Mainstream Vs. Enthusiasts: In Audio, They Need Each Other More Than They Know

Posted: Mar 14 2014, 10:51pm CDT | by , Updated: Mar 15 2014, 12:05am CDT, in News | Technology News

Mainstream Vs. Enthusiasts: In Audio, They Need Each Other More Than They Know
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The mainstream almost always looks down on enthusiasts, the “nerds” of a category. People who are enthusiastic (hey, a base word!) fans (short for fanatics), are often made fun of, derided for their exuberance about a given topic. As offensive as that is (if you don’t care about something, you’re boring), it rolls both ways. Enthusiasts often can’t understand why others aren’t interested in what they’re interested in. They themselves look down on non-enthusiasts.

For audio, this poses an interesting dilemma. Audio enthusiasts need the mainstream, and the mainstream needs enthusiasts.

Getting the two together is key.

The easiest example of this is the rapid rise of headphones. Just a few years ago, the headphone market was a random wasteland of inexpensive crap and a mixture of expensive crap and expensive excellent awesomeness.

Today, though, there’s superb quality at every price. No matter what you want to spend, there’s a great headphone available. Modern headphones are the best they’ve ever been. This has everything to do with their newfound popularity with the mainstream, thanks to Beats.

There is no more popular headphone than Beats by Dre. Often beloved by their owners, they’re equality derided by enthusiasts. But the quality of the headphones is actually less important now. Sure, enthusiasts want to see everyone get the sound quality they get with their headphones, but the fact is, many people just don’t care. They want Beats because they’re Beats.

This is our first example of the disconnect between enthusiasts and the mainstream. Many who buy Beats buy them because they want to be seen wearing Beats. OK, so why do enthusiasts care about that? If someone is getting everything they wanted out of a product, how is that somehow less because it’s not what “you” want to get from the same product?

Now, if someone is trying to make the case that they want the best sound and they think Beats are the best, that’s different. But that’s not an argument often had. The argument is often trying to prove two radically different opinions, which is impossible. One person wants headphones for the style, another wants them for the sound. It’s like a football fan trying to argue with a basketball fan about which is the better sport. There’s no common ground to even have an argument.

So let’s skip it. Because the fact is, without the mainstream, enthusiasts would, at best, have a more expensive hobby. At worst they’d see their hobby disappear.

As much as enthusiasts would hate to admit it, there are no numbers in their hobby. There just aren’t enough enthusiasts in audio to give manufacturers the kind of numbers possible compared to a mainstream audience.

OK, in fairness, not “no” numbers. Look at the continued success of vinyl. Turntables are a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the audio market, yet it’s a consistent fraction, enough to support many small companies who make nothing but turntables (it helps that there’s tremendous margin in audio).

But the mainstream success of headphones has driven down the price of components used in all headphones. The chance at a chunk of a huge and growing market has caused a multitude of big companies (with lots of audio talent) to enter the market.

Without the mainstream success of Beats, we wouldn’t have the variety or quality of headphones we do today.

But… there’s another side of this as well. Many of the companies that now make headphones don’t want to compete directly with Beats. They see that as the entire category grows, there’s also a growing number of new enthusiasts who might not have the fanaticism of the old guard, but still want a different (better?) audio experience than what’s possible with Beats. These companies are tailoring their product for enthusiasts but doing so with an eye on price as well.

Enthusiasts push for quality, the mainstream for price. Are there people who want both? Of course, but the average mainstreamer isn’t seeking quality for qualities sake, and the average enthusiast is willing to pay way more for perceived quality.

So how do we get these two disparate groups together? Or if not together, close enough for a mutual respect? After all, a mainstream that also wants quality is good for everyone.

The answer is simple: outreach. The implementation of that answer is a lot harder. Educational outreach to those in the mainstream that are interested is key. If I’m honest, a lot of what I’m trying to do here at Forbes is exactly this. Forbes is definitely mainstream, and I’m trying to inject a bit of audiophile where I can. I’m reaching a pretty tiny audience compared to the larger market, so I need help.

If you’re an enthusiast, don’t look down at those who own Beats (or worse, those that still use their free Apple iPhone headphones). At the same time, don’t just tell them why what they have sucks. You’re going to alienate your audience.

No, the key is to find out what they think of their headphones. Feel them out first. If they love them, drop it. Move on to talking about sportsball or whatever it is people talk about.

But if they say they’re OK, but the sound isn’t great, you’re in. Ask them what it is about the sound they don’t like. See if you can get them to describe it in their own words. Then talk about what good headphones sound like. Don’t mention brands, don’t deride their choice, just say “Well these headphones do this and this, and I love them.” Staying positive is the key. Don’t make them feel like they made a wrong choice. Ease them into it.

And if you get a bite, then invite them to hear some better headphones (either yours, or even better, at a store). Everyone can hear a difference in sound, especially if you audition back to back. The trick is getting someone with no previous interest in headphones to get to the point they want to hear a difference.

One person at a time, that’s the key.

Ever converted someone to be an audiophile? Tell me how in the comments!

Follow me on Twitter and G+! You can also subscribe to my Forbes blog and check out my latest novel.

Source: Forbes

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