Finding Audio Gateways for Millennials

Resident audio professor, Ken C. Pohlmann, recently wrote a blog entitled “Millennials: Your Soundbars are Killing Us” that generated quite a bit of ire among readers. The post generated over 30 comments both for, but mainly against, Ken’s assertion that millennials’ “insatiable love of soundbars” was going to ruin audio for the rest of us.

To briefly recap, Ken cited the NPD Group’s Soundbar Ownership and Usage study, saying that millennials—those born between the early ’80s and early ’00s —account for 44 percent of all audio hardware purchases, and that “sales of soundbars costing less than $200 saw double-digit growth, while sales of soundbars costing more than $500 fell 34 percent. Not only are you buying soundbars, you are buying junk soundbars.”

Ken finished the post with the line, “Spend a few bucks for something better than a cheap soundbar.”

Many of the comments from younger readers were along the lines of, “We’d love to buy better audio, but you baby-boomers ruined the economy, and now we don’t have any money!”

As someone who both sells and installs audio gear on a daily basis, I have a different take on this. First, after reading Ken’s post, I mentally went through our customer base, and I couldn’t think of too many people our company has sold to in this age category. Obviously millennials are buying gear—and lots of it—but this group isn’t shopping the way “we”—Gen Xers and prior—did. They aren’t visiting hi-fi or specialty shops to get demonstrations and advice and probably do most of their research and buying online.

That tells me the industry is doing a poor job reaching this generation and explaining the benefits of stepping up to better-performing gear. Or at least the advantages of actually going out and listening and experiencing what better audio sounds like. Honestly, I would love to be able to reach this generation of buyers, even if it is to introduce them to how a better soundbar can enhance their listening experience, or give them an aspirational experience to think about for the future. I remember the first time I saw a video projector; it was a “wow” moment that stuck with me. And even though I was in no position to afford one for many years following that, the experience planted the seed for something I’d purchase down the road.

I look back on my own path to better audio, and it began with far humbler roots than a soundbar. First it was a Sony Walkman with those orange-foam headphones. Then it was a boombox. Then it was a car stereo. Then it was a pair of Cerwin-Vega speakers connected to a Kenwood stereo receiver. My purchasing decisions reflected my current financial situation rather than my interest in audio, and as I acquired more disposable income, I bought better gear.

Many in this generation are just reaching a point where they are coming into their financial own and are likely far more concerned with things like buying houses and starting families. But soon will come the time when they will be able to afford a better experience. My first “big boy” audio purchase was a Definitive Technology subwoofer, which I bought when I was 25 and married; almost exactly the median age of millennials right now.

Beyond improving the anemic audio of flat-panel TVs, many modern soundbars offer an upgrade pathway for housewide audio listening. Whether it’s a Sonos Playbar, a Yamaha YSP with MusicCast, or one of the many DTS PlayFi-enabled products (see my upcoming review of Definitive Technology’s W Studio Micro for a terrific example), buying an appropriately equipped bar can lay the groundwork for enjoying music all throughout a home. Music that is controlled by smartphones and tablets and capable of streaming high-quality audio services like Spotify, Deezer, or Tidal.

Soundbars—and headphones—will likely be the gateway for getting this generation interested in better audio. And, fortunately, they are vastly improved from what they first were and are available from many terrific manufacturers. And hopefully the soundbar purchaser of today will turn into the 7.1.4 dedicated home theater buyer of tomorrow.

James.Seeds's picture

My friend is a GenXer, he recently downsized from a 4 bedroom suburban home to a 2 bedroom condo and purchase a sound bar not because he was short on cash or preferred the sound but because it fit the aesthetics of the place and the wife didn't want the clutter. It plays loud no surprise with all the hard surfaces but lacks the detail of a traditional set-up (the music is just there) like background music, but works for him so we really can't be turning our noses up because he purchased it at Best Buy

Tangential's picture


Tangential's picture

we have 'millennials' in the UK. I think it's an Americann thing - like we're so cool we don't want to ne like our parents we're gen X, no we're millennials so everyone can call us a silly name and think we spend all our time on smart phones. Man those baby boomers are dumb smucks.

Tangential's picture


JustinGN's picture


Loved your article, and you hit the major nails on the head: most of us still lack the substantial funds needed to get into what many older generations consider "proper" audio/video gear, and dealers/retailers are doing a poor job of reaching out to us for things we *could* afford, if properly demoed. I think it speaks volumes that when people ask me for Headphone recommendations, I usually thumb a finger over at the local Apple Store, and tell them to bring their media player with them with their favorite album in lossless format (ALAC/FLAC) for auditioning. Of course it's far from ideal, but even as someone with a penchant for B&W, Grado, and Sennheiser who lives in Boston, my own awareness of local dealers is practically zilch! When I go shopping, I'm finding major retailers with the product for demo purposes, audition there, then buy it online; the majority of my generation is much the same way.

So yes, dealers need to find ways of reaching us and getting us involved with the hobby. A basic Facebook or Twitter presence helps, but you really need to get into the areas we visit. Perhaps make a partnership with a local eatery to have a headphone bar for a day or two, let folks charge their phones and try some new cans. Perhaps rent a prominent space in a traffic-heavy area for a week or a month, and turn it into a demo space with a theater, hi-fi, and portable audio demo stations tailored to the budget of the local populace, really show them the value a good pair of speakers can have. The traditional, stationary retail outlet works great for word of mouth, but clearly we're not getting that word of mouth within our own generation, so outside advertising of some sort is needed (though a fair warning that banner ads or other web advertising will be ill effective at getting you new clients!).

That said, you've also hit the biggest problem in that some of us are just now coming into our own financially: buying houses, paying off debts, getting well paying jobs. Most of us, however, are still renting overpriced apartments, getting paid below market rate, and generally struggling to survive. We can still be a very valuable market, but you need to recognize what we can legitimately afford to buy, and make recommendations accordingly, even if it's not something you'd recommend to your older or more sophisticated clientele. We may not have the money or capability for a full home theater setup, so you need to be prepared to swallow your dealer pride, and consider suggesting a nicer soundbar, or demonstrating the profound effect a pair of bookshelf speakers can have that a soundbar cannot create.

If you lower your standards a little bit, and become receptive to new ways of enjoying audio in the spaces we find ourselves occupying, then there's plenty of sales to be had.

Or, you can convince your fellow boomers to pay us what we're actually worth. A $10k to $25k raise to bring us in line with the buying power your generation had at our ages would instantly bring you business for existing product. No more soundbars or tiny apartments! Everybody wins!

Though something tells me that the former approach is slightly more realistic for you in the short term. Either way, it's time A/V and CI change to meet the demands of the new generation.

Adapt or die in the free market, am I right?

Markoz's picture

Here in Vancouver, Canada, millennials are coping with ultra-high rents, ultra-low wages and very tiny apartments (there is even a local furniture store named "OMG It's Small!"). This leaves little room for upgraded audio, both literally and figuratively.

Our high-end audio stores are secreted away in posh enclaves millennials would be unlikely to visit except for one, which is inexplicably smack dab in the middle of the poverty blighted Downtown Eastside where you can watch drug deals going down across the street from their main showroom window. Anyway, none of the stores are in places millennials frequent.

Most of the stores radiate the sort of opulence and exclusivety that can be quite intimidating. It even affects me and I'm 58. I recently purchased new speakers from a local dealer but when I first saw the store's online presence I thought, "These guys cater to people in a different tax bracket than me."

One dealer does have their more modest gear right at the front of the store so that when you walk in you aren't immediately confronted with $20,000 speakers and similarly priced electronics. The expensive stuff is in the back. I think that is a good idea.

Overall, I would say the biggest problem for dealers is twofold, alerting the young people to the fact that they even exist and then not frightening them off with sticker shock as soon as they walk in the door.

WilliamSmith's picture

I totally agree with you. For those who is really interested about something it's not a problem to find money on the things which is important for them. And the music is an integral part of most people's lives. Most of the millennials who is studying in colleges or universities can find some money on term paper help online, for example. So why'd they couldn't spend it on music devices?