Is Home Stereo Dead? CNN Thinks So

Sections: Amplifiers, Analog, Audio, Digital, Headphones, Preamps, Receivers, Source components, Speakers, Stereo, Streaming

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awesome-home-stereo-500x375Stereo systems. Like cable TV and camera film, younger people largely couldn’t care less about them. So says CNN in an article called “The Death of the Home Stereo System.”

It may be painful for some longtime home entertainment enthusiasts to accept, but kids and many older people don’t want traditional AV components because, frankly, they don’t need them.

CD players. AV receivers. Record players. Cassette decks. Stereo pre-amps. Whatever other box you can think of. To today’s youth, these are not cool things; they’re antiquated things from another age.

Who’s to say they’re wrong, save for the most strident audiophiles? If Pandora and Spotify and SoundCloud and Bandcamp and iTunes and smartphones were available back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, wouldn’t home entertainment acolytes have used them? Instead, they made do with the tools available at the time. Hi-fi systems. LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, Walkmen, AM/FM receivers, speaker cables… lots of stuff. You needed all of that back then to hear music at home and on the go. You really don’t need to buy any of them any more.

I am a huge music fan, and I haven’t bought music in over a year; I stream everything from BandcampGrooveshark, YouTube, SoundCloud, Pitchfork, Stereogum, A.V. Club. For free. I truly don’t need to own music anymore, and most musicians today understand that. I’ll support a band instead by attending their show when they come around, or by buying some merch. The profit margins are better on that stuff for the musicians, anyway.

Sound quality is not my primary concern; it’s good enough. I’ll surrender pristine sound quality for portability and, more importantly, for selection. Never in human history have humans had so much music available to them. You can hear virtually anything, anytime, anywhere, and all you really need to make it happen is a laptop or smartphone. That’s a good thing.

CNN’s story quotes Alan Penchansky, audiophile and former Billboard columnist:

“[T]he midmarket for audio has completely been obliterated. You have this high-end market that’s getting smaller all the time, and then you’ve got the convenience market, which has taken over — the MP3s, the Bluetooth devices, playing on laptops.”

He wishes more people knew what they were missing. At its best, he says, audio reproduction has “a religious aspect.”

“There’s a primacy to audio,” he says. “It’s a form of magic.”

See, there’s the problem. Audio is not the magic. Components are not the magic. Music is the magic. Music is the religion. Quite frankly, it always has been. And hearing music whenever you want, wherever you are, is magic.

There’s nothing wrong with a great home stereo system. I have one myself; I just don’t rely upon it anymore. But if I didn’t have one already, there’s little chance I’d buy one now. I’d rather have a wireless multiroom audio system and stream whatever music I wanted anywhere in the house.

Like many things that go from mainstream to niche, snobbery rears its ugly head. And that’s nothing new, says CNN:

Even in the ’50s and ’60s, when stereo sound first became widespread, the audiophiles had their hi-fis — and the younger generation listened to tinny AM radios and cheap phonographs.

“The seeds of the decline of what it meant to own a stereo were planted way back then, because the original audiophiles were people who were baby boomers’ fathers and mothers,” he says. “As rock ‘n’ roll starts to become more of a thing, a lot of that stuff is produced so it’s meant to be heard on AM radios.”

A Phil Spector Wall of Sound production — in glorious mono! — would probably have driven a hi-fi enthusiast up a wall, says Milner.

Great artists always rise to the latest and greatest in technology. The digital nature of music production, distribution, and playback has created huge advances over the last 10 years — new sounds, new channels, new ways to listen.

Also, “crappy electronics” aren’t what they used to be:

New materials and processing technology have improved the sound of small and inexpensive devices, says Patrick Lavelle, president and CEO of the consumer electronics giant VOXX International, which manufactures such brands as Klipsch, Acoustic Research and Advent.

When kids think of great stereo audio today, they think… headphones.

There’s a reason why high-end headphones are so popular. Very few people have the time or the patience to sit still and listen to a record in its entirety anymore. Because people are always on the move, music must be too, and the proliferation of pricey headphones proves that people still desire good sound quality. Beyond the argument that they’re listening to tinny MP3s through them, the fact is that most people just don’t need a hi-fi stereo system to enjoy music any longer. Our attention spans are shorter, our lives are more hectic, and music is largely not a “listening experience” but rather a lifestyle accessory.

“If you can take your entire music collection and more in something that fits in your pocket, why would you not do that?”

Seriously, why wouldn’t you?

The merging of home entertainment with portable entertainment is perhaps the most exciting ongoing technological development of the 2010s. Let’s embrace change, and let the past be the past.

Yes, those were great times. So are these. And there’s so much innovation to come.

There’s never been a better time to be a music lover. That should apply for all of us.

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  • William Putnam

    For the sake of music I hope you’re wrong.

  • Ray Lucas

    I agree and disagree. Times are more hectic, there is more selection, albeit not at a high enough quality, but that is unfortunately a subjective statement and I digress. There is also still a place for high-resolution audio, its just that today’s youth have been conditioned to find it for free at the cost of quality. Unfortunately, what today’s generation, and frankly everyone else who thinks it is cool to rip off music or just listen to free Pandora, will find is that at some point good music will cease to exist. There must be a good mechanism in place for artists to make a living, and this is what is missing. Like society itself, the money is going to a few lucky ones and the rest rarely if ever make it. Like you, I have been taking advantage of all-you-can-eat music since the days of Yahoo Music and now on Rhapsody. I have seen many of these services come and go, but the one thing I still like is a CD in my hand. Call me old fashion, but when I want the best quality, I buy the CD, Blu-Ray and even an occasional SACD. For me, it is quality and quantity, but unfortunately so many confuse quantity with quality and that is a shame.

  • Lawson Hale

    Let’s hope that our youth (as well as the general public) do not perceive all HiFi systems as the outlandish display shown in this picture. HiFi systems can easily be integrated into most any environment without drawing so much attention to themselves. If the two channel HiFi business is to survive (and thrive), we need to make an effort to educate our youth on the benefits of such a system. If the uninitiated can be given the opportunity to audition a quality system by a well trained professional, I believe that the future of HiFi systems are very bright indeed.

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  • http://Techtell Bruce Payne

    Geeks 10+ years ago were leaving the home av scene. When confronted by a pre-amp volume control, I have seen total confusion at a gathering. Last week, I went to the geek squad to have my receiver sent in for repairs. None of what I said made any sense to the geek behind the counter (speaker output was blown). I am seeing people choose sound bars vs 5.1 or higher. Man caves are the last refuge of the audiophile.

  • Don

    I echo Mr. Putnam’s sentiment. Fact is, what this article reveals is just the problem. And not just in music. Volume not quality. It’s why Joe Fresh makes it crap in Bangladesh.
    I doubt that anyone who is endlessly streaming music or downloading (probably for free) endless amounts of music, ever becomes truly intimate with it. As I sit here listening to Ingrid Haebler playing Mozart on my turntable played through a pre-amp and amp and to fine little set bookshelf speakers in my office I know a it will take me more then a few listens to truly appreciate this recording of the concerto for piano and orchestra No. 26. I suspect that Mr. Paone may not know what I mean and may not
    care. And I doubt that, obsessed with the volume of music they have access too, most of the kids will never hear music the way it should be heard. And that’s sad.
    On the bright side, vinyl sales are up and ITunes is down. Dinosaurs rule!

  • Erica Kensho

    “There’s nothing wrong with a great home stereo system. I have one myself; I just don’t rely upon it anymore. But if I didn’t have one already, there’s little chance I’d buy one now. I’d rather have a wireless multiroom audio system and stream whatever music I wanted anywhere in the house.”

    So simply put, you’re not an audiophile, and you can’t speak for what we audiophiles experience when listening to a truly great performance on a truly great high-end system.