When I went off to live at University in the fall of 1993, everyone had a hi-fi. On move-in day at the dormitories, parents and students unloaded the family car, full of clothing, posters, a computer, and the hi-fi. Before leaving for school, my father had given me three big presents. They were the IBM PS/1 386SX PC, and speakers: a Marantz left channel, and a Marantz right channel.
This is very a much a boy thing, part of the male ego and maybe even it has some anthropological basis in a male's need to mark territory or establish a sense of alpha male, king-of-the-hill-ism. (Not to say that hi-fi is a male thing: my girlfriend at the time had an amazing pair of dbx 3x2RS speakers in black veneer.)
The first thing every boy unboxed was the receiver and speakers. The first act was to start playing move-in music, loudly. We showed off musical tastes. We showed off dominance by decibels. Or maybe it was stupidity, I can't be sure.
I admit, I cheated. I also had a guitar amp with two 12 inch speakers, a solid-state affair pumping out 100w mono. I ran a portable CD player into it with low pre-amp gain and the master turned high. You'd never listen to music like this, but it was fine for move-in.
The truth is, it probably wasn't a contest. Memory is a funny thing, and retelling it now, it seems as if it was a contest. The truth is, I probably was making it into one where there wasn't a real competition.
Ten Years Later
I got the first generation iPod.
The first iPod speakers were lousy little affairs that used the headphone port.
Somewhere between April and September of 2003, iPod docks started to appear.
The first was an Alpine car radio, to replace factory-equipped radios. This was soon followed by home audio solutions like the SoundDocks we all know of from Bose.
The era of the hi-fi was over.
Docking speakers really took off around 2005, with iHome selling their first alarm clock solution. The iPod had been a hot selling item for two years, with kids asking their parents for one each year. Usually hot products that appeal to kids lose demand after a season. The iPod lasted years without losing demand.
The introduction of the iPod mini and its replacement by the iPod nano further cemented the iPod in kids hands. Parents bought the iHome alarm clock as the logical accessory for kids.
Griffin solved the car audio problem with the iTrip FM transmitter. People don't want to replace their factory-equipped car stereo and aux-in options in cars are only now being provided by manufacturers who are traditionally 10 years behind the technology curve. They're just realizing in the past few years that they aren't providing methods of transportation, they're providing entertainment systems that happen to have engines.
For in home use, everyone from iHome, Bowers and Wilkins, Arcam, JBL, Altec Lansing, Klipsch, Sony, Philips, Logitech and more had entered the speaker dock market. There are winners (iHome, Bose, B&W) and losers (Altec Lansing.)
By 2010, the docking speaker had seen its best days go by. In part because it had become a commodity item, and in part because the market had been flooded and you didn't need to change your dock with the regularity that you needed to upgrade the iPod, people just weren't buying in as large numbers as they once had. The economic downturn in general didn't help.
In the summer of 2010, a person at a company teased us with the notion that Apple would do something to reinvigorate the speaker market, and give everyone a reason to re-buy. We now know this to be AirPlay, and we know that it hasn't had the wide adoption that anyone hoped.
The truth is, I really wanted AirPlay to take off. I wanted it to be available as soon as Apple announced it in September 2010. Sure, I had used AirTunes on 802.11g AirPort Express, but they weren't really robust and you could only play from iTunes or Rogue Amoeba's AirFoil - limited to music on your computer. Streaming from the iPhone I'd been carrying around for 3 years was going to be awesome.
It didn't work out that way. The most extreme example was iHome selling their IW1 portable AirPlay speaker for $299 one year after it was announced. And that speaker didn't even sell that well.
An Aside: The Griffin Twenty
In January 2012, Griffin showed the Griffin Twenty at CES. Twenty is a 40 Watt (20x2ch) amplifier with speaker outputs, subwoofer out to amplified subs, and optical input. You're meant to connect an early 802.11N AirPort Express to it and play it through your existing hi-fi speakers. The tag line on the box is, brilliantly
The good speakers miss you.
God-damned copywriting genius.
In 2012, it became clear that AirPlay wasn't selling in great numbers or selling in any numbers outside of Apple retail stores. Bluetooth, an audio technology that had been around since 2001, had always been terrible to audio and was only now improving. Consumers weren't buying AirPlay and weren't buying Bluetooth in numbers to replace their existing docking speakers.
I put car stereos in my cars with Bluetooth and mounted microphones in the interior. I gave stuffed animals with Bluetooth in them to my daughters. My girls used them once and my wife always changes audio source to iPhone instead of the car stereo. As for me, I have all kinds of trouble with the pairing nonsense that Bluetooth requires.
Even Apple introducing a new connector on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad models didn't spur speaker purchases in Bluetooth. How do I explain this?
In 2003, Rick Alden founded Skullcandy. By 2005, he'd had the "ink'd" and "smokin' buds" ear buds ranged in Target retail.
Skullcandy has had great successes with 9 USD earbuds and has had some success moving up the price point range, notably with the Fix and Aviator headphones. They've had less success moving into speakers (The Pipe and Vandal did not do nearly as well.)
The Beats by Dré phenomenon started in 2009. It's been copied by every headphone mfr. who thinks that adding a rapper as the 'head of development' for a headphone line will result in sales. What they're missing is that it isn't about rappers as much as it is about authentically caring about a certain type of sound response and having the marketing, engineering, and marketing of engineering to back it up.
Here's the point of this retelling of near-history: The hi-fi became the iPod speaker dock. The speaker dock has become headphones.
Headphones are available in a variety of price ranges and form factors, all doing about the same kinds of things, but with some variations on features and all over the spectrum on sound quality and frequency response curves. There's a earphone for every price, for every market segment, and for every form factor.
Headphones Are The New Hi-Fi.
Speaker docks are on their way out, although it may take a few years for this to become evident. Bose will remain strong, B&W will remain strong, but there just isn't a lot of room for other speaker docks.
Since Apple introduced the Lightning connector, only JBL and GEAR4 have released speaker docks with Lightning. It's been 6 months. 183 days.
With headphones, people can buy in at a price point and sound performance level, re-buy whenever they get more money and a more fashionable item becomes available, and re-buy again when they inevitably leave them on the bus/airplane/whatever, or break the cables. They cost cheaper initially, have more margin potentially, and can peak at price points equivalent with docking speakers, if the performance is there. This breaks, however, when manufacturers decide to do fast-follower-at-worse-quality-same-price-point plans.
What Of The Hipster?
There's an exception to this. The hipster will buy headphones, preferably on-ear or over-ear that look like the ones used in public school language learning labs. Panasonic makes a brilliant version of this in the RP-HTX7.
But the hipster also illustrates the revival of vinyl albums. Urban Outfitters sells the usual Crosley record players, but also sells an Audio Technica turntable. Shoot, they even sell the records.
It's bigger than just the hipster. There's also the people that never left vinyl. Whether it's Urban Outfitters or the fact that there's a record store with racks of vinyl not far from a local co-working spot, vinyl is back. Most representative is that Crosley still has a record player carried in Target stores season after season. If it weren't successful, it'd have been kicked out long ago.
What The Future Holds
The way forward is headphones. Retailers, Rep Firms, Brands, and Contract Manufacturers all make good profit on headphones, and the replacement / repurchase rate is high.
The vinyl resurgence is smaller than the headphone space, but it's telling: people place a high value their listening experience, and dedicate not just the equipment, but the time to pay attention to every note, to every dynamic swing, and enjoy it.
It's a far cry from cranking a 4x over-sampling cd player through a guitar amp.
Note: I worked for Griffin from the end of 2008 to 2010. I worked at GEAR4 through early 2013.