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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
April 2006

Millions of iPod Owners

Yes, this is yet another opinion piece about the iPod. Do you sense my exasperation? The high-end-audio industry has become fixated on the millions of people who have purchased an iPod, and for an obvious reason: there are millions of them! Manufacturers not only feel snubbed -- as though each has been forced to watch people walk by their products and buy something sonically inferior in endless succession -- but challenged. How to tap into that mass of music-appreciating consumers and lure them into our hobby?

So far, the answer has been to cater to them. Figure out what drives those millions to buy an iPod and then transfer that to high-end audio. Perhaps bringing the iPod into the audio system -- preamps with docking stations, DACs with USB connectivity. Meet the millions instead of making them meet us. While this might sound logical and reasonable in theory, it's wrong-headed in practice.

It seems obvious, but let me state it anyway: Not every iPod owner is a potential audiophile. Some are merely iPod owners, while others will migrate to other musical experiences, including high-end audio. This is the same across markets where there exist practical and luxury products that function similarly. Every Saturn owner is not a potential Mercedes owner by virtue of the fact that both drive. Audiophiles and iPod owners, Saturn and Mercedes owners, are very different groups of consumers who happen to be linked by a common interest in music or a common need to drive. However, just as every Saturn owner doesn't see driving as an experience to be savored, not every iPod owner thinks music is a participatory endeavor. For some it will always be mindless entertainment while sitting on the bus or walking to work, not a grand production involving a separate dedicated room and thousands of dollars of equipment.

Do we, then, simply ignore this growing group of music lovers? What about the future of the high-end-audio industry? How do we bring in new blood? Again, audiophiles and iPod owners are very different groups, so the notion that making room for the iPod in an audio system will have all iPod owners, or even a large number of them, buying full-blown high-end systems is ridiculous. As I look back on my own origins in high-end audio, I realize that I was not atypical. When I was a teen, I would have owned an iPod. My interest in music was intense, and it created an interest in musical reproduction. What turned me into an audiophile was hearing music reproduced well. The iPod of the day, the mass-market audio product that everyone wanted and many owned, was the all-in-one rack system, and the difference between one of these an a well-configured high-end audio system was immense.

Is the gap between the iPod and high-end-audio experience any less dramatic? Not. If anything, it's more dramatic, as audio equipment has gotten better and most people who listen to iPods are hearing the crippled sound of compressed digital audio.

Thus, the notion that the industry should meet iPod owners on some middle ground is simply the wrong strategy. It's antithetical to what high-end audio is about. What the audio industry needs to do is stick to what brought it its greatest prominence, the core principle of creating the very best two-channel experience possible. This will widen the gap between iPod and high-end-audio performance, and the gap is what will create new audiophiles. What manufacturers need to do is what they have done so well for so long and in the process show iPod owners what they're missing: a better listening experience.

High-end audio won't inspire all iPod owners to become audiophiles, but converting some of them with the allure of much-improved sound is a reasonable and worthy goal. After all, there are millions of them.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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