Why HiFi Does Not Appeal to Millennials

HiFi for the millennial: simple, iOS-like interface, connected, sustainably-produced, compact, and HiFi enough (for now).

HiFi for the millennial: simple, iOS-like interface, connected, sustainably-produced, compact, and HiFi enough (for now).

Why can't HiFi see eye-to-eye with millennials? What do millennials want from their electronics? What can high end audio manufacturers do differently?

It’s almost June, and I’m gearing up to head down to Newport Beach to attend The Home Entertainment (T.H.E.) Show – it’s kind of fun to hear folks stutter through the THE show in conversation. Actually, the name of the show is a bit of a misnomer, because it really is a HiFi show, with almost no other home entertainment electronics there – no cool gadgets, no cell phones, no whiz-bang video demos, no apps/games/cloud anything to speak of, really. You have to search hard for any home theater demos, too. It really is mostly stereo speakers, amps, turntables, and a lot cables & accessories. How much traditional home entertainment there is to be had at the The Show, is debatable.

Unfortunately, as such, it also tends to draw a certain demographic: mostly gray-haired men, most of whom also happen to lack a deep dark natural tan. This certainly isn't the fault of the show, which, thanks to the hard work of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (LAOCAS), is quite possibly the most successful HiFi show in North America. The problem is more endemic to all of HiFi – it is getting old and few young people seem to be joining the ranks. Despite a meagre and truly unexpected resurgence in LPs/turntables and being completely blindsided by a new wave of headphone listeners, the rest of HiFi is still getting old… very old, and millennials have been moving on to other things.

So what gives?

Well it’s quite simple really, HiFi manufacturers are not playing up how green they are, and millennials, it turns out, are quite green. This is not to say that HiFi isn’t green, it is on many levels, but this isn't coming out in the marketing. Online and Social marketing, by the way, is another area that HiFi is slipping in. This is unfortunate as well, because millennials are quite familiar with the power of marketing and ironically don’t seem to mind it too much – they see it as a fact of life in their magazines, on TV, in movies, and online.

Being online, by the way, doesn't just mean having a website. Millennials aren’t interested in just that. They are looking for engagement. Don’t bother killing trees with glossy brochures and putting a logo on a pen, either (a pen, are you kidding? People still use those?). Millennials don’t just see the web as a treasure trove of information, they also see it as a medium that is efficient, immediate, and everywhere. Consequently it is also a greener alternative to print.

So what really are the values of millennials?

Emily Alpert, in her LA Times article: “What's in millennials' wallets? Fewer credit cards”, does a good job of describing the economic factor. Millennials grew up seeing their parents struggle financially through several economic downturns, and this plays a very important part in shaping their own values. They are not necessarily cheap, but they are frugal and careful about where they spend their money. HiFi, at first glance, is expensive, so this does not seem to be a good place to start this discussion. Yet there is a silver lining here, and it isn’t just in the shiny knobs of that preamplifier…

To begin with, HiFi, for the most part, is also frugal – many of the smaller (i.e. greener) manufacturers truly believe in keeping costs down. Having built up their businesses in the same economic times, these manufacturers know that customers are not as wiling to open their wallets any more  Hard work and efficiency in manufacturing are values that millennials can relate to, but they don’t know this about HiFi. What they see on HiFi websites is an over emphasis on exclusivity, perfection, class, and the infamous “audio jewelry” factor. A few sites like Legacy and Wilson do have a few bits hinting at what goes into making their speakers, and this is good. However, this important information is often buried deep in bloated animations and far from the headlines and tag lines that RSS feeders are fishing for. These feeders send this to the cell phones of millennials. Unfortunately, there is not enough emphasis on this commonality to establish a bond built on starting from meagre beginnings, struggling and eventually succeeding.

Interestingly, millennials will pay more for quality if it presents a good value. According to Alpert's article, they typically will choose organic foods over cheaper non-organic ones. This is because it provides a better value. HiFi, especially when considered long-term, is also a good value. If this was only marketed better it would help, but it seldom is. Contrary to popular perception, millennials actually care quite a bit about the quality of their audio. After all, they will buy expensive headphones and DACs, and once they start families, they will want that same music they were listening to on the bus to campus, to now be in their living rooms while they are burping the baby. They won’t spend MBL prices (not yet at least) on this gear, but they will consider more affordable manufacturers and ones that have a full range of price points. Unfortunately, these seemingly higher value HiFi companies, such as Clearaudio and Cary, for example, companies that are actually quite green, tend to showcase their more expensive models above the fold. That is a sure way to get passed over by millennial customers.

Big is not Beautiful

Millennials are also more likely to move and be mobile. They want small, simple and convenient electronics – all green values. Just about every HiFi manufacturer has at least some of these in their product line, but that is not where their marketing efforts are. It takes a few clicks to even find a bookshelf speaker on the site of Totem Acoustics, an otherwise rather green manufacturer (with a surprisingly with-it Target-inspired marketing campaign, it seems). Yet. those few clicks may not seem like much, but they are enough to bore millennials and send them searching for HiFi from another manufacturer.

It seems that many HiFi manufacturers would rather sell that huge Summit speaker or Gibraltar cable because those profit margins are apparently higher, as their names imply. Millennials aren't that gullible - they've been around that block: not only are they well aware that these are more expensive, but they know these are large and inconvenient too, which is just not in synch with their lifestyle. They know this because they Googled, Audiogon’d, and RedLasered these already. They've read the blogs from customers desperately trying to unloads these severely depreciated extravagances in an effort to downsize. Simply put: if it doesn't fit in the trunk of their TL, millennials would rather not own it.

As mentioned above, millennials are well informed. They will spend days comparing features, considering carbon footprints, and calculating ROIs for the electronics that they want. Ironically, this is not unlike a HiFi manufacturer spending countless hours listening, testing and selecting just the right capacitor. You would think that more HiFi manufacturers would see the connection and start blogging about how their companies, their products and their owners share the same values. Yes! Tell millennials that that capacitor is not just the best sounding one, but also a sound investment that will last a good 20 years. Tell them it will boost reliability which translates to a higher resale value on the used market! And no, resale is no longer a taboo subject anymore - millennials are already posting about this on their friend's blogs. HiFi manufacturers need to become part of that conversation.

Be Kind to Your Kind

This conversation should also be socially conscious - and if this thought is starting to sound too feel-good leftie, then I'm afraid it may be time to retire. Millennials have seen wars, famines, protests, misery and a fair share of personal struggle in their life-time, so they also care about the struggle of others. A manufacturer that uses slave or child labor is in for a rough night - no, not a rough week or year. This seemingly innocuous bit of information will spread virally over the internet and millennials are the ones spreading it. Apple and Starbucks may be able to weather an occasional slip-up such as this, but to a small HiFi manufacturer this is a company-ending calamity.

Ironically, HiFi manufacturers actually do care about working conditions because these  affect product quality. On small production runs, returns and defects cost a small HiFi manufacturer far more than the marginal savings they may reap from using unreliable labor. Even if this wasn't the motivating factor, it’s often the case that the owner of a HiFi company was once him/herself the one who toiled late into the night, after a hard day at the factory and the kids were long asleep, working tirelessly to build up that fledgling business. Unfortunately, this is not the story that is found on most About Us pages. Instead, this page often overemphasizes credentials, haughty excellence, and a sense of exclusivity that is a complete turnoff to millennials. If HiFi manufacturers would only make a greater effort to build on this connection with millennials, they might see far more interest in their products.

People of the World

Since we're on a socially conscious subject, we should also mention what is often the white elephant (ironic choice of words, here) in the listening room at audio shows: "Where's my people at?" That's right, I said it: aside from a few faces in the back of the room, this is an industry dominated by very pale men. Where are the Asians, Latinos, people of African and Middle-Eastern descent? Ironic really, since many of the LPs and CDs being auditioned at the show feature them, although most of these artists are more likely to be GenXers, still, it's ironic. Dare I ask for a blind American-Indian woman in a wheelchair? I'm pretty sure she could educate me a bit about what to listen for in a good amplifier.

Yes, I'm being a bit facetious, I know, but the point is that millennials don't segregate as much. They accept that the "average human" is not so pale, that the best break dancers in the world come from Seoul, and that the best DJs hail from the Netherlands, a country that is a whole lot more tolerant towards gays than we are here - and that's cool, too. Millennials don't have the same hangups about race, gender, romantic affiliation (that sounds so much better than sexual orientation, doesn't it?), or disability,  as the previous generation. Being a little different, or a lot, is just that, a bit different, and then they move on. Its all good!

Now this doesn't mean that every small HiFi manufacturer needs to immediately go out and recruit someone with a deep dark natural tan to grace their home page and put a big pink triangle in the corner - that would be so obvious as to warrant another marketing calamity. What it does mean, though, is that to cater to millennials, HiFi manufacturers need to start demoing their equipment with Rufus Wainwright , Hirome Uehara, Tinariwen, in between the standards from CommonThe White Stripes, and Vitas - yes, these should be standards - I included links, in case these were so completely new to you as they were for me not too long ago ...and yes, these will still give your demo room the same workout as Brubeck, Krall and Wagner. Now if all this modern music really doesn't agree with you and you absolutely must play something more classically-inspired (I'm thinking of my dear father reading this, who is probably pulling his hair out about now), there is still hope: Beach, and Zwilich, representing women composers, as well as Vangelis' Mythodea representing the fusion of modern music with classical, Lou Harrison representing the gay community, and the always fascinating Philip Glass, to round out the mysterious & new in modern classical. Yes, this is the music millennials are drawn to, for many reasons.

Playing the music that millennials listen to is an important part of appealing to them and bringing them to HiFi. Consequently, since the under-represented are already part of the millennial population because they are more welcome there, then consequently it will also bring them to HiFi. It's a win-win because this increases the ranks of interested folks who will eventually become customers.

If this is all do-able, what is the hold-up?

Why does HiFi not play up those very qualities that millennials value? What is the fear? I realize that there is a small percentage of customers who simply do not agree with these values, but is that really worth risking the ire of a whole new generation of customers? More to the point, is this not a gamble that risks the entire industry?

Millennials want smaller, portable, and simpler technologies that connect to their existing world. There are, of course, many HiFi manufacturers that make these but at huge expense and complexity: Meridian Sooloos, for example, provides some of this functionality, but at a price-point that is simply not going to compete with Sonos. Take a moment to actually click on these companies' links. There is a wide chasm between the marketing philosophy behind the web sites! By the way, Sonos is considered expensive by millennial standards, but just barely. It's not for the college crowd, but it is feasible for new families. Sonos, to millennials, is HiFi, and not necessarily because it sounds comparable to a dCS digital sound system. The value of Sonos to millennials is more comprehensive: in addition to sounding noticeably better than the average mass-produced electronic consumable, it also offers a level of convenience, functionality, and interoperability that millennials expect from HiFi - it offers Acura-level luxury rather than Jaguar-like pretentiousness. 

Summing Up:

All these examples point to fundamental green values, the kind we've been covering on this blog. In the end, if HiFi is serious about catering to millennials, it needs to meet more of the green target points that speak to their values. It needs to accept that the point of diminishing returns in the price/quality ratio is much lower for millennials. Even if price is a barrier to entry, which it undoubtedly is for many millennials, then HiFi needs to play up the many other ways it does meet green criteria. Millennials will listen, they will do their research online, and they will see what, to them, is a good value and spend good money purchasing it.

There will always be a small customer base for whom the absolute highest quality sound reproduction is paramount. Companies such as Avantgarde, Magico, YG, Burmester, are there for them. However, this also opens the door for new, smaller, more agile and more focused companies such as Wyred4Sound, Magnepan, Grado, NuForce and (dare I say) Emotiva, to take their place in the hearts of millennials. Yes, I realize those are not the brands that grace the cover of the Robb Report. However, a paradigm shift has taken place in this industry. Even rich sheiks have children who no longer care for audio jewelry, even when they can afford it. The HiFi of the 90's and 2000's is just not in line with this new generation’s values anymore. Millennials, at all economic levels, are blogging, chatting, and texting this on Tumblr, Reddit, SnapChat and StumbleUpon.

…And if, like me, you thought millennials were still wasting time on Facebook/Pinterest (where their parents think they are keeping up with them), then you are so last year. If you had to click on these links to find out what these newfangled social media sites were, then you are definitely last decade. Just don't let anyone say you are last millennium, that could be calamitous.

Let me know what you think about this by leaving a comment.

- Michael GJK