The Kids Are Alright

“The kids are alright.”

Just over 40 years ago, those words were echoed across the world as the Who rocked stadium after stadium announcing to young and old, that yes in fact, this generation was doing just fine thank you very much. Politics aside (yes baby boomers, you spent a whole heck of a lot of money and now my poor Gen X has to figure out how to deal with no pension ;) I think this is true as much today as it was in 1965. Many bemoan that our children (I guess myself included) have lost a sense of quality, have lost a sense of music and that the active pursuit of listening to music, not as background music, but as something all-encompassing, may be gone forever. No. This is not just erroneous it is completely ignorant to think this way. Folks, the kids are alright.

I’m 30. Not young but not old either. I’m just slipping out of the target demographic for the RIAA, that 16-25 is a top group but they know that if they can score the 25-35 guys, they can likely count on them for life. I grew up listening to cassettes until, at the age of 15 I purchased a portable CD player. Thus began my journey into serious music collecting, not because CD was better than cassette, or that my little pdcd through stock ear buds was somehow better than my boom-box cassette player, but rather because it was a time that I was getting into music, music started to define my life, or at least relate to and even explain a few things about it (as seems to be the trend for most teens). I felt that buying music was a long-term investment. The media didn’t deteriorate and music is good for the mind, and I like investing in my mind. Best of all CDs didn’t get mangled in decks. CDs, thus far…are for life! I’m OC so each of my CDs is in mint condition; to this day I’ve never had a CD with a scratch.

>1000 albums later and I only love music more and more each day. I started out buying what was hot, mostly the tail end of “hair metal” and “glam rock” bands and a good dose of “grunge,” that elusive “alternative” rock that was ushered in predominantly by the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. It was a great time in my life and I still listen to these bands.

When I entered into university in the mid-90s I had just over 100 CDs. No one was using vinyl, and the web was just beginning. MP3 was still in its early infancy and so CD was it! Sure, the rave scene was blazing hot and vinyl was the source of choice, but unless one was spinning in a club, one was buying CDs, copying CDs, trading CDs, and of course listening to CDs. By my third year, broadband had hit campuses nation-wide. The lossy age had been birthed and was raging. Trading 128 kb/s mp3s, maybe 160 kb/s if one had the room was THE way to get bootlegs. The net was a dream for sourcing out rare and impossible finds. No doubt my collection grew. Mightily so! By the time I left undergrad, I had upwards of 20 gigs of mp3s. In the late 90’s 20 gigs was an enormous collection. Why so much? Many argued that it was wasteful, gluttonous even; there was no way I could listen to all that music. Not only did I listen to it all, but I downloaded more and more and more! Before the ethics and legality of downloading came into play, there were people like me amassing huge collections of mp3s. Yet, something was shaking up the “scene.” After only 1 year of downloading music and using the cheapest stock PC speakers, I and many others realized that 128 kb/s was not good enough. 192 kb/s became the standard and many, me included, began replacing our 128 kb/s files with the higher quality files. Wait…you mean “kids” who were listening on their PC’s (iPod had yet to be introduced and the only real hard drive-based player was the Nomad Jukebox weighing in at about oh…I don’t know…as much as a Volkswagen Beetle? ;) and they were focusing not on volume but on quality? They wanted better files? Why yes, yes indeed. In fact, it was and are these same people who later pushed for 256 rips, then 320 and then finally lossless.

Now, many will read and feel that my comments betray my argument that the kids are alright. That music is safe, and that this hobby will not die out. Because, that is exactly what I meant by “the kids are alright.”

My music collection is vast. Not as substantial as many here, but my collection would not be embarrassed either. As I wrote, when I left undergrad, my lossy collection was enormous but so was my CD collection. Within 4 years my CD collection had gone from just over 100 discs to just over 600. I had spent a great deal of my scholarship money on CDs. What else are KD and Ramen for if not for students to sacrifice their health for something else? Most did this for alcohol, bar cover and tabs; I ate this synthetic stuff so that I could buy more music. Sure I could download the stuff, and heck I likely already had, but I wanted the real thing in my hands, the liner notes, the lossless quality only a CD could provide. At that time, CD’s were typically in the 15-20 range, and I have eclectic tastes, something that many “older folks” may be surprised at. My collection ranged from rock and pop to jazz and a very healthy helping of all things classical (and by that I mean baroque, classical, romantic, modern, symphonies, chamber works, ensembles, duets and solos). The more I downloaded, the more I was exposed to, and the more I wanted to buy. Now, at $15+ taxes (I live in Canada) to about 25 + taxes at the time I would say I was averaging about 20/album. In just 4 years I had spent $10 000 on music. I was lucky to have the means to do this, but I was not alone in my spending and moreover, I was not alone in those that were buying more because they were exposed to more.

During this time, I had been listening through a horrendous sounding Pioneer system. It was bloated, didn’t have adequate power to drive the very inefficient speakers and besides holding 25 CDs, was pretty well useless. It couldn’t even read that many CDs, but it was all that I owned. My roommate was a morning person, I a night owl. To accommodate each other, we opted to either not listen to music while the other person was sleeping, or we agreed to buy some headphones. I had some ear buds that I used with my pcdp, as did he, but because I was such a music nut, I didn’t want to have these tiny, uncomfortable things in my ears for hours at a time. It was then that I started to research headphones and in the early days of the web the options were:, (Headroom) and later Good Cans and Headroom proclaimed the Grado SR60’s as the best headphones for portable use and were said to be very good for all around listening. Since I wanted something versatile, a pair of cans to replace my stock earbuds and something to listen through my Pioneer system, I ordered myself a pair. $147 CAD later (in 1997) I was absolutely BLOWN AWAY by the sound. This was my first step into what I would later call a serious addiction, an illness that has overrun my system: Audiophilia 

Music had never sounded better and I wanted to listen to all my music through these headphones and moreover I wanted to buy more music. I was starting grad school and was about to get married so funds were still tight. I no longer could drop the kind of cash I was blowing during my undergrad on music and a serious stereo system was out of the question. Still, I didn’t much mind, the Grados were treating me well and so long as my wife didn’t mind the odd CD purchase here or there, I was happy. Well, my wife turned out to be my addiction’s biggest pusher! Not only was she supportive of this hobby but she okayed the purchase of some upscale gear!

I had longed for a unit that could play CD-R’s full of mp3s because well, I had so many. But I also wanted something that would play my CDs well and that would sound great with my Grados. The more I researched the more I began to lust after better equipment. I convinced my wife that upgrading my current headphones would be ideal, she would inherit my SR60’s and I could listen to the RS-1’s! I noted that the RS-1’s deserved an amp and so, for our first anniversary, she purchased the RA-1 for me and later that year, for our second Christmas, she helped purchase the RS-1’s for me. Both of us still students, she recognized how important music was (and still is) to me. I continued my downloading but I also continued buying music. In the nearly seven years I have been married I have more than doubled my CD collection.

Six months after the purchase of the RS-1’s, I really started to hanker for a serious player. My idea to buy something that would play those mp3’s was slowly waning. Instead I wanted something that would make my lossless music sound spectacular. Still on a grad student’s budget (my wife a starting teacher made less than I did), I began to research great entry level players and was lucky enough to buy the Shanling CD T-100 early. The cost was something we could manage and the difference between this unit, my pcdp and *cringe* winamp playing lossy mp3s through pc speakers, was night and day. I was at the first listen, forever hooked on the idea of superior sound through excellent equipment.

Since that time I have moved into the realm of tube gear and vinyl. I’ll leave the merits of these old techs for another thread, but I must say that vinyl has taken my enthusiasm for this hobby into a whole new realm. My vinyl collection is just over 1000, 20% came from kind donations from a good friend, 40% from garage sales and used shoppes and the other 40% I’ve bought new. Most know that new vinyl ain’t cheap. But it is worth it to those that love it!

I still don’t own speakers, mainly because of my living conditions, but once space permits, I’ll buy a nice set and all that will be left will be the endless tinkering this hobby seems to encourage and of course buying more and more music.

I’m but one example of a “kid” that went from listening to “crap music” to appreciating every style under the sun. A kid who grew up with cassette and then later CD but was and still is fully entrenched in the digital downloads culture. But I am a guy who grew into this hobby and have been happy the whole way. I’ve spent more than many gross in a year on music and my audio gear takes up another year’s worth of salary. I’m apparently a kid that made it out of the cloud of ignorance many think my generation and those younger than I live in.

Do you know what is interesting? I’m not the only one. Of course not, and not by a long shot. In fact, I’m but one among many budding audiophiles, big spenders in the making. Myself and those my age and younger are the next wave of 6+ figure salaried folks willing to drop a serious dime on a rig that will bring out the most from our music. Don’t believe me? Head over to the most popular audio forum on the web – Note the typical age of the member, I’d say >80% of folks there are under 35, maybe even under 30. Nearly every single one of these guys “gets” music and “gets” good gear (which does not necessarily mean pricey gear). Each of these guys wants the good stuff, and will buy it eventually, once they finish school, get a secure job and are able to afford it. Heck, some like me threw logic and reason out the window long ago and simply sacrificed to get the stuff early.

But wait! Isn’t the iPod (and DAPs like it) the top selling audio playback device around?

No doubt it is! In fact, I own 3 iPods myself! I own a Shuffle for the gym, a Nano for around the house and mostly for nodding off before bed, and a 60 gig iPhoto for the car and work/school. My wife owns one as well, a 30 gig unit that has every CD she has in her collection plus some interesting podcasts of kids music.

Hmm, I can see some musing now: “I thought this guy had this crazy audiophile-approved rig, thousands of real media and the enthusiasm and desire to listen high end? Why is he listening to lossy digital hash on an iPod! See, the kids aren’t alright.”

Well of course I have, I have a great system and lots of music, but unless someone manufacturers a means of transporting my collection to wherever I am at a given time and moreover figuring out a way to get my system there with me, I have no other option but to listen with some type of portable device. Certainly a device with sufficient storage to hold multiple albums beats the pants off of crating around stacks of discs! You betcha! So even though I have a great system, I am “forced” to listen my portable setup 85% of the time if not more. If I want to listen to music I have to do it with my iPod and high-end IEMs. Because of school and work its that or go silent.

Some will say silence would be preferable to listening to an iPod but then ignorance is once again dominating judgement. An iPod can play lossless files which are EXACTLY like the CD they were ripped from and with the right amp and some headphones (or a nice office rig) one can have excellent sound and plenty of music to get one through the day. Why deal with silence when one can enjoy great sounding music on the go?

“Ah…” some will declare! “You and others are merely using music then as background music, I want no part of that.”

Heh, think again. Though undeniably many people listen to music in this way, don’t blame the kids, blame the adults because when kids listen to music they LISTEN to music. Kids typically know not just the tune but the lyrics as well. They sit with friends dissecting tracks, analyzing them, remixing them, playing them on real instruments etc. Kids know their music. They may be listening through an iPod, it may be 128 kb/s, but they are listening so intensively their parents have to nearly smash down the door to their bedrooms to get their attention. Kids get music, something must happen between the typical “kid” age and “adult” age to transmorph the listening experience into something that would make any of us here sigh a sigh of sadness.

What’s more, the irony of the “audiophile scene” is that where vinyl typically reigns supreme, it is from the depths of the youth and their “garbage and compressed music” that the rejuvenation of vinyl or rather the sustaining of the medium, is kept healthy. Reports of vinyl outselling audiophile-approved digital formats such as SACD and DVD-A have been documented for the last handful of years. What’s more, whereas some may assume it is the older audiophiles buying this vinyl, in fact, they don’t even make a blip in the sales. Most vinyl sales are hiphop, electronica and indie rock, targeted towards DJ’s and young music connoisseurs. In fact, indie rock groups are releasing their albums on vinyl more and more with the INCLUSION of a digital download so that one does not have to be without when they are listening with their iPods. Say that again? Many indie labels are including special one time use codes for downloading the album purchased on vinyl in a high quality digital format. Most will release it in 192 or better mp3 format but some are starting to release in lossless FLAC. This means that those young folks hooked on vinyl get to listen to what I feel is the superior format, at home, yet when on the go, they can also enjoy the same album, legally, on their DAP of choice. Why can’t “audiophile” labels do the same? I just recently paid $60 for a new heavy virgin vinyl pressing of a famous jazz musician. Did I get the option of downloading the album? Nope! Luckily I had this on CD, a gift I received for Christmas the previous year. Yet, for the typically less then $20 CAD I pay for indie vinyl releases I’m also getting digital copies. Incredible value! This is cutting edge marketing! This is value for the dollar and this keeps folks on the side of the law (in the US anyway). And why shouldn’t this happen? I mean, it is legal to make a back up of one’s music and vinyl is notoriously difficult to back up, so yeah for the convenience of a few clicks and a drop and drop onto on iPod!

Now, what if all vinyl releases came with this option? Imagine that…one can have their cake and eat it too! Perhaps audiophile labels and the labels releasing jazz and classical will as a rule, offer the option of downloading a digital copy along with the sale of the vinyl LP. One can at least dream can’t they? Music is demanding to be available 24/7/365. I want access to my collection when I want and that means at any given moment. I’m not so delusional as to think that my vinyl collection will magically be recorded to some digital format (and frankly I have neither the time nor patience to undertake this grand task) but had I had the option of clicking a few links and downloading a perfect copy of my albums, when then certainly I would and then fortunately I would have the luxury of having my music with me at all times. DAPs are always increasing in capacity and it won’t be long until 1 TB units are being sold and then 10 TB units and then 100 TB units. Eventually one will be able to walk around with every song and TV episode, picture and movie one has in their possession. I can’t wait! But behind all this convenience is still my longing for a slow quiet night, a fine merlot or cab sauvignon, sitting by the fire listening to music through my meticulously assembled rig. I don’t pretend to think that I will get this experience through some headphones and an iPod but neither to I expect my wonderful home listening sessions to be the same as my “on the go” ones with all the convenience immense storage, digital playback and high quality In Ear Monitor phones and a spectacular portable amp can give. These are distinct but one is not necessarily greater than the other. They both prove proficient at giving me what I want at that moment…a gateway to my music. In the end it should always be about the music. Right?

Well, if it is about the music, then the kids are alright. Head-fi, dominated by young folks, is the most popular audio board in the English speaking world, and perhaps still the entire world. If it is second, then it is second only to another headphone board, this time out of East Asia and once again dominated mainly by folks under 30. These folks are all about the music and they are all about the music through awesome gear. They may not be able to afford it all now, but they know what they want. They are working towards it. They start with iPods and IEMS, then they move to full sized headphones and amps, then on to full sized amps and speakers and then the circle is complete, fresh blood injected into the apparently forever dying hobby of high-end audio.

These kids are buying records by their favourite bands, deemed utter putrid crap by quite a few around these parts, yet these bands are the ones releasing on vinyl, exposing kids to the merits of this aged format. At the same time, they don’t battle the market head-on, rather they massage the market in their favour, releasing the album on CD, LP and then on MP3 and ALAC or FLAC too. Heck, with the purchase of that LP one often gets the digital rip free of charge!

So why aren’t the kids alright? Is it because many don’t understand the DAP era? Is it because many have lost touch with modern music? If so, then ignorance and misunderstandings aren’t excuses for a poor argument. An open mind to what is happening would be a better strategy.

Of course there are plenty that not only embrace this mentality but also embrace the change the digital era has brought forth. Many an aged audiophile has moved to a system comprised of a server streaming to a high end DAC wired to a preamp and then to the rest of the typical setup. Digital garbage digital.

The majority of folks will fall into the same traps as our parents did (and I use the term our parents to denote my gen and those younger than I). For you see, it was my parents and those a bit older and a bit younger that sold off their stereo systems for the convenience of new formats. They are the ones that sold their LP’s and are enabling younger folks like myself to pick through a goldmine of gems. My father is a prime example, a man who had a wonderful setup in college, sold it off shortly after my younger brother was born in favour of cassette and an all-in-one unit. Components and vinyl were out to the side walk. How many others have a similar tale? Yet it is the kids of my generation and those younger than I that are finding solace listening to these wonky ancient black discs. We are listening and buying the discs of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. The key is to ensure we continue to do so and that we encourage our children to follow in our footsteps.

How can this happen? One way would be for this hobby to open its arms wide WIDE WIDE for all that have even the most minor interest in listening to music. This is usually the standard I’m exposed to and there is no doubt that my entire journey has been cradled through the arms of older friends, friends my father’s age and older who have taught me all that I know of the hobby. However this means that the insults regarding music must remain behind closed doors, for it seems that each generation irritates the previous ones in the choice of music predominantly listened to. From the early 1900’s Dixieland bigband and jazz to bubblegum pop, rockabilly, rock and blues to stadium rock, punk, pop, grunge alternative, electronic, hiphop, rap, emo etc. Everything irritated someone at some point. The key is to encourage music appreciation, appreciation of quality recordings through quality gear but also the appreciation of the merits of each genre because each genre does offer something to someone, if not everyone.

A second way would be for B&M stores to be more accommodating and accepting of younger folks. I’ve been highly insulted by many a clerk mainly because of my age and younger appearance with little regard to my enthusiasm, knowledge or wallet size. Too bad for them when I’m willing to drop serious cash on an item. Too bad for them indeed and too bad for this hobby. No wonder we are bombarded with announcements of stores closing left right and center. At the same time, there are numerous B&M stores who are the exact opposite and bend over backwards to expose my demographics to high end audio. These folks should be promoted and moreover, we should be informing people about the merits from buying from such outlets, because of their knowledge, their service etc. One must remember that we are raising children in the age of the internet with online sites dominating sales and that North America culture is all about the bottom price. Value in service is rarely appreciated, this is something that must be indoctrinated among the youth. Paying a bit extra to those that help a person out is a value to be protected. The lowest price is usually a short term gain.

This post is getting long and pretty verbose. I don’t want to come off too preachy but I’ve been reading so many posts here and at other sites about how the youth of today are lost because of the overly compressed music they listen to, the crap styles they listen to, the crap systems they listen to etc etc etc. This may be true for some, but it sure is not for many and it is not unique among the young. Heck, most adults listen to musak. Where is the argument for that one?

Kids listen to music more than any other demographic. How can we keep these people listening to music at the same intensity if not greater throughout their lives, like most of us do day in and day out? The kids are alright. It’s the adults that are completely lost. Let’s then strive to foster this love of music among the children. Perhaps this love will grow into a love of exception audio playback and keep this “failing” hobby alive. It’s been dying forever, perhaps we can keep it that way
Thanks for taking the time and energy to post this. As a 32 year old who has taken a similar audiophile arc, I can appreciate many of the sentiments you express.

It's about time someone stepped up and defended the legitimacy of our age group in this field!
Thanks for this piece. Minor faults, nothing a proofread or two wouldn't fix, but major pertinence.