by James Wallace Harris, 10/18/22
For the past couple of years, I’ve been following several YouTubers that review audiophile equipment. Audiophiles are a subculture of music fans who are fanatical about playback equipment: amplifiers, speakers, DACs, CD players and transports, turntables, headphones, streamers, etc. Most music lovers just get a system from Bose, Sony, Apple, Sonos, Yamaha, Devon, etc., and are happy enough.
Audiophiles are obsessed with every aspect of sound reproduction and are on a never-ending quest to find better equipment. Low-level would-be audiophiles like me spend four figures on a setup, while the hardcore aficionados spend five figures, and the rich dudes and they are always dudes, spend six figures on their equipment. The $64,000 question: Can they hear what they claim?
I love listening to music. One of my big regrets at this time in life is I don’t have any friends who want to come over and listen to music with me anymore. For most people, music is something they put on in the background. When I listen to music, I give it all my attention like watching a movie or reading a book.
When I was young, I and my friends would sit around and listen to albums. Back then I had friends who were like me and spend much of their income on buying records. But those were the years before I got married. And even in my early married life, Susan would go record shopping with me, and we’d listen to albums together. We also went to a lot of concerts. But at some point, Susan, and most of my friends lost interest in buying new records. Susan still loves going to concerts but if I ask her if she wants to listen to some albums from the bands she’s going to go hear with her friends she always says no. She only likes live music. And I gave up on live music years ago.
I consider albums are works of art that should be studied and admired. Audiophiles like to think they can buy equipment that will allow them to hear the music at a deeper level and I bought into that belief.
Listening involves two main factors. One is the limiting factor of our ears. What frequencies can they handle? As we get older, this degrades. The other factor is how much can we discern in what we hear. And that can be a lot. Have you ever considered how many details an artist who paints realistic scenes can see? Looking over my monitor out a picture window, I see mostly trees, but if I examine them closely, there is an infinity of details to be discerned. The same is true of listening to music.
Audiophiles make astounding claims, some of which are questionable. Back in the 1970s, I had a friend, Williamson who love the music of Duane Allman. He claimed when he listened to At Filmore East, a live album, he could hear when Duane adjusted the knobs on his guitar or amplifiers or changed a setting with a foot peddle. Is that even possible? Was Williamson just bragging, or lying? Or is such close study and listening possible?
Audiophiles often talk about listening to the decay of individual notes created by different instruments. They have a whole lexicon used for describing sound qualities. Many audiophiles claim they can tell the difference between records mastered with all analog sources and those that have digital recordings somewhere in the reproduction path. (Those people were recently embarrassed when they learned a company that claimed to sell expensive editions from all analog sources had been lying to them.)
After spending over a year researching reviews I bought a new stereo system that cost twice as much as my previous system. I knew I wouldn’t hear twice as much, but I hoped for a noticeable increase in sound quality. All the reviewers claimed the components I bought were superior to the ones I had. My new system sounds great, but so does my old one. They each sound different. But I don’t know if I can say one is better than the other.
Maybe these systems have gone beyond the level of my hearing ability and my ability to make finer discernments. I’m already losing interest in watching my audiophile reviewers, and they were my favorite thing to watch on TV for the past year. Many of those reviewers claim buying an $800 DAC would let me jump to the next level, but I wonder. And by the way, there’s a level of DACs beyond that in the $3,000-5,000 range they rave about, and more after that which run $10,000 and up. And those audiophiles swear they can hear so much more!
Can they? Could I?
I’ve already shifted my YouTube watching away from equipment reviews to album reviews. The LP came out in the late 1940s as record manufacturers shifted away from producing 78s. I’ve heard only a tiny fraction of albums that were produced since then. There are thousands of great albums to be discovered, so that’s what I’m working on now.
I’m beginning to realize how I’m different from most people. I spend most of my time focused on works of art: books, music, movies, TV shows, paintings, computers, etc. Most people like doing real things, eating, going out, socializing, exercising, being in nature, and interacting in the real world. I like the artificial world of art and abstraction. I guess that’s because I’m an introvert.
So every day I listen to a couple albums from over the last seventy years. I sit by myself and listen with all the discernment I can muster. I listen to people in the past express their creativity. I’m never sure if I hear everything they intended.