The bare necessities

  • The man in the street chooses to listen music on a handheld Bluetooth loudspeaker. The audiophile looks on in horror: “He no longer cares about quality!”. The man in the street, it is argued, has changed.

    But is that really true?

    Back in the 1970s, the man in in the street and the audiophile bought the same vinyl LP from the same record store. Any differences in playback quality would be determined by their hardware choices, not the format itself. And that meant a little effort – time for a visit to one’s nearest hifi retailer or department store.

    phillipsHere, the man in the street seeks out the bare minimum but the audiophile wants something a little better. However, back then, the hardware configuration chosen by each buyer would’ve been more similar than it was different: turntable, amplifier, loudspeakers.

    The boxes were big but they gave the listener proper stereo separation and, if s/he chose wisely, a sound with real physical impact.

    Then came the cassette tape – it was lower in audio quality than the vinyl LP but smaller and more convenient. It could go where the LP couldn’t: out on walkabout with a Sony Walkman (or similar) or out on the open road with an in-car cassette player.

    The man in the street now had two formats from which to choose. The turntable was no longer a mandatory purchase. The bare minimum hardware requirements for loudspeaker playback changed. Size and box count dropped, portability increased. Boom boxes flooded the market.


    At 5” in diameter and promising perfect sound forever, here was a convenient challenge to the vinyl LP. It offered quality AND convenience. Boom boxes added CD players and the hardware shrinkage continued for the man in the street seeking the bare necessities to get going with loudspeaker playback at home. Shorn of the need for a turntable, an all-in-one tower systems evolved into mini- and then micro-systems.

    Once only CD and cassette tape playback were called for, the more basic audio hardware solutions of the 1990s were easier to setup and less expensive than the separates stacks still being sold to audiophiles. The man in the street could trade in further on sound quality and box size, all in the name of greater convenience.

    Digital audio encroachment saw the MP3 slowly supplant the CD and the bare minimum changed yet again. With no physical format to accommodate, loudspeakers systems could be reduced to the size of a hockey puck. The Bluetooth monobox invites us to wave goodbye to stereo separation and on-skin impact. Pointless for the man in the street to debate lossy vs. lossless delivery when his hardware won’t expose any alleged differences.

    Ease of use is now at an all time high, price at an all time low. Meanwhile, the man in the street is simply doing what he has always done – he is choosing the bare minimum. The ubiquity of laptop and smart device speakers gets anyone over the line with music playback in an instant – no additional purchase required. And what could be easier than doing nothing?


    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. The only hard choices are one or the other.
      Blue Ray was the last real choice from DVD.
      Now most download a movie from thier provider.
      People expect a bare minimum and the industry sets the format. The power of advertising persuades a need for the next gadget, the rest go for the cheapest option within our means. Like John’s car watch analogy, we are a niche market and what we see as value isn’t the same as everyone else. Now a car expert or horological expert may have laughed at thier choices…You bought the sales pitch not quality..
      We are not immune either….
      AMR have seen that with IFI, They have thier new ROLLS-ROYCE flag ship but the trickle down has made our listening better with small payment addons. We can hope the people working for the big firms are audiophiles, the electronic designers pushing the envelope within a tight budget for the general market.
      They have to make the next big thing though not the best thing. Ifi WFS Uptone ect they push to improve what we can’t afford. I just wrote in CA at what point do we buy the better DAC or AMP..
      Than tinker with what we have….but a hobby is a journey not a large spend on the credit card to impress your friends.
      If I got the premise of John’s article, at best if we keep raising the bar then our trickle down benefits all, just not how we would like it…
      But when more enjoy great sound easy and cheaply…We are here for them to take that next step.. As a market and a community….
      The more welcoming we are the better for all…


    2. I own a UE Mega Boom shown above.

      It’s water proof, sounds great for what it is, and the audio quality is more than good enough for the beach, outdoor activities, parties, what have you. My wife and I use it as our defacto party/pool speaker when we have friends over. If it gets dropped into the pool or rains, no big deal.

      Do I consider it audiophile grade? No, not on your life. But who cares? It does the job quite well and it’s FUN. A very important metric John I think you are forgetting about in this article.

      We as audiophiles love to frame the discussion in terms of fidelity vs convenience when it comes to their favorite pieces of lo-fi gear to pick on (bluetooth speakers, cheap MP3 players, etc.) without recognizing the fact that some of this gear is just frankly more fun.

      That’s right, fun.

      Boom boxes are a great example of where it *wasn’t just about convenience*, it was also about entertainment and making a statement. The guy walking down the street with the boom box on his shoulder blasting music and literally starting a street party because of it. Who cares what it’s FR curve looks like? That’s not the point of this exercise.

      Take a look at the Apple iPod back in the day. Watch the commercials. Are they appealing to your sense of fidelity or the fact that you can grab the new U2 record for free and dance like a maniac to it in the kitchen to it with your iPod on? Take a wild one.

      Put simply, the man on the street is not all about choosing the bare necessities, and as audiophiles, we need to recognize the fun factor of some of these devices too.

    3. Growing up in the 70’s there was one more format that surpassed the quality of a LP – Open Reel Tape Deck. Having access to studio master tapes the sound was far superior to anything else even by today High Res Standards. There was a limited Open Reel Tape offerings from several labels – but those were expensive and had limited reach – think of DSD of today… Today the price of Open Reel Master tapes are several hundred $$$ per tape. This year Munich had several offering of these tapes and the sound was superior to most digital as there wasn’t any of the digital brittleness that plagues typical digital playback. But tapes are cumbersome and expensive – only handful of fanatics would ever have such system at home. Convenience and price unfortunately walks hand in hand how the music is consumed – with the big system of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s stately sitting in a living room music was given much bigger importance. Now the music is reduced to white ear buds and Tylenol size speakers and as such it became a background and largely unimportant. And that’s a real shame.

      • “Now the music is reduced to white ear buds and Tylenol size speakers and as such it became a background and largely unimportant. And that’s a real shame”

        Speak for yourself, Jerry. I mean we could all moan that we don’t have our own private concert hall with resident 70 piece orchestra; anything less is pointless, right?
        I actually heard an idiot on ABC Classic FM, in Australia, argue that ALL recorded music was terrible and ‘live’ was the ONLY way to appreciate it…pffft.
        Digital has served me fine. I gain huge enjoyment from listening to orchestral work from my iPhone, via a Dragonfly and Shure 1840’s…til I can persuade the West Australian Symphony orchestra to perform, say, Mahler 9 at my whim and fancy.

        When I were a lad, we used to hum to each other. Two lads, one each side; we called it ‘stereo’…it were reeet good’n’all!!

    4. You are correct. The only difference is that lots of people had a decent setup at home, and also a portable system of some type. Now mostly only the portable setup.

    5. If I were a carpenter and I needed to fix something quick, and all I had was my friend’s Swiss Army knife, should I not apply the fix, even though I don’t have my tool box? Of course I should. I can’t drag my main system into the kitchen or out to the yard, so why wouldn’t I use a bluetooth speaker? Seems self evident to me.

    6. Hi John,

      What I take from your comments is that the man in the street is the one with the most power, and needs to do the least to get what he/she wants.

      Why the most power, because the man in the street is most likely the most numerous with the most common objective when it comes to music playback ………… can I hear it, can I afford it, do I like how it looks, does it attach to my phone etc by bluetooth?

      So, in the way I am interpreting your piece, the man in the street is being given what he/she wants something they can afford and sounds good enough.

      As I am sure you have written elsewhere, it’s not what it costs, it is can I afford it and can he rest of my family use it without breaking it.

      My take on it all is quite simple, Hi Fidelity and great sound is searched for and purchased by people who really want to listen to music.

      The rest and that is the majority, just need it to work and that suits the big firms just nicely as they need not do a great deal either.

      And for proof ………. I spent a small fortune and I am loving every minute of it, meanwhile my friends look at me with disbelief that I or anybody would want to invest that heavily ……………
      on the other hand the man in the street has a massive choice of affordable gadgets and just look at the way samrtphones have taken over from Ipods.

      I am not sad at this, it is just mass market, most people either don’t have that much interest in sound quality, don’t think it is value for money or in a lot of cases just say Meh.

      And borrowing from one of the other posters on this piece, hopefully trickle down, will, by stealth, bring the common level up to CD level again without anyone noticing, only when the affordable sounds better might anyone consider going up the ladder, many I wager will just keep rolling with the low end and the manufacturers will keep counting the profits.

      Now where are my SACD’s? and the portable to play them on !!!!!

      All the best


    7. I personally believe that the quality of playback is on par or has improved on the equivalent devices that were available in the 80s / 90s. From my audio memory banks, the two UE Boom speakers (stereo pair) I now own trounce the string of tower systems, boom boxes and midi systems (I’m looking at you Dixons, Tandy) that were knocking around in the 80s / 90s. They’re also cheaper, water resistant and battery powered. I know the old boom boxes were battery powered but the batteries cost as much as a car and lasted all of 10mins! MP3s are generally superior to the cassette tapes that were a copy of a copy of a copy that most people had back in the day. The audiophile has always been a rare beast and I don’t think its path has crossed with the man on the street for c.40 years. In fact, with products like the Momentum, iPhone, even Beats (dare I say it) I feel there might be some signs of minor convergence. And with products like the Dragonfly, combined with the mooted removal of iPhone headphone jacks, the future looks bright.

    8. I could only afford, in the early 1970s, a cheap plastic turntable and my first album was Steppenwolf’s “Monster.” Even with that weak rig, I was hooked on the idea of not being limited to top 40 on the radio.

      In the mid 1970s, I listened a bit to really old albums on my parents’ wind up antique record player.

      In the late 1970s, I bought a record changer that could play multiple albums automatically. My father could not stand to hear Led Zeppelin on my speakers and so he bought Koss headphones for me. I couldn’t play records in my car, and so I bought an 8-track player and added better speakers.

      In the early 1980s, I moved out of my parents’ house and bought a nice receiver and speakers. The police came once when I played Led Zeppelin too loud.

      In the 1980s while going to college, I stuck to cassettes, which I played on a Sony boombox and Walkman, and then switched to CDs in the 1990s. I still have my old Aiwa CD player with matching speakers, but I never listen to it now.

      I did not start downloading until several years ago. I purchase downloads several times a week. I never download without paying for the songs.

      I bought some good speakers, a DAC, and cables last year, followed by a nice subwoofer last week, and I have that gear connected to my iMac with JRiver music software. I also have a Sony Walkman ZX2 that I use almost exlusively in my car connected to its 12-speaker system. Music at home and in my car sounds wonderful.

      So, access to music and playback gear has definitely been an evolution for me. Music has never been more accessible with downloads from HD Tracks, Onkyo, 7Digital, Pono, Apple, and Amazon, and my musical tastes have broadened to include jazz, folk, and classical. I purchase downloads several times a week. And now that I can afford better gear, it has never sounded as good.

      Convenience is nice, but I have always sought to get better gear. I have never used Bluetooth for anything. I find it bizarre when I see tiny Bluetooth speakers in the big box stores.

      Of concern for me now is the talk about downloads for purchase being phased out to be replaced by streaming. I never stream anything except to hear songs before deciding whether to purchase them for downloading. I see streaming as a devolution. Right when my music experience has really taken off into audio paradise it is being threatened, if the rumors are accurate, by streaming replacing downloads. I hope that if most download sites die or switch to streaming, at least one or two sites will continue to sell downloads to those of us who prefer that format and still make a profit.

    9. “Back in the 1970s, the man in in the street and the audiophile bought the same vinyl LP from the same record store. Any differences in playback quality would be determined by their hardware choices, not the format itself. And that meant a little effort – time for a visit to one’s nearest hifi retailer or department store.”

      This is a KEY point. Back in the 1970s, the “man on the street” with the cheap Technics spinner bought the same LP as the guy with a TOTL Thorens TD-126. The people who *made* that record though, the recording and production engineers, they did their jobs with the goal of creating the best sound that they could for the guy with the Thorens table. The man on the street might not have been able to appreciate everything on the LP with his plastic Technics and cheap-o cart, but he still got the same quality product as the guy with the Thorens, and if he chose to upgrade his equipment down the line, there was better sounding waiting for him on the disc.

      This is simply not the case anymore. Now, the engineers create music with the goal of making it “work” on the modern equivalent of the plastic Technics table – products like the above mentioned mono bluetooth speakers at whatnot. Or at least that’s what they claim. And so the Hi-Fi hobbyist, assuming his or her tastes run outside the usual “audiophile approved” genres of old Blue Note Jazz recordings from the ’50s and ’60s and classical, is *punished* for his or her time, effort, and money with lowest common denominator crap that sounds worse and worse with more and more revealing equipment. Much like how crappy special effects in old movies that were passable on VHS look absolutely horrendous on the Blu-ray.

      Imagine having the world’s most refined palate, and the only food available to eat is McDonalds. That’s what music is like today. Therefore I find it hard to blame the man on the street for not caring and doing nothing. Why should he care when the people *making* the music don’t care?

      • While I think that there’s still quite a bit of “better than McDonalds” music available, your comment is otherwise depressingly accurate.

        Perhaps we, the audiophile community, should focus more on critiquing record/mastering quality rather than devices. De gustibus non disputandum, but good mastering is not just a matter of taste.

        • It’s not ALL absolute crap, but even in the rare cases when the engineers are allowed to not completely crush the music to death, there is still FAR too much of a “fix everything with Pro Tools” problem. Music should be made by people. People aren’t perfect, which is totally fine. Old rock albums from before the digital age had such an organic feel to them, and I don’t think it has anything to do with digital vs. analog. I think it was how they recorded. When you listen to the studio sessions from these albums, everybody was there together, and in some cases they would improvise or just kind of figure things out as they went along. When everything came together, they kept that take.

          Nobody does anything like that now. No one records together. Each musician records their part separately, often in totally different studios, and then the engineer will go in and fix everything note by note, and you’re left with a rather anodyne product that could’ve been made by robots.

    10. My grandfather worked on the original consumer reel-to reel tape decks for RCA. There’s a prototype somewhere in storage. But, in spite of buying a Meridian CD player in the 80s in his 80s, he still recorded the audio to cassettes for playback. I’m not exactly sure why he did this, but it did sound pretty damn good. Tape is one of the best formats available. Unless I become stupid wealthy, I’m not entertaining R2R, but it is tempting. I’ll stick to my Thorens for now.

    11. I had a thing with a handle like the one in the top pic in my study at boarding school.
      That was the 70’s and I thought it was fab! It was covered in ‘faux leather’ and the lid was padded. Yes, padded.
      Often one would forget to secure the arm before locking the lid and grabbing it…

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