In Defense of Audiophiles
The iPod hasn't made great sound obsolete.
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?
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."
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.