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What is an Audiophile?
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October 2012, December 2011   Audio Reviews   All Reviews


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I'm a music lover and former musician, broadcast and recording engineer. I was earning money in audio engineering and selling my own original music recordings long before I made money in photography. I thank God I'm not an audiophile; those weirdos hate music and only love playing with their stereo equipment.

My grandma was Henry Steinway's personal secretary from 1942-1973, and my parents are accomplished musical performers who met in a chorus. I've been designing my own recording equipment since the third grade, and been training and performing music since the fourth grade.

Back in those days, you needed to be an electronic engineer just to get sound, much less good sound. We were all about the music, but if you weren't a BSEE (electronic engineer), all you could hope for was a plug-and-play phonograph. It took real men to get high fidelity, but they only did it because they needed to in order to enjoy the music. They had to design and build their own amplifiers and speakers back in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, or there just wasn't any good sound.

By the 1970s, good hi-fi gear was everywhere. No longer did you need to be a BSEE to get great sound; all you needed was cash. Those of us who weren't loaded built kits to save money.

Up through the early 1980s, recorded music and radio were the only forms of electronic home entertainment. Video recorders were only owned by people who also had their own private helicopters and jets. The world's biggest selling album of all time is Michael Jackson's Thriller of 1983, which sold about 100 million copies, because that's how everyone, music lover or not, entertained themselves at home back then.

By the late 1980s, video recorders became affordable, and most people have preferred to watch movies, or time-shifted TV, ever since. The DVD arrived in the late 1990s, pretty much eliminating the general home audio entertainment market. Record sellers still blame the CD and pirates for the decline in music sales since the mid-1980s, while in fact it's simply that most people would rather watch a movie at home than buy a copy of the latest Boston album.

Likewise, since the late 1980s, the dedicated mainstream home audio equipment world has gone away. No one except a few dedicated music lovers have any interest in big speakers. No longer are magazines like Audio, Stereo Review and High Fidelity on newsstands for the general public; they all died in the 1990s as the world went to home video.

This leaves the music world back where it's never been: only populated by a few hard-core music lovers like myself, and the occasional odd audiophile.

Audiophiles are what's left after almost all of the knowledgeable music and engineering people left the audio scene back in the 1980s. Audiophiles are non-technical, non-musical kooks who imagine the darnedestly stupid things about audio equipment. Audiophiles are fun to watch; they're just as confused at how audio equipment or music really works as primitive men like cargo cults are about airplanes. An audiophile will waste days comparing the sound of power cords or different kinds of solder, but won't even notice that his speakers are out-of-phase. An audiophile never enjoys music; he only listens to the sound of audio equipment.

Since sound and music perception is entirely imaginary (you can't touch or photograph a musical image), what and how we hear is formed only in our brains and is not measurable. Our hearing therefore is highly susceptible to the powers of suggestion. If an audiophile pays $5,000 for a new power cord, he will hear a very real difference, even though the sound is unchanged. Audiophiles do hear real differences in power cords when they swap among them (the placebo effect), but just don't ask them to hear the difference in a double-blind test.

Thank God I'm not an audiophile. Just like a pedophile, the word audiophile is defined as someone with an unhealthy attraction or interest in something; in this case, it's audio equipment, but not music. An audiophile and a music lover are two entirely different people.

Audiophiles adore audio equipment, which is completely unrelated to enjoying music. In the good old days, music lovers only played with audio equipment because they had to, while audiophiles today would rather listen to their equipment than to enjoy music.

A music lover will stop what he's doing and stay glued to a favorite piece of music even if it's coming over a 3" speaker or a public-address system, while an audiophile almost never enjoys music, even if played on a $100,000 hi-fi.

Because audiophiles don't have the experience or education to understand what matters (the skill of the original recording engineer, the choice of loudspeakers, their placement in a room and the acoustics of that room), audiophiles spend fortunes on the wrong things, which are the high-profit-margin and well advertised items like cables, power conditioners, amplifiers, power cables, connectors, resistors, and just about everything that has almost nothing to do with the quality of reproduced music — but makes loads of money for the people selling these fetishes.

There's nothing wrong with owning the finest equipment or a $25,000 speaker cable, but all the professional musicians I know have none of this. More important are good recordings of great performances, great speakers, careful placement and good home acoustics. We know domestic sound reproduction is never going be perfect, so we just get close enough, get over it, and enjoy the music, letting our imaginations fill in the difference for us since we're intimately familiar with live performances. We listen to the music, not the gear. The only big-name musicians I've seen pitching audio equipment are those who are paid for their endorsements.

A music lover spends more time at live performances, either as audience or as performer, than pretending to reproduce it at home.

An audiophile will spend a lifetime swapping cables or magic stones and never be able to sit though an entire piece without stopping and tweaking something. To an audiophile, 25 pounds of solid billet aluminum around his equipment and blue lights defines sound quality, while the actual amount of copper on the inside, or to what it's connected or what it's doing, is far less important.

To an audiophile, the hobby is all about playing with equipment, not enjoying music.

A music lover uses the same gear for years or decades. He gets what sounds great, like some electrostatics or whatever, and keeps it nearly forever, thoroughly enjoying to all his new recordings of great acts. Audio equipment is always a good investment; it lasts for decades. A music lover spends more on concerts and recordings than he ever does on stereo equipment, and he enjoys his music immensely for hours and hours on end, not even knowing that there's any equipment involved: he's enjoying the music itself, not listening for artifacts that aren't really there.


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Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.


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