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 war_stories@hotmail.com.

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.

Advertisement

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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.