The Hub: Just how bad is it in high end audio?

A warning: those seeking heart-warming anecdotes and mindless cheer to accompany their morning coffee should perhaps save this piece for later in the day. Following our last Hub entry concerning the closing of high end audio's best-known dealer, Sound by Singer, we will take a look at the big picture in the audio industry... and it ain't pretty. Think bartender, not barista.

In past entries of The Hub, we've discussed the origins of the audio industry, some of its giants, and the glory days of the '50's through the '80's. Sad to say, these days are not those days.

Why is that? In addition to the societal factors that have diminished the importance of hi-fi, general economic trends have taken their toll on the high end.

Consider: Since the crash of the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, 1 in 50 homes in America has gone into foreclosure. Blue chip companies like GM and Chrysler have gone into bankruptcy. Reports of major corporations slashing tens of thousands of jobs have become almost commonplace. Car sales are down to record low levels. Housing sales are almost nonexistent in many major markets. Is it any surprise that sales of big-ticket items like high end audio components are also way down?

The question is not IF sales of new audio gear are down, but HOW MUCH they're down. Oddly enough, coming up with an accurate assessment of the damage to the high end audio marketplace is surprisingly difficult.

At $175 billion/year, the consumer electronics industry constitutes one of the largest and most robust sectors of the economy, as seen in this Consumer Electronics Association press release. However, the CEA also reports that sales of component audio have dropped from $1.3 billion/year in the US five years ago to about $0.9 billion/year today. So: in the US, the audio industry makes up a mere one-half of one percent of the $175 billion consumer electronics marketplace. What the average audiophile would consider high end makes up a fraction of that fraction.

In addition to being just a small crumb from the crust of the consumer electronics pie, the scale of the high end is difficult to ascertain due to the nature of the companies in the industry. Quite a few high end manufacturers with a worldwide reputation and presence have fewer than a dozen employees. Some are larger than that, but many more are even smaller, 2- or 3-man operations. Nearly all audio manufacturers are privately held, and thus are not required to report their sales or staffing. Nearly all are small enough to escape the attention of the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Bureau of the Census, which compile most of the data regarding American manufacturers.

What about audio retailers? As is true of manufacturers, most dealerships are small and privately owned. Knowing that Best Buy has an astonishing 180,000 employees and exceeds $49 billion in sales tells us less than nothing about Bob's Hi-Fi in Winnibigosh. There's almost no hard data available on independent audio dealers, but few say that they're doing well.

As we become inured to reports of disasters in the economy, individual happenings tend to be forgotten. To refresh our memories, here are some key events in the reshaping of the consumer electronics marketplace. Not all these companies were directly involved in audio, much less high end audio, but are still relevant to our discussion:

January, 2009:
Circuit City closes its remaining 567 stores. 34,000 employees lose their jobs.

January, 2009:
Bose lays off 1,000 employees, about 10% of its workforce.

April, 2009:
Ritz Camera closes 300 stores.

February, 2010:
55-year-old D.C.-area A/V chain MyerEmco closes all seven of its stores.

April, 2010:
D & M Holdings shuts down its Snell and Escient brands.

May, 2010:
Movie Gallery closes 1,906 Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video and Game Crazy stores. Over 19,000 jobs are lost.

June, 2010:
Ken Crane's, a 62-year-old California A/V chain, closes the six stores remaining of what had been a ten store chain. 75 workers lose jobs.

Clearly, times are tough. The best available data indicates sales in the audio industry have fallen off by at least one-third, over the past few years. Many working in the business feel the drop has been far greater than that. One manufacturer puts it very plainly: "a lot of the dealers and manufacturers are zombies. They're dead; they just don't know it yet."

A dealer with decades of experience puts it even more brutally: "The best we can hope for is death, for a lot of the manufacturers and dealers. Maybe then we could get some sensible people who don't hide their heads in the sand."

Our next entry of The Hub will review some of the changes audio dealers and manufacturers are making in order to survive in today's challenging marketplace. We will also talk with folks in the industry who see signs of a turnaround, and are working to bring in a new generation of audiophiles. The question we leave with this time is: "What do we do now?"
a manufacturer with one or two employees, who stocks no inventory and fills orders as they occur, and who has another source of income can remain viable indefinitely.
I think all this started with the popular acceptance of home theater. It was at that point that the emphasis shifted from music to sound effects. Little thumpy subs and cacaphonic mixes steered us away from real music.
Mac: I remember visiting a few of those car dealers in the middle of nowhere. They were patient and kind to a car-crazy teen, just as the audio dealers gave me access to gear I could never afford. I'm afraid those days are largely gone: hard to imagine a 19-year-old being allowed to test-drive a 911 these days.

I think regional shows and roadshows are vital to the future of audio in whatever form it might ultimately take. However, I have a hard time imagining enough direct sales taking place at them to obviate the need for dealers, for most manufacturers.

Rok: I think every generation says that the younger generation's music stinks, but I hear what you're saying. I wouldn't hold my breath about the big manufacturers bailing out the tweak guys; nice thought, though!

Mr.: Perhaps they can remain "active" indefinitely, but I think "viable" might be stretching it.

Mac, again: For quite a few years HT helped dealers survive while 2-channel audio was in decline. Not sure "cacaphonic" is a word, but if it's not, it should be!

Thanks for the comments, guys.
Home theater is why 2 channel was in decline.

Audiophiles are like pipe smokers in that a few still exist and ever so infrequently someone young comes along and enlists himself. Both have to be realistically viewed as dying breeds however.
Mr Manners: you misunderstood me I didn't mean that older people were not into current pop music.... I meant young people don't think it's very good either .... on the typical cd, at best you get one or maybe two decent songs and a lot of filler for $20 .... that's why they cherry pick songs to download online. I can remeber the time when most cuts on an lp were very good. my point was addressing why younger people are not investing in high end audio gear.