The Kids Are Alright

Once-thriving hi-fi stores are groaning under the atrophying weight of greying hair and Mark Knopfler guitar solos. But there is hope. Witchdoctor’s new correspondent Clinton Dixon reports from the gleaming magic mall of shiny new products, Singapore.

1-DSC_9090WHY ARE YOUNG people flocking to personal audio and shunning hi-fi? Is it purely a value proposition or have hi-fi manufacturers just been too slow in recognising the fact that sound quality and convenience can co-habitate? It’s surprising how little interest established hi-fi manufacturers have shown in attracting a new and younger generation of listeners to their products. Evidence of this customer neglect could not be more pronounced here in Singapore, a once hi-fi-mad nation now under the throes of a headphone revolution.

I have been visiting Singapore since 2005, and still remember the first time I stepped into the Adelphi hi-fi mall. Sited in Singapore’s downtown, the Adelphi Mall is an ageing but well maintained four-story mall that houses some of the most exotic audio gear on the planet. Five figure audio gear was in abundance, and strolling through the mall gave you the uncanny feeling of walking through the pages of Stereophile magazine as gear you’d only ever seen online or in print appeared before your eyes at every shop front. I ended up going back three times on that first holiday, and probably would have spent even more time there had it not been the week of my honeymoon!

I revisited the mall in 2008 and nothing had changed. The mall was fully tenanted, the big audio names were all well represented and the local market for hi-fi still looked strong. In 2011 I migrated with my family to Singapore, and from that point on I have noticed distinct changes in the Adelphi mall that I believe are being mirrored industry-wide.

1-DSC_9101Last month I spent an afternoon at the mall trying to dig into current trends, and I was surprised with what I discovered. Gone were most of the elaborate high-end product displays and equipment. In their place were high-end in ear monitors (IEM’s), full sized open and closed back headphones, desktop and portable headphone amplifiers and DACs in every flavour known to man. Untenanted shops were scattered throughout the mall, and the smiling faces of once happy hi-fi vendors have now been replaced with the smiling faces of the many beauticians who operate the day spas and beauty salons that occupy a third of the mall.

Now, I could understand if this market scenario was being played out during the Global Financial Crisis but this was 2013, not 2008. Singapore is at near full employment, has an economic growth rate that New Zealand could only dream of, and is, on a per capita basis, home to the most millionaires in the world. Fertile conditions for a booming hi-fi industry you would think, but sales are still declining. One store-owner told me that hi-fi retailing will disappear from the Adelphi mall in the next two to three years if things don’t change soon.

Trying to shake off what I had just heard, I quickly ambled into another hi-fi store, and there many of my worst fears were realised. I stood in the back of the room as a $40,000-plus hi-fi system was being demonstrated for a grey-haired middle-aged American couple. ‘Hotel California’ was playing via the audio server (sigh). I stood there thinking, ‘am I in some sort of time warp here?’ As the demo progressed I visually rifled through the demo CD rack hoping to find something vaguely contemporary to play. None, nada, zilch. Everything was an audiophile recording, mastered to perfection, featuring music catering to an audience from another era.

I felt like I had stepped back 20 years in time just entering the store. How is this meant to attract the next generation of audiophiles? Last year I sat in on a demonstration of a $200,000-plus hi-fi system at the same mall, and guess what they played me? Dire Straits: ‘Money For Nothing’. (Double sigh). So where are the next generation of audiophiles fleeing to? Headphone audio.

1-DSC_9120In that same mall one hour earlier I had just stepped into a thriving headphone store where youth culture and an entirely different vibe was in the air. As I walked in I was greeted by eager young people behind the counter and was encouraged to sample the gear. Nothing was out of bounds and nothing was off limits. If I wanted to mix and match equipment that was fine. If I wanted to spend three hours listening to their range of headphones that was fine also. I could be left to my own devices and enjoy the experience. It was simple, it felt modern and no stress. I could just select any of the 30-plus demo headphones on display and listen to my heart’s content. Digital audio players, portable amps, DACs all within reach and all ready to experience. I had no audio salesmen breathing down my neck, I could judge the sound quality on my own terms and Mark Knopfler guitar solos felt a world away.

imagesI spoke to the store manager about the headphone scene and the recent Mook Headphone festival they held which attracted headphone heavyweights such as Jerry Harvey from JH Audio. She said the festival was a huge success and the majority of the attendees were in the 18 to 24 age bracket. She also shared how it was not uncommon for headphone enthusiasts to be carrying around $2000-plus portable headphone rigs as she went onto show me one of the most popular digital audio players in the store, the $999 Astell and Kern AK100. This experience is not an isolated one here in Singapore. Even the legendary Orchard Road shopping precinct houses a variety of headphone stores that tenant some of the most expensive retail space in the country.

So what can we make of all this? Is the hi-fi world turning into a sunset industry as the headphone market conquers all before it, or can these two markets co-exist? As crazy as it sounds I believe the hi-fi world needs the headphone market to succeed. Let me explain.

Firstly, the headphone market has brought the youth back. Tech savvy young people are now experimenting with different iPod/smartphone-driven headphone, amp and DAC combinations, trying to find their perfect sound. Does this sound familiar? It’s like hi-fi all over again, but on a smaller scale in both price and size.

Secondly, thanks to the proliferation of youth driven headphone internet sites, blogs and forums, information abounds demystifying many of the complexities of the audio industry. For those new to the audio world, the jargon-laced terminology can be a huge barrier to entry, but join a headphone internet forum such as Headfi, state you are a “noob” and your every question will be answered.

The Eagles: Young head phone listeners don't want a bar of 'Hotel California'.
The Eagles: Young head phone listeners don’t want a bar of ‘Hotel California’.

Thirdly, and you can probably guess where I am going with this, the progression from headphone fan to hi-fi fan is not a big one. Factor in the increased earning power that accompanies age and stage and the middle-aged headphone fan will eventually be the next generation of audiophiles.

The hi-fi market in Singapore is experiencing quite a bumpy transition period as it waits for its new customer base to appear. With Adelphi Mall’s slow demise playing out with the greying of its store owners and customer base I believe the next generation of audiophiles are not too far away. I just worry if there will be any hi-fi market left when they arrive. CLINTON DIXON

10 Comments

  1. Very good article. This is why I will never play Audiophile approved recordings in the shop… its just ridiculous to do so on many levels. Very true about Head-fi too, where they are very welcoming. Most audio forums for hifi are old boys clubs mostly impenetrable to the average newbie. Witchdoctor is of course an exception!

  2. I had to laugh as I was strolling through the Adelphi Mall again yesterday. Glancing through one of the shop windows I could see another middle aged couple on the thick end of another Dire Straits HiFi demo. Enough with the Dire Straits already!

  3. “Witchdoctor is of course an exception!” Thanks, Neil!

  4. Nicely done Clinton. I just look at the reactions that I get from the younger people I work with: Hi-fi? Boring! Headphones? Cool!
    Many traditional hi-fi retailers wouldn’t know where to start with that sort of customer.

  5. That damn Mark Knopfler! Let’s criticise him for his interesting and well-produced music that probably flatters a lot of overpriced exotic Hi-Fi. I didn’t miss the gist of the story about attracting younger people to Hi-Fi, but I’m not sure critical listening is high up on their priorities if they’re listening to Mp3s through earbuds.

  6. I believe a dedicated Head-Fi style store would work well where I live… IF they could achieve on-line price parity. The real issues with retailing headphones in NZ is the high buy prices afforded through the wholesaler / ‘physical retailer’ model. I think there’s room for an importer to set up store fronts in malls, retail their headphones, educate people about DAC’s + headphone amps, and well, take the sounds straight to their target market.

  7. Pingback: Audiophile Manufacturers Ignore The Youth Market

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  9. Fantastic article! I’ve literally spent YEARS editorializing about this, and I’m psyched to see more people who truly get it! I’ve also been a fan of what Steve does here at Witch Doctor for a long time. We discussed this very topic in an interview in Witch Doctor a couple of years ago! WILD. I wish I could add some links here to show how we’re cut from the same cloth brotha!!

    People who are waking up to the personal audio revolution are all the better for it, including many high end audio companies!

  10. Interesting article, but I think one of the key elements mis-used , is that of the term audiophile .
    As an owner of what I consider to be a decent sounding system , I would hope that I am a music lover first and foremost
    The only reason I have the best gear I can afford is to get the most out of the music , whatever it may be .
    Certainly neither the Eagles ( Desperado album excepted ) or Dire Straits ( debut album excepted ) really feature in my music collection .
    The antiquity , or otherwise , of music anyhow is not really valid .
    It is the quality of performance first and foremost that should be the priority.
    Some “audiophile” CD’s have terrific music , particularly some of the Chesky SACD’s – some are rubbish , however .
    Why anyone would just buy a CD because it is well recorded is beyond me.
    The music should always come first , but when do you ever hear

    Rory Gallagher
    Louis Armstrong
    Jack Bruce
    Lee Morgan
    Art Pepper
    King Crimson
    Bill Evans
    Bert Jansch , etc ,

    on the radio and / or in stores anyway ?

  11. Some comments from Computer Audiophile, a demographic where older guys like myself have one foot in the past (Blocky and Big Hi-Fi Gear, although personally I stream music through small powered monitors from a USB DAC) and one in the future (the use of USB DAC, sophisticated playback software and streaming Hi res downloaded files from system RAM)Hell some of us wouldn’t mind if you demoed Radiohead instead of Knopfler.

    http://www.computeraudiophile.com/f8-general-forum/audiophile-manufacturers-ignore-youth-market-17484/#post254749

  12. I think you can judge a true music lover by what they listen to. If they have very few albums (in whatever format) and listen to small excerpts of music repeatedly, then they are an “Audiophile” – if they have more invested in a wide variety of music which they enjoy listening to – they are a “music lover”. From what I see and obviously what Clinton sees in Singapore, there is a disconnect between the majority of store ownners who are in their 50’s and 60’s and the younger music loving market. I have been preaching to store owners for years about engaging with all the people that they see walking past their (often empty) stores with earbuds in, or cans on their ears… they are music lovers (often at albeit lower quality) who just need to be exposed to better quality in order to “get it” and move up into better sound. That is the real challenge for dealers and distributors.

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