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Sunday-Morning Music

Audiophiles, And The Need To Feel "Special"

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I'm back! Sorry I haven't posted the last 2 Sundays; I've been away on a glorious, wine-soaked vacation. I thought about logging-on, and at least posting that I wouldn't be able to post...but this surely would have caught the wrath of my wife, and so I thought better of it.

So, for this week's ramblings...I can across an interesting "post" (don't ask me must have been a Google of something that included the word audiophile, lol) that I felt warranted commenting on. I'm going to be taking snippets from the original treatise, but don't want to be accused of misquoting or taking a point-of-view out of context; so here's a link to the full article

As you can see, it is called Audiophiles and the Need to be Special. It caught my the midst of this particular search...because I happen to agree with the premise, and wanted to see how this author might go about making his point. As usual...the "scientists" (and this is posted in a on-line forum group, called Good Math, Bad I don't think I'm mis-characterizing them, lol) have gotten it all wrong; have painted us a ridiculous group, with the broadest of brushes.

Let me start with the premise: do audiophiles need to feel special? I've already said, this is something I happen to agree with. I've always contended, that one of the things "audiophiles" (and for the record...if I haven't already covered this elsewhere...I don't care for the term; which is why you'll usually see me put it in parenthesis. I tend to prefer a term like "enthusiast") like to be, is "in the know". They like to be "on to something", and in a small, well-informed minority. I think this applies to both music, and gear; like the very virtue of the fact that it crosses over to the mainstream...that just anyone can have an appreciation for it; by that very definition, makes them tend to cast it aside as not "good-enough". A few cases in point; well, on the music front...once upon a time, the now-loathed Diana Krall was an audiophile darling. And why not; she did an accessible spin on piano-driven Jazz standards, the sonics were well-recorded...oh, and she was hot (as far as Jazz singers go, anyway). But one, outside of the circle, really knew about her. Now that she's winning Grammy's, and is oh so over-exposed...there is definite DK backlash, lol. More importantly, let's talk about prejudices against gear.

I can give several examples (and I'm sure you guys could name several more, on both sides)(and the same goes 10-fold, when it comes to music, right)...but two brands really stand out, that demonstrate this phenomena, to me. Take a manufacture like Parasound. I happen to cut my mid-fi teeth on Parasound. At one time, Parasound was considered a pretty damn good, amp manufacture...and a real bang-for-the-buck champion. Now...I can't comment on the new Classic line...which is probably considered to be pretty "dry", and certainly "un-special"; so let's look at the Halo line. I've always been curious about the A21. I think the theory...represents a tremendous value. You could throw a stick, and can't help hitting several examples on used gear sites (which might speak volumes)...and they typically can be had around the $1200-1500 mark. For that you get 250 (rated) into 8, 400 into 4...and more importantly, IMO; the ability to bridge, and get 750 into 8 (and god knows what into 4...but it's gotta be a kilo-buck at least, right). Why is that last figure most my mind? Well, I've always thought a great approach, to getting a pretty decent set of powerful buy one A21, run it in stereo; you should hardly be suffering, while you wait-out a really great deal on a 2nd. If you average say $1200 each, you get yourself a pair of 750/1,000+ watt mono-blocks...for under $2500! That's even more power, at less price...than Parasound's only "lauded" offering...the JC-1s. I asked once...why not take this approach: a pair of A21s, as you could afford opposed to the whole she-bang, for JC-1s. No one could give me a very good answer, and of course...the "scientists" had a field day, applauding my practicality, lol. (Granted, I don't understand the science behind bridging a stereo opposed to a true, dyed-in-the-wool mono-block. I can only assume you "lose" something in the trade-off; but at the same time...the A21, bridged, kind of far exceeds the rated power of the JC-1...750 into 8, vs. 400 into 8. So even if the bridged output won't quite deliver the numbers it's claimed to, in practice; it's gotta be close or still exceed the JC-1, given the disparage in output). But getting back to my point; I don't hear Parasound, or the A21, being "well-regarded" in audiophile circles. My contention? Not enough "caché"

OTOH...let's take a brand I am very familiar with; that audio gear designed by (David) Belles. My first step into the "hi-end", was by way of Belles gear (even though the around $500 I paid for a used 150a Hot-Rod, wasn't really any more than the B&K and Parasound amps I had used up to that point). After getting the best speakers I had ever owned...Dynaudio, which were much more expensive than anything I'd ever owned before, and worth every penny(!)...I was urged to try an amp that would wring the best from them. One fella in particular, urged me to try a (David) Belles amp (guess what he owned...which is another audiophile phenomena I can't abide by; those who feel their choice, is always what's best for someone else...but I digress). Well...if I'm being honest, which is something I always try to do above all else (not in life so much, rofl...but in the hobby; because I think delusion...both of others, and especially of an enemy); I resisted trying the Belles amp for the longest time. Why? Because I'd never heard of it, lol. I wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool "audioph..."..."enthusiast" yet; so the idea of an amp I'd never heard-of, much less heard, was a frightening proposition to me. But as I the constant urging of said Belles owner, and the fact that it was only ~$500 (a steal, I know); I decided to take a chance on the Hot-Rod. point kind of goes to shit, right about here, lol; because if I'm trying to prove that Belles doesn't sound better than say B&K or just has more caché in the audiophile community. Well, I'm about tho contradict myself; because I LOVED the Belles 150a Hot-Rod! Compared to the stuff I had been listening to, it did seem to have this warmer, more rounded...more 3-dimensional presentation. I guess if we call some others "dry"...this was "rich"; a little deeper, a little more fleshed-out...and yes, I will say it. It just had this certain something, that you can't quite put your finger on; dare I say "magic"...but whatever it was, it was very musical and listenable. However...more to my point; I was now "in"...I was definitely embraced by the audiophile intelligentsia. I could proudly puff out my chest, when asked about my electronics...and say "I have a David Belles amp"; I was now one of "them". A guy in the know; a guy with good taste. I could now be trusted to distinguish between good gear and bad gear. It is a bit of a clique; membership in the club, requires a certain price of admission. And it's not always about dollars at all; in my circle, a high-priced Krell amp will likely garner more sneers than cheers.

So...if this gent at GM/BM had written this article; I'd consider him a bit of a moderate, like myself. No, I can't go to the extremes of "those" guys...and say "all amps sound the same" (as I've written elsewhere); but I also can't abide by certain others, on "this" side of the fence...and say the likes of ARC, BAT, and C-J (ABCs) always beat brands with less sex-appeal. Trust your ears; but also acknowledge they can fool you. That's OK; there's the saying..."you can't count on so-and-so...but you can count on the fact that you can't count on so-and-so" (or as Neil might say "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice", lol). If you know your ears might betray you with, what your eyes see...what your brain knows, and your heart feels; you can still make decisions based on an even playing field. Or as I started avoid the arguments with the "scientists"; rather than trying to convince them it sounded better...I simply started basing my decisions on what I liked better...for a variety of reasons (of which are entirely my business, and cannot be disputed; but up to, and including...of course...what I thought sounded better or was more the sound I was looking for).

But let's examine why this gent from GM/BM, got it...and exemplifies why people tend to get it...wrong:

(to be continued...)

So...let's pick it back up, and start at the beginning. MarkCC says the following:

If you're not familiar with the term, audiophiles are people who are really into top-end audio equipment. In itself, that's fine. But there's a very active and vocal subset of the audiophile community that's built up their self-image around the idea that they're special. They don't just have better audio equipment than you do, but they have better appreciation of sound quality than you do. In fact, their hearing is better than yours. They can hear nuances in sound quality that you can't, because they're so very, very special. They've developed this ability, you see, because they care more about music than you do.

First, let's point out that MarkCC does acknowledge he's referring to a specific "subset" of audiophiles or enthusiasts. Are there unbearable, arrogant, as*hole audiophiles out there? You bet; I don't like them However, MarkCC then turns around and does what most everyone does too; and that is lump us into the same group, and paint us all with that very broad brush.

As for having a "better appreciation of sound quality" than others do; well sure...but not because we're somehow "special". That's a total misdirection, and fallacy of some sort (though I'm not sure which one, lol). Most people don't give two, good sh*ts about sound quality...and I've always said that audiophiles are like 1% of 1% of 1%. If we have a better appreciation, it is only through enthusiasm and education. You don't tend to look into, that which you do not care much about. For example...take your pick among a million things; but I don't know much about model trains. Don't care about them that much...they're not my hobby; and so I haven't spent endless hours researching original Lionel engines, nor hours at trade shows...talking track scale. put a really fine piece in front of me; a rare, or powerful...or beautiful train car or engine, and I'll likely shrug my shoulders. An enthusiast will have a better appreciation, by very nature of the fact that they're an enthusiast; not that they're somehow "special". Do we hear better than non-audiophiles do? Ha, not by a long shot! Hearing is a matter of physiology...and no amount of enthusiasm can overcome the fact that some of us are "old"; many of us are very old. Many of us...because we are, hopefully, music-lovers first and foremost; and again, because we are of a certain ago...have been to a lot of loud, Rock concerts. Also...I, for one, spent my angry, teenage years...with headphones turned wayyy up; to down-out my parental units. I know my hearing isn't "golden"; in fact, my wife (who god bless her, is 7 years my junior) has better hearing than I do. But case in point; I'll ask her to come in and listen sometimes. A) she doesn't really know what in the hell to listen for, and b) she could not care less. Now...she likes that I like it, and she is a she can appreciate that the system makes music sound better. But I am not "special" because I also have a focus on the gear, and she is not "un-special" because she doesn't.

Next...MarkCCs take on cables, is exactly the kind of ridiculous anecdote that those who loathe audiophiles, like to focus on.

Audiophiles get really nutty about things like cables. For example, John used to have the cables linking his speakers to his amp suspended from the ceiling using non-conductive cord. The idea behind that is that electrical signals are carried, primarily, on the outer surface of the wire. If the cable was sitting on the ground, it would deform slightly, and that would degrade the signal. Now, of course, there's no perceptible difference, but a dedicated audiophile can convince themselves that they can hear it. In fact, this is what convinced John that it was all craziness: he was trained as an electrical engineer, and he sat down and worked out how much the signal should change as a result of the deformation of the copper wire-core, and seeing the real numbers, realized that there was no way in hell that he was actually hearing that tiny difference.

First, I've been in this hobby...maybe not as long as some (again, some of "us" are very old, lol); but probably conservatively for 20 years let's say. I belong to many forums, and happen to like looking at others systems, etc. I have never seen anyone suspend speaker-cables from the ceiling! Carpet-lifts, sure; and I'm not saying one is crazier than the other. Actually, yes; strike that...draping cables from the ceiling is crazier than carpet-lifts, lol. I understand the idea behind them is the same...and while I don't understand the science, pro or con, behind it; I just think one is going to an even further extreme than the other. In fact, his reformed-audiophile friend...sounds like he was one of those very audiophiles, that give even the rest of us a bad name (and you know what they zealot like a convert).

I'll spare you MarkCCs rant about HDMI cables (though, as I've're welcome to read his full post; for the sake of context); but suffice it to also misses the mark. First and foremost, the notion that because audiophiles believe in or even buy certain expensive it source, speakers, or even cables; means that we endorse all such things...just because they're expensive, is just plain simple-minded. I always try to force myself not to assume this is better, or that is...based on anything other pure preference (again, I don't look at it or say sounds better...I say like better). But we all have prejudices; it's just human nature. The ones I'm aware of, and try to fight...or universally that they equally apply to all gear: what's more expensive...what's less expensive (hell, sometimes people convince themselves the less-expensive one sounds better...'cuz they don't want to spend the extra money, lol). What looks better, or looks like it should sound better. Which one other people have told me will be "better" (in fact, I stopped telling people I had gear that I wouldn't hear feedback, on how it would or wouldn't sound better than my current piece). I've said before; I'm a moderate...I'm human, and I'm an "audiophile". Yes, we have certain prejudices and biases...and our eyes can betray us, and lead us to think hear something we don't. But as long as it's my bias, and my eyes...I'm going to be using them when I listen long-term too. So...if I think C-J sounds better than B&K, because you can see which is which; you're not going to stay happy with B&K, once the blind-fold comes off anyway.

The funny...and enlightening thing is; I've found, that once you stop fighting the biases, and start embracing them. That is, acknowledging they exist, understanding them for what they are...and keep them from being unevenly applied to this piece or that; you actually level the playing field again. Good becomes good, no matter what the cost or reputation; and I can't tell you how many sub-$2k amps my $500 Belles Hot-Rod leveled, lol. The point is...not all audiophiles argue that more expensive cables are necessarily better. We believe, if it is "better" can worth the extra money. While it might seem ridiculous to non-enthusiasts; again, it's not their hobby. What someone else spends on guns, or a fishing-boat might seem like a waste to me; but live and let live. Besides "audiophile" buys their cables at the f*cking Best Buy, lol.

A few last thoughts. I found some of the follow-up comments, to this "article" interesting as well. There's this one...

The interesting thing is, this exact phenomenon extends to many other realms of human endeavor. A classic example involves an experiment with wine tasters. In the experiment, the tasters were offered two wines, one ostensibly fancy and expensive, as evidenced by the label on the bottom, and the other cheap. The majority of tasters stated that the more expensive wine was superior and cited various reasons why that was so.

The problem is, both bottles contained the exact same wine.

The tasters were then offered a red wine and asked to describe its flavor. In their descriptions, they used classic terms used to describe red wines.

However, what the researchers didn't tell the tasters that they had actually received white wines that were dyed red.

The truth is that our expectations *deeply* color the way we experience things. As such, I'm not necessarily willing to attribute the audiophile experience to simple stupidity. I really do think they're experiencing *something*, but that effect is being produced by their own brain, and not the "ambient field conditioner" they placed in close proximity to their stereo.

IMO, this guy is to be applauded. I've always wondered why the "scientists" pick on audiophiles. My guess is, because we're on their turf; EE is their wheel-house, and it really bugs them for us to fly in the face of their principles. But the truth is, these kind of biases and prejudices exist in almost all walks of life, and in most hobbies. Wine is a great example, as used above. I used to be in the cigar business...and everybody wanted a Cuban. I was an avid Cuban smoker, and as such could almost always tell a fake from the real deal. I'd go to meets, and listen to guys wax poetic about sticks they thought were $30 Cubans, but were really probably $1 Mexican dog-turds, lol. Food is the same way, in that we eat with our eyes too. If you don't think so, try putting on a blind-fold, and tell the difference between certain white-fish and lobster. So...according to the "scientists", we shouldn't waste our money on lobster, if we can't tell the difference when blind-folded. I call bullsh*t; it's ALL part of the experience. It's pride of ownership. Sure, I'd be lying...and so would you...if you didn't say you liked owning certain components; because you've taken the time to audition, and suss them out...and you should be proud of the system you've assembled. Again, it's a hobby people; a passion...a labor of love. It is not a scientific experiment, to find how little we can spend...and not give up perceivable sound quality. That doesn't sound fun in the least! It's probably the only reason people spend $100,000 to drive a Porsche; when something well south of 6-figures can get you where you're going, just as fast (at least in the Autobahns here).

OK, last one...because this is important. Someone else said...

What I always found amusing about audiophiles (some of them anyway) back in the day was that next to their fancy expensive stereos could be found their record collections: twenty or so LPs, fancy half-speed mastered Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab releases of ... Olivia Newton-John and Supertramp and Billy Joel.

Of course in saying this I reveal myself to be a snob of a different sort, but there it is. At least there IS a difference between good music and lame crap (however we may disagree about what goes where).

On this, I cannot agree more. I can't abide so-called "audiophiles"...who have 6-figure systems, and like 20 CDs, lol. You quickly scan the spines, and you could safely predict 15 of the 20 titles. DSOTM, some Diana Krall; Eagles Hell Freezes Over, Dire Straits Brothers In Arms, etc. I said it earlier; if you're an enthusiast, I hope it's that you love gear and music. You love the gear, because it makes the music you love sound so much better. If the music is just a means to show-off your boss system...then you probably put together an expensive piece of sh*t to begin with; because you just bought the best your dealer had to offer, and didn't take the time to really system-match and hear it anyway.

Updated 10-14-2012 at 06:48 PM by Flac2Dac