beats iphone headphones The New Audio Geeks
In his bachelor days in the late ’80s, Philip Elias lived in a town house in Pittsburgh wired for jaw dropping sound.
He owned a Bang Olufsen Beocenter 9500 music system with three pairs of B Penta 3 tower speakers, each set up in a different room. Sometimes he would invite friends over and crack open a new album as if he were uncorking a great bottle of wine.
The speakers, which cost around $5,000 a pair and required months of saving to buy, were as breathtaking in design as they were in sonic quality, Mr. Elias said: “Architecturally, they were sensual. Almost something out of the Museum of Modern Art. That was important. They made a statement above the sound.”
These days, Mr. Elias, 58, is an advertising executive who lives with his wife and three children in a house in Pittsburgh with enough high end audio gear to open a stereo showroom, including a Krell Showcase five channel power amp ($4,500), Thiel CS6 loudspeakers ($9,000 a pair) and an Escient FireBall CD system ($4,000). Every year, he offers to buy his children a great stereo, he said, but they never take him up on it.
People download MP3s from iTunes or Web sites and play them on their smartphones or laptops. They share songs with friends by e mailing YouTube links. Sure, the music sounds flat, tinny, supercompressed; it’s an audiophile’s hell. But convenience and mobility rule the day.
Ken Kessler, a veteran audio journalist, summed up the industry’s problems last year at an audiophile conference in Denver. Speaking to a roomful of mostly middle aged men, he said: “In the ’60s and ’70s, if you opened up Esquire or Playboy and they showed a bachelor pad, there was a killer sound system in it. Now, there’s an iPod dock.”
Apple devices aren’t losing ground with bachelors or anyone else, and soon music may exist mainly in the nebulous “cloud.” Still, there is a sense that after years of near extinction, a new generation of home audiophiles is emerging to follow in the footsteps of guys like Mr. Elias.
From the renewed popularity of vinyl (a Urban Outfitters, which now sells not just records but turntables alongside its clothing) to the sales explosion of high end headphones like the $400 Beats by Dre, many younger music fans are seeking a listening experience that goes beyond an MP3 and a cheap pair of earbuds.
Of course, for some, the primary motivation is fashion; it’s become cool to collect vinyl or wear slick headphones. But for others, there is a desire for what Charley Damski, a 24 year old budding audiophile, called a “pure connection to the source.”
Mr. Damski, who lives in Los Angeles and works at a television animation studio, said he spent high school buying and burning CDs and making mixes from songs he downloaded from iTunes and file sharing sites.
Then he heard one of his older brother’s albums, “A Night at the Opera” by Queen, in 5.1 surround sound. “I remember listening to it in my room and hearing all the voices,” Mr. Damski said. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s another layer to this I wasn’t aware of.'”
Hearing music with such outstanding sound quality was a revelatory experience, he said: “You don’t know you need it until it exists.”
If sonic quality has diminished for many in recent years, the quantity of music that people consume may be at a high. Freed of home storage constraints, digital libraries have swelled absurdly.
Dan Svizeny, a 24 year old manager at an online advertising agency in Philadelphia, recalled how his high school classmates bragged about the number of tunes stored on their iPods. “They would say, ‘Oh, man, I have 60,000 songs,'” he said. “It was a currency.”
For a while, Mr. Svizeny, a guitarist and avid music consumer,
engaged in the MP3 arms race, ripping songs from Napster and other file sharing sites and importing them to his iTunes account. “The sound quality didn’t matter at all,” he said. “Just the music.”
But Mr. Svizeny’s attitude has since changed. He no longer owns an iPod and rarely, if ever, downloads music, he said. At work, he listens to Spotify, the music streaming service. At home, he plays LPs, inspired, he said, by his father’s collection of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa records. “I could buy a terabyte hard drive and store countless MP3s, but it’s lost value to me,” Mr. Svizeny said. “I’d rather hold a physical thing.”
With vinyl, he added, “You’re experiencing music in a different way.”
Mr. Damski went through a similar evolution, from having more than 50,000 songs on his hard drive to “abandoning” iTunes, he said, in favor of Spotify and the scratchy joys of vinyl. He likes the physicality of LPs, and the way they make it hard for him to skip songs. He also enjoys what he called the “Easter egg hunt” of used record shopping, otherwise known as sifting through bins of Olivia Newton John and Al Martino releases, hoping to find a rare gem from the Beach Boys’ bearded phase.
In true audiophile fashion, it now pains Mr. Damski to listen to low resolution music played through the microspeakers of a smartphone or a computer. “I wanted to hear a Kinks song the other day that wasn’t on Spotify, so a friend looked it up on YouTube,” he said. “It sounded so bad.”
He laughed at his own fussiness, but added, “I didn’t even want to listen anymore.”
As for home audio equipment, Mr. Svizeny owns what he considers an average Sony turntable, receiver and speakers, while Mr. Damski uses his roommate’s Audio Technica model. But both men hope to acquire a high end system someday.
“If I own a house and have disposable income, a good stereo will be a primary investment,” Mr. Damski said. “Definitely higher on the list than bath towels.”
For years, the typical high end audio customer has been a white haired classical music aficionado or an aging rock fan for whom listening to “Aja” in 1977 on a pair of Altec Lansings was a spiritual experience.
But recently, veteran audio companies have started adapting their products to the changing tastes of younger listeners. McIntosh, for years the holy grail for preamps and other components, has been adding USB ports to its entire product line in a long overdue acknowledgment of the popularity of music streaming. Thiel Audio, the revered speaker maker, has hired an industrial designer for the first time to make sure its products pass what its chief operating officer, Bob Brown, called the “aesthetics test.”
“My wife laughs at how our house was filled with speakers the size of refrigerators,” Mr. Brown said. “This generation is not going to buy ugly, boxy stuff. They listen through their eyes first, before their ears.”
Mr. Brown envisions that Thiel speakers will be curvier, with thinner profiles, in keeping with the industry trend and in line with modern interiors. It’s a look he hopes will appeal to his new, more discerning target audio customer: the young career woman.
“The bachelor pad stuff is old,” Mr. Brown said. “I wish it wasn’t, but I have to be honest: If you sell to my son and my wife and the young career woman, you get me. I don’t make the buying decisions anymore. It’s over.”
Grain Audio, a new company formed by four industry veterans, is covering its bookshelf speakers and earphones in wood, an aesthetic it hopes will appeal to both sexes. Mitch Wenger, its president, said music fans shouldn’t have to conceal speakers behind walls or cabinets at home, as they have for years.
“It should be furniture quality,” Mr. Wenger said. “It’s, like, my Eames chair and my Grain bookshelfs. That’s the thinking.”