Aware that I am of the date this goes live, let me assure you that, no, this isn’t meant to be humorous, satirical, or anything other than a straight-from-the-heart reaction to COVID-19. This accursed plague, arriving seemingly out of nowhere, has upset the day-to-day existence of every person on the planet, save for those idiots who don’t accept the gravity of the situation. Even if this pandemic doesn’t slaughter 1/1000th of the number the Spanish Flu of 1918 took, believed to be around 50 million, the havoc wreaked will have repercussions for decades, not least in terms of the global economy.
What does that have to do with the high-end audio community? Plenty, as it happens, because music-in-the-home could prove to be one of the palliatives to which we may turn during the forthcoming period of self-isolation. If many thousands of bored individuals, getting on their partners’ or children’s nerves, were to divert the onset of cabin fever by listening to music, that would have to be a Good Thing.
Lest this strike you as a disgustingly petty matter to discuss when people are dying (and what’s happening to my beloved Italy is breaking my heart), I prefer to think of it as a rare case of optimism, or mere concern on my part. It’s kind of creepy to imagine this, but the coming months could prove a boon for hi-fi stores should there be a sudden hunger for new gear.
Sadly, such a boon won’t happen, because people are afraid to spend, and with good reason. We are now all self-isolating, and it will soon be a case of us not being allowed to go to a store. The world is under siege. And that’s a fact. If the trend in Europe is anything to go by, the only physical retail operations open for business until the virus plays out will be pharmacies and supermarkets. I went into Canterbury today -- 20 March -- to collect a prescription, and the restaurants and shops were empty. Had they not been well-lit and new-looking, I could have been on the set of The Walking Dead. And at midnight that day, all restaurants, bars, clubs, gyms, etc., were made to close.
To make matters worse, the only traders that will benefit, should a moratorium on physically entering a store persist, are those which did a damned fine job of destroying the world’s high streets long before coronavirus reared its ugly little head: online merchants. But love ’em or hate ’em -- I’m somewhere in the middle -- they now serve a lifesaving purpose which bricks ’n’ mortar shops cannot: they can provide a no-physical-contact retail experience and deliver anything you like to your door.
From what I’ve seen recently, every courier, from DHL and FedEx to the Royal Mail, has become virus savvy, to the point where signatures are taken only if completely mandatory, packages are being handed over gingerly, and drivers are begloved. If this is a glimpse of things to come, it raises a few questions that are relevant to our little world of hi-fi within the much greater scheme of things.
Let’s be blunt: high-end hi-fi retail has about as much of a future as typewriter sales, hirudotherapy, or phrenology. Those stores still surviving represent the smartest, the toughest, and the best. Their potential client base has certainly shrunken. And yet still we suffer more brands than the market can ever accommodate. This period of empty streets will not help the situation.
So here’s Question No. 1: If you need a hi-fi fix this year to get you through the enforced global quarantine, will you be content buying a preamp or tonearm online? It’s not the same as buying a case of WD-40, the latest Radiohead CD, or even a pair of shoes (if you’re lucky to have feet which adhere to a given size). You want the hours of demo’ing and the sadistic pleasure of giving the retailer a migraine and whining about price.
What I would ask you is not to revert to the shabby practice -- should you get demo time in a store -- of spending hours doing demos and then going online to save a few bucks. If coronavirus does just one thing for the planet, it would be nice if it made us return to supporting local businesses.
My answer to Question No. 2 will not endear me to manufacturers. As the ranks of retailers have already been depleted, will COVID-19 also perform the much-needed service of culling the herd of mediocre brands which do nothing for the industry or the community?
Tragically, the surfeit of brands has always been with us, and it is one of the many reasons why high-end audio has fallen so far over the past 20 years. You don’t have to attend Capitalism 101 classes to appreciate that a shrinking market with too many suppliers means less for each. Equally, there will always be dominant, and therefore healthy, brands with a lion’s share of any given market, e.g., Montblanc for pens, Rolex for watches, etc. But too many of the rest live hand-to-mouth.
What I would like to see happen is something which should have taken place decades ago. I would like to see the fly-by-night manufacturers go out of business. For good. Yes, I did write that: I would like to see 50 to 75 percent of all the so-called high-end audio brands just go away, close up shop, vanish. And you know what? We would still have too many choices.
Ask yourselves this: in what galaxy do we need 200+ speaker companies, 300+ power amps, and 200+ turntables? In what other industry are Two Schmucks in a Garage with a Soldering Iron considered a “high end manufacturer”?
There is only one luxury product type which has it right, and that is the supercar industry. I don’t count the limited number of fountain pen manufacturers, because they are dying off due to natural evolution -- nobody writes anymore -- nor film-camera makers, decimated by digital. The ranks of supercars number fewer than 25 or so because car manufacturing is more difficult than anything outside of medical, military, or aerospace, thanks to sheer scale and environmental and safety issues. The likelihood of a young Colin Chapman whipping up a Grand Prix masterpiece in his backyard was long ago legislated out of possibility.
Hi-fi manufacturers started out that way, too, but we don’t need any new ones. Too often, we apply this justification: how do you know those Two Schmucks in a Garage with a Soldering Iron won’t become the next David Hafler / Bill Johnson / Peter Walker? But that is to miss the point: we don’t need another David Hafler / Bill Johnson / Peter Walker!
Yet still we encourage the arrival of $100,000 turntables and $50,000 amplifiers and $10,000-a-yard cables from guys using their mothers’ credit cards to bankroll them. Sorry, but it’s no longer good enough. I don’t want to review something from a manufacturer with a turnover equal to selling one unit a year. I don’t want people buying something on the strength of my review, only for that company to go bust and leave him or her with a dead power amp, good strictly for ballast or as a doorstop.
So that’s how COVID-19 might provide another tiny benefit for the world from a hi-fi standpoint, along with reducing unnecessary air travel, raising hygiene practices, and showing globalization to be a lethal curse. Mother Nature and society have always thinned out the crowd. It’s what plagues and wars did, culminating in the joint effort of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and WWI. While Greta bangs on about recycling one’s condoms, she should be reminded of what they are for: just as there are too many hi-fi brands, so are there simply too many people on planet Earth. And something’s gotta give.
. . . Ken Kessler