Re: Are we reaching the end of High End Audio?
Whilst I cannot speak for any one brand in particular, I have previously worked for a few high-end audio manufacturers in the UK and would point to several factors that have caused the high-end market to arrive at its current position.
Firstly, the average age of consumers is certainly not falling - it's in the 40-somethings if not a little higher - and this has forced the high-end brands to try and introduce products that cater for a slightly younger and less 'audiocentric' audience. Witness products such as B&W's Zeppelin, Meridian's F80, Linn's Classik range and the Arcam Solo, for example. And the sudden, late to the party rush to stick an iPod dock on everything in sight. The great difficulty, of course, is that promoting and marketing these products in a wider arena to a larger audience is hugely expensive and undoubtedly limits the ability of these brands to create as many products aimed at the core (dwindling?) enthusiast audience as in years gone by.
Secondly, most retailers have not revised their business models over time. There are some great retailers in the US and UK who market themselves proactively and who demonstrate products professionally in a well-designed and tidy retail environment, but these guys are undeniably the exception rather than the rule, and much of the current malaise the high-end is experiencing is down to the fact that a lot of retailers are simply not professional enough in the way they run their businesses. It's not 1975 any more - you simply cannot open the doors in the morning and expect people to come flooding in. This has forced manufacturers to either consolidate business with a few key retailers or, more likely, find other ways of getting product in front of potential customers.
Thirdly, many high-end brands have sought out partnerships with other companies in order to expand their brand awareness. Be it an association with a car manufacturer or something similar, the strategy has clearly been to expose the brand to a wider audience and bring a new kind of customer to the table. Whilst these activities might depress a brand's more traditional customers, it's an inevitable a reaction to the fact that these consumers are buying less hi-fi and profits have been falling as a result. Some may view it as 'selling out' but love doesn't pay the mortgage nor does it satisfy the shareholders.
On a final note, I don't think it is fair to say that true hi-end hi-fi is a hobbyist pursuit. There are some customers with a declared interest in audio who are prepared to make lifestyle sacrifices in order to live the dream. However, there are also plenty of people out there with plenty of money who want a solution for the home and will spend to get it. They are not audio enthusiasts and are not that concerned about the brands involved, they simply want the cool solution in the same way as they want the gym, the pool table, the sauna and the swimming pool.
I don't have a crystal ball, but if I did I'm sure it would show a future where most of the high-end brands are focusing their efforts on custom install, business-to-business relationships (products for hotels, cars, yachts, private jets and so on) and more lifestyle, plug-and-play products for the wider consumer. Make of that what you will....