Why don’t more young people have a hi-fi system?

Child watching a vinyl record played on a turntable
(Image credit: Getty Images, Luke Chan)

I recently read a comment in a forum that said something to the effect of “Why don’t people under 30 have hi-fi systems?” It’s a reasonable question and one that certainly warrants being asked. I’ve just entered my thirties and, as much as my friends of a similar age are huge music fans, I don’t know any (except myself) who own hi-fi separates, passive speakers, and the rest of it. 

It made me reflect on how I got into hi-fi. I’m lucky enough to have a dad who has always had audio gear and actively shared his love of music with me from a young age. Not only that, but he’s a certified car boot sale connoisseur with a keen eye for any tech deals. Without his finds, I wouldn’t have a system. 

For the last decade, I’ve had a pretty decent little set-up: a Sony turntable and a Technics stereo integrated amp (with matching CD player and cassette deck) going into a pair of Bowers & Wilkins floorstanders. This was all acquired at car boot sales over the years. It’s mostly older equipment and didn’t cost a fortune, or anywhere close to the new price would have been. Thankfully, my dad knew the best locations to visit for car boot sales and we would always be sure to rock up at opening time, around 6am –  ‘early bird gets the worm’ and all of that, which is certainly true for tech and vinyl hunters at car boot sales in particular. 

I count myself very lucky that my dad was able to introduce me to hi-fi and help get my system started. Without his help, I probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as well equipped. Several factors prevent, restrict or deter other younger people from getting into hi-fi. Firstly, it’s not a cheap endeavour and this isn’t helped by a perceived lack of a ‘budget hi-fi market’ existing these days. 

The other big reality that needs to be faced is that the cost of living is so restrictive. Spending hundreds of pounds on hi-fi hardware seems like madness to many young people, or is simply impossible. Also, headphones and earbuds – which can serve multiple purposes in any location – usually take precedence over something that will stay at home in one spot. 

Not only this, but our generation has never strictly had to spend big money to play music. We have grown up in an era where listening to music has been increasingly accessible. Convenience is king and, for many, the speakers built into laptops and mobile phones – everyday, multi-tasking items that are already part of our lives – suffice. When this is what you’ve spent years getting used to, a wireless speaker or multi-room system will seem extremely impressive in comparison and this is where the journey ends for a lot of people. 'Good enough' is many orders of magnitude better than it used to be, and so entering into the world of hi-fi separates is a huge step up, rather than an entry point.

Is this a new issue, though? Have people always generally been ‘music first’ and cared less about the gear or quality, as long as they heard their favourite music? Some commentators seem to think so, especially fans of heavier music where energy often takes precedence over finer details. Listening spaces are also becoming harder to properly create for anyone without a detached house and ample funds. Most cheaper rental properties and newer blocks of flats, where a lot of young people find themselves, have thin walls and floors, which doesn’t exactly encourage a loud listening session. Having enough space to fit everything is also an issue in a lot of situations, especially for anyone in a shared home. 

The decline of bricks-and-mortar retail experiences and the rise of online shopping have also been factors to consider. The only way to truly experience hi-fi equipment is in person, whether that be in a hi-fi shop, a hi-fi show, or through friends' and parents' set-ups.

So, what can be done in the short term? One obvious answer is to introduce more budget audio components, separates and all-in-one options to the market – something which seems to get further and further away as prices of goods universally creep upwards, unfortunately. The thing is, young people are buying audio gear but it tends to be space-saving, relatively inexpensive wireless speakers and the like. Comparatively, hi-fi is more daunting – there’s stuff to connect and properly match. This is why all-in-one 'lifestyle' products are often entry points into hi-fi for those who choose to delve deeper.

Another solution is to keep sharing the love of hi-fi with those around you. We recently wrote about how transformative teaching your kids the value of hi-fi sound can be, and my story is also a good example of how true this is. People’s ears adapt to their chosen medium or format, and so if you grow up hearing decent amps and speakers, it’s going to be hard to settle for listening through thin, tinny-sounding laptop speakers as you grow up. Now I’m the one sharing the experience. There are plenty of people out there with cheap suitcase record players, and the experience of showing them their favourite records through a proper system is somewhat of a revelation, every time. 

We all know that hobbies and interests can’t be forced onto others, especially onto kids, but attempting to pass a love of music (and perhaps more importantly, an appreciation of high-quality audio) down through the generations is a crucial part of what will keep the universal love for hi-fi alive.

MORE: 

Teaching your kids the value of hi-fi sound will set them up for life – and it can be done on a budget

Building a hi-fi system? Here's the secret to matching the right components

Is there really a ‘right’ hi-fi sound for different music genres?

Staff Writer

Ainsley Walker is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied music journalism at university before working in a variety of roles including as a freelance journalist and teacher. Growing up in a family of hi-fi enthusiasts, this naturally influenced his interest in the topic. Outside of work, Ainsley can be found producing music, tinkering with retro tech, or cheering on Luton Town.

  • russelk
    This will probably be a deeply unpopular opinion here but if I'm honest I think today's young people are better off not being into hi-fi. There are more important things to be spending one's money on these days. My kids (16 and 19) listen to music all the time, but they have zero interest in hi-fi. They're happy with a competent set of headphones and I think that's great. I don't want them to fall into that hi-fi rabbit hole that I was in for around 25 years, stuck in an endless upgrade cycle, obsessing over the next piece of equipment.
    Reply
  • Crabbydude
    russelk said:
    This will probably be a deeply unpopular opinion here but if I'm honest I think today's young people are better off not being into hi-fi. There are more important things to be spending one's money on these days. My kids (16 and 19) listen to music all the time, but they have zero interest in hi-fi. They're happy with a competent set of headphones and I think that's great. I don't want them to fall into that hi-fi rabbit hole that I was in for around 25 years, stuck in an endless upgrade cycle, obsessing over the next piece of equipment.
    Nothing wrong with a fun rabbit hole, I think the reality is also the increased quality of bluetooth speakers that deliver high-ish quality for not much coin. Even my circle of friends (45-60 yr olds) typically don't have a hi-fi system using separates, they make do with something like Sonos or a higher end smart speaker and maybe a sound bar. Gets back to the old "good enough"
    Reply
  • bradavon
    It's not a money problem. Plenty of young people use Apple Airpods. Hi-Fis have never been expensive if you don't want them to be.

    It's a convenience and cultural problem.

    A bluetooth speaker requires no wires other than to charge it and can be used anywhere that's not wet.

    The moment we replaced high fidelity music with music convenience the Hi-fi was seen as overkill.

    Young people live in the world where gadgets are small or portable. Phones, earbuds, laptops, bluetooth. None of it is large and certainly not stationary.

    It's at the heart of why Spotify and YouTube Music are still Lossy only. Most under 30s only use bluetooth audio equipment with tiny drivers. The average CD Player in the 90s was far more equipped. They don't think they need High Fidelity sound because they've never heard and may well conclude they still don't need it.

    You need to listen to Lossy vs Lossless music. If you're playing music whilst doing things you may well not notice. When you do it's apparent but the difference isn't apparent immediately.

    It's a shame because even the best Bluetooth Speakers suck as home audio speakers, wonderful for the park though.
    Reply
  • Ian AV
    russelk said:
    This will probably be a deeply unpopular opinion here but if I'm honest I think today's young people are better off not being into hi-fi. There are more important things to be spending one's money on these days. My kids (16 and 19) listen to music all the time, but they have zero interest in hi-fi. They're happy with a competent set of headphones and I think that's great. I don't want them to fall into that hi-fi rabbit hole that I was in for around 25 years, stuck in an endless upgrade cycle, obsessing over the next piece of equipment.
    You are sort of right. But instead they fall into the technology rabbit hole. The difference is that the technology rabbit hole is infinity better for their future prospects.
    I gained a liking for music in the seventies because thats all we teenagers had, it had no value to future prospects, but we enjoyed it. Quite why I got into striving for the ultimate sound I could afford I don't know, hence my HiFi bug that still haunts me now and made me £10s of thousands poorer as a result. But I still love it today and expanded into movies too which was unthinkable in the seventies.
    Reply
  • halldors78
    Here in Iceland young people haven't had great stereo since the 70s, in the 80s and 90 the small speaker systems started to come and the sound sucked but it took less space. I got very old sensui and it was great and got some fine pioneer speakers. And now have marantz amplifier in the garage. Now kids only have some Bluetooth speakers that are fine but when you blast a true two speaker system you really hear the difference, but also maybe it's just the normal people that have bad stuff while people that actually buy albums and listen too whole albums have great stuff. And it wasn't too bad here in my small town there was a great music shop that a great drummer had and you could listen the albums before you bought them and he also picked out some stuff, like Pantera for example and Alice in chains. Great times.
    Reply
  • zhongliangong
    2 factors come to mind.

    Convenience - lossy audio streaming is available on Spotify and YouTube. It's so much easier to form families with regular plans compared to finding enough crazy audiophiles to form a family group for lossless audio from more niche services such as deezer. Even lossless audio requires a wired connection unless you have a dedicated streamer, otherwise the audio stream sent to the DAC will still be lossy even if the service is lossless.

    Housing costs. With the rising cost of housing it's rare for most younger people to be able to afford a place of their own. Renting usually comes with restrictions unless your landlord is an audiophile. With greater urbanization - even smaller apartments become less affordable. And small rooms (possibly serving multiple uses) mean that even good speakers would have their output colored by environmental factors
    Reply
  • king_alphonso
    Probably an unpopular opinion as well but I experience a market failing young people simply by targeting only older (probably more wealthy) customers.

    Have you ever walked into a hi-fi store and heard music that the younger generation might also listen to? or have you heard demonstrations of hip hop, electronic music, or similar at a hi-fi trade fair?

    I'm from this industry and unfortunately I hear all too often the same jazz, classical music, blues and a lot of Hotel California by the Eagles. Nothing against this kind of music, but there are other genres

    I don't think the younger generation doesn't want to have expensive hobbies or are easily satisfied. You can see a corresponding willingness in other areas such as coffee machines and accessories or even cyclists who spend a lot of money on good accessories and constantly buy new parts.
    Reply
  • Kenneth Fernandes
    russelk said:
    This will probably be a deeply unpopular opinion here but if I'm honest I think today's young people are better off not being into hi-fi. There are more important things to be spending one's money on these days. My kids (16 and 19) listen to music all the time, but they have zero interest in hi-fi. They're happy with a competent set of headphones and I think that's great. I don't want them to fall into that hi-fi rabbit hole that I was in for around 25 years, stuck in an endless upgrade cycle, obsessing over the next piece of equipment.
    How many Hi-Fi Start-ups have evolved from Silicon Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, California or the E.U. in the past week or earlier? There seems to be an Apple event in the next week, isn't it?
    Reply
  • Kenneth Fernandes
    zhongliangong said:
    Housing
    It depends where you are located and the age of the building. There are endless ways in mitigating this concern both through private and public agencies.
    Reply
  • hifipete
    russelk said:
    This will probably be a deeply unpopular opinion here but if I'm honest I think today's young people are better off not being into hi-fi. There are more important things to be spending one's money on these days. My kids (16 and 19) listen to music all the time, but they have zero interest in hi-fi. They're happy with a competent set of headphones and I think that's great. I don't want them to fall into that hi-fi rabbit hole that I was in for around 25 years, stuck in an endless upgrade cycle, obsessing over the next piece of equipment.
    You're right about unpopular, at least with true Audiophiles. Almost everybody likes music, and audiophiles certainly do. But liking music doesn't automatically make you an audiophile. But I respect people's choices on how they listen to music.
    Reply