.

Smartphones and downsizing

Computer-based audio satisfied an increasingly large group of users' desire to virtualize and converge content and hardware as well as to have flexible platforms for both personal and social listening. At the time of this writing, further virtualization and convergence is being realized by the smartphone and other smart devices.

* Phones are a continuation of computer audio -- both with media and hardware.
    - Master repository of _all_ media (audio, video, record based, radio based ...)
    - Unified source for portable, personal, and social playback
* Streaming is virtualization on steroids.
* Given multifaceted use of the phone, wired connectivity not 
* Sociological shift: since the 2008 downturn, downsizing and more 
time living with parents  means less available room for large 
solutions, less available resources for expensive solutions, and 
typically more crowded living into even later life. Users' general 
relationship with phone as "life repository".

What's next?

Without doubt, future changes in sociology and technology will occur, and these changes will impact mainstream audio consumption. The exact changes that are likely to happen are not clear. However, we can engage in some speculation.

Sociological trends we expect to continue include reurbanization/gentrification, specifically young and wealthy demographics choosing to live in multi-unit structures in urban areas rather than bedroom communities. In addition, we expect to see increased disparity between wealthy, middle class, and impoverished demographics. The disparity will likely not be limited to income: access to social services and technological infrastructures may also be impacted. Technologically, we expect to see advances in wired and wireless streaming capacity as well as pushes in the area of IoT.

One possible outcome for those with means is an increase in “interdeviceness” — multiple devices functioning in integrated, intelligent ways — in support of increasingly instant and virtual mindsets. For those with lesser means, greater reliance on a minimal set of technology, including a minimal set of devices, to solve and manage life issues might result.

Implications for high-end audio

A relationship between an age's dominant audio delivery media and the sociology of that age is evident. Equally evident is the impact of these on successful audio system design.

High-end audio has clutched tenaciously to the formal paradigm first evolved in the LP/bedroom community era: large speaker systems with several large and separate electronic units performing specialized functions. In each succeeding era, this formal paradigm has become less relevant to the requirements of the general population and especially the requirements of younger users. This has led to the high-end market operating in an increasingly narrow niche.

To put it another way, the high-end industry has shown great conservativeness vis-a-vis changes since its establishment as a separate market in the 1970s and 1980s. At best, it has tried to adapt to changes in user expectations through shoehorning solutions that map some aspect of new user requirements to its existing paradigms. At worst, it has simply ignored the underlying changes in user expectations.

The high-end's failure to maintain formal relevance to the changing sociology, lifestyle requirements, and lifestyle choices in the greater population is compounded by advances in technology that render promises of heightened experience less convincing.3) This without doubt is at the core of the significant downturn in the volume of high-end sales in the last several years in the U.S.

There are strong indications that the depth of the high-end niche (which is to say, the interest on the part of existing user demographics to bear a cost in the pursuit of higher experiences) has saturated in the U.S. Given this and the fact that the width of a narrowing niche eventually approaches zero, the prognosis for high-end audio isn't good. Even if the former were able to be overcome (e.g., with convincing promises of yet better performance), it still won't stop the progressive narrowing of the niche — a narrowing caused by the high end's dogged insistence on formal paradigms that are increasingly irrelevant to new user requirements.

In the absence of profound change, the fate of high-end audio in America is clear.

Tony Smith, “Ten Years Old: The World's First MP3 Player,” The Register® - Biting the Hand That Feeds IT, March 10, 2008, , accessed October 15, 2018,
A personal note: I was extolling the virtues of computer-based audio for high-end listening as far back as 2002 and had effectively, but not deliberately, retired my CD player by the following year.
This is a subject I don't deal with further here but deserving its own paper.
audio/american_audio_ages.txt · Last modified: 2021/05/10 20:10 by mithat