The Hub: In Defense of Audiophilia

This piece was written for the wonderful tech website Gizmodo, whose readers tend to be highly skeptical of all things pertaining to the high end. Consequently, some of the points made may be familiar to our more-seasoned Audiogoners. We hope that you will enjoy it anyway, and hope it will prompt some productive discussions regarding the world of the high end, and how it is viewed by "regular" people.

Now, for your reading pleasure, "In Defense of Audiophilia", reprinted thanks to the kindness of the fine folks at Gizmodo:

It rarely occurs to me to defend my interest in recreating the sound of live music. I do it because I love to listen to beautiful sound. Is wanting great audio crazy?

A series of events—and evangelists—led me from a casual like of the pop songs I heard on my tiny transistor radio to an obsessive immersion in music.

Growing up in the early '60's, I heard the Hi-Fis of my parents and many of their friends. The turning point for me was an uncle's set-up with huge Altec Laguna corner-horns and an Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck; I can still remember my astonishment at the lifelike presentation of Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall seemingly right there in front of me. I quickly learned that music I didn't like could be captivating when played back on a "big Hi-Fi".

Since that time I've worked in all areas of the audio industry and I still look for that same overwhelming sense of involvement with whatever music or sound-system I encounter. Many of the recordings I hear today are flat, compressed and uninvolving, but wonders still await in those old recordings made in the single-mic/vacuum tube era.

Even such often-heard chestnuts as the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You" provide moments of joy and discovery when heard over a high-resolution sound system. The music is not just a song but an event, a recreation of a particular time and place, with a sense of both the performers and the original recording venue. The effects can be addictive.

How is it that Hi-Fi—or High End Audio—once the domain of doctors and attorneys, celebrated in magazines like Playboy and Esquire, essential element of bachelor-pads and dorm rooms alike, has come to be viewed as the realm of obsessives, a perverse diversion that requires defensiveness on the part of the "victim" of this illness?

When was the last time you heard someone defend the purchase of a large flat-screen television, or a home theater system?

Everyone understands the desire to create a greater sense of immersion in films and sports-events; why is it hard to understand the desire for the same sensation with music alone?

For over 20 years I've attended the mammoth, trade-only Consumer Electronics Show. During that time, I've seen dozens of demonstrations of the current state of the art in video technology; first with standard CRT monitors, then projection, HDTV, plasma, LED, LCD, and most recently, 3-D technologies. Not once have I heard a fellow show-attendee say, "I'm not sure I'll be able to see the difference. I think my old Zenith is good enough."

Those demos have been effective in conveying the improvements made in picture detail, depth and color rendition; each year's progress has been immediately obvious to all those present. Once you're acclimated to the increased level of involvement brought about by improvements in video technology, going back to a 19" black and white portable becomes unthinkable.

Conversely, a refrain I've heard repeatedly during my 40-year involvement in audio has been, "I don't think I could hear the difference with that really expensive stuff. I think my console/ jambox/iPod is good enough."

For some reason, serious music-lovers and casual listeners alike are often convinced that whatever sound systems they've heard, well, that's as good as it gets. Not only are they unaware that higher-quality sound systems are available and could greatly enhance their listening experience, it seems they are unable to even conceive of better sound-quality.

It's as though having driven a creaking Volkswagen Beetle, they're unable to even process the concept of a VW Golf, much less a Bugatti Veyron. For those few who are aware of the world of High End Audio, expense in audio equipment is equated with loudness and Shaquille O'Neal-sized speakers, not with improvements in intelligibility, detail, frequency range or the listener's emotional connection to the music. And let's not even consider such abstruse ideas as "soundstaging", "depth of image" or the like.

It is a problem the audio industry has brought upon itself. Rather than emphasizing how High End Audio can bring more enjoyment and involvement into the lives of music lovers, we have demonstrated systems with spectacular boom-and-blast film soundtracks at sound pressure levels close to those of a 747 in final approach. In my mind such bruising demos date back to the arrival of "Sensurround" systems in theaters in the '70's (think THX with plaster-cracking bass), and certainly the arrival of sub-woofers in home theater systems made for a more sound-effects-oriented sales pitch.

Today, we live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded by music, and thanks to the iPod, we can provide a soundtrack to our own lives. We are perhaps more aware of and attuned to music than at any time in history. But that does not mean we sit and actually listen to music, following a vocal part throughout a choral piece, or picking out Paul McCartney's jazzy bass-lines in an old Beatles track. Music is just there, as background noise.

Actual listening is an oddly Zen activity, a combination of awareness and anticipation. It is anything but passive; immersive listening is active and involving. It can be as overwhelming and emotional an experience as a great novel or movie.

Does audiophilia require a defense? Perhaps; there are any number of anti-social dweebs obsessed with the size of their speakers, just as there are any number of middle-aged-crazies seeking validation with that new red Porsche.

The act of listening, becoming involved with music, requires no defense! It doesn't require megabucks or Stonehenge in the living room to become more aware of and involved in music; good quality sound systems start around a grand, and vintage used gear can often be had for almost nothing.

Affordable Starter Audio Gear
The best place to see what's available in both new and vintage audio gear is Audiogon. Founded in 1998, the 'gon, as it's known to its ardent users, is the world's most heavily trafficked audio website, and a place where you might see everything from iPod docks to plasma loudspeakers (no, not plasma TVs). As Director of Marketing for the site I'm clearly biased, but more than 250,000 registered members visit the site regularly; many would say "obsessively".

A number of new products offer incredible bang for the buck. Seth Krinsky'sVirtue Audio offers the tiny ONE.2 amplifier for $349; while small enough to fit under a computer monitor, the ONE.2 has 30 watts per channel of superb quality sound, and is routinely demonstrated at shows powering those huge megabuck speakers we all make fun of. Next to the speakers, the ONE.2 looks like a Chihuahua hangin' with a Great Dane.

Peachtree Audio offers two game-changing products in the Nova and the iDecco. The $1199 Nova is an 80 watts/channel integrated amp with a cool vacuum tune preamp, and includes an excellent DAC (digital to analog converter) so that computer and iPod sources can be used with the big boy system. The $999 iDecco offers fewer inputs, 40 watts/channel, but has a built-in iPod dock. Both have headphone amps, and are beautiful and beautifully made.

Distributor Roy Hall is a grumpy Scotsman with a talent for finding great-sounding bargains. His Music Hall Audio offers the Australian-made AktiMate speakers with built-in amplifiers and iPod docks. The work of legendary audio designer Mike Creek, the AktiMate Mini is $699/pair, with 40-watt amps; the $1099 Maxis have bigger cabinets for more bass, and also include a Reciva internet radio. Music Hall also offers a line of quality turntables at reasonable prices.

In the audio world, former eastern bloc nations are the new China; dozens of great-sounding, well-made audio products from eastern Europe are appearing on the market. Dayens, from Serbia, offers the $500 Ampino integrated amp and $400 Tizo speakers, both of which sound as good as many products four times their price. Distributor Arte Forma Audio seems to have no working website; call them at (404) 840-6052.

Perhaps the biggest change the iPod has made in the audio world is that it's made people used to wearing headphones (or at least earbuds). If you want to bypass speakers altogether, there are dozens of choices in good headphone amps and headphones. A newcomer to the headphone amp world is Schiit (!); industry veterans Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard offer killer American-made amps for $249-$349. Couple them with phones from Grado, Sennheiser, Beyer, Audio-Technica or Denon, and you might never leave home again!

The world may be getting more expensive every day, but the audio world has never offered as many bargains as it does right now. Try them!
You mention an oft-heard refrain of "I don't think I could hear the difference with that really expensive stuff. I think my console/ jambox/iPod is good enough."

This is a very common attitude, but what is really being expressed is that they don't CARE about the difference. Obviously anyone with ears can discern the difference between a jambox and a true high-end system, just as one cannot argue that viewing a film on the 4" screen of their ipod is an entirely different experience from that of viewing the film in a theatre, be it home or the cinema. The crux of it is that, to fully immerse themselves in the experience has little to no value for them. What I seem to observe is that, for a huge majority of folks, it's all about the IDEA of having exprienced/seen/heard something being good enough, and this trumps the act of truly immersing themselves in a potentially transformative experience. This is simply an outgrowth of the trend that is slowly reducing art & culture into background noise, idle distraction and lifestyle reinforcement. The mantra of "it's about the music, not the gear" is another statement that is thrown around a bit, with the seeming implication that a clock radio delivers all one needs for musical enjoyment. While it is true that one can enjoy music to some level on laptop speakers, it is simply not the same experience and to not at least attempt to strive for, in at least some tiny degree, some type of higher caliber hi-fi experience tells me that you probably "aren't into the music". To care about sonically delivering the music as best as you can, IS being "into the music".

Your observations are astute, and I basically agree with you. However, I have often encountered folks who are genuinely dismissive of their own ability to hear the difference. Not to beat a dead horse, but I think the reason that attitude occurs is simply that they haven't been exposed to high-quality sound, and can't even conceive of such a thing.

Then again, some folks just couldn't care less, as you say. There are days when the only laws I believe in are Murphy's and Sturgeon's.

Thanks for taking the time to think, and to write. I appreciate it.
One quote that impressed me was:
Today, we live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded by music, and thanks to the iPod, we can provide a soundtrack to our own lives. We are perhaps more aware of and attuned to music than at any time in history. But that does not mean we sit and actually listen to music, following a vocal part throughout a choral piece, or picking out Paul McCartney's jazzy bass-lines in an old Beatles track. Music is just there, as background noise.
I love music, but I'm tired of having to hear it incessantly at restaurants, bowling alleys, and during every moment of a movie (older films have a refreshing amount of silence in their soundtracks). Perhaps it's because we've become so accustomed to doing other things while music plays that it's hard to find someone who can sit and listen to even one three-minute song without doing or saying something totally unrelated to what's happening in the music.

And another quote that struck a chord:
I quickly learned that music I didn't like could be captivating when played back on a "big Hi-Fi".
For years I'd skip about on an lp, just playing tracks I found appealing. After getting a better turntable (upgrading from a Thorens TD146 to a Linn LP12), I found that I didn't want to skip around anymore--the entire album became much more interesting and compelling to me.
For all the prowess that high end audio displays, it has for the most part fallen on deaf ears. Yes high end audio has completely and totally failed in its effort to attract a larger audience. For the most part the marketing effort by all high end manufacturers is nothing more or less than propaganda for the educated few.

Couple that with the dealers that in the early days of high end turned off a vast majority of customers with the so called elitist attitude. A customer would ask a question and the response would be "Surely my good man, you must very ill informed and quite possibly you should look elsewhere for something more pedesterian for your needs" You get the idea, and whats worse a lot of them are still in business today with that attitude. Ah yes the intimidation factor at its best.

For the 53 years I have been involved in this hobby/business I have just about seen it all good,bad and downright ugly. At the peak of the golden age of high end audio it represented about 1 percent of the home entertainment business, I dare say it is much less than that now, probably about 0.6 percent.

Don't get me wrong I thoroughly enjoy this with warts and all. But I do remember a kinder and gentler time. A time when dealers and manufactures were joined at the hip for the betterment of the industry as a whole. People of my generation remember the days of Radio Shack when it was into hi-fi, Heathkit Stores, Lafayette, Olsen and the list goes on. Where a genuine customer/dealer realtionship could be built. When all parties are in the same boat, business will flourish and bring in more people interested in this hobby.

But in all honesty high end audio has missed the mark, when it should have been the genesis to entice a much larger audience than it has.

Do I wish for a return to the so called good ole days? Of course not, for me it has always been to move forward. But with that being said take the tried and proven of the past and meld with that of today and beyond. High End can be saved and its promise can be fullfilled, but not in its current state of affairs.
Thanks for the insights, guys.

I think there are three or four market-segments that could save the high end as an industry. And yes, it does need salvaging; the best available stats show dollars spent on high end audio products down about 40% over the last 5 years. Sales-stats in this business have always been hard to find (which is a whole 'nother issue), but that number appears reasonably reliable, and should be cause for alarm.

I imagine we've all seen the "I want Bose" video on You Tube by now, which perfectly illustrates Ferrari's comments. The salesman doesn't even attempt a demo; he just butts head with the eager-to-buy customer. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

How do we salvage the high end?

1. Actively and continuously demo to the iPod generation. That requires road-shows visiting college campuses. Such marketing was routine by the bigs (Pioneer, Kenwood) back in the '70's; these days it's the province of video game and computer companies. Viral marketing on the net is a vital element of this as well; some brands get it (Virtue, Schiit), but most don't.

2. Disassociate high end audio from the "lunatic fringe". Yes, I'm one of the lunatics, but I'm growing older, and so are my peers. As a market, we're a dead end. Literally. I fear that most of us are more worried about reserves for retirement than we are a $20k pair of speakers.

3. Focus on lifestyle marketing, to affluent music-lovers. This requires friendly, patient sales-staff and attractive, functional products finished to a world-class standard. Think Apple.

4. Ditto the thoughts of 3) above, but narrow the focus to "affluent FEMALE music-lovers". They're out there, they have beaucoups disposable income, and they are sadly, badly served by most audio dealers. Think lifestyle, boutiques, and (God forbid!) salesWOMEN. Or at least young guys who have undergone some sort of sensitivity training and don't have chips on their shoulders.

In all the above: concentrate on products which offer obvious, tangible benefits and are well made, well presented, well packed, with flawless customer support. That does not mean the products will have to be inexpensive; expensive products continue to do well as long as they offer benefits (either actual or perceived) to the buyer. I know it ain't easy. If the industry is to adapt and survive, that's what it will take.

These are my opinions, and I speak only for myself in this. The rant is familiar to anyone who knows me. ;->

Thanks again for contributing.
Right on my brother. I have been an audiophile for almost 50 years. I too was a kid with a transistor radio that loved to plug in my plastic headphone and be transported late at night to other realms. High End audio is a developed appreciation. You can't be a teenager and expect to have the ability to purchase high end audio. It takes time to acquire the pieces and the finances as well. It is as though it is a audiophiles final statement in life after taking a lifetime to appreciate all the other levels of audio that he or she arrives at a high end level. It is like retirement after working a whole lifetime. My high end system, mostly all McIntosh, was built over a five year period. It sounds great but is it really worth the total dollar investment I put into it. The answer to that question is . Yes. I sit in my big chair and put on a cd or lp etc and look at the blue lights and green McIntosh name and I feel great. The music plays and I am in my own private listen room focusing on ever nuance of sound. I read all the liner notes before I begin and perhaps I look at my musical library filled with famous composers and musicians or perhaps I go online and look for information about the same and I have a whole musical history lesson ready to happen. Perhaps I research the historical context of the time in which the piece was written or even focus on one instrument etc to see if I could learn anything from in in regard to my own guitar playing. Some people would say that in order to be a better musician you have to listen more than actually practice your instrument.
The people who want high end audio have the right to pay for it and enjoy it. Those who don't want to have it or pay for it; don't have to have it. This is America afterall. Your article is great and we don't have to defend ourself at all. They can have their audio and we can have our high end audio. You probably will never be able to change their attitude anyway and you only live once. Scottsmrnyc
The high end audio press has not been doing the industry any favors. It treats the hobby as if it were a competitive sport, endlessly placing one component ahead of another, all the while bragging about all of the cool, expensive toys that regularly appear on their doorstep. Read any of the articles published by the major high end magazines through the eyes of a newcomer and see if you aren't intimidated and daunted by their descriptions of the continuous upgrades and endless tweaking that sometimes seem to take precedence in this hobby.

To bring people in, they must be shown the emotional value of investing in a quality high end system. The best way to do that is to simply play music. Don't discuss technical things, don't talk about prices, just allow them to experience the sounds and understand that at the end of the day they can sit down and let the glories of their favorite music wash over them and make their worries and troubles vanish.

While playing your favorite "audiophile approved" music through your big, heavily tweaked system may seem impressive to you, it can be rather intimidating to a prospective hobbyist. Exposing newbies to smaller, less expensive quality systems like many of us have for our second (or third) systems may be just the ticket needed to make them realize that they can enjoy the pleasures that the high end can offer without a lot of fuss, bother and expense. Sometimes, just hearing great sounding music through a pair of good quality but affordable headphones (like the Grado SR-60's) can be all the exposure a newcomer needs to become interested in quality audio.

Does anybody else remember the Acoustic Research listening room in Grand Central Station in New York City in the 1960's? All they did was play music through their systems all day long. No pressure, no sales hype, it was a small musical oasis in the middle of one of the busiest travel hubs in the world. Who knows how many people got their first taste of the high end by taking a moment from their hectic day to stop in and take a listen?
This is a really, REALLY good observation and crucial point being made by Decibelcat:

While playing your favorite "audiophile approved" music through your big, heavily tweaked system may seem impressive to you, it can be rather intimidating to a prospective hobbyist. Exposing newbies to smaller, less expensive quality systems like many of us have for our second (or third) systems may be just the ticket needed to make them realize that they can enjoy the pleasures that the high end can offer without a lot of fuss, bother and expense. Sometimes, just hearing great sounding music through a pair of good quality but affordable headphones (like the Grado SR-60's) can be all the exposure a newcomer needs to become interested in quality audio.

I have noted several times, when playing music for someone, that they will simply NOT, as in just about outright refuse - to sit in the good listening spot. They will seriously sit in some far off corner chair or off to the side. I do a bit of audio engineering/recording of music on the side and this happens when I am playing people mixes of their own music!! Seriously...mixes that really need to be scrutinized and signed off on. This is just weird to me...and it's almost as if they actually are intimidated, or would feel pretentious and/or uncomfortably engaged.
Ipod made people used to wearing headphones? I thought it was walkman 30 years ago. The biggest change Ipod brought to audio world is teaching people to have 15 seconds attention span when listening to music (playing with click wheel like a squirrel in a cage) to the detriment of enjoying the music.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all.

I recall the AR room at Grand Central, and found it a brilliant bit of marketing. Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine an audio company with those kind of resources or clout these days.

I, too, have seen folks shy away from the sweet spot, almost as though they're afraid they're walking into the crosshairs of a gun scope. Are we really that intimidating?

Yes, Walkman started the trend towards acceptance of 'phones, but Sony never achieved the market saturation iPod has.

I think the best way to evangelize audio is to simply be open to new music yourself, and try to share it with others. Cold beverages and a little nosh couldn't hurt, either.
i think the reason that "audiophilia" has a limited consumer audienece is that those who are not audiophiles and those who spend little of their disposable income realize that they can attain satisfaction from listening to their favorite tunes on rudiementary equipment, i.e., one piece stereo systems costing less than $300.00.

in addition musical appreciation in the school may not do a very good job and may not focus on the value of genereating {"good" sound.
I think the main problem is the fact that the music listened to by today's young audience is so poorly recorded, that it sounds much better on ear buds and iPods, than it does on a good quality High End system.

Today's younger audience simply does not like classic rock, jazz, or classical music.
Perhaps Simon Yorke here has hit the nail on the head.

When Henry T Ford conceived the idea of mass-production, he envisaged a world of plenty, of unlimited resources, wealth, and boundless opportunity to create profit. In time, however, we have witnessed mass-production stimulate mass-consumption to the point where our lives have become dictated to by a world of epic commercialism that has overrun all other meaning.

In our centrally-heated homes we are insulated from the cold, the light, the wind, the rain and much of the feeling of being “alive”. We have become creatures of an unreal, robotic world, denying our true nature, and it seems to be bringing us little other than anguish and confusion. Our modern factories consume resources at one end and produce an endless stream of products at the other – each new product remorselessly designed to allure us with its advertised essentiality – thus perpetuating the whole destructive system. And though we know that this syndrome cannot be sustained we seem largely unable, or unwilling, to face reality and search for a more realistic, satisfying and responsible means of existence.

In this world of mass-manufactured items, all aspiration towards excellence in craftsmanship has been discarded in favour of the predictability of the robot; the desire for quality has given way to the demands of quantity and price, and the quest for profit has consumed almost everything in its wake. It is an evolutionary process that is destroying not only our physical world, but our spiritual wealth also. The emphasis upon science as the sole driving force of our modern society has led to the wholesale abandonment of concern for the nourishment of the inner or spiritual self. The accumulated wisdom of preceding generations has been arrogantly discarded in favour of a blind pursual of an ‘instant science’ which leaves us without beliefs, feelings or understanding.

I have great admiration for the high principles of our forefathers; for their undoubting vision and respect for preceding cultures; for their great cathedrals and works of art, and for their perfectionist attitude. One needs only to examine closely the everyday products of our modern society to conclude that the technological ground we have gained since their time has been largely at the expense of the human satisfaction they seem to have enjoyed. So many of our modern products are unfulfilling in terms of design, manufacture and ownership: they meet daily needs in a perfunctory, businesslike manner, but fail to stimulate our inner sense of beauty, feeling and understanding. In short, they fail to satisfy our true humanity, and accordingly cost us dearly.

Our world is abrim with ordinary products meeting ordinary needs: this is mediocrity, and in my view mediocrity is our greatest sin for it belittles us and our achievements, and discredits our intelligence and greater wisdom. It is my desire to produce only the very best that I am capable of; I aspire towards excellence, for it is my belief that only through such an approach can true meaning be found. And surely it is the search for meaningful experience that is the very essence of humankind. Of course in business it is necessary to make a profit, but there must, for me, be something greater than a simple financial goal: a desire to create art that steps beyond the daily reality of our lives, that reaches into and stimulates our inner selves. An art which has respect for the music and culture it serves and which seeks, genuinely, to enhance the lives of others.

Building musical instruments (for that is how I consider my work) is an important and serious business. I do not view these creations as mere products: they embody a philosophy which is important to me. I therefore continue to strive toward the design and construction of real musical instruments, better able to help people experience their emotional selves more honestly, and to encourage a deeper and more rewarding relationship with the wonder and passion of our musical inheritance. For within this musical history is contained all the hope, pain, joy, wonder, desperation and inspiration of our species. Perhaps more succinctly than all other forms of human expression, it is music which most honestly reflects our true humanity.

The purpose of “Simon Yorke Designs” is thus to offer a meaningful alternative to the vain, destructive and often nihilistic rationale of the modern “fast-moving-consumer-goods”-led society: to mingle philosophy with craftsmanship, art with engineering, and present the refreshingly simple ways of Zen, as best I can, in reverential sculpted form. It is my hope that through this work I can be of some value to our world.

Simon Yorke, (August 1992)

My observation that we as a people be it audio or something else have adopted an attitude of "close enough for government work" We have become accustome to accepting something less, as to be the new standard, for the sake of expediency. And there are loads of manufacturers both in this industry and in other industry that have subscribed to this philosophy. If we as audiophiles do not demand more of the industry as well as the music industry in itself, then we will remain on little more than life support.

Titans such as Nelson Pass, Prof. Keith Johnson and others are like me not getting any younger. I do not see on the horizon the truly gifted minds coming forth and pushing the envelope of technology, such as we had at the birth of high end in the early to mid seventies. I do know that these people have to exists somewhere, they always do. Perhaps in the future they will come forth in the years to come. Just a thought.
"... in addition musical appreciation in the school may not do a very good job and may not focus on the value of generating "good" sound."

What music appreciation classes in the schools? Arts and music were the first things to go when school boards started cutting their budgets. A shame, especially when you consider the following:

A student hits one ball in three during his high school baseball games. Big league scouts come to see him play, offer him professional contracts and he gets to date popular girls on the weekends.
Another student catches half of the balls thrown to him during his high school football games. College coaches visit with his parents, offer him scholarships and he gets to date pretty cheerleaders on the weekends.
A third student plays in the high school band and misses one note in a hundred. His band leader chastises him in front of his band mates and the nerdy girls will not even consider dating him.

So, which teaches discipline and teamwork more - sports or music?
hi ferrari:

what you have delineated is greshams lwas applied to audio, as well as make other points.

while i subscribe to the aforementioned principle , i don't think it fully explains the apucity of audiophiles, as a percentage of the popoulations, or as a percentage of those who listen to music of all ages.

rather, i reiterate that the experience of listening to music is sufficiently satisfying to most people without achieving a level of sound quality required by audiophiles.

it is a matter of priorities and sound quality may be less important than some other endeavor.

there have been two articles in stereophiles written by markus sauer, years ago. one of them showed, on a statistical basis, that the satisfaction accruing from listening to music was independent of sound quality.