SoundStage! UKKen KesslerRecently, I attended a hi-fi show in California. I was there by sheer coincidence, the show taking place in the hotel next to mine. I found it by accident, as with the hi-fi show in New York I stumbled upon a couple of years ago.

At the risk of demonstrating the loathsome sense of entitlement that has infected modern society with the virulence of a plague, I admit to being baffled by not hearing about these shows beforehand. It's partly my fault, as I am not exactly diligent in scouring the net for event calendars. So mea culpa.

Given the vomitus with which we're assailed daily by banners, spam, and blogs, unavoidable drivel even if you don't use social media, I suffered a mix of shame and indignation. The former is a reaction to my own indolence, the latter an inexcusable display of ego. Regardless, I rose to the occasions and mustered a report for Hi-Fi News & Record Review.

I'm glad I did, although I could spare but a short time to attend, not having planned for the shows because I didn't know about them. And while the NYC event was a travesty, the California Audio Show reminded me of events of yore.

Of course, it was under-attended because the public just doesn't care about high-end audio anymore. But there were treasures to behold and lessons to be learned. Between Rethm's new integrated amp and a breathtaking demo of Wilson's Duette 2, I heard enough to make me furious about this incredible gear being ignored in favour of unlistenable swill from massive companies that have prostituted themselves to a degree not seen anywhere else. By comparison, the worst of "reality television" on once-proud networks is high art compared to what now passes for mass-market audio.

What has changed, way beyond the initial onslaught spearheaded by the iPod, the ensuing docks and, latterly, music via tablet, is the way ownership of a decent sound system is no longer a matter of pride, like having a nice car or well-equipped kitchen. Again, I realise that I am talking about base materialism here, but ownership of hi-fi, like anything else that one owns in a physical form, is materialistic. Get over it.

I have learned in my other life as a marketing consultant in the luxury sector that there are only two growth areas in audio. You all know about the outrageous boom in headphone sales. I just read that Beats By Dr. Dre turned over close to US $1 billion last year. You also know that the headphone craze has provided a much-needed boost to audiophile-approved brands that never made headphones before, who have delivered their own headphones with superior sound.

PSB M4U 1Focal, KEF, Musical Fidelity, B&W, Polk, PSB, MartinLogan, NAD, Pro-Ject -- these are but a few names to add to traditional headphone makers like Sennheiser, Stax, Beyer, AKG, Audio-Technica and others who have been handed a new lease on life. They must compete with, aside from Beats, a slew of new brands like Skullcandy, but I suspect that anyone with audio roots would be happier with headphones from one of the established audio manufacturers, companies that know about sound quality, rather than brands that worship fashion and are inspired by footwear.

Another by-product of the headphone craze is the flood of new headphone amps and USB-stick-sized, combination mini-DACs / headphone amps to exploit sources like PCs. This, too, has benefitted traditional audio makers who never made headphone amps before, while others, such as AudioValve and Benchmark, have had headphone amps in their catalogues for years, pre-dating the current headphone mania.

What I also learned was that the assault on traditional speakers wasn't limited to the move toward headphone-only listening. Nobody in his or her right mind will claim that 5.1 surround sound (let alone the farce that is 3D TV) provided any salvation for the industry. Who ever believed for a second that a world full of housewives who despise even two speakers would suddenly embrace five . . . plus a subwoofer!

It seems that the prevailing form of loudspeaker, either now or soon to dominate the market, is the "soundbar." These have been around for a while, as an alternative to five speakers (or two), with dubious claims of surround sound from a single chassis. But it soon dawned on retailers that, as long as manufacturers were fitting flat-panel TVs with risible loudspeakers, there was an upgrade market waiting to be addressed, surround be damned.

You see the parallel: soundbars were handed a market in the same way that rotten earbuds supplied with iPods created the demand for superior headphones. And many top speaker makers are getting into soundbars, just as they have headphones. They have to. But the only good thing to say about soundbars, relative to the real speakers they're ousting, is that, unlike headphones, at least they're not antisocial.

. . . Ken Kessler