The Unease of the Audiophile
Music and its accurate reproduction can provide some of life’s great pleasures. Beautiful art meets wonderous technology, and fanatics find communities of fellowship and glossy magazines with which their desires are regularly stoked. But audiophilia comes at a price, and not just in dollars and cents. A three-decade obsession with sound has convinced me that the natural state of an audiophile is not, as we are promised, the relaxed contemplative state of auditory bliss, but the slightly anxious ambivalence of uncertainty. We vary one way or another, but our resting place is not where it should be. When I look for a resolution, I make the following observations to my fellow fanatics about what it means to be an audiophile:
1. You will live with a persistent sense that all is not quite well, that you could do better, and that your system is always in need of something. What this “something” might be will shift depending on how much you’ve already invested: it could be a special fuse or a pair of vacuum tube monobocks, but despite the promises, there is no end point in system design; you can always do better. This is your steady state condition and if you lose your perspective on this point, you are destined to be unhappy and poor. If you gain perspective, you can settle on just being poorer.
2. In an attempt to compensate for your unease you will develop a highly cynical reaction to reviewers who you will come to believe are at best delusional and at worst corrupt, on the payroll of manufacturers who provide them with audio goodies and more. Unfortunately, this cynicism does not quite sate your hunger to locate online reviews of products that support your purchasing decisions. In the absence of full reviews, isolated quotes that agree with you, or the words of complete strangers on web forums will work, as long as they confirm your choices.
3. A further ambivalence is invariably induced by the way audio products are priced. You have every reason to doubt the sanity of a world where a pair of interconnect cables can cost more than a car, and where glib reviewers speak of windows being opened, blacks being blacker, and highs being cleaner as a result. Difficult as you find it to admit, you secretly want to try these in your own system to determine if they actually might do something, which you secretly fear is so.
4. Your system will always sound its worst when other audiophiles come to listen. For some reason, the electricity will be a bit dirty that day, your cables will be on a downcycle, your tubes not warmed up enough, or your tension will transmit itself to the turntable. No matter what you do, people won’t be hearing your system at its best and this will drive you crazy. For some reason, dealers (think about that name!) never experience this, only users (and that name!). Worse, this experience will scar you for months as if your very credibility as an audiophile is under question by your fellows.
5. You will start to listen to music you never really cared for in the past. Your spouse will become suspicious that your rock and serious instrumental tendencies have given way to smoky voiced chanteuses with, heaven help you, backing bands of players you hardly recognize. You live in fear of being exposed as a closet air guitarist rather than a soldering-gun wielding jazz afficionado. Worse, you start to pick up a “collection” of audiophile-approved recordings that have fantastic soundstages wrapped around sterile tunes. And you leave these lying around in full view, just in case.
6) To convince yourself that you are sensible, you will have one product in your rig that is “killer” for the price. You appeal to the price-sensitive normal human in us all by invoking this giant-slayer’s reviews and revealing how you heard it once compared to a mega-priced equivalent where you were the only person prepared to admit they could not hear a difference. Sanity partially and temporarily restored, you secretly plan to rewire your living room with audiophile-grade wire and to steam-clean your LPs.
7) In an attempt to appear cost-sensitive, you will dabble in DIY. This could take many forms, but your new-found obsession with affordable paper-in-oil capacitors and high-quality resistors will serve as a shield against claims that you have become a nutter. Now you can quote the cost-to-manufacture for basic audio items and speak authoritatively of the mark-up due to marketing that you and your fellow DIY-ers avoid. You secretly realize those boxes you assemble look ugly to everyone, even you.
8. Once you are a fully paid-up member of the audiophile brigade (with multiple magazine subscriptions, shelves full of old issues, and an obsessive need to track that vintage CD player on Audiogon to see just how much it sells for at auction), you will, not as miraculously as you might have once imagined, become email buddies with a power conditioner “designer” who has single-handedly unearthed new laws of physics and applied them to domestic wall outlets. You remain unclear if your power cords are the last yard or the first three feet but you feel certain they make a difference and spend accordingly.
9. You have become blase about double-blind reviewing. You wish reviewers would do it but you can’t bring yourself to try at home. You find every convenient excuse why it’s a problem: your auditory memory is too faint, you can’t trust your kids to make the changes unseen by you, it’s too much hassle, and everyone “knows” it doesn’t work in audio (though it’s been used to great effect everywhere else where human taste and preference are evaluated). Secretly, you fear that you might not be able to tell the difference between the SACD layer and redbook, so why risk the humiliation. Better to lessen your unease by espousing relaxed sighted listening as the only meaningful approach.
10. Your home will become a temple to your religion. Cables will be dressed, risers bought, pucks placed on tops and speaker positions taped to the floor so you can always move them an inch or two around during a private listening service, safe in the knowledge that your little “undo” trick will work. You will even contemplate brutish sound panels which in your eyes (only) will be justified to others as room decoration. Though you intend to sell your spare equipment, you don’t. It sits in a pile, ready to be repurposed for a second, third, even fourth system for the garage that never actually gets assembled. You forget how much you paid for some components even though you would cry if your pension plan dropped that same amount.
Ah friends, it never ends. It’s all about the music, people will tell you, but you and I know it is much more than this: unease is your disease. And we wonder why young people aren’t audiophiles!