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.  ↩

34 thoughts on “Are You Part of the 1% of Music Listeners?

  1. I listen to much of my music on a Bose Lifestyle system hooked up to a 5.1 speaker setup, which all TV and streamed music/video also play through. Not audiophile but decent. I also play music (classical and rock) on YouTube on my Smart TV through the Bose. Also listen to my iTunes library on my Windows 7 PC, and always in my car with my iPod Classic and hookup (no bluetooth). Rarely on my phone. Headphones are my choice only when I don’t want to bother others.

    My brother got into audiophile equipment decades ago (high end tube amps and Magnaplaner speakers, the huge ones) and on a visit he ruined me for well over a year for music-listening. He made me sit in a specific chair in a specific spot to listen. I had brought some favorite LPs and couldn’t even listen to them after I got home. I love audiophile stuff but if I can’t own it I don’t want to hear it. 😉 To this day he refuses to listen to CDs or any mobile devices for music. I rarely listen to CDs since much of my CD library is loaded into iTunes and the Bose.

    I can definitely appreciate and detect the differences in audiophile music, but unless you have a bad ear for music, it will ruin you for any other music delivery, for quite a while.

  2. I listen to much of my music on a Bose Lifestyle system hooked up to a 5.1 speaker setup, which all TV and streamed music/video also play through. Not audiophile but decent. I also play music (classical and rock) on YouTube on my Smart TV through the Bose. Also listen to my iTunes library on my Windows 7 PC, and always in my car with my iPod Classic and hookup (no bluetooth). Rarely on my phone. Headphones are my choice only when I don’t want to bother others.

    My brother got into audiophile equipment decades ago (high end tube amps and Magnaplaner speakers, the huge ones) and on a visit he ruined me for well over a year for music-listening. He made me sit in a specific chair in a specific spot to listen. I had brought some favorite LPs and couldn’t even listen to them after I got home. I love audiophile stuff but if I can’t own it I don’t want to hear it. 😉 To this day he refuses to listen to CDs or any mobile devices for music. I rarely listen to CDs since much of my CD library is loaded into iTunes and the Bose.

    I can definitely appreciate and detect the differences in audiophile music, but unless you have a bad ear for music, it will ruin you for any other music delivery, for quite a while.

  3. I listen to music in the car and while running on the treadmill, track or lifting at the gym. I can discern really awful stuff but am generally happy with run-of-the-mill quality sound. So I’m definitely not part of the 1%. More like the 30%.

  4. I listen to music in the car and while running on the treadmill, track or lifting at the gym. I can discern really awful stuff but am generally happy with run-of-the-mill quality sound. So I’m definitely not part of the 1%. More like the 30%.

  5. I’ve had a Sony Blu-ray/SACD 5.1 system for seven years, but I use a Denon Micro System on a daily basis. It’s the best $400 I’ve ever spent!

  6. I’ve had a Sony Blu-ray/SACD 5.1 system for seven years, but I use a Denon Micro System on a daily basis. It’s the best $400 I’ve ever spent!

  7. I think the Steve Guttenberg quote mischaracterizes the music listening population in a few ways. Desire for good music isn’t limited to the 1% audiophiles, vs. the 99% other people, who don’t care. Audiophiles aren’t only listening to their home hi-fi systems, and the rest of the world doesn’t always ignore quality. Everyone listens to music with varying equipment and goals, in varying environments, at various times. Audiophiles, plebes, and everyone in between probably enjoys listening to music in the car sometimes, often for many hours a week. For all of them, it likely sounds worse than most other listening that they do, even if they have very expensive car sound systems. On the other hand, an iPod/iPhone with good $40 headphones will give “better” sound than many expensive audiophile systems during the 70s and 80s heyday of hi-fi. Lots of people care enough about their headphone sound to spend $100-$200 on headphones, and they may end up with a very good listening experience, even if the 1% audiophiles are still sneering. Steve doesn’t seem to be aware of how many people put in a lot of quality listening time on pretty good headphones.

    I’ll take Michael’s figure, and speculate that 30% of the population has ever upgraded their headphones or speakers at some point, and they care about the sound they are getting, some of the time. Just like the audiophiles. The 1% spends tons of money on anything that might help. They buy many things that don’t matter, and invent a mythology to justify expenditures that make no difference to the sound. Kirk has written convincingly on this problem.

    The rest of the 30% spend until they find the point where increased cost provides insufficient sound improvement to justify spending more. They are negatively influenced by some of the 1% myths, but many of them would be ready to spend more on improved music with better mastering and recording, and things that do matter. This is a big enough group, that the music market could make money serving them better quality recordings. That is, if the marketing engine would allow the consumer to distinguish between snake oil/hype and meaningful sound quality improvements. I agree with Kirk that we need better audio files, not more audiophiles.

  8. I think the Steve Guttenberg quote mischaracterizes the music listening population in a few ways. Desire for good music isn’t limited to the 1% audiophiles, vs. the 99% other people, who don’t care. Audiophiles aren’t only listening to their home hi-fi systems, and the rest of the world doesn’t always ignore quality. Everyone listens to music with varying equipment and goals, in varying environments, at various times. Audiophiles, plebes, and everyone in between probably enjoys listening to music in the car sometimes, often for many hours a week. For all of them, it likely sounds worse than most other listening that they do, even if they have very expensive car sound systems. On the other hand, an iPod/iPhone with good $40 headphones will give “better” sound than many expensive audiophile systems during the 70s and 80s heyday of hi-fi. Lots of people care enough about their headphone sound to spend $100-$200 on headphones, and they may end up with a very good listening experience, even if the 1% audiophiles are still sneering. Steve doesn’t seem to be aware of how many people put in a lot of quality listening time on pretty good headphones.

    I’ll take Michael’s figure, and speculate that 30% of the population has ever upgraded their headphones or speakers at some point, and they care about the sound they are getting, some of the time. Just like the audiophiles. The 1% spends tons of money on anything that might help. They buy many things that don’t matter, and invent a mythology to justify expenditures that make no difference to the sound. Kirk has written convincingly on this problem.

    The rest of the 30% spend until they find the point where increased cost provides insufficient sound improvement to justify spending more. They are negatively influenced by some of the 1% myths, but many of them would be ready to spend more on improved music with better mastering and recording, and things that do matter. This is a big enough group, that the music market could make money serving them better quality recordings. That is, if the marketing engine would allow the consumer to distinguish between snake oil/hype and meaningful sound quality improvements. I agree with Kirk that we need better audio files, not more audiophiles.

  9. Still use the Thiel CS1.2 Speakers bought 20 years ago and Sony receiver and cd player bought 15 years ago. Great sound.

  10. Still use the Thiel CS1.2 Speakers bought 20 years ago and Sony receiver and cd player bought 15 years ago. Great sound.

  11. Kirk –

    Point I’m curious about. A few months back, your small system was powered by a Cambridge Audio receiver. What happened?

    • It made a very loud POP! one day and stopped working. Given the cost of repairs – it’s out of warranty – I deemed it wasn’t worth fixing.

  12. Kirk –

    Point I’m curious about. A few months back, your small system was powered by a Cambridge Audio receiver. What happened?

    • It made a very loud POP! one day and stopped working. Given the cost of repairs – it’s out of warranty – I deemed it wasn’t worth fixing.

  13. I use Bose computer speakers and feed them via an AudioQuest Dragonfly USB DAC. My headphones are Bose QC . I have a Sonos Soundbar and Sub, 2xPlay 1’s and 1x Play 5. I use a UE Boom Bluetooth speaker when on the road and the iPhone via Bluetooth when in the car. I play CD’s through my LG BluRay player and listen through the Sonos Soundbar/Sub set up. No idea what % I’m in as I’ve never really thought that way. This is what works for me now, but I’ve also got no idea what tech and needs will be in a year or two.

  14. I use Bose computer speakers and feed them via an AudioQuest Dragonfly USB DAC. My headphones are Bose QC . I have a Sonos Soundbar and Sub, 2xPlay 1’s and 1x Play 5. I use a UE Boom Bluetooth speaker when on the road and the iPhone via Bluetooth when in the car. I play CD’s through my LG BluRay player and listen through the Sonos Soundbar/Sub set up. No idea what % I’m in as I’ve never really thought that way. This is what works for me now, but I’ve also got no idea what tech and needs will be in a year or two.

  15. Original Harmon Kardon Soundsticks on my Mac, and my living room simply has an Airport Express connected to two Focal Alpha 65 monitors ($650 with coupon discount) sitting on Ultimate Support stands. No DAC. Sounds great. I listen to radio around the world via apps: TuneIn Radio, iTunes Radio (and the preselected streaming radio stations in iTunes), Pandora, PRX Remix, SomaFM, Dharma Seed, CBC Radio, NPR One.

  16. Original Harmon Kardon Soundsticks on my Mac, and my living room simply has an Airport Express connected to two Focal Alpha 65 monitors ($650 with coupon discount) sitting on Ultimate Support stands. No DAC. Sounds great. I listen to radio around the world via apps: TuneIn Radio, iTunes Radio (and the preselected streaming radio stations in iTunes), Pandora, PRX Remix, SomaFM, Dharma Seed, CBC Radio, NPR One.

  17. Perhaps the “audiophile” label is better reserved for those who own jewelry-grade audio components.

    I consider my systems to be mid-fi, and I belong to the 5-10% listener group. I have 4 separate music playback systems, one of which shares the home theater duty, each costs between $3000 and $5000, with Sonus faber speakers in the living room, home office, and basement (the last of which is my office in summer) and Vienna Acoustic speakers in bedroom (and bathroom). I also have 1 JL Audio and 3 REL subs.

    Most of the times I listen to CDs via Shiit Bifrost DACs. DAC makes the music sound so obviously better; that’s why I don’t listen via AirPort Express anymore. (I used to use 3 of the AEs to play the same music throughout the house from iTunes.) I have a collection of fewer than 10000 songs in iTunes library, mainly for jogging.

    I should also mention that the audio system in my car costs just as much as my home systems on average. Enjoying music on the road is just as important, and maybe even more satisfying sometimes.

  18. Perhaps the “audiophile” label is better reserved for those who own jewelry-grade audio components.

    I consider my systems to be mid-fi, and I belong to the 5-10% listener group. I have 4 separate music playback systems, one of which shares the home theater duty, each costs between $3000 and $5000, with Sonus faber speakers in the living room, home office, and basement (the last of which is my office in summer) and Vienna Acoustic speakers in bedroom (and bathroom). I also have 1 JL Audio and 3 REL subs.

    Most of the times I listen to CDs via Shiit Bifrost DACs. DAC makes the music sound so obviously better; that’s why I don’t listen via AirPort Express anymore. (I used to use 3 of the AEs to play the same music throughout the house from iTunes.) I have a collection of fewer than 10000 songs in iTunes library, mainly for jogging.

    I should also mention that the audio system in my car costs just as much as my home systems on average. Enjoying music on the road is just as important, and maybe even more satisfying sometimes.

  19. NAD C740 receiver that’s 15 years old, PSB B1 speakers, Oppo disc player, Squeezebox Classic for streaming and Mac Mini headless to play back files I have stored on external hard drive. I have the Mac Mini running through a not terribly expensive USB DAC..

    At work, the small Audioengine speakers on my desktop.

    I also have several sets of headphones, including some fairly pricey ones, but use Koss PortaPros about 90 percent of the time. Squeezebox Boom on my nightstand.

  20. NAD C740 receiver that’s 15 years old, PSB B1 speakers, Oppo disc player, Squeezebox Classic for streaming and Mac Mini headless to play back files I have stored on external hard drive. I have the Mac Mini running through a not terribly expensive USB DAC..

    At work, the small Audioengine speakers on my desktop.

    I also have several sets of headphones, including some fairly pricey ones, but use Koss PortaPros about 90 percent of the time. Squeezebox Boom on my nightstand.

  21. Don’t forget that the population of the USA is the target in is article. Also I would like to see some evidence to support the idea hat only 1% of the population in the USA listen to music on hifi equipment, which should also be defined. Audiophiles might be pissing in the wind, but Guttenberg is writing with evaporating ink…opinions like that are formed every seconds in pubs and cafés around the world. We need evidence.

  22. Don’t forget that the population of the USA is the target in is article. Also I would like to see some evidence to support the idea hat only 1% of the population in the USA listen to music on hifi equipment, which should also be defined. Audiophiles might be pissing in the wind, but Guttenberg is writing with evaporating ink…opinions like that are formed every seconds in pubs and cafés around the world. We need evidence.

  23. My trouble is I don’t give myself enough time to sit down and listen to an album, or just listen to music in general. I don’t know if that is the general reason for the trend towards cheaper music listening solutions. My two main places for listening to music are at work (MacBook Pro and Sennheiser HD25 headphones) and, when the TV isn’t in use at home (which is quite rare), an Apple TV with Denon AVR-2113 receiver.

    I blame “married life”… 😉

  24. My trouble is I don’t give myself enough time to sit down and listen to an album, or just listen to music in general. I don’t know if that is the general reason for the trend towards cheaper music listening solutions. My two main places for listening to music are at work (MacBook Pro and Sennheiser HD25 headphones) and, when the TV isn’t in use at home (which is quite rare), an Apple TV with Denon AVR-2113 receiver.

    I blame “married life”… 😉

  25. I have had paradigm monitors as a 7.1 home system for years and felt they did a pretty good job.
    Recently got Focal CMS 65 setup with the sub, running through a DJM-2000. It is incredibly impressive.
    For studio I have found the Focal Spirit Professional headphones to be extremely accurate in tone, neutrality when compared to the 2.1 setup.
    Picked up a pair of B&W MM-1’s for the office a few years ago and they work well for near field.
    Just got a pair of B&W P7’s, and find the sound signature a bit warm with overpowering bass. Mids a bit lacking.

    I think Focal have ruined me on other sound, it all seems colored or too pronounced in different frequency bands.

  26. I have had paradigm monitors as a 7.1 home system for years and felt they did a pretty good job.
    Recently got Focal CMS 65 setup with the sub, running through a DJM-2000. It is incredibly impressive.
    For studio I have found the Focal Spirit Professional headphones to be extremely accurate in tone, neutrality when compared to the 2.1 setup.
    Picked up a pair of B&W MM-1’s for the office a few years ago and they work well for near field.
    Just got a pair of B&W P7’s, and find the sound signature a bit warm with overpowering bass. Mids a bit lacking.

    I think Focal have ruined me on other sound, it all seems colored or too pronounced in different frequency bands.

  27. The problem is that mainstream equipment today sucks so badly that people’s version of ‘good’ is way different than years ago. It used to be that equipment manufacturers tried to achieve a certain level of performace in the equipment, now they just sell boxes. Pick up a used Scott tube amp in good condition on ebay and compare that to any of the China or Japanese crap you have today. You won’t believe the difference in sound quality. Even if you hook your iPhone up to it it will sound better.

    To give you an example of how bad equipment is these days in the mainstream, I used to work at Bose. The $3,000 lifestyle system costs $238 to make. The model 901’s used drivers that were made in China and cost $1. You are all experiencing audio starvation if you think the stuff you buy today is worth anything. Go hi fi and you will see what I am talking about.

    • I’ve found that mainstream equipment is excellent these days. You can get a $200 amp that sounds like what a $1000 amp offered a couple of decades ago. I wouldn’t compare Bose stuff, though; that’s not really audio equipment. It’s for people who don’t really care that much about sound quality, and want something that’s simple, and that stands on its own.

  28. The problem is that mainstream equipment today sucks so badly that people’s version of ‘good’ is way different than years ago. It used to be that equipment manufacturers tried to achieve a certain level of performace in the equipment, now they just sell boxes. Pick up a used Scott tube amp in good condition on ebay and compare that to any of the China or Japanese crap you have today. You won’t believe the difference in sound quality. Even if you hook your iPhone up to it it will sound better.

    To give you an example of how bad equipment is these days in the mainstream, I used to work at Bose. The $3,000 lifestyle system costs $238 to make. The model 901’s used drivers that were made in China and cost $1. You are all experiencing audio starvation if you think the stuff you buy today is worth anything. Go hi fi and you will see what I am talking about.

    • I’ve found that mainstream equipment is excellent these days. You can get a $200 amp that sounds like what a $1000 amp offered a couple of decades ago. I wouldn’t compare Bose stuff, though; that’s not really audio equipment. It’s for people who don’t really care that much about sound quality, and want something that’s simple, and that stands on its own.

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