Audiophiles: Perception and Reality

By Chuck Hawks

For decades, I have considered myself an audiophile. For one thing, I sometimes listen to music. I do not mean on the car radio while I am driving, in the background during meals, or when I am working. I mean sitting in my recliner and listening to a CD on my home stereo system. I am not doing anything else; I am actually listening to the music.

I have done enough listening at home, at live concerts and while auditioning loudspeakers and other components that I even think that I can tell high-fidelity sound from lower fidelity sound, better music reproduction from worse. Along the way, I managed to learn, and even understand, some of the technical jargon associated with high fidelity.

I am willing to be judgmental and I discriminate. It is not politically correct to say so, but judgment and discrimination are how we tell good from acceptable from bad--in sound reproduction or anything else. Audiophiles are famously judgmental, which automatically makes them an endangered species in a non-judgmental (actually, anti-judgmental) culture.

For another thing, I am by nature an equipment guy. I like high quality, well made components. I enjoy researching audio components, using them, owning them and even just looking at them across the room. The good ones, like my Marantz 250M power amplifier or a McIntosh pre-amplifier, seem to radiate quality. I have seen sailboats, classic motorcycles and fine firearms that had the same kind of functional beauty and appeal, at least to me. Anyway, I figure that actually listening to music and being something of a component hobbyist qualifies me as an audiophile.

I had never actually looked up the definition of the word "audiophile" in a dictionary, but for this article, I did. Here is what Merriam-Webster says: "A person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction." I think that is sort of a minimalist definition, but fair enough. FYI, the word was coined in 1951.

In the early 1950's, I had a distant cousin named Bill who was about 30 years older than I was. (I was then just a grammar school kid.) Bill was an audiophile and I bet there were not many of those in Los Angeles at that time. Everyone in the family, including me, thought he was a little nutty. He had a turntable (as opposed to a record player), a Marantz power amp and an Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater speaker. (Hi-Fi was monaural then; stereo had not yet been invented.) None of us had ever heard anything remotely comparable. My family were basically good people, but not musical. I don't think any of them had ever attended a live concert. Certainly, my parents never took me to hear live music. The music that Bill's Hi-Fi system produced sounded so different from what we were used to hearing on the radio that we thought it strange and scorned his hobby. It was not until about 30 years later that I finally got my first Marantz power amp (a Model 16) and a (pair) of Voice of the Theater speakers. Ever since, I have wanted to apologize to Bill for thinking him weird because he was an audiophile. By then, of course, it was too late. I had let the opinions of the grown-ups in our family influence my judgment. There is a lesson here: make sure your judgments are your own (unbiased).

These days, audiophiles seem to be a shrinking minority. Not that recorded music is disappearing, quite the contrary. Computers, the internet, $0.99 downloadable MP-3 tunes, i-pods, i-phones and portable audio devices of every sort that play low fidelity, compressed music are everywhere. It is practically impossible to buy an automobile without some sort of surround sound system included. Altec-Lansing, for example, sells thousands of plastic computer and i-pod speakers annually, mostly for wireless docking, but not a single Voice of the Theater speaker, or any other high fidelity speaker system.

Home stereo systems optimized for accurate music reproduction are being supplanted by multi-channel, surround sound, home theater systems. Home theater systems are optimized to re-create the sounds and ambiance recorded on movie soundtracks. This is mostly dialogue and sound effects: explosions, gunfire, eerie "sci-fi" noises, screams, animal grunts, etc. Music is incidental and secondary in home theater systems; it's a background sound used to establish a basic "mood" for a scene, no more important than the sound of distant traffic in an urban scene. Nobody really listens to movie music; their attention is focused on the images on the screen, as intended. Even on the cable/satellite channel MTV (supposedly "music television"), the weird video images take precedence over the music being played.

This is the exact opposite of how an audiophile listens to music. I have seen audiophiles actually close their eyes or dim the room lights to better focus on the music without visual distraction. I have even done this myself.

Listening to music--just music without video--on most home theater systems is unrewarding and often faintly irritating. It sounds as if you had been transported into the middle of a rock band or symphony orchestra, poorly reproduced and without subtlety. When listening to classical music, the aural image of the orchestra is muddied, you cannot locate the position of the strings or woodwinds, as you can with a good stereo (two-channel) system. Even if the A/V system's front left and right loudspeakers are good ones, the overall fidelity of the sound is compromised by the inferior speakers to the sides and rear of the listening position. Hearing low-fidelity sound from several directions is not an advance in music reproduction.

Of course, some audiophiles take our hobby to what even other audiophiles consider absurd lengths. The mainstream magazines dedicated to high fidelity music reproduction (Audio, High Fidelity and Stereo Review, for example) have folded under the onslaught from multi-channel home theater and car audio, leaving the home stereo Hi-Fi field to fringe publications, such as Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. Read some of the incredibly subjective reviews describing the sonic qualities of speaker wire in TAS magazine and you might conclude you could eliminate the amplifiers and loudspeakers from your music system and just listen to the wire! This kind of reporting diminishes the credibility of audiophiles and degrades our hobby. No wonder so many scientists, electrical engineers and members of the public think audiophiles are wacko, akin to astrologers and other pseudo-scientists. $1,000 speaker cables have about as much real world credibility as dowsing rods, and rightly so.

Earlier I quoted a definition of the word "audiophile." Here is the definition of pseudoscience from Wikipedia:

"Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice that is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status. Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories."

Sadly, that definition applies to much of what is printed in Audiophile, TAS and on many audiophile web sites. As a result of this journalistic irresponsibility, misinformed audiophiles line the pockets of purveyors of audio "snake oil." Probably no great cosmic harm is done, except to the gullible parted from their money. Magazines and their advertiser's products are sold. The placebo effect guarantees that many of the suckers will be satisfied and extoll the product's virtues to their friends and online in forums. This does, however, make people "enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction" seem like a collection of fools to more skeptical observers.

It would be nice if audiophile magazines and web sites were more reliable and objective. More real science, if you will, and less pseudoscience. This would be a service to their readers and the audiophile community. Electronics, acoustics and music are real. Enthusiasm about high fidelity in music reproduction is reasonable and laudable. The pursuit of audio excellence is a rewarding hobby.

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Copyright 2011, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.