If you’re of a certain vintage, you’ve probably spent a lot of your disposable income on stereo equipment. In the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, everyone was looking to own the highest quality home and car audio systems they could buy. The goal was to have the loudest, clearest and most accurate sound reproduction possible in order to get the most enjoyment out of these vinyl records and CDs.
Shops selling stereo equipment were everywhere. An inexpensive way to spend an afternoon was to hop from store to store listening to your favorite albums on gear you’ve heard about in magazines like Stereo Review, Hi-Fi, and audio that you couldn’t afford. And of course, no trip to the mall was complete without a visit to check out Radio Shack’s more modestly priced stereo gear.
Alan Cross explains how vinyl record sales have exploded in Canada (May 21, 2021)
Then came the digital music revolution of the late 90s. There had been previous downturns, but this one was different.
The convenience of MP3s and other digital codecs was impossible to ignore. Compact discs had already pushed vinyl to the fringes and the later members of Gen X and the first members of Millennials quickly moved en masse to file sharing, iTunes, iPods and eventually smartphones. Purchasing digital players and headphones became the priority, not stand-alone stereos.
Meanwhile, the factory systems that began to appear in cars kept getting better and were also much more integrated into the vehicle’s electronic nervous system, making aftermarket upgrades tricky. The last vehicle to feature a cassette player was the 2010 Lexus SC430. The in-dash CD players hook up, but barely.
Vinyl records are making a comeback
Stereo retailers that sold home and audio equipment were plunged into crisis. Some were able to adapt by moving into the new home theater market, which involved selling more televisions and other video products such as DVD players. Others entrenched themselves, focusing on the desires of baby boomer audiophiles who could afford expensive esoteric gear. Those who couldn’t compete — everyone from mom-and-pop stores to big box-change retailers like Majestic Sound Warehouse and Future Shop — disappeared while many dedicated audio dealers went out of business.
It was the era of good sound. Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z generally agreed that as long as their tunes were accessible and portable, audio quality was secondary. Listening to music through laptop speakers, cheap headphones, an Alexa unit, or a mono Bluetooth speaker was fine. And certainly much cheaper than shelling out for a full-fledged stereo system. There are literally generations of people who have yet to experience their music collections with true high fidelity sound.
This, however, may change.
After a near-death experience that lasted nearly a decade, people rediscovered vinyl. Since 2008, we’ve seen double-digit year-over-year growth in vinyl sales worldwide. This is to the point in several countries where the dollar value of vinyl sold dwarfs that of compact discs. And while there are indications that CDs are beginning to regain some lost love, the main driver of recorded music sales is the venerable vinyl record.
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This seems to create an interesting ripple effect. If you’re going to have a vinyl collection, you need something to play them on. Yes, you can go to Urban Outfitters and get yourself one of those dirty portable turntables (please don’t; you’re only defeating the purpose). Or you can go to one of the remaining high-end audio dealers and buy a stereo system similar to the one we used in the 70s. And it seems to be happening.
One of the most common requests I get from listeners is, “I want to buy a turntable. What should I get? Others are curious about speakers and amplifiers. A few discussions with audio retailers indicate that an increasing number of people are looking for two-channel audio systems – equipment designed solely for listening to music. We may be witnessing the birth of a new generation of audiophiles and people who appreciate music in all its high-fidelity glory.
Mark Mandahlson of Bay Bloor Radio in Toronto told me, “We’re seeing a demand not only for high-quality sound to listen to records, but also for people to rediscover their CD collections during the pandemic, and also add the streaming to existing hi-fi systems or building systems around hi-res digital music”
Much of the credit(?) must go to COVID-19. With so many millions stuck indoors and alone for months, their music collections have become their rock. A ton of vinyl was purchased, half of which is for people under 25. Once a new record entered the house, curiosity grew about the quality of the music. Evidence indicates that many of these young music fans are purchasing proper stereo equipment for the first time. Meanwhile, older audiophiles seem committed to upgrading their gear – perhaps as many as 95% of them.
Where do these new audiophiles start?
“Headphones are most often the front door,” says Mandhalson, “and we see that especially in our new headphone bar, where young people come frequently to try out headphones and earphones and find their favorite sound.”
Not everyone upgrades to a full-fledged stereo. Bay Bloor Radio is one of a number of retailers who know they need to help people enter this new world. A starter system for beginners can be something as simple as a turntable with a few powered speakers.
This also seems to be a long-term trend. By 2026, the global home audio equipment market is expected to reach US$49.9 billion. And it’s not all about buying cheap headphones and portable Bluetooth speakers for the beach.
Of course, there are more motors on the market than people going back to the kind of stereo systems everyone had in the 70s. Manufacturers invest a lot in R&D. Not only is the quality of equipment improving, but there are also things like smart homes, voice control, wireless technology and better streaming solutions. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that exciting innovations — “new features,” in industry parlance — hit the market every quarter.
As someone who still owns some of the equipment that once inhabited my room — hello, my Akai AP-001C belt-drive turntable purchased from Krazy Kelly in West Winnipeg c. 1978 — this news makes me feel good. Long live high-fidelity audio systems!
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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