How to explain our obsessions to the uninitiated?

My father in-law asked me last night at dinner, just what makes one box more special than the other (referring to the components within a system) so much so that one can command a higher price and succeed in a competitive marketplace? I tried explaining as best I could and don't know if I did a very effective job at it. I was wondering if anyone has come across an online resource, or even a thread here that may do a good job at putting into words that someone who knows nothing about this hobby can relate with, exactly what it is that makes one component better than another and worth the price of admission? Since he expressed some interest I was thinking of pointing my father in-law to something like that if it exists. I will also take the time to try to sit him down and listen, of course, but I'd also like to find a well-articulated (hopefully brief and to the point) description of the carrot on the stick. Perhaps I'll just compose something myself. It is not the first time someone has asked me. There's always the response; "...if you have to ask, you probably won't get it anyway." I'd rather be more positive and try, at least, to share my enthusiasm, even if the likelihood may be towards the inference of that more rude response. What have your experiences been in sharing your hobby with those who otherwise wouldn't care about such things?
Save your breath. I have tried this many times and their eyes glaze over. Friends and relatives come over and they ask me to play something. I used to try to be accomodating and ask what type of music they like. After putting it on they listened for at the most two minutes and then started a conversation with someone else. Now I don't demo to anyone unless I feel they are serious.
It is like cars or fashion clothing or golf clubs or stamps or gardening. The diversity and price ranges allow for individuality of expression from nostalgia to luxurious, from powerful loud to warm and subtle, from media touch-of-a-button-ease to precise TT arm adjustments and careful ritualistic Vinyl care. Pure performance has actually very little to with the hobby. I think for some there is also enjoyment/pride in collecting (like stamps, coins) and building your dream systems. The knowledge that one has a rare or quirky or highly cherished piece can increase the pleasure or ownership.

As for sitting down and listening to a good system - many people do not get the kind of exhilaration and bliss we audiophiles experience each and every time we listen, at least that is what I get out of it. I find myself grinning from ear to ear and many pieces of music will bring me to tears. Many people are simply unable to experience this, however, an open cab sports car on a winding European road on a hot summer day captures some of the exhilaration and a tear-jerker movie captures some of the emotion...whatever turns your crank.

You can tell your father-in-law that without passion these are indeed nothing but "boxes"...
I try to relate the cost of audio components to a hobby the other person can relate to: performance cars (or modified cars), planes, boats, coins, stamps, cycling, golfing, sports name it.

Every hobby/pastime has the commonality of higher quality goods selling for substantially more than slightly lesser quality goods.
When trying to explain this to someone in the past I often fell back on an anology and comparative reference to collectors and connoisseurs of fine wines (of which I am not). If you are not of the "initiated" one would be hard pressed to convince you that a bottle (750mls) of some special vintage could be worth $2K-$50K when a good recent California for less than $20 would do the trick. "Why would anyone spend that kind of money on a bottle of wine which will soon be turned into something else soon after it is drunk anyway." Tvad is right in relatings it to some hobby that they have, are passionate about and spend a lot more on than you or I might. "Why would anyone spend $450K on an F 430 Ferrari when a Toyota Prius can get you there just as well." Obviously there is no answer to that question, unless you love Ferrari F430s, fine wine, Audiophilia or whatever your particular passion happens to be.
Just tell them that your are sick, I do, it works everytime, only because its true.
Thanks for the great responses so far. Maybe I'll end up just referring him to this thread! To be clear, I don't know that his curiosity stemmed from the dollars and cents, as it did from wanting to understand the motivations of the folks like me who use this gear, and just what it was that made one box better than the other one. Money never came into the discussion.

Well, going back to car analogy, sometimes an aftermarket part by one company performs slightly better (or more to the owner's personal taste) than the same part from a different manufacturer. The parts may cost the same, but the aficionado can tell the difference.

Same with wine, cigars, baseball cards, vintage Playboy magazines, WWII bazookas...
trying to rationize anything to a father-in-law that doesn't benefit his daughter is pointless. to inlaws, saying you need to spend big money on hi fi because you love music, is like saying you drop acid because you enjoy all the colors in the world.
Oh boy, Jaybo hit it out of the park.

Yeah, that one's outt'a here! So much for referring Dad to this thread! As I said, he wasn't questioning any investment. I actually haven't spent anything on my system in a very long time so it's a non-issue.
Just tell everyone you are compensating for a small one, its gets a laugh every time.
Maybe the poor guy sincerely wants to know.

The best way to explain the audio passion to someone is to play music for them.

The demo may strike a chord or it may not. If it does--if the listener gets all teary-eyed, or silent, or a bit awestruck (and it can happen, even to the non-audiophile) the point is made.

If the demo doesn't work like that, who knows why, then at least you can make the point that your gear is better made than most.

I mean gee, the whole point is the music, right? Never mind the price. If your f-i-l has an open mind and is willing to listen, or better still, bring some of his own music over for a listen, he's giving himself the best possible chance to understand.
here is a simple explanation:

music is important to me. i will spend as little or as much as necessary to present music to me the way i would like to hear it. the "boxes" are a means to an end , not an end itself. the end is enjoying music .

after that short explantion, it is not necessary to demonstrate your stereo.
Here's how I start off...

Hi, I'm Ken and I'm an audiophile....
Simply put; it's the music - a primary interest that makes our hobby different than others. We are obsessed with the act of bringing music into our homes with sound quality that approaches a live event. We spend a lot of cash on getting us closer to distant-past musical events. What makes one box better than another and commands a high price? One box reproduces music much better than other. The explanation is not about how much power a box will output or how sexy a box is; it's about music.
Mr. T - That's really not an explanation at all of what he's asking about. He loves music too. His wife is first chair viola in an orchestra for over 40 years and teaches music at home. He was asking to understand the boxes themselves and why one was considered better than the other, why one is more expensive than the other, and what goes into making them that way. Tobias hit it on the head, thank you; yes, the guy sincerely wanted to understand about the pursuit of perfection in this hobby and what things motivated it and defined success in that pursuit. I certainly did not feel the need to defend myself as many here seem to be implying. I also didn't feel like he was implying I needed counseling, though that may not be a bad idea :-) Still enjoying the responses, regardless. Thanks!
So I did actually sit down and write out an email to my FIL, which did start an bit of a further dialogue on the subject. I think he got it. It remains to be seen if he'll take the time to sit down and listen, and whether or not it will mean anything beyond the effort to acknowledge his caring. Here's the main body of that email:

The primary motivator that drives audiophiles is to recreate the illusion of live music within a three dimensional space in their home. That is to hear the performance as if there were a stage in front of you with a singer at the center, drums in the back and to the left, a cello to the far right and mid-stage, a mouse scurrying across the wooden floor in the back of the hall stage right, etc. The ideal is the full illusion that the performers are there in front of you in a space that is is not really there. In fact a better recording on a good system can give the sense that the music was recorded in a stone church, or in a large hall. That is the goal of stereophonic recording - an illusion of presence, naturalness and reality. How effective that illusion is depends entirely upon those boxes and what's inside them, as well as on the wires that connects them and the space they're setup in (much the same as the space the orchestra plays in has a profound effect on how they sound). I think most folks don't take the time to setup their system to take advantage of that illusion, either because they don't care about it, or are not aware it is possible. What makes one box better than another is whatever the 'one' does to make the sound coming out of the speakers sound more like live music. To refine the performance of any of the boxes means to design the circuitry better, use better components, and make the components you do use synchronize well together. Much like designing a performance race car, or a fine musical instrument. You cannot just randomly throw together the best parts available for the task. To succeed it requires great skill and knowledge, and even some creativity combined with that awareness of how those parts interact with each other to create "the whole". To really appreciate this, as far as the stereo is concerned, you'd have to actually sit down in the right spot (the sweet spot), and listen yourself. Nothing could explain it better, or not explain it at all should you not hear or appreciate the illusion. Just as one may not hear or appreciate the differences in two violins, the same holds true for a stereo; you may not hear, and or care about any differences that exist. Anyway, if you have time when you're next over I'd be happy to demonstrate it to you if you are interested. It is not something you'd appreciate very much at a distance from outside of the sweet spot, though certainly there are many qualities that extend to listening elsewhere which make the music occur as more natural and present. None can match the qualities you'd hear sitting in the right spot.

Please feel free to keep your own comments coming. I've enjoyed the input.
Often the best way to play the 'better' game is to put tubes into the discussion. Many people who asked me that question became truly amazed when first exposed to tubes.
That sums it up pretty well, IMO.
Jax2, great summary! I thought your observation about why this pursuit may not be relevant for some people ("either because they don't care about it, or are not aware it is possible") to be a good addition to the explanation, as are your analogies.
The explanation is in the sound. Play him something he is familiar with. Every time I make a small change (and spend more money) and my mom (she's 84) has that (now what are you doing?) look on her face, I play Sinatra at the Sands vinyl for her. Every change makes him sound just like she remembers when she saw him there way back when.

As for your father-in-law, play something on a clock radio then something on your equipment and ask him which one HE enjoys more and why.

It's always more effective when people come to their own conclusions instead of ours.
Your summary statement is excellent and as good as necessary I think.

Taking chadnliz's comment to a further extreme - you might just tell "Dad" that all the nerve endings that would have been in one part of your anatomy ended up in your brain attached to your ears instead. Although the words "" and "father in law" used in the same context, let alone the same sentence, is a recipe for trouble?!?

Only slightly more seriously, I like the analogy of reproducing a digital image on a computer or TV screen. The end result is a combination of how well the image was captured initially, and the ability of the hard drive, video card, and screen resolution and color capability to faithfully reproduce that image. Most people can easily tell the difference between a VGA image in 16 colors and a HD signal in millions of colors. Your "boxes" do a better or less good job of reproducing the "sound pixels", and you can hear this difference and it affects your enjoyment. Some boxes may have less resolution and the sound's "color" may be off a bit from the original digital image, but you or another person may like this better than a more completely accurate reproduction of the original (but not perfect) digital image because this version more closely represents how you experience live images in real time with your own ears (or eyes, why some people like tube boxes over solid state boxes or paintings over photographs, for example).
Chad, if your contention is true, I'll bet you have one killer system.
there are only 2 groups....1.people with obsessive hobbies and 2. people who don't understand people with obsessive hobbies. i hate to be the one to break the news, but putting your thoughts into writing for those in group 2 (it's a father-in-law to boot)is not a good idea.
HA! Just keepin' it real! Did I mentioned my second music room with a Bose Wave radio???
Great feedback and LOL. I think I'll keep my johnson in my pants and out of the conversation. Measuring tools will likewise be left out of the dialog. As interested as he was in finding out more about my motivations, I do believe there is a line in the sand that one just does not cross and Knownothing must know something to make that sage observation as (s)he has. I'm afraid I don't have a clock radio for demonstrative purposes. ..would a Clever Little Clock do? Oh, my, don't get me started there.
OK I have a similar 'problem' but in reverse - Audiophiles wouldn't understand my "twist" on the hobby. I like music also, but I'm into the looks of the equipment, collecting gear, and visual 'light shows' with LED's - for example, I have taken several audio spectrum analyzers (Audiocontrol, ADC, Soundcraftsman, etc.) and replaced the dim, red LED's with the newer blue ones - also some of them are multicolored) You might say mixing audio/led's/and electronics are my personal passion. But most here would hate the way my systems sounds and wouldn't understand why I do it this way. But to each his own.
Have you considered medication Joey? No, seriously, I appreciate a personal visual aesthetic and it seems like some of my best friends are obsessive about one thing or other. Live and let live. One man's blinking LED's are another man's sharp stick in eye.
All good responses above,Shardone phrased it more to the way I feel about the hobby myself.When I duscuss audio with people than are not into the hobby,I usually tell them that the "boxes" are made with better electronics and better chassis,also they are not mass produced ,that in itself is an explanation because after all it's true.My mother in law hates me for spending money on audio.I ignore her.
Joylawn36111,you know you are a "kinky"audiophile!Just kidding,I love gear too,especially heavy thick faceplates and overbuild "tank" components,not so much into the lights though.Enjoy.
At this very moment I am listening to the CD of the Kinston Trio I checked out today from my local library, and playing it on a $100,000 system, the evolution of a lifelong obsession. I first listened to them when I was about 13 years old in 1957, and was interested in the music and the sound, and went on to explore ever better equipment and music, in the days of the the birth of high end audio. Since then, it has only gotten better. Nonetheless, the I can still appreciate the music, and it gives me a thrill to hear how good it sounds. When the reproduction of interesting music is great, there is that much more to appreciate! As your system gets better, you can go back and replay all your old music, and find there is even more to enjoy, that you never really knew was there. It's not just better boxes (although that helps) it's also understanding how to tweak what you've got! But for me, it's still the music.
Marco, I am sure you were kidding about the medication part, but yes, I do. Also part of it is the modding of the electronics. Fun to get the soldering iron going. Also, as far as brightness, yes some are, but the trick is not to stare straight on at them for too long. And I agree that my lights would not be appropriate for serious listening (too distracting).

By the way, for those who do modding, (like changing caps, etc.) I recommend a electric-powered solder sucker to remove the old part. This preserves your expensive components' motherboard.
Good music deserves the best playback equipment I can afford. It's the music.
An additional thought: Music I love can be enjoyed on a POS (ie: crappy car radio) but the enjoyment increases exponentially as the system gets better. Better "boxes" as well as attention to EVERYTHING else just makes it all the more so, and when it is REALLY good, it approaches great sex!
I was thinking of this post yesterday, and I don't think it goes for just our hobby.

Case in point, I am an avid cyclist, and my bike cost over $5K. One of my friends who is big golfer found this fact out and was floored. He couldn't believe I would spend so much on a bicycle.

When I asked him how much his golf clubs cost he immediately replied $4,500. I then reminded him I didn't have to pay greens fees to ride, nor take trips to golf courses for my hobby and he saw the point.

What I am saying is I don't think you ever truly can explain you passion for any hobby to those with dissimilar interests, though pointing out Joe's golf expenses did stop him from picking on my bikes!!!
As has been stated earlier, this applies to anything that one can term an "obsession". If you don't have such obsession it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to have it explained to you such that you "understand". In any case, even if it were possible to make other understand an obsession, anytime someone is not coming into a conversation with an open mind then you can just stop wasting your time.
I can so identify with Donaudio.

Before I understood what I was doing, I too suffered the 90 second, "umm, how about those Red Sox..." several times.

This may drift a tiny bit from the original issue, but I feel people need to be questioned a tad about their relationship with music. If you find out the person owns no music at all and listens only to FM radio in the car for lack of any other activity available to them, do not waste your time.
The audience MUST have a passion for music in the first place, or it is useless.

There is also a big difference between a music lover and an audiophile.

A music lover hears a flaw in the reproduction of a piece music. They make a mental note to try to overcome it...then continue to enjoy the rest of the piece...and the rest of the nights listening.

An audiophile hears that same flaw in the reproduction of a piece of music. They get up and pull the stylus out of the groove right in the middle of the performance. Then they skip around from record to record, trying to find where it is most and least pronounced. They spend hours listening to the gear, not the music.

PS, in a real environment, you can hear the lady in the second row of violins scream because of the mouse...but not the mouse.

Be Well!