Hey You Kids! Get Off My Lawn!

For the last few months I’ve thought a lot about the health of the audio/video industry. I worried that the success of smartphones and tablets was irreparably overwhelming traditional consumer-electronics technologies like audio/video. I tried to convince myself that smartphone mania would taper off and the mass market will rediscover big stereos and big TVs. I desperately wanted to evangelize for the profound pleasure that a kick-ass home theater can bring. But lately I’ve changed my mind. I have a new message for everyone glued to their phone: drop dead.

It’s as basic as a law of physics: If people spend lots of money on phones and tablets, they’ll have less money to spend on stereos and TVs. Likewise there are only so many hours in the day. If people spend more time fiddling with their phones, they’ll have less time to spend with their home theaters. Both pies are finite. Stereos and TVs are getting smaller slices.

I guess it’s a generational thing. Millennials (age 18 to 24) now watch more than twice as much video content on a phone/tablet/PC than on a TV. Even while at home, where presumably they have access to a TV, 99% of them sometimes watch videos on their phones. Remember how you invited friends over to listen to a killer new CD, or when you bought a new TV for your Super Bowl party? That social aspect really nourished your love of the technology. Now, over half of Millennials say they watch smartphone videos at their friends’ homes. Social smartphone video viewing—think about it. The one time when a big screen really makes perfect sense—a shared viewing experience—and kids prefer to watch a small screen. As Millennials grow older, will they lose the phones and love big screens? Maybe. But probably not as intensely as the older generation who spent a lifetime aspiring for bigger and better TVs.

Anyway, I’m over it. There’s only so much one man can do, and I’ve done my best. But now I’m throwing in the towel. If people prefer to watch movies on a 4-inch screen instead of a 4-foot screen, I have no problem with that. A 1-inch speaker instead of a 60-inch tower? Knock yourself out. A 1-watt amplifier instead of 1,000 watts? Enjoy. Even if it’s deprived of the big bucks of the smartphone market, I’m guessing there will still be plenty of wallets available to buy big stereos and TVs. That support will fund AV R&D, ensuring a steady stream of exciting new AV products.

It’s official: I am a curmudgeon. And I’m fine with that. We devotees of AV don’t need the mass market. We don’t need people camping out to buy the next new receiver. We don’t need the benediction of the mass market. We don’t even have to be cool. Exclusivity has its own rewards. Having a kick-ass home theater all to yourself: priceless.

But seriously—stay off my lawn.

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COMMENTS
Biffstar's picture

AMEN.

Though I think it's perhaps kids just haven't been as exposed to high-end audio/video like the rest of us have. They really haven't had the opportunity to embrace it in the first place, let alone adopt it.

willieconway's picture

I'm firmly in the "get off my lawn" camp and won't even watch anything less that BD quality on my 64" plasma. However, I think you're wrong. I think we're seeing a fundamental change in consumption habits. These kids do go to the cinema and have experienced big screens, but even there they also use their small screens. Also, much of their preferred content is in the form of less than pretty YouTube videos, and they've grown up on those. I'm sure there'll always be a niche market for high end gear, but I have little doubt that we're dinosaurs...

bigolsony's picture

For what it's worth, I just turned 24, my smart phone has a gorgeous AMOLED screen, and I try to watch every video at home on my new HDTV with the surround system way up. I don't understand the appeal of small screens, unless like Biffstar said, they've never seen a decent or high-end set up.

Ken C. Pohlmann's picture
Bigolsony: Two thumbs up! Next time a friend comes over with his/her phone, power up your big ol Sony and just look at them like they're doing a bad thing. You know - shake your head and make a clucking sound like when a puppy pees on the floor. I'm also wondering about this: since you're reading this site, you're already enlightened. The question is: how do we get the uninformed/underexposed kids onboard? We can't possibly match the marketing budgets of the Apples out there.
robbi1121's picture

I'm turning 24 in a short bit and don't get me started on home theater - i can talk about it for days.
I was listening to music in my friends car the other week and i said that we should go to my car to listen to the same song (what? her stereo sucks). when we got into my car, a bose system (its the best i could get at the time, so dont judge :) ) and she was impressed by the difference. her logic was that all sound systems simply sound the same unless it's live. i feel like that sums up our current generation and their perspective on audio and visual quality. my friends marvel at my samsung d8000 plasma, but only because its sleek looking, large, and its hanging on the wall. they have never commented on the picture quality haha. i feel soon enough the art of home theater may die away like vintage movie posters, but ill always keep it alive in my house and for those around me.

triforce7's picture

I don't get the appeal either. Maybe it's like the fact that people now are so attached to the lower quality MP3 audio. Many just lack the exposure to the higher quality stuff. I might be spoiled though. I don't even like watching DVDs anymore because they can't match the quality of blu-ray.

Markoz's picture

In observing the behaviour of my 20 year old daughter and her friends, I would have to say that the primary motivator for them to use their small screens is the cost. As in free (almost). Having a smart phone and a laptop is a given for them. One they need for school, the other, well, if I have to explain you wouldn't understand. They work at low paid jobs to get through school and have grown up on "free" entertainment from the internet so guess where they source their entertainment? "Free" off the internet. They already have the small screens so there is nothing else to buy.

My concern is the propensity of the high end over the last 20 years to move increasingly towards the cost no object crowd, more so on the audio side than the video side. As kids embrace their small screens, will the industry be bifurcated into an ultra high end that few can afford at one end, cheap junk at the other and nothing in the middle?

Ken C. Pohlmann's picture
Markoz, Ah, I didn't think about the generational/cost issue. You're exactly right. The "new normal" for youth employment, coupled with the high price of AV gear, sets up a serious disconnect. It would be interesting to figure out how AV prices have changed (inflation adjusted) over the last 40 years. I bet that's another aspect of the Perfect Storm facing traditional AV. An aside to a couple of other people who talked to me outside of this forum: No, I'm certainly not giving up on the future of AV. And I certainly don't think it will die off with this generation. The AV market is changing, but I'm still very optimistic for it.
jonheal's picture

There was a time not so long ago when the two-channelers were the curmudgeons and the AV folks were the defilers.

Johan81's picture

I am 32 years old, so I am from a different generation than this article targets as the "problem" generation, but I am sure there will always be a place for high end equipment.

My only concern is that if the demand for (semi)high end equipment grows too low, prices might rise more than anyone of us perfectionists would like.

I love the article by the way! Even some of my peers aren't too much into high end stuff, though I think budget/priorities might play a huge part as well.

PatD's picture

Thanks for the article Clint, umm, sorry, Ken! I am precisely twice the age of one of the posters (64, as in “When I’m…”) and have been an avid audiophile and Stereo Review, et al, subscriber since 1972. I can remember when one of my favorite activities was traveling to several stereo shops along with a likewise inclined friend, to chat with the staff and listen to the latest speakers and components. We’d bring some of our favorite and best vinyl LP’s along especially when “auditioning” speakers when we were going to upgrade or add on. I've bought, lived with, listened to and watched all of the changes the A/V field has produced over the years and have enjoyed them all. I share both the optimism and concerns expressed by others here. I would offer a couple of additional “reasons” for the apparent decline in quality A/V interest, and the resultant settling for MP3 sound & small screen vision.
1. Attention span: The art of “active listening” (or viewing) is gone. Who actually sits down and listens intently to the beauty, power, and subtleties of a recording through a decent system from beginning to end anymore? The compulsion to “multitask” gets in the way.
2. Access: Where could one even go today to see & hear, and make an intelligent decision? Certainly not any of the big box stores that sell A/V along with refrigerators. This is especially true for the generation Ken refers to, since the big box environment is really all they know. The “stereo shops” of old are few & far between, and possibly too intimidating.
Lastly, I’d disagree about the “generational/cost issue”. These are the same consumers who regularly camp out in line to part with hundreds of dollars for the latest version of smartphone, etc. There has always been a “high end” to A/V equipment, out of reach for most; but, there has also always been a very satisfying, affordable mid-range of equipment. I too would not like this middle level to disappear.

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