Hifi Zine
The enthusiast's audio webzine

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!


Readers' comments

    Great piece, painfully funny because so very, very true. I just posted about it at my blog, stoneturntable.net/blog/

    Thanks for this and for the fine HiFi Zine in general. Keep it up!

  • Guess I’m not an audiophile. I’ve been at this for 30+ years. Not a big tweek guy either. Finally have the system I want, I’m perfectly happy with it and even though I evaluate gear for a living, really enjoy listening to my system, working or not. Pretty much like analog and digital and don’t really care what format music I enjoy is recorded on. It’s always a bonus when the music you love is well recorded too, but not the end of the world. Have spent more than is reasonable and prudent, but very happy with the result. Tried the DIY thing and it was for the most part a HUGE waste of time. Don’t tell me how to build a magazine and I won’t tell you how to build a preamp, that’s my motto.

    If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the point of diminishing returns is much higher than I ever dreamed it would be. But it’s all worked out just fine! Yes, I’ve managed to get an industry discount on gear, but as a result spent three times more than I ever would have anyway.

    And I listen to the music I love. Always have and don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks of my musical taste. Own ZERO recordings by Patricia Barber, Eva Cassidy, Diana Krall and Norah Jones. Won’t let anyone play that crap at my house. Would rather listen to KISS Alive! than audiophile approved music any day. Though classical music is getting more interesting in my old age.

    Bottom line: You can enjoy music on an iPod Nano, a million dollar system, or anywhere in between. Hopefully you have the conviction to pick music and gear that you love and I hope we were able to help a little bit…

    • Uncorking a bottle of grape is a non anxiety producing system upgrade at my house. The music really likes it, too. I’ve been using the same affordable variety for years now. Easily renewable and works every time.

    That article does hit home. I confess to being email buddies with someone who’s discovered new laws of physics and I have three of his power cords. One observation – If you are not unhappy with the sound you’re getting on a given evening, herbal treatments can add to you enjoyment. On the other hand, if things aren’t right, that strategy could end up turning into what the hippies used to call a “bum trip”.

  • Very true and funnier for not being too damning. Really the best synopsis of the personal side of audiophilenervosia.

    Gregg

  • Great read- I just stumbled across this web zine. Keep up the good Work!

  • A while ago I posted this on the Vinyl Asylum website. It sounds alot like this article.

    The vinyl world has recently has recently been abuzz with the discovery in a small apartment in Vienna. The apartment belonged to a Helmut Freud, a great great grand nephew (on his father’s side) of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Apparently, going through an attic of his recently deceased father’s apartment, Helmut’s son came across an old unpublished monograph of his fathers’ entitled “Vinylphilia Nervosa”. Helmut, during the 1970s and 80s owned a shop called Vienna Village Vinyl at 31 Friedrichstrasse Street . Apparently he ran this shop as a second business. Like his famous ancestor he had a degree from the Vienna Psychiatric Institute and treated patients for almost forty years.

    The monograph discovered by his son Sigfried came as a complete surprise to him. His father had apparently planned to publish it, but died before he was able to complete it. Sigfried explained that his father had often spoken of the customers that frequented his shop as ” the greatest comglomeration of nuts in one place” that he had ever seen. Getting to know them over a period of the seventeen years he owned the shop, he described his clientele as ranging from the “slightly quirky “to the “quite decidedly insane“.

    Sigfried recently had the monograph published in a small Viennese psychiatric journal. “Vinylphilia Nervosa” seems to be an attempt to classify the various and sundry diseases that afflicts vinyl lovers. Though loosely translated from the German, it becomes clear that Helmut was on to something. He describes a cluster of syndromes that are inevitably all too familiar to some of us. I will try to enumerate these as best I can.

    The first section of the monograph deals with his obsessive-compulsive clientele. By far, the largest percentage (77.2 %) of his customers fall into this category. He divides these into four sub-categories: buying, storing, cleaning and listening. It is impossible to enumerate all of the case-histories he cites but I will touch on some of the most salient.

    BUYING

    These are individuals that can never have enough records. Many have more records than they can listen to in ten lifetimes, even listening 24 hours a day. They are simply obsessed with accumulating. One of his customers apparently had a fixation on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and owned every version ever issued on vinyl or acetate, 78s, 33s, or 45s. He categorized them chronologically by year of performance and every evening would attempt to make his way through as many versions as he could before bedtime. After several years of this, he succeeded in driving his poor wife to suicide. The sad epilogue to this is that he actually was late for the funeral service because he discovered a version of the symphony that had dropped behind a shelf and, consequently, had never heard. By the time he had cleaned and listened to it, the service had almost ended.

    Freud cites another case of a client that had accumulated so many records that they filled two of his upstairs bedrooms from floor to ceiling. Visiting guests would have to sleep in the basement. His wife, a generally congenial companion, would rarely complain, even when finding overflow records in the pantry. But she eventually put her foot down when she came across several albums of Hawaiian music in her broiler.

    CLEANING

    The necessity of cleaning vinyl records has been well documented. But apparently some of Helmut’s customers carried this to extremes. One history recounts a gentleman who unequivocally believed his records were not clean until he washed them 24 consecutive times on his VPI machine. Every single record he owned went though this process. Often, he ran his machine for eight hours at a stretch. Not surprisingly, he was not overly popular in his apartment building. Apparently, he spent so much time washing his records, he had little time to wash himself, with the result that he had emptied quite a few elevators. Eventually he was evicted from his apartment for being a general nuisance. He also blew quite a few fuses in his time.

    Another interesting case involved a collector who put his records through a succession of cleaning machines before he was satisfied, including a Nitty Gritty, VPI, a Monks, a Hannl, and a Loricraft. He never really seemed to settle on a fluid that he liked having gone through Disc Doctor, l’Art du Son, Last, Smart, Bugtussel and several unnamed solutions. Once, apparently upset about the shoddy cleaning these methods produced, he allegedly wrapped the thread of the Loricraft machine multiple times around his throat in an attempt to choke himself. Fortunately (or not) he ran out of thread before he could complete the task.

    LISTENING

    In this section, Helmut describes a gentleman in a town outside of Vienna with a very expensive and elaborate audio system. He was enamored of the wonderful sound his vinyl produced but had one problem: He was a stickler for a huge soundstage and pinpoint imaging. For years he searched fruitlessly for a phono cartridge that he felt would do his system justice. Finally, he found it- a $16,000 Japanese cartridge that was a revelation. He would invite friends over and with some frenzy would rush back and forth pinpointing instruments and showing how far the soundstage extended beyond the walls. It was, indeed, impressive, but came to a rather abrupt end when, trying to locate the tuba player at extreme stage right, he crashed into the wall, suffering a serious concussion. He was briefly hospitalized, and subsequently promised his wife he would listen only to string quartets.

    STORING RECORDS

    We may think there is nothing to be added to the already crowded rulebook of vinyl storage. But, alas, the gentleman noted here has added a new dimension to this controversy. This audiophile had several large coolers constructed to store his records. According to Helmut, he apparently believed that the vinyl must be stored at exactly 47.5 degrees. Once removed from the cooler, they may be played safely for a period of only 30 minutes. After that, the vinyl would thaw too much to play. Although labeled a “crackpot” by his fellow audiophiles, he insisted that his theory was sound. Clearly, he said, the stylus produces very high temperatures as it moves through the grooves, inevitably leading to distortion and wear. In his opinion, playing a “cold” record reduced the temperature, and thus wear,,considerably. He was only known to break this rule once when he played Peggy Lee’s “Heatwave” . DON’T EVEN ASK!

    Helmut next turns to the MANIC-DEPRESSIVE category. Here he describes the strange behavior of one of his customers as related by his wife. She reported that he had come home one evening from the vinyl store seemingly elated. Apparently he had found a rare Shaded Dog pressing that he had been searching for for some years. He seemed “really pumped up” she said, and started doing what she described as sort of a tarantella dance, shouting, screaming and leaping. After about 30 minutes he seemed to calm down and went up to his room to play the record. His wife, concerned that she hadn’t heard anything for several hours went upstairs, only to find him crying under the covers. Nothing she could do seemed to comfort him. Apparently, after discovering that the record played only a VG+ though it was marked a M-, he abruptly feel into a severe depression. Several days passed like this until his wife, playing an old cassette of Kenny G, discovered a smile on her husband’s face., and subsequently reported him quite improved.

    The next case cited is one of VINYL CATATONIA. Here is described an individual who left his Vienna apartment one morning to pick up bagels for himself and a houseguest. When he returned, he discovered that his guest , during his absence, had been playing his vinyl, and had inadvertently dropped the tonearm on his prize Beatles’ album, “Yesterday and Today” (in a “butcher” sleeve), scratching three tracks. As if to rub it in, his friend recounted that the stylus bounced three times before settling on the label. Within minutes, the gentleman started shaking, and ultimately went into a rigid pose completely unresponsive to stimuli. The friend, unable to arouse him, became quite concerned and immediately called 911, but not before he finished all four bagels.

    This just about sums up the monograph. I thought perhaps reporting these unusual cases might be instructive and help us all to identify those who may need help. THANK GOD NONE OF US ARE LIKE THIS!

  • Very funny Patrick, much better writing chops than most of the other “webzines”!

  • In a word, excellent.. It was a fun read even if it was only 30% true in my case..

  • My favorite album of all time is “Sticky Fingers.” I have 19 different versions of it (vinyl, cassette, CD, etc., etc.). I never play it, however, because I’m not sure which version is THE BEST.

    Can someone help me?

  • Patrick sounds a lot with the one that started up with Krell and ended up with Naim … ;)

    more words for what ? its all in there … :D

  • hi .. what you stated is absolutely true .. bringing out the correct disease of an audiphile..

    another disease is called as an upgrade bud .. it never ends.. and we are never satisfied..

    to the question… young people are audiophiles… i believe it .. i am one..

    and there are many.. and will love to share experiences..

  • I have suffered from this disorder but never to the degree of those in the depths of subjectivism, not that I haven’t tried nonsense that was free to try. I never had the sort of money to pay for $700 cables or other pathological OCD. I do wonder though whether my new diy/kit speakers could use a better mid-woofer costing $70 more and buying several amps so I could actively crossover them. My DIY speakers are actually quite pretty except for the 25 year old diy subs that need multiple coats of gloss black. I also don’t listen to music that JUST shows off the system but rather music I like that in odd instances is recorded well. I also use the same ht system for video and music and revel in good soundtracks.

  • Excellent. There’s some parallel, I feel, with the following tale (apology to those who know it):

    The concerned elderly husband went to the doctor; his spouse’s hearing was growing worse with the years, and he was looking for a humane way to convince her that, perhaps, a hearing aid was needed. After discussion the doctor advised that they must first determine by some means or other, the degree of hearing loss. The doctor suggested that the husband asks his wife a question from decreasing distances, until she shows hearing by replying.

    Thus intended, the husband waited until his wife was preparing supper in the kitchen one night, stood at the end of the corridor and asked in normal voice: “What’s for supper, dear?”

    No reply.

    He went somewhat closer, repeating the question. Still no reply. This is bad, he thought. At last he was within 3m from her: “What’s for supper, dear?!”

    She spun around, looked at him quizzically, and said:

    “John! Whatever is the matter with you tonight? For the fourth time: CHICKEN!”

    All a matter of hearing …..

  • This article is the concentrated guide in audiophile insanity.
    Over the years aquired taste became second nature.I am the member of my own lunatic fringe that tries everything,from time to time.
    Music is the spiritual nourishment,that keeps me hanging on,in a world that a ball game played by hands is called “football”????
    As for my audio system,I am happy that all my discs,vinyl and silver sound different to each other.Night and day.Which speaks volumes.

  • Very fun article! I would say that most every audiophile could improve their systems, without purchasing any new equipment, but just positioning their speaker/listener correctly for the room.

  • We have the emotional side of audio, outlined well here along with the physical side, the engineering and art that goes into the equipment. What’s missing here is the psychoacoustic side of our efforts. Because we are human listeners, not microphones plugged into electronic circuits, we are very susceptible to the sound masking noise floor which accompanies our perception of the direct signal.

    Perception of a sonic event, or a train of sonic events is fundamentally a signal to noise experience or us. Refined listening aspects such as musical quality, soundstage and imaging come after and are entirely dependant on clarity in our perception of a sonic event. How much we can perceive is almost always determined by the sound masking effects of the event’s signal to noise ratio.

    When we get great equipment and fire it off and hear no improvement. Is the dealer a crook? Not really. Is the manufacturer selling snake oil? No, usually not. Most of us work very hard and sincerely to capture, transmit and deliver great signals. But our perception of these great signals is clouded by the accompanying noise floor.

    The human listener is helpless to differentiate between the direct signal and the early reflections that arrive within about 35ms, after the direct. It’s called the Haas Effect or Sound Fusion Time Window. The listener hears the sum of the direct + early reflections and is unable to separate them apart. It’s about our listening reaction time, and similar to how our eyes work, and why movies run at 24 frames per second. Clean early reflections are additive to the direct and helpful. Reverberant or otherwise phase distorted early reflected energies are not simple clean early reflections that add to the direct, they are scrambled up versions of the direct and as such create a masking noise floor that blocks our ability to perceive the direct. All this is going on within the first 1/30th second.

    When we can’t perceive good sound, it’s because there is a noise floor blocking our view. This noise floor is usually an uncontrolled high speed reverberation build-up in the front of the room, where the sound is being created and while it is being created.

    Uncontrolled low end buildup in the front of the room produces sound masking self noise floor that typically is louder than the direct signal, and both come from the same speaker. So when you can’t hear what you think you should be hearing, it’s no one’s fault. Don’t take the equipment back. It’s just that you reached the threshold of perception in your room. You were hoping that the front of your room would react faster and with more stability than you’ve provided for. When you can’t hear the electronic upgrade, it’s time to make the sonic upgrade, in the front of your room. Better sonics leads to percieving better electronics. In the communication world, it’s always the signal to noise ratio. The only question is who’s making the noise? How loud is it? And what can we do about it?

  • Wow! got to love the fresh air…The bright sunlight of truth…S**t, I’ve been reborn! Audiophile OCD’ers rejoice! There is hope! Ok… now back to THAT tube.

  • Its funny, I work as a designer of mixing desks for recording and broadcast, in recording studios all audio signals are sent via cat5 cable as a serial bit stream at 100Mbits/second, thats cat5 standard ethernet cable, no £20000 per meter cables anywhere in sight, no exotic power conditioning, no pebbles on CD players in fact none of the usual audiophile bollocks.no Quantum entagled cryogenicaly cooled oxygen free anything. Just sound engineering principles.

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