In defense of audiophiles.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 4 2007 11:48 AM

In Defense of Audiophiles

The iPod hasn't made great sound obsolete.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Nearly 25 years ago, I walked into a "high-end audio" store for the first time. I intended to write an article exposing the enterprise—$10,000 amplifiers, $5,000 turntables, and the like—as a fraud. Could this souped-up gear sound that much better than mass-market stuff at one-tenth the price?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, reviews music and audio gear for Stereophile magazine. His jazz blog can be read here. He can be reached at

After a few seconds of listening, my agenda—and really, my life—took a new direction. I'd never imagined that recorded music could sound so good, so real. The difference between the mass-market stereos I'd been hearing up to then and the high-end gear I heard now was the difference between bodega swill and Lafite-Rothschild, between a museum-shop poster and an oil painting, between watching a porn film and having sex.


Within a few months, I was writing for one of the top high-end audio magazines and spending scads on high-end audio components. I've kept doing both in the decades since.

Now two prominent music critics are telling me that I've been wasting my time and money. The pursuit of excellent sound is a "snare and delusion," writes Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. Heavily compressed MP3 files through cheap headphones are "good enough," shrugs Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times.

Neither Teachout nor Tommasini claims that MP3s and iPods sound as good as a carefully chosen home-stereo system. But they do contend that quality doesn't matter. (Teachout's column is titled, "The Deaf Audiophile: What's So Good About Bad Sound? Plenty.")

For Tommasini (who once knew better), the convenience of compressed digital audio files outweighs the importance of sonic glories. Or, as he puts it, "easy access has trumped high fidelity." Well, to each his own. But, going much further, he also claims that the sonic compromises in MP3s are irrelevant. Transforming a complex song or album into a small audio file requires a tremendous amount of compression. Musical details unavoidably get squeezed out in the process. But Tommasini says this doesn't matter. A "cymbal crash in a symphonic orchestra, for example, will temporarily obscure the sound of other instruments," he writes. "So why not remove some of the covered sounds, which could not be heard anyway, to compress the file into a transferable format?"

If flutes under cymbal crashes were the only sacrifices, he'd have a point. But compression also removes a guitarist's intricate fingerwork, a hi-hat's shimmer, a bass line's pluck, and (to cite his own example) the sounds of many orchestral instruments even when they're not obscured by a cymbal crash.

Teachout makes a different point. "Why do I settle for inferior sound quality?" he asks. "Partly because of the near-miraculous convenience of MP3s." Partly, he adds, because "I'm middle-aged." It's well known that, owing to the degeneration of sensory receptor cells in the inner ear, most men older than 40 or 50 lose some of their ability to hear high frequencies. Therefore, he claims, good-sounding stereos—and many high-end components are particularly pure in the high frequencies—aren't important anymore

The bad news, Teachout writes, is that he's a tad over 50. (So, by the way, am I.) "The good news," he goes on, "is that I don't care … much." (The ellipses are his.) His mild loss of high-frequency hearing, he writes, "liberates" him from "the snare and delusion of audiophilia." In his younger years, he writes, "I forgot that every dollar I spent on speakers was a dollar I could no longer spend on records—not to mention tickets to live performances. … Now that my hearing isn't what it used to be, I understand more clearly … that recorded music can never hope to be more than a substitute for the real thing. … It is still an experience once removed, no matter how fancy your speakers are. Conversely, Stravinsky is still Stravinsky when you experience him through a $10 pair of earbuds."



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.