Are You Part of the 1% of Music Listeners?

Steve Guttenberg, writing at CNet, makes an interesting point:

Most people listen to music in their cars, portable players, or $10 computer speakers. Audiophiles are the 1 percent still listening at home over a hi-fi.

Yes, most people listen on portable devices or cheap speakers. I raised that question recently when I suggested that rather than rant about high-resolution music:

“Audiophiles are just pissing into the wind when they talk about high-resolution audio files, because most of the world uses crappy audio equipment. Perhaps they should help music lovers understand that for a few hundred dollars, you can buy a decent music system, that will make your music sound much better than any standalone speaker.”

But is it really just 1% of people who listen to music on a real stereo system? I would run a poll here, but it would be self-selecting; I know that many of my readers do listen to music on stereos, though probably not what would be called “audiophile” equipment.

Guttenberg may be exaggerating. It may not be quite 99% of people who don’t listen to music on a stereo, but he’s right when he says that “The general population listens in a different way; for them, live concerts or recorded music is background sound to other activities, such as talking, texting, etc. So sound quality is no big deal for them; the music is just there.”

I slightly disagree when he says this:

“Once you start to focus on the music, sound-quality differences become important.”

Sound quality may be important, but it’s a big step between appreciating good sound and obsessing about things like speaker cables. Gothenburg’s own system runs to around $2,500 (though he’s including a $1,000 pair of headphones). He suggests that this is “a very respectable budget high-end system.” I think he’s showing his bias there, because even talking about a budget high-end system is erroneous. It’s entirely possible to get a good stereo system for around $500; if you only count an amplifier and speakers.[1] (This assumes that you listen to music from a computer, either connected to the amplifier or streamed to a device that connects to the amp.)

The problem, however, is finding a place to buy such a system. High-end audio stores are generally off-putting to the average listener, and audio gear in general has become elitist. I can actually understand that people who like music, but don’t want to spend a lot of money, simply buy standalone speakers, rather than venturing into a world where they know nothing and can be taken advantage of by salespeople trying to sell them more than what they need.

I recall the days of the all-in-one bookshelf stereo system. You can still get these, but they’ve been supplanted by standalone speakers. I had one, many years ago, in my office. It was crappy. It could hold three CDs, so I could play an entire opera without changing discs, but everything about it was crappy. Today’s standalone AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers are far better than that system was, and it probably cost about the same.

Perhaps people just don’t care about music very much any more. They use it as wallpaper, as a background to ward off silence. There’s so much music that people are drowning in it. Perhaps there was never really more than 1% (or a few more) who ever cared about music more than that.

  1. I’ve got two systems in my home: one in the living room, and one in my office. The former is in Guttenberg’s league, having cost around €2,000, or about $2,300 at the current exchange rate. It’s an AV system, with stereo only, consisting of a Yamaha RX-A1010 amplifier, a Cambridge Audio 651BD optical disc player, and Focal Chorus 806 speakers. When I bought these components, it was the high end of my budget.

    In my office, I’ve got a Denon PMA–520 amplifier, Focal Chorus 705 speakers, and a Cambridge Audio DACMagic. Altogether, it’s worth around £750, or $1,100.

    With my smaller system, I can honestly say that I don’t want for sound quality. Sure, you could go for a more expensive amplifier, but I’m not convinced that it’s worth paying much more. The speakers don’t need to be any bigger, given that I use them for near-field listening. The DACMagic was a sample from the manufacturer; I’d never have spent that much on a DAC.

    I’m not counting headphones in my pricing above; I have several pairs, and, while I listen on headphones occasionally, they’re not my main way of enjoying music.  ↩