posted by Thom Holwerda on Fri 23rd May 2008 13:02 UTC
IconMany of us grew up with the idea of the component audio system. A receiver (or a separate preamplifier and amplifier), tuner (radio), record player, tape deck, and later on a CD player. If you were into more fancy stuff, you had a DAT or MiniDisc deck as well. While some of us cling on to this mindset like there's no tomorrow, the real world seems to favour a different method of consuming music. According to Erica Ogg (what's in a name), the component audio system is on its way out - thanks to the iPod and the commoditisation of music.

My own setup is anything but exotic. I have a Sony STR-DE515 5.1 surround receiver, a Technics SL-PG420A compact disc player, a cheap EUR 75 Lenco record player, and two HiLo 60/90W three-way speakers. A fairly affordable set of components, most of which I snapped up at, a Dutch eBay-like website. From the looks of it there doesn't appear to be anything special about these components - but there is. The CD player is well over 15 years old, and the speakers are most likely 20-30 years old.

And they still perform their intended functions in an outstanding manner. In fact, the old CD player playbacks scratched and old discs a lot better than just about any modern CD player I've ever used. I'm not entirely sure how old the device actually is, as there is little information to be found online, but I remember that the man who sold it to me stated it was from the early '90s.

The speakers are more interesting: they are from HiLo, a company from the small Dutch town of Wormerveer. The company is no longer in operation, and apart from a few online classifieds, the intertubes contain little information on the company. Most of these classifieds refer to speakers from the '70s, but I suspect mine are a little younger ('80s). Still, considering the age of the speakers, it's extraordinary they still work perfectly. I suspect the wooden speakers are hand-built - the craftsmanship is astonishing.

Anyway, this all appears to become a thing of the past. As Erica Ogg puts it:

If you think about it, the equipment that has traditionally defined the audiophile is antithetical to the way we experience music today. Speakers are clunky and immobile, and expensive shelf systems don't play easily swappable digital files. Instead, stereo shopping nowadays often means picking up an iPod and a speaker dock. The combination is cheaper, mobile, convenient, and, for better or worse, cool.

The sales of home audio equipment have been on a steady decline for the past ten years or so, with a sharp decline the past few years. "Home CD player sales totaled USD 36.2 million last year, but that's 35 percent below 2005 sales figures," Ogg cites from data from the NPD Group, "Home speaker sales are down 2 percent, but home shelf systems sales are down 40 percent in the same time period." Only the true audiophiles stick to the component, home audio market - the rest of the world is moving towards iPods and docks.

The industry is forced to consolidate; JVC and Kenwood have merged into JVC Kenwood Holdings, hoping to cut down on costs. D&M Holdings, the company behind high-end brands such as Denon, Marantz (Marantz! Marantz!), McIntosh, Snell Acoustics, Boston Acoustics, and Escient, is also up for sale - Harman International and JVC Kenwood are interested. Steve Guttenberg of Audiophiliac is concerned about these developments.

Audio today, as exemplified by the iPod, has become a mere commodity, most mainstream audio products are cranked out by anonymous subcontractors. What part(s) of an iPod was actually designed by Apple engineers? There's no there, there.

D & M Holdings products are different, they're designed and made by real people; when I visited the McIntosh factory a few years ago I was impressed by their dedication. McIntosh engineers still design McIntosh electronics, and the McIntosh workers don't merely assemble parts made by subcontractors, the make most of the things that go into a McIntosh in house.

These types of companies produce their equipment by hand, with an astonishing eye for detail and attention to customer service. "The products were made to last for decades, not just the length of a one-year warranty," Ogg writes.

I dislike the way people consume music these days - they don't take the time for it any more, they don't sit down on their sofas just to listen to music, to experience it, to revel in it. Music merely has an additional value these days, instead of an intrinsic value. It is no longer tangible - instead of a record cover or jewel case, you have a number of anonymous 1s and 0s.

And call me old-fashioned, but where's the soul in that?

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