Common Ground

Sony PHA 1-1 and V Moda M100

Michael Mercer is contributor to many upstanding publications including The Daily Swarm, HPSoundings, Positive Feedback Online, Part-Time Audiophile and more. You can also find his audiophile-friendly banter on [Tumblr] and [Twitter].

Personal audio has something the high end never had since tubes first started glistening: Common Ground with millions of current users.  Now, I get where that first sentence can lead and it’s ugly and never-ending, so bear in mind I haven’t forgotten we’ve been using telephones and television for years!  This common ground is not limited to the hardware.  Perhaps the greatest attribute of personal audio, from a marketing standpoint, is that it’s directly connected to pop culture.  Again: That connection is not merely based on earbuds and iPods!  Millions of people are not only listening to their music on common devices.  They’re living their lives through them.  Portable devices play an important role in our daily lives.  This is true all over the planet.  We set our schedules, keep our most important numbers, photographs, and we even ask our devices to do tasks for us (and have fun with the programming of that device).  We interact with our portable gadgets more-so today than ever before.  As a matter of fact, you’d be hard-pressed to take a walk on a city street and not find peoples’ eyes buried in their smartphones!  They’re texting co-workers and friends, listening to cigarette break playlists, and planning their evenings.  Sounds like a deep connection to me.

This is why, over the last four years, I’ve had more success turning family, friends, and even strangers onto better quality sound!  Nine out of ten times it’s through improving the sound of their iPhone, iPad or iPod (plus Android phones, of which my wifey prefers at the moment).  They know that device.  They interact with it all day every day.  Sometimes I don’t even need to initiate a conversation, and next thing you know I’m speaking about personal audio with a complete stranger!  As long as I have a device that’s interfaced with my iPhone, being an energetic OCD audio evangelist has it’s advantages.  I was in the waiting room at my doctors office, using this wonderful tiny headphone amp from Firestone Audio called the Fireye Mini (thanks to Steve Guttenberg for the tip on that) with my iPhone.  The little amp has a light, so I like to joke about it being at the tail-end of that crazy big-toothed fish at the bottom of the ocean, sitting as prey swim around the light.  Though I now realize calling would-be future users prey may not be the best of metaphors, I’m sticking with it!  Anyway, this gentleman caught my attention while I was listening on my Sennheiser HD 25-1 IIs, and I asked if I could help him.  He asked about the amp and wondered if it was an “extra battery for your iPhone”?  I asked if he had a stereo at home.  A “mini-system” he said.  No problem: I asked if he understood that he had speakers and an amplifier to drive them in that system.  He said “of course”!  I said cool, well, this is just like a better quality amplifier for your mini-system.  After all your headphones are just smaller speakers.  I asked if he had his headphones with him, and he did.

He actually had a pair of SOUL REPUBLIC Tracks headphones.  I handed him the tiny headphone amp, and said to listen to something on his iPhone without it first.  Then, install it and play the same track at the same volume.  His eyes lit up like bowling balls!  He asked me what it was and I told him.  He went on Amazon right there and bought one for him and one for his wife for their evening runs!  That’s still my favorite “stranger-turned-Hifi-convert” story.  This is not something that’s going away either.  We are living more of our lives today digitally than ever before!  It sounds strange but it’s true.  How much time do you spend on your iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire, Android, XBOX 360, AppleTV or Boxee?  There are so many ways to get connected now it’s insane.  Personal audio delivers a vital part of that experience (and we sell experiences, not boxes – but that’s for another essay): The audible experience.  Some say it’s more than half of our conscious perception.  This is something that’s palatable around the globe, and at many price points as well as life-styles.  This is where the cross-over to the high end exists.  Will all indoctrinated personal audio devotees turn to high end, in-room audio equipment?  Of course not.  But do the math.  How many more of those users could you turn onto better sound in the home than your existing pool right now?  Bottom-line: Embrace the present.  It’s no longer the future.  High performance personal audio may still be a niche market.  Nobody is fooling themselves here, but the potential for growth is there.

If you don’t see that after considering all this, perhaps this little nugget of intel will give you something to chew on: Living spaces in metropolitan areas are shrinking while the growth continues, despite worldwide economic catastrophes’ every few months or so!  People simply don’t have the same amount of real estate they used to.  That means smaller equipment:  Stuff people can take with them and set-up somewhere without consulting a novel for a manual (or a manual at all)!  The times they aren’t a changin’ – they changed.  But this time people aren’t just telling the masses to stare at the big screens!  They’re also saying listen to this iPod docking speaker or this pair of headphones.  Been in an Apple Store recently?  The headphone selection is twice what it was last Christmas.  That should give you another indicator of where things are – not where they’re headed.

Think about it: People react to devices that interface with things they already own in a much different way than if they walked into a store and needed to be convinced to buy something unrelated to their day to day!  With high performance personal audio, you’re already connected to your would-be customer/devotee.  You both rely on portable devices to get through your day.  It’s nice to start a conversation with something in common.

- Michael Mercer

 

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