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."
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.