I spoke to three big-name hi-fi companies - and we all have one big problem

Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
(Image credit: Amazon)

This week you’ll notice there’s been a theme on What Hi-Fi?. Specifically that we’re running a special week-long British Hi-Fi event where we’re celebrating the best audio tech, past and present, to come from our home nation.

As a part of that, we’ve had the pleasure of speaking to plenty of big names from some of Britain’s most iconic audio brands including Rega, Monitor Audio and Cambridge Audio to get their hot takes on topics like spatial audio, car hi-fi and what’s changed in the past 50 years.

And though for the most part, I’ve loved every conversation, there’s one topic that’s reared its ugly head in every chat, that over the past few weeks has slowly eaten away at me.

This started at the end of February with a casual comment from Cambridge Audio CEO, Stuart George when I asked him if they have many younger customers and he said in no uncertain terms:

“I don't know if the hi-fi is necessarily relevant for them yet.”

Innocent enough and true - when I was in my 20s I certainly didn’t have piles of cash under my pillow for floorstanders, in fact, I could barely afford my breakfast avocados. 

Things then escalated when Monitor Audio’s technical director Michael Hedges commented, “I think this is something that every audio company probably struggles with,” when I asked him the same question in a separate interview.

The final nail in the coffin then landed when I was going through a transcript of What Hi-Fi? managing editor, Becky Roberts' interview with Rega, when design engineer Ashton Wagner commented:

“I think there's a lot of people out there who just haven't had the opportunity to have the experience of quality music playback.”

Seeing a pattern here?

All of us are having a problem getting younger people into hi-fi. Now as a journalist who writes about the topic, that’s a pretty important problem as I really do like having a readership.

And that leads me to the point of this article - we all need to find ways to show younger music fans the benefit of hi-fi.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in this thought, with Rega, Monitor Audio and Cambridge Audio all agreeing with my sentiment. I think Monitor Audio’s Hedges put it best when he said:

“What we find is you can have a long conversation with people about how great the loudspeakers are - how it measures, what it does, what the distortion is - and it's kind of semi-meaningless. [It's not] until you sit them down in front of those speakers [and they can hear] why it's better than their Sonos system.” 

The complexity comes from the question “how” as it’s not like we can make people under the age of 25 sit in front of a proper set of speakers and stay put until they understand the majestic benefits of listening to Rush in stereo - trust me I’ve tried with my god-daughter, it didn’t end well.

And it’s here that no one I spoke to agreed. Every one of us had a different thought. 

Some think that it’ll organically happen as hi-fi fans pass their kit down to the next generation. I’m not doing that, my hi-fi’s going into the ground with me. 

Others mused that serious music fans would naturally go on their own journey, potentially driven by a desire to own their music on vinyl or a CD rather than relying on streaming. The low-fi movement certainly lends some credence to that thought.

But regardless of the answer, it is a problem that’s keeping me up at night, and one I hope we as an industry can answer, as there’s so much good music in the world that deserves to be heard properly on a decent hi-fi setup and not a cheap pair of poor-sounding Bluetooth in ears. 

What do you think? How can we encourage the next generation of hi-fi fans? Let us know with a comment below!


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Alastair Stevenson
Editor in Chief

Alastair is What Hi-Fi?’s editor in chief. He has well over a decade’s experience as a journalist working in both B2C and B2B press. During this time he’s covered everything from the launch of the first Amazon Echo to government cyber security policy. Prior to joining What Hi-Fi? he served as Trusted Reviews’ editor-in-chief. Outside of tech, he has a Masters from King’s College London in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion, is an enthusiastic, but untalented, guitar player and runs a webcomic in his spare time. 

  • NWAMacMan
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Cambridge Audio, Monitor Audio and Rega are all worried about getting youngsters into proper hi-fi, and I’m right there with them.

    I spoke to three big-name hi-fi companies - and we all have one big problem : Read more
    The answer is in your text. Big bucks. It has to be cheaper if young people are going to get into hi-fi. Companies will figure it out or die. Then Tik-Tok…
  • techgenius
    The void between consumer audio and specialist has been diverging for many years. Changes in lifestyle and the way music content is now consumed (on-the move) play a big part. However, you only have to look at the volume of music consumed pre and post smartphone to see the real driver. We should remember that hi-fi is just a means to deliver music, and music is why we buy quality hi-fi, but it’s not exclusive. Some specialist hi-fi companies lost sight of the consumer and have made very little in-roads to adapt. I was a co-owner of one of the companies you have highlighted for over 20years and in the industry for 30+. I know the dilemma, and understand it more now I’m on the outside. I advise and invest in other technology businesses who are going through digital transformation, with many evolving rapidly towards a new consumer. It’s just the traditional hi-fi business has been pedestrian (at best). Sonos has gone from 0-$1.7bn revenue in 15 years. Whereas some specialist hi-fi brands are doing the same revenue today as they were back then (adjusting for inflation). That gives you and indication who is getting the lions share of the business in music delivery.
  • ultraminiature
    It is not new or just the current 15-25 years olds.

    After university many of my friends got hi-fi systems. Some got really good hi-fi system for a budget price. Only one read reviews and went to listen to different systems and continues to update his system and moved from stereo to surround, as I have done.

    Those best buy product got replaced by stacks and a remote. The remote broke and the system was clearly inferior to what they had but they matched. Some went onto mini systems as the main system or in another room. All of those have gone.

    Even those with clearly decent hi-fi (NAD, B&W, B&O etc) now have smart speaker. Instead of switching on the radio or playing a CD they ask the smart speaker to play the music in mono. It is more convenient. Many watch YouTube on their phones and movies on their tablets. If that is all you have no problem. If you don't want the clutter and expense of anything more also okay. But I am referring to those using the tiny mobile phone or tablet in the room with a 4K television and some decent hi-fi. Their choice but it makes little sense to me. I have hooked my hi-fi to my TV even when that was a 12" B/W set in 1978. I have hooked up as the main source my computer since Windows 3.0.

    Manufacturers seem to develop a system and then try to find or create a market. Cheaper powered speakers are often better than a sound bar. One mains cable, a signal cable to the passive secondary speaker two boxes over one but cheaper and a better sounding system. Looking on rightmove properties for sale I found only one with a hi-fi system, one mini system, a few boomboxes or Bluetooth speakers in the kitchen and a screen in every room some with soundbars. Any hi-fi is very niche.

    There are some interesting innovations in DSP active speakers and systems with built in steaming. But some of those have slowly lost the built in features, dropping Tidal, then Spotify and the internet radio no longer works all working from a mobile phone over Bluetooth even if they are Ethernet and wi-fi connected and had been able to play back 16/44 lossless now cast over compressed Bluetooth.

    Any analogue system going back to the 1950s is a cheap cable away of working with any current analogue system. Modern digital systems change every couple of years. I wanted an updated hi-fi system to go surround but could not work out how many boxes I needed. They supplied S-video switching source. Then the new system had HDMI 1.4 and then 2.0 and 2.1 and then ARC and now eARC. Latency is a problem. My 40 year old speakers are harder to maintain but work and have no problem mixing and matching to a 7.1 system from any source.

    The modern digital systems also go into the complexity of computer network set ups. Great when it works but impossible to diagnose when they don't. They don't scale up and getting information from manufacturers is impossible as their support teams don't understand the products and certainly not how they fail doing anything "outside the box" with other needed equipment. some of these devices are a gnat's hair away from perfection and then they brick it and restrict it potential. People into spending £2k on a pair of life style speakers are not going to say okay to do one more task I will spend £14K on the model that "does". They will forget it or go for another manufacturer offering a £2k speaker that ticks the last box as well as the rest.
  • TRC
    I've been into music for 30 years (I'm 41), I started with my first "system" 20 years ago and my first relatively reputable standard system 15 years ago. Now my system is about £15k (average by many standards I am sure) but, my point is this... you can be into music from a young age, and you can be into hifi when you've got money, but who has money in their mid-20s? So 1) it's partly a money thing..

    2) Who wants material assets in an age of subscriptions and Ikea minimalism? Current consumerism trends do not cater for big material assets, nor loud material assets, look at the state of "new builds" in the UK, those walls are thinner than a 1950's vintage sci-fi book. Who cares about loudness if you've got some good heads, you're not going to aggravate anyone, you've got your bass, and you don't have to talk to anyone.

    3) Marketing. Beats as a brand has marketed themselves as hi-fi, especially on bass (bass is overbearing btw Dr. Dre - tried a mates never bought). The cool thing is not hifi, it's who has the best bluetooth buds playing spotify not TIDAL, because it's cheaper, or worse still something off TikTok or youtube: streaming is not better than a CD in the right transport, and a serious DAC - Bel Canto, I salute you). The vast majority of youts are convinced - as dependent individuals are - that if everyone else has it, they don't want, but need it as well. Better marketing, in the right channels, better propensity to gain the new breed, who's disposable income stretches enough to keep up with the critical mass.

    4) Music genres When you're 20 now (and when I was a kid tbf) you're listening to Drum and Bass, Dubstep, Breakbeat, Thrash Metal (never understood this).... Lionel Ritchie, Micheal Bolton (joke), Classical, Prince (someday children some day you will learn), don't get a look in.

    These first few genres will aggravate the neighbours, and due to high rent and an impossibility to buy, you're living at your parents, so head and earphones are the smart choice, and often the only choice if you want to block out their world.

    And if you're lucky enough that you live in your parents manor with an annex room above the garage, then you get the biggest speakers for the cheapest price with the most bass and crank up the dial, often popping the cones due to inexperience, the open credit of Daddy's plastic wallet. 99% of audiophiles are male, daddy might have actually got some kit and introduced you... access route number..

    So, my takes...
    Marketing ear buds, and marketing hifi are no different, it's marketing, you just have to reach the right audience and find a way of reaching a critical mass, by way of.. Endorsement is the biggest one, young kids are so fickle it's embarrassing, but then weren't we all.

    Because there are options, and the youth have been taken by the ear/head craze (which at the higher end is very very good), this is a much longer term gain, it may take several beleaguered tax years for some, and... it's not just a few companies involved, this is industry wide.

    The hi-fi community, from OEMs to avids, dads and more, and even those who hit Richer Sounds at Christmas and purchased a £500 system, the fact is, we need to become hifi evangelists, not staying within the community and caressing 4 year strong beards while chatting about a new power conditioner, we need to take it out to the masses. As Emile Durkheim said, "The whole is greater than the sum of its constituent parts". Vive la Revolution...?

    There is an African phrase, in Swahili, UBUNTU - Humanity for others, and what greater a human offering than an invitation in the digital and analogue wizardry of High-Fidelity Home Audio... 🤘