Thirty years ago, I visited a newly opened “high-end audio” store called Excalibur, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., with the idea of writing a scathing exposé. Back then I read Stereo Review, which insisted that pretty much all audio components sounded alike. (If they measured the same on a test bench, they’d sound the same in your living room.) So I was going to take down these deluded souls and smarmy hucksters, with their $5,000 turntables and $10,000 amplifiers, which—c’mon!—sounded no better than the stuff I’d bought at one-tenth the price.
But I stopped smirking when I sat down and listened. The first album the proprietor played for me was a recording of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and I’d never heard anything like it; I had no idea that what I was hearing was even possible. Trumpets sounded brassy, violins silky, tympani boomy, clarinets reedy, and they were all laid across the “soundstage,” just like in a concert hall, in spacious depth and lifelike proportions. He put on a jazz album, then a pop album (Coltrane and Joni Mitchell, I seem to recall), and the musicians seemed to be playing and singing in the room with me, their voices and instruments so vivid, almost 3-D, imbued with the tonal colors and emotional heft of the real thing.
It was an exhilarating, even life-changing experience. I brought home a few issues of the Absolute Sound, the top audiophile magazine at the time, and soon started writing for it as an equipment reviewer. I now write for the field’s other leading journal, Stereophile.
For the most part, the cultural gatekeepers ignore those of us who write and read about high-end audio. Lately, though, putdowns of audiophiles have been popping up in the popular press. Many of them start with critiques of Neil Young’s new high-resolution, digital-download music player, the Pono. The bad reviews, especially this widely circulated one by David Pogue, who claims that the device sounds no different from an iPhone, might be justified; I don’t know, I haven’t heard one. But some of these articles, including a recent one in Slate, use the dismissal of the Pono as a springboard to dismiss high-res downloads—and all of high-end audio—in general.
Seth Stevenson, in his Pono review in Slate, quoted, at one point, “a friend who fancies himself an audiophile.” This friend was me. What’s with this “fancies himself,” I asked myself? It suggests that the whole enterprise is vaguely fraudulent, in the same sense that you might refer to someone who “fancies himself a psychic.”
Let me be forthright about this: I am an audiophile, and proud of it. And so, I rise in defense of audiophilia—which might be defined as the love of listening to good music that sounds good, that sounds in some sense real. What could be wrong, or silly, about that?
Well, some people believe that we’re kidding ourselves, that we somehow think we’re hearing things that we’re not really hearing. They point to “scientific” blindfold tests in which people can’t tell the difference between costly high-end components and the stuff that normal people buy on the cheap.
In a blindfold test, someone hooks up two components to an “A/B box” (one to input A, the other to input B), then switches—or doesn’t switch—back and forth, to see whether the subject can hear the difference. But this is more complicated than it seems. First, most A/B boxes have their own sound, due to poor circuitry; it’s not a pure listening test. Second, it’s hard to hear differences right away, especially when listening to music or equipment that you haven’t heard before.
That said, I have taken A/B tests, and passed. At an audio show many years ago, I took a test purporting to show that no one could hear the difference between two sets of speaker cables. I heard the difference four tries out of five. Around the same time, Randi the Magician, famous for exposing frauds, was offering $1 million to anyone who could identify a particularly expensive brand of speaker cable in an A/B test. My friend and Stereophile colleague Michael Fremer accepted the challenge. Randi backed out, after telling his fans that Fremer had backed out. (It’s a funny story. Read it here.)
When I passed my A/B test at the audio show, the guy administering it dismissed my score as a “statistical anomaly.” An alternative explanation might have been that I was an experienced listener.
There are bird-watchers who can distinguish three kinds of sparrows from their tweets, though they all sound the same to me. It’s not that the birder has “golden ears.” It’s mainly a matter of training and exposure. If you or I wanted to master the birdsongs in Central Park, we could, with some training
Four years ago, I wrote a Slate column extolling the promise of new high-resolution downloads. I pointed out that the high-res format encodes music in 24 bits at a sampling rate of 96 kHz, which translates to 4.39 megabits per second—three times the density of CDs (16 bits and 44.1 kHz sampling, which translates to 1.41 Mb/s) and 10 times that of an MP3 (320 kilobits per second). I cited these facts simply to illustrate, in numbers, the huge sonic difference that I’d heard with my ears.
The column spurred thousands of comments, more than anything I’d written about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Many of the commenters claimed that human beings couldn’t hear above 20 kHz anyway (thus conflating, as many critics do today, frequency response with sampling rates, which are related but not quite the same). Others shrugged at the controversy, saying that MP3’s sampling rate was “good enough” for them. Still others just called me an “audiophile asshole,” a phrase that comes up a lot in these sorts of exchanges.
What puzzles me is why we audiophiles are so often the object of contempt. I don’t mean jokes: a lot of audiophile jokes—for instance, Mad Magazine’s special hi-fi issue in 1958—are very funny. I mean contempt. In an otherwise delightful Slate piece on bachelor pads, Troy Patterson advised readers not to seek “stereo advice from guys who are really, really, really into stereos.” Would Troy warn a car shopper to stay away from people who know a lot about cars, or someone looking for a good restaurant to ignore people who know a lot about food?
Some of the contempt, no doubt, stems from the price tags for this gear. I should emphasize, more expensive doesn’t always mean better: I’ve heard some lousy $100,000 speakers, and I’ve heard some $500-a-pair models that I could live with. But yes, the really good stuff is expensive. There’s a lot of information in those record grooves and those CD bits. What it takes to extract all that information—the high-quality phono-cartridges, digital-to-analog converters, the 1,001 parts in a great amplifier (capacitors, power supplies, low-voltage regulators, etc., etc.), and speakers—it’s all, unfortunately, expensive.
Many audiophiles spend tens of thousands of dollars on their rigs; some spend more than that. Is this crazy? Maybe, but I don’t read articles jeering at people who spend $400 on a meal (which disappears once they’ve eaten it), or $80,000 on a car, or $10 million on a painting. There may be some populist fury at the people who have this kind of cash to toss around, sure. But the mainstream media run rave reviews of high-priced restaurants and luxury cars, and breathless style-section profiles of the hedge-fund managers whose walls are flush with de Koonings and Rauschenbergs. Audiophiles, meanwhile, are portrayed as obsessive nerds, insufferable aesthetes, hopeless nostalgics.
I think part of the derision for audiophiles is relative. Most people don’t have de Koonings on their walls, but they do have a stereo, and they’re incredulous that a more costly stereo could really sound that much better.
Another factor, though, is sheer, possibly willful ignorance. It’s clear, from many of the articles and comments dismissing audiophiles, that their authors have never actually heard a high-end audio system. They’re like I was 30 years ago, when I smugly walked into Excalibur. The difference is that I walked into Excalibur; I sat down and listened, and wound up writing a very different article from the one I’d outlined in my head beforehand.
When I sit down and listen to, say, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing their duets, I can practically see them right before me—Ella’s ethereal breath, Satch’s throaty rumble, the delicate chords, bass walks, and cymbal-swooshing by the rhythm section in the distance. When I listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, I hear every spittle on Miles’ mouthpiece, every lick of Coltrane and Cannonball’s sax solos, Paul Chambers’ every bass note (and the thump and wood of the bass), the slightest rhythmic flourish from Jimmy Cobb’s trap set. When I played Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” for a visiting friend, he was astonished not only by all the instruments he’d never heard so clearly before, but, still more, by the raw anger in Dylan’s voice, which he hadn’t heard before at all.
“We’re trying to do time traveling here,” an audiophile record producer once told me. That’s what this is about—feeling transported to the place where the players laid this music down, hearing it the way the mics and spools and mixing boards took it down.
People ask me if, say, a $50,000 stereo system is 10 times better than one costing $5,000. It depends what you’re listening for. If all you want is nice music in the background while you’re cooking, cleaning the house, or reading the paper, then no. If you want a time-traveling machine, then it’s infinitely better. You just can’t get there with the cheaper system.
So tell me you’re not interested in sonic time travelling; tell me you’d rather spend the money on live concerts; tell me you just can’t afford the ride. These are legitimate positions. But don’t tell me that I’m a nut who’s just imagining things, or some freak with paranormal hearing. And don’t tell me that the brilliant engineers who recorded the great sessions—or those other engineers, the best of them anyway, who designed the equipment to extract the information on those albums—are all delusional or dishonest, too.