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.
WHY 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.
Last 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.
In 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.
I 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.
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