By any measure, these are great days for audiophiles. The volume and variety of new products are seriously mind boggling, and while many of these components are costly and jewel-like, just as many aren’t. As a result, young music enthusiasts, gatewayed through Beats the same way their parents launched from Bose, are now willing and able to play along, and unlike their parents, they have access to genuine master-quality music files.
That said, audiophilia has always been one of those hobbies that doesn’t easily scale. You’re not likely to see a slew of TV shows about audio makeovers any time soon. Music enjoyment at home isn’t usually a social experience, and most man-caves probably prefer it that way. To the outside world, being a serious audiophile is a bit like being a philatelist. In extreme cases, maybe closer to a taxidermist. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of these, as Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Bates, respectively, might attest. Audio enthusiasm (as opposed to music enthusiasm) can be a disproportionately rewarding pastime for those that appreciate it. Not every hobby is capable of giving you goosebumps.
Yet outside of a smallish (but growing) crowd of the already-converted, the vibe towards audiophiles has always been ambivalent at best. Serious audio hobbyists who evangelize their passion (as they are wont to do) often experience reactions ranging from bemusement to derision — sometimes even from professionals in the field who know way more about good sound than the audiophiles themselves. Analogous hobbies like cars, wine, and fishing — all of which can easily cost more than audiophile gear — suffer no such stigma.
Why the attitude? I submit the following 10 reasons, in no particular order, why few outside of our audiophile friends are genuinely interested in our fetish hobby:
High School Never Dies
It’s a softball question and maybe only generationally valid, but who was the more popular kid in your senior class, the one with the mag wheels or the one with the tube amp kit? Circuits, transistors, resistance, impedance, sample rates, dB/w/m — these are the language of science and math, and how many people indulge these for fun? For most students in the pre-STEM era, these subjects were the least appreciated and the most feared; seven of the ten most difficult high school courses fall under these categories. That was a long time ago you say? Perhaps so, but many imprinted perceptions last a lifetime, and high school is likely one of them. Rows of glowing LED readouts with negative-value dB markings may look unbearably sexy to you, but odds are that they’re at least vaguely traumatic, if only on a subconscious level, to that newbie friend you’re trying to impress.
Don’t You Have Ears?
American children are routinely tested for vision problems at an early age — if you can’t see the blackboard, you can’t learn. But despite ongoing efforts to improve the situation, most are lucky if they undergo even a single hearing test. How good are anyone’s ears, then? Until they’re tested, who really knows? Even so, hearing is only raw data input; the ability to interpret that data is listening, and critical listening is a skill. Going further, the ability to verbalize the experience of critical listening is yet another skill. Finally, ear training — the art of listening — is virtually non-existent outside of music lessons and the easy-A “music appreciation” class. In all probability, many if not most of your friends probably can hear the difference between your groovy DSD files and their sad iTunes files. But because most people have never practiced (or even been aware of) these skills, they’re naturally shy to an audiophile’s enthusiasm. How many friends have said to you “I don’t have those kind of ears?” Even when they probably do?
42% of The Seven Deadly Sins Without Even Trying
Fairly or not, cost is often seen as a big reason why people don’t get into audio as much as audiophiles would like. When your big tent includes Ethernet cables at $1000/meter and CD players that can cost more than a Mercedes Benz, you’ve already slanted the pool of new recruits. The Rolex vs. Timex analogy works for the most part: “better” is expensive, even if not-better can perform the same basic task. At the same time, most of the world is accustomed to a free Ethernet cable thrown in with their computer, and being able to buy a perfectly serviceable CD player for less than the cost of a pair of jeans. Two of the seven deadly sins come into play automatically here: gluttony (the person with the Donald Trump CD player) and envy (the person now lamenting their $39 CD player). A wine enthusiast might be completely sincere when he/she enthusiastically tells you that $150 bottle of Bordeaux is a steal. But for whom? If we throw in pride, as in pride of ownership, that’s three out of seven deadly sins. If you’re drooling over your next upgrade, wouldn’t that also add lust?
Too Many Experts Make Jack A Disinterested Boy
And way too many non-experts make the path of the aspiring audiophile unduly confusing and off-putting. What? You’re listening to flat, over-bright digital? Only “warmer” vinyl sounds right. What? You’re listening to compressed, EQ’d vinyl? Do you still use a spitoon? What? You’re only downloading CD quality? You need 96/24. Make that 192/24; or DSD, or 5.6 MHz DSD. Better yet, open-reel tape! Imagine being a layperson who really does love music and would love to hear it better, exposed to these quasi-religious debates, especially when they get nasty, as they invariably do. Whichever choice the poor consumer makes, some expert review will at least passively imply that they blew it, they should have bought X instead of Y. Experts and poser experts, spewing rants and “expertise” via blogs, discussion boards, gear porn Pinterest posts, tweets, etc. — often plant enough doubt for buyer’s remorse over a perfectly good purchase. What was originally a sincere and well-researched effort on the part of the would-be audiophile turns into an implicit shaming that doesn’t go away until the next upgrade.
A Dish Best Served Warm
If you got a laugh out of Jack Black and the rest of the record store crew in the movie High Fidelity, you can have a similarly amusing experience in many Hi-Fi shops. The snotty high end audio salesman is one of those old-timey cliches that’s unfortunately based on a reality. Yes, many of these businesses are run and staffed by earnest, knowledgeable, passionate individuals. Others are run by commercially and socially-inept gearheads trying to make a living out of their hobby. Every experienced audiophile has at least one horror story to relate about a high-end sales experience. My favorite was watching a salesman shame an accomplished pianist with exquisite ears, fabulous taste and no budgetary constraints, because she dared bring CDs to the store to audition his speakers. Despite her objections, he kept insisting on playing his buttermilk-flaccid jazz LPs, heedless of her (repeated) point that along with most people, she had tossed her turntable years ago. Unwilling to let her listen to his precious speakers through such obviously inferior source material, he looked her in the eye and said “you just don’t love music enough for the kind of systems we sell.” Um, obviously. BTW, that incident was 20 years ago, and that dealer is somehow still in business. But then, we live in an age where “50 Shades of Grey” is a best-seller.
Mysticism Always Inspires Skepticism
What if you could buy a magnet that you stuck on the hood of your car and would improve the smoothness of your ride by “re-directing” aerodynamic drag? It costs the equivalent of twenty or more tanks of gas, but your ride will be “noticeably” better. Would you buy it? What if you were told that your cooking would be more flavorful by attaching an accessory to your cooking range that trapped the essence of vaporized flavors and directed them back to the pan? It costs the equivalent of fifty or more meals, but every meal you eat will theoretically taste better. Would you try it on? For those sufficiently intrigued by the most rococo fetishes of the audio world, and who have the means, there’s no end of ways to part with money in the service of a better high. The product goals range from the eminently sensible to quasi-magical. With that in mind, try to explain cable elevators or tuning discs to a non-audiophile. Let us know how it goes.
That’s Cool. And Your Point Is?
One of the best rewards in high-quality audio is hearing things in the recordings that weren’t apparent on first (or hundredth) listen, and in many cases, can only be heard clearly on good equipment (not to mention hi-res files). For the avid listener, this is a lot of what the game is all about. For the casual listener, the effect can be underwhelming, and in some cases even overwhelming — I’ve seen at least one music fan turned off by a high-end system because he was hearing so much new detail that he decided there was “too much going on.” How many non-audiophile friends are as excited as you are to identify that obscure funk sample buried deep in the mix? Or the newly-discernible hall ambience in that concerto, or that second guitar that’s been layered in just right on the second solo. It’s not that your friends can’t hear what you’re talking about. They just don’t think it’s as meaningful to the musical experience as you do. Audiophilia is a game of inches, and a lot of folks only respond to home runs and touchdowns. In many cases, the inches (or millimeters) that consume the true audiophile are just not all that interesting to a layperson.
The Discreet Charm Of The Counterintuitive
We live in a world where folks are delighted to have a computer, telephone, navigation system, music player, TV set and much more in something that slips into their pocket and weighs practically nothing. In many cases, it actually costs nothing, having been subsidized elsewhere. How enthusiastic should they be about a 150 lb. power amplifier? Or maybe a pair of them, plus a rack full of other gear that doesn’t even offer remote volume control? Though the entire world of technology is being driven by digital and even nanotechnology, their crazy audiophile buddies are listening to vacuum tubes. Yup, the same kind Dad threw away in disgust back in the 70s. Just as we reach new heights with high-resolution digital files that are effectively identical to the studio master, the die-hard insists that vinyl records, a (deliberately) compromised technology that dates back to the 1930s, represent the true state-of-the-art. There are even die-harders returning to open reel tape. Could you blame ordinary music lovers for tuning this out?
Your Hobby Is Interesting. To You.
I know a friend that loves fly fishing. I’m aware that there are many different kinds of lures, reels, lines and rods used in his hobby to greater or lesser effect; I couldn’t care less about them. But I do enjoy a day out on the water, don’t you? Another friend plants at a community garden, and while I encourage the work and look forward to the produce, he doesn’t proselytize me to grow my own vegetables because I ought to be eating better tomatoes. Hobbies and interests vary as much as the people who undertake them (or don’t); some are broadly appealing, some an acquired taste, some just casual after all. I can’t imagine a guest at a dinner party encouraging the host to buy better bottles of wine (unless that’s part of the fun), or suggest an upgrade to the room’s decor, or encourage improvement of anything else in the home that was obviously a reflection of the host’s taste and budget. At the same time, I have no trouble imagining — because I’ve seen it so many times — the audiophile in the room saunter over to the sound system or speakers, wait for another enthusiast to join him/her and then critique the components. Perhaps even pass the dreaded judgment of “mid-fi“.
They Don’t Get It, But You Do, So Why Worry?
Nuff said. Some people like to lie on their back under their car or motorcycle, dodging a stream of dirty oil to the face. They call it relaxing. Others think it’s fun to spend their Sunday climbing a vertical cliff where one slip means no more Sundays. John Cage liked to trawl for mushrooms; Vladimir Nabokov was into lepidoptery; Rod Stewart goes in for model trains. It’s all good. So why is it bad that nobody besides us understands our hobby? Music is more than just a way to fill time and earspace; it’s sacred. In fact, music may well be the first endeavor of humankind to actually express the sacred. Audio gear, however, is not sacred to anyone but an audiophile. And that’s okay too.
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