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Can you be an Audiophile... and a Skeptic?

by February 25, 2015

NAD pre-powerWhen I was a young man, still innocent to the ways of audio skepticism, I had a routine with my stereo system. It was the '90s and I was proud of my system, whose centerpiece was NAD pre/power separates. 

Every six months or so I would reexamine wiring, ensure no speaker wire or interconnects were crossing or even too close to any other wire or electric line. I’d use zip ties to keep interconnects away from each other. It was important to me, after all, to ensure the signal paths were short with little chance of interference from outside wiring. I’d take contact cleaner and clean-up any invisible oxidation that might have built up on the connections in my system. As far as I was concerned, I was leaving no stone unturned. My routine also inevitably included minor adjustments to speaker positioning, seating and other miscellaneous room changes.

Today, my modern skeptical self scoffs at my younger self’s naiveté. I doubt my efforts ever made any audible impact (save for the speaker positioning changes). But my skeptic-self is in danger of missing the point of my audio-housekeeping routine. The purpose was really about enjoying the fruits of my labor. After all that work (which included a rare cleaning of whatever rented space I was living in at the time), I would do something that I fear is less fashionable these days: I would sit back and really listen to the sound.

I’d close my eyes, clear my mind and drink all the fidelity my ears could consume. My mind’s eye would point out the instruments in the band, and a near-perfect live performance was recreated before me. It was therapeutic. Deep listening was and remains one of the most important activities in my life.

In those days, I might have had a buddy or girlfriend over, and would gleefully invite them sit in the sweet spot and listen to the music, while I interrupted with enthusiastic talks about ambiance, reflections and sound-stage. My friends were probably bored to tears but they were mostly good sports.

State of the Audio Industry (February 2015)

Our Skeptical Times

Twenty years later we live in a decidedly over-skeptical era. The cynicism of our times is a logical reaction to the pervasiveness of commercial media. We simply can’t escape anymore – the moment we let our skeptical guard down a shyster’s message moves in to take advantage. It’s no wonder nobody believes in anything anymore. Every moment we spend on the Internet, we’re bombarded with exaggerated claims and click-bait headlines promising that another micro-debauchery is only a mouse-click away. What was once personal or even secret is today shared wantonly for attention or profit. In a world where nothing is sacred, meaning becomes a marketable commodity. This commoditization and corresponding skepticism is no more prevalent than in home audio/video.

Sit back, close your eyes and really listen to the sound

Audioholics has always been a voice of reason, separating fact from fiction in consumer electronics. We warn against everything from exaggerated claims to downright dishonest marketing messaging. Even respected names like Dolby have had their missteps. When Dolby recommended cramming more speakers into a limited-sized space and actually stacking rear-channel speakers on top of each other to achieve a high audio channel, Gene warned us that it’s a sure-fire way to increase ambient noise in your listening room while reducing the fidelity from your primary speakers. Dolby is a respected name in the home theater industry, and an innovator of some of the most forward-thinking technologies in sound and video. But even respected names will go overboard pitching a new format. The reaction from consumers can be over-skepticism and cynicism toward the home audio/video experience.

For more information see:  What is Dolby Atmos for Home Theater?

Taking Back Audiophile

Knee-jerk cynicism has lead to a backlash against the very term “audiophile”, which used to mean one who pursued the perfect sound. Perfection is, philosophically speaking, an unachievable goal but a worthy pursuit. But the pursuit of perfection can lead to overpaying for equipment, cables or even magic stones you don’t need. The treadmill of upgrades afflicts many hobbyists seeking perfection. Whether it’s squeezing more horsepower out of a car or achieving more accurate audio/video reproduction, there are always useless products to spend your money on, delivering results from zero to mediocre.

Joe LeeSomething Gene and Hugo also touch on in the video is what I like to call the gadgetization of audio.

An overly-skeptical attitude that results in the convenience first approach to audio/video is the result of the following two conclusions on the part of the consumer:

a.    Being an audiophile is simply another way a fool and his money can part ways
b.    Perfection (in audio/video) is an unworthy pursuit

Once these conclusions are reached we’re left with the what we’ll call gadgetization in the audio/video experience. It means reducing the perfection-seeking pursuit of audio to its lowest common denominator, and applying it to inexpensive gadgets. That, my friends, is how you  end up at Wal-Mart snapping up no-brand LCD-screens with a built-in sound-bar and calling it a home theater system.

Once that line is crossed, PC speakers become hi-fi and naked USB ports become the signal source of choice for your media collection, which consists of nothing but compressed files. Once you remove pursuit of perfection, our hobby is commoditized and convenience becomes the objective. Listening to sound no longer really means listening - it’s simply another form of light consumption, like snacking.

Gadgets Have Their Place

Nobody is saying that gadgets like affordable headphones, PC speakers or cellphones for music playback are necessarily a bad thing. They have their place. But the belief that a bargain basement-priced display and soundbar is the ultimate home theater experience, because anything else is just a rip-off, is simply wrong. In this case, skepticism has gone too far. The music and movies we enjoy on our home audio/video systems are not just content. They’re more than simply media. They’re art. And art deserves to be appreciated as a personal transaction between you and the artist. It does not deserve to be consumed as though you’re reaching your hand into a bowl of potato chips.

It’s tragic when overly-skeptical attitudes taint our mindset around the products we buy and our consumption of media, to the point where we see bargain-basement gadgets, portability and streaming vast selections of media from cloud sources as the ultimate goal in audio/video.

I fear that by downgrading the definition of audiophile, many well-meaning yet skeptical consumers are missing out on the simple experience of sitting back, closing your eyes, clearing your mind and really listening. They’re missing out on the opportunity to find a modicum of perfection in this imperfect world.

So what do you think?  Can a healthy dose of skepticism exist in an audiophile's life?  Please comment in our related forum thread: Audiophile or a Skeptic?

 

Confused about what AV Gear to buy or how to set it up? Join our Exclusive Audioholics E-Book Membership Program!

 

About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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Recent Forum Posts:

jliedeka posts on July 24, 2015 11:29
That's why someone coined the term “audiophool”.

Jim
Alexandre posts on July 24, 2015 02:02
Johnny2Bad, post: 1085753, member: 45045
I'm not offended by audio products I can't afford simply because I can't afford them, any more than I'm offended by a car with a seven-figure price tag just because I could simply buy a Viper instead, but there are those who would argue that because a Civic is available that both more expensive cars are worthless extravagances. And they might not even be wrong, given their priorities. There really is no “wrong”.

Im just catching this thread now, it's kinda fun and I am responding somewhat off topic but eh… I love the car metaphor! That's actually how I've been explaining my desire to spend money on audio gear to my wife — and admittedly, I've spent quite a bit of money on gear (speakers, preamp and amp, not on cables, I've only gotten caught on that once). She's way more into cars than I am, I'd be content with a 10 years old second hand car or a basic bottom of the line Japanese import but she'd much much rather get a nice German made automobile.

In any case, I am definitely more in the skeptics camp but I probably do have more disposable income than average which has allowed me to get some nice equipment (significantly more expensive than any car I've ever owned). Cables are one of those things I did wonder about for a while and it's kinda hard to find an audio publication that is realistic/scientific about cables, thankfully there is audioholics!

The other thing I would add is that as it was alluded to in the original article, the world “audiophile”, to me, sounds wrong now. It feels like it's lost its original meaning and now refers to a certain category of people which I don't really feel like I want to be associated, mostly because, I feel like it has become the opposite of skeptic.
Leroy Jenkins posts on July 23, 2015 11:57
CSG, post: 1090882, member: 62115
When it comes to cables and wire, I'm a skeptic. When it comes to expensive electronics (like $5000+ amps, pre-amps, integrateds, AVRs, etc.), I'm a skeptic. And we can go down the list until we get to speakers. While there is no world I live in that could justify *my* spending thousands of dollars on speakers, that's the one component that makes the big difference in how things sound. I've had arguments with people who tell me that speakers are the least important component of the system and that source is everything. After getting to the midlevel stuff (a thousand dollar integrated and five hundred dollar CD or TT), it's all about speakers IMO as long as you have appropriate clean power and well recorded media.

Most serious *audiophiles* wouldn't consider me an audiophile. I'm not sure *I* consider myself an audiophile. I'm a musician in love with music and listen to recorded music daily. But my main system is a Marantz PM8004, Marantz CD6004, and a pair of NHT SuperOne 2.1 speakers. If fits my low ceiling 14x19 living room just fine with way more volume available than I will use. My AV system is based on an analog Yamaha RX-V990 with Celestion DL-8 II's as L/R and NHT SuperOnes (originals) as center and rear. The TV is a 720 Vizio from a few years back.

I enjoy reading forums like this one but rarely spend much time thinking about upgrades save for Harbeth speakers (which I've never actually heard live). I just like what the owner's approach is.
I like his fact based approach as well. It's refreshing in a sea of marketing BS.
Leroy Jenkins posts on July 23, 2015 11:54
I'm not OCD enough to be an audiophile.
CSG posts on July 23, 2015 10:58
When it comes to cables and wire, I'm a skeptic. When it comes to expensive electronics (like $5000+ amps, pre-amps, integrateds, AVRs, etc.), I'm a skeptic. And we can go down the list until we get to speakers. While there is no world I live in that could justify *my* spending thousands of dollars on speakers, that's the one component that makes the big difference in how things sound. I've had arguments with people who tell me that speakers are the least important component of the system and that source is everything. After getting to the midlevel stuff (a thousand dollar integrated and five hundred dollar CD or TT), it's all about speakers IMO as long as you have appropriate clean power and well recorded media.

Most serious *audiophiles* wouldn't consider me an audiophile. I'm not sure *I* consider myself an audiophile. I'm a musician in love with music and listen to recorded music daily. But my main system is a Marantz PM8004, Marantz CD6004, and a pair of NHT SuperOne 2.1 speakers. If fits my low ceiling 14x19 living room just fine with way more volume available than I will use. My AV system is based on an analog Yamaha RX-V990 with Celestion DL-8 II's as L/R and NHT SuperOnes (originals) as center and rear. The TV is a 720 Vizio from a few years back.

I enjoy reading forums like this one but rarely spend much time thinking about upgrades save for Harbeth speakers (which I've never actually heard live). I just like what the owner's approach is.
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