Sometimes terms that seem easily understood turn out to be not so easy. I thought I knew what the word audiophile meant. I thought I was, maybe, a little bit of an audiophile. It started in high school. My older brother got some good stuff—Quad electrostatics, a precision turntable, Teac reel-to-reel, and component separates. It showed me the difference between ordinary and exceptional. Along the way I learned a few basics and saved up to get a high quality turntable and tape deck. But it wasn’t until years later that I got despairingly involved. I spent some serious money, or so I thought at the time, on some serious speakers, or so I thought at the time. Those speakers were a revelation, and a wakeup call. That really got me started. Soon I found out that modern audiophiles are not what I thought they were. And I found out what normal people, those who don’t pay much attention to sound, think of audiophiles, “Them people, therfukinnuts.” And whaddaya know? They are wacko.
Still, I kinda think, reluctantly, I am some sort of audiophile? But those that most people think are audiophiles, and who think of themselves as audiophiles, are maybe, sorta not the real thing. Here’s the line.
The goal is good sound, accurate sound, realistic sound. It’s not a personal preference. It’s not a flavor of the month. It’s not what you believe is good, wish is good, want to be good, or insist is good. Good sound is objectively, measurably, and factually good. It’s not an opinion. It’s not a personal choice.
Back in the days of analog, it was tough to get good sound. There were obstacles at every step. But everyone knew what was getting in the way. It was distortion. Not just one kind of distortion, it was many different kinds, linear (frequency response), harmonic (added multiples of a frequency), intermodulation (interaction of two or more frequencies), noise (surface, tape, EMI, RFI, thermal), resonance (lagging of the starting and stopping of a signal), wow & flutter (fluctuation in speed & pitch). Great efforts were made to reduce these distortions, and then. . .
. . . there came digital. Digital is nearly a miracle. There is still the need to use analog before and after digital conversion, and digital has its own set of issues. The miracle, though, is that in the digital realm all those analog distortions are zero.
In the beginning there was wax. . . then, nearly in a flash, there was begat the microchip. This blessed marvel brought high quality audiophile sound, or at least the possibility of it, to the masses. It no longer took an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer and a team of physicists to whittle away bits of distortion to get something resembling realistic audio reproduction. Suddenly, the possibility of great sound, near perfection, was in the hands of everyone and at a price point everyone could afford. Whadda boon. And now, anyone, everyone who gives a ratsass is, in a sense, an audiophile.
Nofahkinway. How could that be? Who’s gonna let any average joe get away with it? It’s way too easy. The industry, which was just making headway into the mass market, couldn’t let digital take away all the hard work, the effort, and the expense from the pursuit of high fidelity. Despite the complexities of computer code and microchip circuits, for the end user digital is simple. Digital, in one broad stroke, wiped out decades of incremental chipping away at distortion, which had driven the industry and a large variety of products. The Industry couldn’t let that happen—they wouldn’t have much stock to hawk. And serious audiophiles couldn’t let it happen—they’d have little to fiddle with. And not-so-serious audiophiles couldn’t let it happen—they’d have naught to talk about.
But what happened? Instead of praising the glories of the new fidelity and diving into the gift of digital, “the best” had to be made difficult, exclusive, and most of all, expensive again. The obvious way to do it was to trash the present and venerate the past. (And to make the pursuit of excellence a personal matter of taste.)
To get a hold of this twist of fate, it’s necessary to understand who the original audiophiles were. They were professionals and amateurs who loved music and were frustrated with the shortcomings of audio reproduction. They were frustrated with the consumer grade offerings of audio equipment. The cost to do high fidelity was great and the market was miniscule. So, as the saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself. DIY was the way to achieve better sounding audio without breaking the bank. The audio DIYers were the original audiophiles. Lovers of audio who cared about sound. They cared about sound because they cared about music. They cared about reducing those nasty distortions as low as possible, or at least to below the level of audibility in order to hear at home something resembling what they heard in real life.
With the advent of digital, the possibility of life-like sound was in the hands of everyone—no audiophiles needed. Even affordable, low priced, mass market, consumer grade equipment sounded good, really good, and way better than plastic plates with a stone grinding in their grooves, or metal-oxide coated mylar slipping over a steel magnetic head.
What’s an audiophile to do? Where or where did the audiophiles go? They didn’t disappear, but . . .
. . . they were, or their name was, usurped by wannabes and charlatans. And the industry played right along. It was their meal ticket.
Today there are “audiophiles” and there are audiophiles. (From here on the former is referred to as a’philes.) Audiophiles still care about sound. They care about reducing distortion to below audible levels. They care about the reason for caring : music. They care about capturing reality and presenting it faithfully. It’s not personal. It’s not opinion.
Real audiophiles are serious. They’ve shed not only analog noise, they’ve shed the noise of the high-end audio marketing game. They’ve left behind the toys of childhood and embraced real adult tools. A good example of this is the choice of crossover. Since no one driver, nor any two drivers can adequately produce the full spectrum of audible frequencies (from the low, long wavelengths of the bottom octave, 20-40 cycles per second, around 9-18 meters long, to the highest, shortest wavelengths of the top octave, 10-20 thousand cycles per second, less than 36-18 millimeters long), at equal level and low distortion, multiple drivers that specialize in the low, middle, and high frequency bandwidths are needed. Consequently, we have multi-way speakers with a big woofer, a medium sized midrange, and a small tweeter to do the job. But you can’t feed each of those specialized drivers with a full range signal without burning up the tweeter and causing loads of distortion. The signal needs to be split into separate bandwidths, and that’s what a crossover does. Most speakers, for convenience, do it inside the speaker cabinet. It’s the kiddy-toy way of making an easy plug-n-play speaker for everyday consumers. And that’s just fine, but consider this. Putting the crossover after amplification is also the brute force way. To filter the signal into three bandwidths at high power requires big capacitors and big inductors. It’s hard work and problematic. And because tweeters are more efficient, meaning they play louder with the same amount of power, some of the amplifier’s power has to be thrown out (burned up by a resistor) to keep the tweeter at an equal loudness level as the woofer. The same is true of midrange drivers, leading to more power waste. Then there’s the matter of impedance. Each driver’s power draw varies with frequency as expressed in the impedance curve. This puts an extra load on the amplifier. Now, multiply these factors by three, and you can begin to understand the pressures put on the amp. Add to this each driver’s EMF (electromotive force), which is, in a sense, the reflection of a driver’s inertia sent back to the amplifier, and you have three more huddles for the amp to overcome. This all adds up to a complex load on the amp, and a complex of distortions. Grownups know better. The adult solution? An active crossover that splits the signal before amplification, at line level when it’s easy to do, more precise, and minimizes distortion. Each bandwidth is then sent to a separate amplifier. Each amp only deals with a portion of the spectrum, reducing intermodulation distortion; each feeds a single driver with a single impedance curve and EMF, further reducing the workload and distortion. And since the crossover is no longer inside the speaker cabinet, it’s isolated from the harsh internal vibrations—any possible microphonic effects are eliminated. The advantages are profound, and the ones mentioned here are only the highlights. It’s a no-brainer for any serious loudspeaker, and any serious audiophile.
A’philes, on the other hand, continue to play with toys, often grossly expensive toys. They’ve left accuracy behind. HiFi is a dirty 4-letter word. Distortion is welcomed. Science is eschewed. Measurements are disregarded. Levelheadedness is disparaged. Still, they are serious, too. Serious about brandnames, model numbers, the latest new products, which are only slight variations on old stuff, yet claim innovation and promise amazing results, but deliver only the facade of new. They embrace the old days and the old ways. But that’s not the worst of it. They’ve fallen for fantasy and fairytale. The near magic of digital has colored everything with imaginary pixie dust. They long for the fairytale times of the good ol’ days, back when everything was better, cleaner, and we were all happier. They’ve accepted the fantasy science promulgated by audio manufacturers who bewilder buyers with electrical effects that are real, but exaggerated or irrelevant, and pose analog (and insanely expensive products) as the remedy. It’s back to the noise, the wow & flutter, the limited dynamic range—the innocent & pure charms of analog. Analog has effects that are relevant and audible. Yes, there is something to the old ways. The feel in your hands of a heavy lump of vinyl, the softness of hot glowing valves, the misty cloud of analog comfort, and the endless effort they demand.
And now, almost as suddenly, we have magic wire (bah to physics), magic vacuum tubes (distortion is beautiful), magic single driver speakers (or whatever single marketing pitch to hawk), and magic high-cost/high-tech solutions to basic problems that don’t need heroics to solve. Modern a’philes wallow in the magical land of abandoned audiophilia rather than the sound ground of cold impartial science.
“Science is a method to keep yourself from kidding yourself.” Edwin Land
Perhaps though, there is a spectrum of audiophilia, one that requires a broader definition than I’d like to admit.
p.s. And perhaps this seems too severe a view of modern audiophiles. If it’s angered you, I hope you find a little humor in it. Anyway, all the blame can’t be put on a’philes. An equal amount goes to the audio industry. The dishonesty, the deception, and the deliberate omission of relevant facts in their marketing have created an environment that conflates fact with fantasy, music production with music reproduction, musicality with accuracy, objective measures with subjective perceptions. These practices have become so ingrained that modern a’philes barely have a chance. Unless the industry’s devious practices are called out, and audio enthusiasts demand accountability, this fraud won’t stop. Only fact-focussed audiophiles who seek to understand the basics of sound reproduction have a chance. If you are one of the later, your help to call out the lies is needed. Gentle nudges and persistent reminders may yet get the dirty talk out of the message.