I was a bit shocked when I heard that Arcam had been sold to Harman International. This led me to think about the days of my nascent interest in high fidelity. It also made me realise that none of the brands that I bought from, to build my first audio set-up, remain in their original form. I had a Cambridge Audio CD3 compact disc player, which was one of the best sounding players at that time (Cambridge Audio is now owned by Audio Partnership), the Audiolab 8000C/P pre-amplifer/power amplifier combination (Audiolab is now owned by IAG Group), driving the original Acoustic Energy AE1s (finally managed to buy itself out via MBO from the Formosa Prosonic Group). While I mention these names, many others have been acquired by conglomerates, and several have just closed down. At least the brands still exist for now...
So what is happening here?
Some people blame the advent of the mp3 generation, but I doubt this is so. For we lived through an age where much of music was on cassette tape, supported by the venerable Sony Walkman. In fact, some people credit the likes of the iPod for revitalising this area of the music playback market.
Other people say that computer music is making computers more and more part of music playback, and fewer use compact disc players and such. I agree partially on this, but this would still provide business for manufacturers of digital audio converters, amplifiers and speakers, right?
The fact that most of these manufacturers have based their business on stereo kit perhaps supports the next theory. Think about it, more people are into home cinema than stereos nowadays. As entertainment has become more interactive, more people are spending time with their home cinema, compared with their stereo. Also, with playback of movies available on phones and tablets, this segment is not without its challenges. The evolution of the market has also seen many audio magazines that focused solely on stereo replay, to devote more and more column inches on home cinema kit.
The fact is, the consumption of entertainment has changed drastically since the 1980s. Back then, record players reigned supreme in stereo playback, and compact discs were at their infancy. Most people then would watch television that was strictly programmed (no such thing as on-demand TV, and satellite or cable was still a novelty), so the main choice for home-based entertainment that was not controlled by scheduling, was the stereo. Fast forward to year 2000, and we see home theatres start to take a foothold, as the likes of VHS gave way to laser discs and then, DVDs. Cable and satellite TV also became more common, opening up choice for entertainment at home.
Now, the young generation are so used to the highly-stimulating entertainment options that hardly anyone ever sits down to just listen to the stereo. Even traditional television viewership is suffering (unless you have the latest Game of Thrones playing on your network). Most have gone towards on-demand entertainment, downloading movies and playing interactive games. Ask the young how they enjoy music, and most will tell you that they either listen to it while on the go through their portable music player, or by watching music videos. This choice of listening to music competes with so many other distractions nowadays.
So, what is really happening is that the market is truly changing. Many of us may still prefer to read a physical book with its paper pages, and listen to the stereo, but we are the Neanderthals, I am afraid. Look at how comfortable the kids today are with reading electronic documents, and what they want in entertainment. No wonder so many of the great hifi companies of old have fallen on the wayside. Let's not even talk about the rise of manufacturers from the Far East who are taking the area by storm (they have far less legacy and move much more nimbly)...