by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 18, 2019
Audiophiles are obsessive creatures who try to create Nirvana on Earth by assembling the perfect sound system but frustratingly never reach paradise because they’re always seeking another allusive component that promises to be the final Holy Grail of High Fidelity. I would love to be a genuine audiophile but I just don’t have the Right Stuff to be an audionaut. (My spelling checker suggested “audio nut” for the last word, how appropo.)
Reason To Be #1 – You Really Love Music
Now you have to love music way more than the average music listener. You have to ache to hear recorded music at its fullest fidelity. Most music fans are happy to just have music on in the background of their lives. Audiophiles listen to music like they were at the theater watching a great movie or play. They don’t want any talking. It’s all about hearing music with 100% concentration. But it’s even more than that. You also want to know everything about the music, how it was created artistically and technically, and how it fits into the history of music in general. Audiophiles become scholars of music.
Reason Not To Be #1 – Requires Loving Music Too Much
The love of how the music was made or how it could be played back becomes so obsessive that it overshadows the joy of listening to music. Audiophiles love the details to death, especially technical details. There’s nothing wrong with amassing such knowledge, but at some point, I realize it could become an all-consuming black hole of scholarship.
Reason To Be #2 – You Desire Higher Fidelity
I want to hear the music recordings played so I hear everything. The average music fan is perfectly happy with a smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Buying a pair of good headphones is the first step on the road to becoming an audiophile. Once you realize you can hear more details from your favorite songs you go on a quest to upgrade your equipment. It’s knowing when to stop that determines your sanity. As much as I enjoy listening to music on headphones, I really love hearing it played loud so the music fills the room with a soundstage and all the performers and their instruments seem separated spatially.
Reason Not To Be #3 – You Need To Hear What No One Else Can
This is where audiophiles begin spending thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands trying to recreate what they believe is what the music sounded like in the studio when it was recorded. It depresses the hell out of me when I hear an audiophile claim that an $18,000 cable made a night and day difference. I worry that I’m hearing musical sludge and don’t know it. I hate feeling like if I was only rich like Bill Gates I could hear my favorite songs as they were meant to be heard. When extreme audiophiles talk about how much better they hear music they make me want to go back to listening to AM radio.
Recently I watched a documentary on Johnny Winter that was made just before he died. At one point he wants the film producer to hear the music he loved growing up. So he plays an old blues record on a portable stereo in his living room that looked like it came from an elementary school in the 1950s, with detachable speakers. While he was playing a scratchy old record on this crappy record player his face lit up like he was experiencing enlightenment. I remember back in 1965 listening to music on a tiny transistor radio with a single earpiece. I was so happy with Top 40 AM back then that I nostalgically consider 1965 to be the peak of popular music. Of course, over a lifetime I have bought one music system after the next seeking to hear that same music in greater high fidelity. But watching Johnny Winter, who probably had the money to own a good audiophile system looked so happy listening to his favorite music in such lo-fidelity that it made me realize that love of music isn’t about equipment.
Reason To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music
Most people imprint on the music they heard growing up as teens and end up playing those same tunes over and over again for the rest of their lives. Audiophiles continue to seek out new music from all genres and historical periods until they die. Audiophiles can branch out of the generation they were born into to psychically dig music from other generations and other cultures.
Here’s a video Michael Fremer, a senior editor at Stereophile magazine, talking about his favorite 100 analog albums. Fremer is an extreme audiophile. I love watching his videos, and this one is very inspiring because of his passion for these particular albums. I’m going to play everything on his list because I want to hear what excites him so – just not from the same source. The video is also evidence of why not to become an audiophile. Pay attention to what he knows and what it would take to play what Fremer loves. This is a long video, and he doesn’t start his countdown until he first gives a lecture on LPs’ ability to last. That should have been a separate video.
Reason Not To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music by Specific Recordings
Fremer is extremely knowledgable and I love learning from him. He’s not snobbish, but he is rather crusty in his opinions. He appears to really admire 45rpm double LPs, a format I didn’t even know existed until watching the video, and Google seems to know little about that format too. Fremer often claims certain reissue 45rpm LPs are by far the absolute best presentations of certain classic albums, but these editions are $50-100, or more. Fremer is an LP snob and the way he talks it makes you feel if you aren’t listening to these exact LP pressings you are wasting your time. I’m going to listen to these 100 albums, but not the actual LP.
My preferred music format is streaming music via Spotify. This horrifies audiophiles, although some audiophiles are beginning to accept Tidal because it streams at CD quality. I’ve tried getting back into LPs twice in recent years and I just don’t like messing with the turntables or LPs. This probably means I can’t be an audiophile according to the faith of most audiophiles.
Reason Not To Be #4 – Money
Some audiophiles spend huge piles of money seeking High Fidelity. In another Fremer video, he talks about having to take out a bank loan to buy his amplifiers, and the guy doesn’t look poor. He also talks about using two $18,000 cables – but he got those on loan. Most true audiophiles spend a great deal of money on their sound systems. There are low-end audiophiles, but I expect true audiophiles consider them pretenders. On the other hand, some people consider themselves audiophiles if they merely like to tinker with sound. One German audiophile I watched recently on YouTube recommended using a $35 Raspberry Pi as a foundation for a music streamer. And I know people who build their own speakers. So it is possible to spend little, and still, claim to be an audiophile. However, I tend to think real audiophiles read audiophile magazines and buy audiophile-grade equipment.
Reason Not To Be #5 – Never Ending Quest for New Equipment
Audiophiles tend to be people who are never satisfied. One of my favorite audiophile YouTubers is Steven Guttenberg, who calls himself The Audiophiliac. In one of his videos, he was talking about “The Last DAC/AMP/Reciever/Speakers/Turntable You’ll Ever Buy/Need” type of discussions and columns. You could see Steve turning green under the gills just thinking about not wanting new equipment. The idea of finding the right sound system you’d keep for the rest of your life or even 5-10 years just goes counter to the audiophile credo of always wanting newer and better.
I just bought a new sound system for my computer room. I realize my old system was 20 years old. My new system is a Yamaha WXA-50 streamer with a built-in amplifier and Bose 301 Series V speakers. It cost me around $750 and I expect that system to last a long time. I took weeks picking it out. I wanted audiophile speakers, but all the reviews of bookshelf audiophile speakers said not to put them against the wall. Audiophiles believe bookshelf speakers should be put on stands. (Then they aren’t bookshelf speakers, are they!) I only have one place to put speakers in this room, on top of my bookshelves. The Bose speakers were designed to be real bookshelf speakers, so I bought them. I’m very happy with them too.
Reason Not To Be #6 – Buying Bose Speakers
I watched a lot of YouTube videos by audiophiles reviewing speakers and boy do they look down their noses at Bose. In fact, I set out specifically not to buy Bose speakers to replace the Bose 201 speakers I currently owned. I wanted to buy Klipsch, Elac, Wharfdale, and other speakers admired by these reviewers but they all insisted they had to be set out from the wall on stands. When I saw a video about how Bose speakers were designed to work from bookshelves I said, “Fuck it, I’m buying Bose again.”
Reason Not To Be #7 – I Don’t Hear What They Hear
Ultimately I don’t think I can be an audiophile because either my ears aren’t good enough, or my cognitive ability to discern audio details is lacking. Or maybe I just can’t see the ghosts they do.
I went back to LPs twice in recent years because audiophiles keep claiming they sounded better. Records did sound different, even a pleasant different, but I heard more details from my CDs. I bought the equipment to play SACD years ago. Yes, they sounded better, but only if I was concentrating intently. Then when high-resolution FLAC files came out I tried them on a new receiver that was supposed to decode them. I bought Moondance by Van Morrison as my test. I compared it to a remastered CD and Spotify. I thought the CD sounded best, but I was perfectly happy with Spotify if I cranked up the volume.
Time and time again I heard audiophiles claim the difference is night and day to them, but the difference to me at best is the difference between the daylight at 2:00pm and 3:00pm.
I’m happy when the music fills the room and each performer and singer stands out. I love it when I can hear the texture of each instrument. I love it when I have enough high fidelity that allows me to easily focus on just one instrument when I want to. But most of all, I love it when music just sounds good.
I want to be an audiophile within reason. I believe one problem real audiophiles have promoting optimal sound systems is they focus too much on individual components when the total sound is depended on a gestalt setup. Reviewers should review whole setups so it’s easier for buyers to acquire and set up a system that should work together. Constantly reading/watching reviews of the gadget of the moment is becoming stultifying.
5 thoughts on “3 Reasons I Want To Be An Audiophile, and 6 Reasons I Can’t”
I wrote my first song on a Fisher Price xylophone and recorded it on mini-disc.
I agree. The perfect sound system can be ruined by as simple an issue as being in the wrong place in the room (you lose the ‘perfect’ stereo). Good quality within reason seems the way to go. I confess to being a wannabe audiophile to that same extent – in that I’d like to have better sound quality than is usually around these days. I can’t really tell the difference between a CD or good-quality vinyl, but MP3’s sound like mud more often than not thanks to its lossy compression algorithm. Of course, no reproduction system can capture the reality of a live sound – I play synthesisers and the difference between what I hear, playing live through headphones, and how that’s recorded, is chalk and cheese. But I think MP3 really never made the cut.
I have a family story about this. My late Dad was an electronics development engineer with Western Electric, from the 1940s, dealing with audio systems – particularly ways to get high volume with little power, low distortion, proper bass response, etc. He held a few patents to his name (all now owned by Nokia, I discover). When I was growing up we had a sound system he’d built in the house, including speakers to his own design. He’d set it up so as to use the roof-space of the house as a resonator. The problem, always, was getting a recording of sufficient quality to exploit it.
Now, Dad was 1920s generation and not a great rock music fan, he preferred Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, classical music, etc. He listened to a bit of folk rock but wasn’t keen on the heavier stuff such as Pink Floyd. However, our neighbour – a classically trained church organist – disliked rock music of all flavours. Christmas 1979 arrived. Pink Floyd had just released ‘The Wall’. So Dad got hold of a copy and, as a special Christmas treat for everybody (and especially the neighbour), racked the volume up to max, all with total clarity and fidelity of reproduction. Seriously – there was NO distortion at full volume, the amp was that heavily over-engineered. We all went outside to listen to it, Stuka siren sounds and everything.
I wish I could have heard that house!
Well, one could limit their listening to stuff like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound – stuff that was designed to sound good on a crappy AM radio.
Reasons #3 and #5 disqualify me from audiophile status. I’m 70-years-old and have 70-year-old ears. I’m not ready for hearing aids yet, but I’m sure if I survive another 10 years I’ll probably need them. The quest for better sound requires excellent hearing…which we all tend to lose as the years roll by. I can enjoy a good stereo system. I don’t need a Super-Duper Sound System.