In Defense of Small Audio
It has recently come to my attention that certain members of the audio-enthusiast community are concerned by the home audio purchasing choices made by millennials. Specifically, the findings by the NPD Group that 66% of 18-34 year olds use soundbars to listen to music in addition to watching TV. The diehard floorstanding- and tower-speaker fans see this statistic as a harbinger of the impending death of good taste, and prematurely blame the under-40 set for ruining the audio market altogether. I’m here to not only refute that assumption, but to also defend the purchase and use of small audio. I know, this might not be the most popular opinion. But hear me out. Let’s start with the idea that all inexpensive soundbars and portable/bookshelf bluetooth speakers suck. It’s simply not true. While yes, there is a flooded market, and as such, a lot of crap does exist, that doesn’t negate the great work some companies are doing with smaller products. Cases in point: The RIVA Turbo X, The recently revamped B & W Zeppelin Air, The Sonos Playbar, and the Wren V5US. All of these products are under $1000, and all of them sound really great for their size. Do any of the above mentioned sound as good as a $2-3k 5.1 surround sound system? No. I’m not arguing that. What many purist forget to consider is that often, music lovers under 40 just don’t need a system that big. Nor, quite frankly, can many of us fit one in our apartments. If you’ve been to NYC or San Francisco lately, you’ll be familiar with the demure-sized homes going for top-dollar rent these days. Filling a space the size of a small office doesn’t take a lot of power. Additionally, when space is a premium, having a product with a small footprint is a key advantage. Believe me, I adore my NHTs and Revels as much as the next audiophile. But what’s the point if you’re literally sitting so closely that they may as well be giant headphones? Versatility is another factor worth considering. While larger home audio systems are great for when you’re at home, in one specific room, what about the rest of the day? Portable and bookshelf speakers can fit in your office, can go to the park, can play in the kitchen. Why should music be relegated to only one part of your house (or just the house, for that matter)? The advent of smaller speakers means you can have bigger and better sound to watch movies in your master bedroom or to sing in the shower. The idea that people are purchasing portable speakers to improve upon integrated TV and mobile device speakers should be encouraging rather than a portent of doom. Fluid use and space economics aside, let’s talk about plain economics: things just aren’t as stable for us financially as they were for our predecessors. According to Goldman Sachs, in 2010, over a quarter of 18-34 year olds lived at home, and yet 93% of those renting said they hoped to own a home one day. The mean student loan debt for a 25 year old in 2013 was $20,000. This isn’t about a lack of want; it’s about a lack of funds. Not to bag on generations that came before me, but guys, you really didn’t leave us with the greatest economy. All that subprime mortgage defaulting, market speculating, and lending-shy bank policy didn’t happen because of 18-34 year olds. Yet that’s what Millennials and late gen-Xers are forced to work with. So when the options are paying off student loans or buying a nice piece of audio, many of us have to follow our heads, not our hearts (or ears, as it were). With this in mind, seeing young people willing to use the their meager disposable income on attempting to improve sound quality actually makes me optimistic. Look, I’m fortunate enough to work in an industry where I have access to the newest and the best audio in the world. I get to play with $50,000 headphones and cavalierly swap out receivers when I need a new reference unit (hello, tax writeoff). But I still find use for small audio all the time. I have a moderately-sized BT speaker in my baby’s room, and I stash a tiny splashproof model in my bag when I go to the park. Wanting to share music on the go doesn’t mean my taste is damaged; it means I like to go outside. Not purchasing the Revel Ultima2 Salon2 system doesn’t mean I don’t want them: it just means I want my son to go to college more. And while the way young people listen to music is changing, I firmly believe the desire for quality sound hasn’t aged a day.