Audiophile Music: What I Can Hear and What I Can’t

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.

JWH

3 Reasons I Want To Be An Audiophile, and 6 Reasons I Can’t

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.

Extreme audiophile

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.

JWH

Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

Audiophiles are music lovers who claim ordinary music fans are missing a range of high fidelity sound when playing music on ordinary equipment.  Audiophiles talk as if the difference between ordinary sound and high fidelity is like the difference between watching a TV show on an old black and white TV or on a new HD TV.  Are they on drugs?  Are we deaf to sounds only they can hear?  Are they just being snobs, sneering at us plebs for drinking $10 bottles of wine while they savior their $100 bottles?  Some people think audiophiles and their promotion of high-end audio equipment no more than modern day snake oil peddlers, and even if you had a degree in electrical engineering, you wouldn’t actual hear the difference between a $400 turntable and a $4,000 one.

maxell-ad

I have gone to a high end music shop and sat in a sonically ideal listening room and heard music from a $25,000 stereo and the sound quality was many magnitudes better than my $2,000 setup.  Few people want to be audiophiles if it costs a fortune, but what if you could significantly improve your existing sound system for a $100-$1000?  Maybe we’d all like to be junior audiophiles.

Most people just listen to their favorite tunes and never think about sound quality.  Few people even know that audiophiles exist.  Compare the two this way.   Most people are happy to get a meal at McDonalds, it’s filling, quick and reasonably tasty.  Those are your average music fans. Audiophiles are gourmets  that only dine at 5-star restaurants who then talk and write endlessly about what they just ate.

There are damn few audiophiles in this world, and I’m not one of them, although if I wasn’t so cheap, I’d like to be.  However, I’m intrigued by the idea of high fidelity and how music is recorded.  I would think anyone would be fascinated by how audio engineers record music in a studio and convert that sound into a very long streams of 1s and 0s, and then we convert those 00100111101100101001s back to music that goes into our ears.

It’s very hard to imagine how we hear Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” when we look at the microscopic pits on a CD:

cd-pits

Of course, this compares to the old days of cutting tiny but visible grooves into vinyl platters where a very small needle would ride along the groove and recreate the vibrations of the recording.  Neither recording technique sounds plausible to me, but then like Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any significantly advanced technology will seem indistinguishable from magic.”

And it’s no easier to understand how we’d hear Beethoven coming out of these squiggles.  It is magic!

record-grooves3

As a kid I wondered why stereo records didn’t require two grooves and needles, one for each speaker.  And I would try to imagine how they got so many instruments and vocals squeezed down to one physical squiggle that the needle would interpret.  Making all those sounds into ones and zeroes is just mind boggling!  How many people actually know how to re-invent CD recording?

Neil Young will be promoting in 2013 a new device called Pono that will deliver master tape quality to the masses, with the promise that record companies have already converted 8,000 albums to 192 kHz 24 bit files for his new system.  When you look at Young’s Pono player, you really wonder about the magic of audiophile technology in such a small device.

pono

When I think about sound recording I imagine a band on a stage with two microphones recording the performance, then taking that recording and decoding it so it’s reproduced by the two speakers in my den.  What I would like to hear is the same sound I would have heard if I had been in the audience at that concert.  We don’t actual hear the same sound, we hear an approximation.  The question of music quality comes from how close we can get to hearing what was performed.

We can all tell the difference between a sharply focused photograph and a fuzzy out-of-focus picture.  What audiophiles are suggesting is most people can’t hear the different between a good and bad recording.

Over the years audiophiles have argued millions of words over the superior sound quality of vinyl records versus CDs or vice versa.  Unless you want to read a tremendous amount of technical jargon its very hard to understand this discussion scientifically.  What I’ve decided to do is just use my own ears and make a subjective decision.

I love music enough to make the effort to improve my listening equipment.  I’m thinking I can be a cheapskate half-ass audiophile pretender and get more sound quality to enjoy for not much effort and money.  I’m willing to study a certain amount about improving high fidelity, and I’m willing to spend a little money.  Recently I got back into vinyl and I’ve taking a chance by spending $200 on a new turntable hoping it will get me better sound.  It’s like spending a few bucks on headphones to improve the sound over stock ear buds that comes with Apple and Android devices.

A quantum leap in sound quality can be achieved by going from an iPhone with stock ear buds to a  modest CD, receiver and speaker setup.  Adding a turntable adds a whole new dimension of sound from vinyl.  But is vinyl worth the effort?  Many young people are jumping from digital music  to old turntable stereos they’ve scrounged from their parent’s attics or found at flea markets or garage sales.  Would they be better off skipping the trendy record player and just getting a CD player?  If they’ve already set up a surround sound system for their TVs or video games, they might be interested to know that those DVD and Blu-ray players also play music CDs.  Or adding the right powered speakers to a laptop, desktop or mobile device can add significant sound quality to playing music from iTunes.

Since I’ve been getting back into playing vinyl records I’ve also been thinking about their sound quality as compared to CDs and .mp3 files.  Some vinyl enthusiasts claim vinyl sounds better, but I believe this is only subjective.  I’ve read a lot on this topic and I’ll have to call it a theoretical draw.

I decided to do my own very limited listening test.  I only have 16 albums at the moment, with only a few overlaps with CDs and songs available on Rdio.  For my test song I used “Dreamsville” from the Peter Gunn soundtrack by Henry Mancini.  You can hear the song here from Youtube.  Play it very loud if you can.

It’s a nice cut to use because it has soft and loud parts, and solos from several instruments, and a lot of different sound textures to compare.

Listening is a very subjective experience.  Everyone has different ears, hearing ability and musical training.  I played “Dreamsville” on my stereo system through floor standing Infinity speakers cranked up loud.  I had a CD input, an Aux input for the turntable and TV input for the Roku where I listened to Rdio for the streaming .mp3 version.  Admittedly I have an older turntable, with a cheap pre-amp, but I believe I’m getting a pretty good sound from my records.

Playing “Dreamsville” over and over, and switching between the inputs, it was pretty obvious that the record lacked the highs and lows that the CD had.  Even the .mp3 file was in the middle of the two formats.  The streaming music was much closer to the CD in sound quality.  One disadvantage of the LP is it plays softer than the CD and .mp3 file, so I would have to pump up the volume when playing the record.

No matter how loud I played the record I couldn’t get the complex sounds I heard on the CD.  I made my comparisons by concentrating on the brassy sound of the horns, the high tinkling notes of the piano keys, the range of textures of the brushes on the drums, the deeper vibrations of the trombones, the fuller twangs of the electric guitar and so on.  Records do sound warm compared to CDs, but that’s because CD have a lot more treble and more bass range than vinyl.  And I suppose that extra texture can sound harsh to some people.

Then the UPS guy delivered my new turntable, an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB and it proved the audiophiles are right – spending more money gets you a lot more sound quality.  Repeating the tests, the LP now sounded much more dynamic, with tons more bass, and a lot more textured sound than the older turntable.  This goes to show that a newer, superior cartridge with new stylus could make a lot of difference, and another factor was the turntable had it’s own pre-amp that might have been much better than the cheap one I had.  It makes me wonder what I’d hear if I bought a $400 turntable or a $900 one.

Look at this table I’ve copied by screenshot from Enjoy the Music web site, and the article “Fidelity Potential Index: iPod, MP3, CD, LP, SACD – What Sounds Better and Why” by John Meyer.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

Fidelity Potential Index

By the numbers the quality should be .mp3 then LP then CD, but I didn’t perceive things that way.  Their Fidelity Potential Indexes are MP3=3.2, LP=4.2-6.3, and CD=7.1.  In comparison, a SACD is 35.0 FPI and a 24bit master is 46.1.  This leads me to believe that my old record and old turntable might be far from optimal quality, and the new one closer to what a record can actual do.  I guess that’s why vinyl fans spend lots of money on turntables and pre-amps.

My guess is .mp3 files and CDs played loud on a good stereo (not audiophile, merely good) will sound better than the average old turntable on the same system.  So for casual music listening CDs or .mp3 files are plenty good enough, so pick whatever is convenient, although I do think CDs sound better and are worth the trouble to listen to when you want to do some serious listening.

For the average music fan formats don’t matter.  If you want better fidelity you’ll need to spend some money, but how much is relative.

I’m really enjoying getting back into records and my new turntable makes me enjoy them all the more.  I still think the CD sounds best, but I actual enjoy buying and listening to records.  I guess it’s part nostalgia and part ritual.

So Why Buy Vinyl?

The reason why I got back into vinyl is because I want to hear records that I can’t get on CD or from Rdio/Rhapsody.  And it’s fun to play records sometimes, to enjoy the old way of listening to things.

One thing I learned from this test is not to buy records if I have them on CD or from streaming music.  This means the fun of playing vinyl is shopping for out-of-print records.  But records are good enough sounding that if I found albums under $5 that I don’t have on CD they are worth buying.  Spending $5 for an album I have on Rdio is just wasteful.  It’s a hard decision if the choice is between a $5 used album and a CD a on sale for less than $10.

I’ll play CDs, SACDs, LPs, and MP3s.  If absolutely everything was available on streaming music services like Rdio and Rhapsody I’d probably abandon all physical media.  I tend to believe 10 or 20 years from now everything will be streaming and physical records will only be played by folks sentimental for quaint technology.

What If Ripping Music Never Had Happened?

If music was still just a physical medium how would things be different now?  My guess is SACDs would rule.  If MP3 had never existed and people still bought CDs, I think vinyl would have disappeared just like 78s.  We’d still have LP collectors like we do with 78 collectors, but CDs would dominate, and maybe the newer Super Audio CDs (SACD) would have caught on.  When music became free because stealing songs became so easy and widely accepted by the young, it ruined more than just the music business.  I think it ruined the high fidelity concept.   Even now when more people are paying for digital files, their convenience has kept Hi-Fi sound quality from being an issue.

iTunes and the other digital music services have also ruined the concept of the album.  If we had never gone down the downloadable road, I think we’d have SACDs or better formats, with artists creating super-sized concept albums.  And without physical media I’m not sure if we’d have audiophiles.  It is possible that iTunes, Google and Amazon could sell 24-bit FLAC files , and Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody and other subscription services could stream them, but there’s little demand.  People have gotten used to lo-fi convenience of .mp3 files.

Most people do not know about audiophiles and high end audio equipment.  It doesn’t matter to them.  An iTunes song played on an iPhone with stock ear buds is good enough.  If the hip young are rediscovering records and how much better they sound, maybe those same kids will become audiophiles and rediscover CDs, SACDs and 24-bit FLAC files.  Pirated music led a generation of music lovers down a dark tunnel of lo-fi music, and I hope the resurgence of vinyl is an indication that hi-fidelity is the light at the end of that tunnel.

How to Hear High Fidelity Without Buying the Equipment

One way to hear music at its best is at a movie theater.  Most good theaters have excellent multi-channel stereo systems.  Have you ever wondered why songs sounded fantastic at the show, but ho-hum at home?  What you hear at the theater is the high fidelity that studio engineers work so hard to record.  What you hear is closer to the 100% of the recording that Neil Young talks about when he complains that fans only hear 5% of the potential music when they are listening to a .mp3 file, or 15% when they listen to a CD.

JWH – 11/20/12

SACD Not Dead After All, At Least Fans Hope

In my last post, “The Rise and Fall of High Fidelity” I suggested that the Super Audio CD (SACD) was dead.  A reader, Steve Cooney let me know this was not true, and I started researching the subject.  A major online clubhouse for SACD fans is http://sa-cd.net – where diehards keep the SACD fires burning.  Other fans, like Teresa at SACD Lives, worry contrary to her blog’s name, that the SACD is really dying. 

My research taught me that SACDs are still being produced, with almost 7,000 titles created to date, and that some audiophiles still back the format.  So I immediately went out and ordered two more SACDs for my meager collection because they do go out of print fast.  Most of the major SACD record producers have called it quits, but not all, and after Telarc threw in the towel, many of the faithful SACD fans are having a hard time seeing a rosy future.  They cling to the idea that if LP buyers can have a niche market, why can’t they.  There are specialty producers like Linn Records that cater to the high fidelity crowd, but they specialize in classical and jazz music, so popular music on SACD is extremely uncommon.

As far as the royal rulers of music, their attitude towards the masses is let them eat MP3s.  They believe people who listen to Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon or Katy Perry aren’t concerned with quality sound, and they are probably right.  Audiophiles HATE CDs.  They love LPs or SACDS, and Studio Master FLAC downloads, which are more expensive formats, requiring very expensive, hard to configure equipment to play.

Audiophiles, like those at positive-feedback, have always been a small subculture, mainly people who love classical and jazz.  Audiophiles are rich, or middle class fanatics willing to spend a significant chunk of their income on their hobby, so it should have been no surprise to me that these people did embrace the SACD format and have clung to it because it’s about the only show in town featuring the best level of high fidelity.  These guys don’t flinch at $4,000 SACD players, but they are also quick to point out that us poorer folks can find $300 players too, and that many Blu-Ray players, especially from Sony still support the SACD format.

It’s a shame that all Blu-Ray players don’t support the format.  If you build a high definition television entertainment system with surround sound, and have the appropriate Blu-Ray player, you have everything you need to try out SACD audio.  If you don’t, there’s a lot of equipment to buy just to hear what all the fuss is about – and that’s why the SACD format hasn’t caught on.  Or least one of the reasons.

Most new SACDs are imports with $29.99 list prices.  If you balk at spending $18.99 for a CD, then SACDs are poison.  You’d think record companies would be promoting a format that can’t be ripped on a PC (because SACDs can’t be played on PCs users can’t make copies).  Why wasn’t SACDs the answer to CD piracy?

We are living in an age of abundant technology, and the reigning rule of thumb for most citizens of this era is the “Good Enough” principle.  Don’t spend too much money, don’t waste too much time on consumer research, don’t get involved with anything requiring too much learning, just settle for good enough.  SACD technology is expensive, requires lots of consumer research, and a great deal of technical knowledge to use correctly.  iPods and iTunes are cheap and easy, so their sound is good enough.

What I want to know is why high fidelity isn’t cheap and easy?  Most people can afford high definition TV sets, and cable and satellite companies make it reasonably easy to see HDTV shows.  Why has the music industry failed to bring HD music to the masses?

I gave up on SACDs several years ago when I was afraid the format was going to be another Betamax.  I should have kept buying SACDs as they came out and helped support the cause.  I’m sorry I didn’t.  I was sidetracked by streaming music from Rhapsody and other online sources, and figured that was the future of music.  Many SACD fans hope the DSD download will be the future of streaming music, but that mostly seems to be a gleam in their eye right now.

Since sales of CDs are in sharp decline, it could be the the music industry feels the CD will be the niche market for audiophiles as plebian music fans flock to the good enough MP3 file format.  But audiophiles who have gotten used to the extreme quality of SACD don’t want to go back to CD – a format they’ve always hated anyway.  In fact, they may be the ones buying LPs again and improving its market share.  Doesn’t it seem strange to be going back to 1948 technology to get high fidelity?

For years now I’ve been listening to streaming music as my main source of music.  It’s convenient and I have access to millions of songs and albums.  It has been way to easy.  But when I do play my SACDs and actually sit and listen to their quality I wonder if I’m sacrificing too much for ease of use.  Maybe “Good Enough” really isn’t all that good?  I could return to LPs like my friend Lee has.  He’s even giving me a turntable to convert me to the cause.

And there’s another issue that my friend Luther pointed out.  He says there is so much content that people don’t discriminate anymore.  In the old days most people had a shelf of LPs (or a crate of them) but a very small number.  They were albums they cherished and knew.  I have over a thousand CDs, maybe even as many as 1,500, and most haven’t been played in years and years, and I can’t even remember what I have.

Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer albums, ones of of the highest fidelity, that I knew intimately?  I should use the wealth of Rhapsody to only find new albums to buy and cherish on my living room stereo instead of using it as my only source of music.  Audiophiles are telling me that true, and they bitterly complain those albums shouldn’t be on CD, but LP or SACD.  If I go by availability, the LP is the answer.

When I sit in my La-Z-Boy and crank up my SACD copy of Blonde on Blonde, and close my eyes and listen, the experience is so much fuller than playing music as the background soundtrack to my activities.  Music deserves our full attention like watching a movie.  Teresa, the writer of the blog SACD Lives listens to music in a total dark room without clothes so she can give her fullest attention to the experience.  Now that’s an extreme audiophile.  Makes me want to have a sensory deprivation chamber outfitted with SACD sound, so I could float in music.

JWH – 10/2/10

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