In Defense of Audiophiles
The iPod hasn't made great sound obsolete.
These are all good points, but none of them makes the case against audiophiles. Let's examine them one by one.
First, one boast of high-end audio gear is that it does tend to reproduce high frequencies with pristine purity. If you can't hear high frequencies anymore, you can't hear that advantage. But there's more to music—and more to hi-fi—than extreme treble. Compared with good CDs and LPs played on good hi-fi gear, MP3s also flatten dynamic range (the difference between the loudest and softest sounds), obliterate dynamic contrasts (the slight variations between loud and soft), smother low frequencies (the bass), and smear transients (the front edge of, say, a drum smack or a string pluck). These shortcomings wreak havoc with drama and rhythm—the life and essence of much music.
As for his budget, well, such is life. Teachout is known for his impressive collection of limited-edition art prints, which have cost him a fair chunk of change. He might as well have said that a dollar spent on art was a dollar he could no longer spend on speakers. And that's fine. We all make choices. But one person's priorities aren't immutable principles. Teachout has adjusted to life without high-end gear, but that doesn't make audiophilia a crock.
He's also right that recorded music is not the same as live music, that it's unavoidably "an experience once removed." But there are degrees of removal. There are really good stereos, so-so stereos, iPods, cassette tapes, boom boxes … where do you draw the line? He writes that "Stravinsky is still Stravinsky," no matter what the medium. But is he? A crummy pair of ear buds doesn't let you hear everything in Stravinsky's scores—all of the notes that made Stravinsky a genius and his music enduring and stirring. Given that recordings are approximations, the question remains: How proximate do you want to get? Recordings may be "once removed," but they're also endlessly repeated. You can relive moments that, in a jazz club or concert hall, are fleeting. And in the reliving, is it a "snare" to want the sound to be as close to the concert hall as technology and one's budget can manage?
The Times' Tomassini sums up the argument—that MP3s and cheap earphones are "good enough." But here's the question: Good enough for what?
If you want the mere gist of music; if you like music wafting in the background; if you want to carry around 1,000 songs in your pocket; if you want to hear a beat and a melody while you jog or ride on the subway—and that's often what any of us want (even me)—then MP3s are plenty good enough. Convenience doesn't merely trump quality; it is quality.
But there are some things that only a really good home stereo, playing well-recorded CDs or vinyl LPs, can give you: the texture of an instrument (the woodiness of a bass, the golden brass of a trumpet, the fleshy skin of a bongo); the bouquet of harmonics that waft from an orchestra (the mingling overtones, the echoes off the concert hall's walls); the breath behind a voice; the warm percussiveness of a Steinway grand; the silky sheen of massed violins; the steely whoosh of brushes on a snare; the undistorted clarity of everything sung, blown, strummed, bowed, plucked, and smacked, all at once—in short, the sense that real musicians are playing real instruments in a real space right before you.
Such wonder machines, most of which by the way are made in America, cost money—though many very fine models don't cost so much. (Useful reviews can be found in Stereophile and the Absolute Sound, though I should note, in full disclosure, that I write for the former and used to write for the latter.)
It's worth noting that digital audio files will get better, just as compact discs did. (In their first decade, CDs and CD players sounded dreadful, worse than MP3s—and much worse than some other, less-compressed, downloadable formats—sound now. Click here for a note on these other formats.) When this future comes, we will all rejoice. In the meantime, to deny or dismiss the sonic differences not only deprecates the depths and delicacies that make music so alluring. It also tells the engineers and manufacturers that they don't need to improve their products, that bad sound is good enough.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.