The mass market moves on
In the '70s and '80s, the twain did meet, for a time. Rock and pop music production techniques improved. At the same time, grown-up baby boomers, now working adults, invested in better audio equipment, all the better to listen to Steely Dan's "Aja."
There were whole mass-market stores devoted to audio gear -- Sound Trek, Hi-Fi Buys, Silo -- and no issue of Rolling Stone was complete without several ads for turntables, cassette decks and equalizers.
But technology marched on, and so did change. Some was for the sake of convenience: Cassettes had more hiss and less range than LPs, but were more portable -- especially when listening on your handy Walkman or boombox.
However, we also started focusing more on visuals. Penchansky traces the decline of the stereo system to the early '80s rise of the music video, which brought visuals to the fore. Suddenly, the concert hall in your living room -- or the audio imaging in your head -- was gone, replaced by surrealist pictures overwhelming the television's tiny speaker.
That branch of consumption has helped lead to the home theater.
Penchansky has nothing against HDTVs and 7.1 systems, but believes that, for the most part, it's a "sonic compromise." With a pure audio system, "There was no way that television, even today, simulates the realism of visual experience the way (good) audio can simulate an audio experience."
Sure, technology has adjusted.
New materials and processing technology have improved the sound of small and inexpensive devices, says Patrick Lavelle, president and CEO of the consumer electronics giant VOXX International, which manufactures such brands as Klipsch, Acoustic Research and Advent.
Headphones and an iPod
And there's still a consumer market for good audio, adds Geir Skaaden, an executive at the high-definition audio company DTS. The top-selling products in Apple Stores, after Apple's own devices, are headphones, he says. (DTS recently introduced technology for an immersive system called Headphone:X, intended for mobile devices.)
Still, convenience still rules. Which means it's out with the component stereo system and in with the computer.
That suits Rubio, the Emory graduate, fine. He grew up in a house with a component system but doesn't believe he's missing anything.
"All you need is a good pair of headphones and an iPod and that's pretty much it," he says.
Milner, the author, can't question his decision.
"Now, why even bother?" he asks. "If you can take your entire music collection and more in something that fits in your pocket, why would you not do that?"