It began innocently enough. In June, Slate.com published a sampling from an exhibit by the photographer Kai Schaefer, in which classic LPs of different eras were partnered with the similarly classic record players on which they might have been played: Tea for the Tillerman on a Dual 1219, Kind of Blue on a Rek-O-Kut Rondine, Sgt. Pepper's on a Thorens TD 124you get the idea. The photos worked as cultural documents, as good-natured kitsch, as surprisingly beautiful and compelling industrial art. I was thoroughly charmed.
Schaefer's own website, www.worldrecords.me, has as its epigraph a quote from the writer Jean Paul: "Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be driven." Resoundingly truenonetheless, some nitwit on Slate tried her damnedest. In yet the billionteenth example of the questionable value of inane online fora, someone calling herself Tinwoman offered this sage observation:
I had an ex who was an audiophile. They do not listen to music, they listen to their equipment. They are congenitally incapable of even enjoying music, because they are too focused on imperfections perceived and real. Also audiophiles are snobs. Avoid them. (footnote 1)
Nonsense, of course. Sexually tinged nonsense at thatwhich is no less reprehensible than racially tinged nonsense, irrespective of the gender of the target. Yet apart from reminding us that "congenitally" deserves a place of honor on The Inigo Montoya List of Commonly Misused Words, Tinwoman's hissy raises a single worthwhile question:
Are audiophiles snobs?
If by snob one means that I condescend to people who neither share my enthusiasm for recorded music nor are able to afford my level of participation in the hobby, then my own answer is clearly No: I don't have it in me to look down on others for such reasons. The thing is, neither do the overwhelming majority of audiophiles whom I've met over the yearseven the ones who are, in other respects, complete idiots. In fact, after decades in this field, I still think the notion of the audiophile who condescends to those who don't own five-figure phono cartridges and coffin-sized speakers is largely a construct of the insecure and the envious. The only condescension I see in this hobby is the sort that's aimed by audiophiles of one camp at audiophiles of anothera childishness that reached its apotheosis in The Flat Response, a wretched fanboy mag of the 1980s in which people who sold gear that wasn't made by Linn or Naim were mocked in a series of amateurish cartoons.
If, however, the qualification is the dual belief that there exists a subject in which I'm more knowledgeable than the average person, and that the depth of my knowledge and experience adds to my understanding and enjoyment of an important endeavor, then the answer is Yes: I am, unapologetically, a snob. I own thousands of LPs and a nice playback system; many of those records and much of that gear have entertained and enlightened my family, my friends, and meand will, I hope and presume, continue to do so after I have passed away. And that's a good thing. Moreover, my record collection will never be "done." It will continue to grow and to change and, I hope, to improve, in the sense that it will offer even more enjoyment and more points of view on the art of music. Concomitantly, perhaps my system will continue to change, at least for a little while longer. Nothing wrong with that, either.
The world is full of people whose appreciation for music doesn't run terribly deep, and one can't deny that audiophiles account for some of their numberespecially those hobbyists whose attention is focused on such things as spatial effects, and whose record collections aren't really collections at all but merely accumulations of technically well-made recordings, most purchased on the recommendation of whatever guru "discovered" them. I think a bottle-cap collection has more artistic value than a wall full of records that are all on audiophile labels, but that's just me.
That said, I believe that far, far more of the world's most superficial listenerspeople for whom music is merely a pleasant background for shopping, driving, jogging, dancing, eating, and, most insultingly of all, talkingcome from outside the ranks of audiophiles.
Lately, through estate sales, auctions, personal gifts, and the like, I've had a number of opportunities to acquire music recordings from the recently deceasedand the audiophile still comes out on top. Every time I've been invited into the home of a departed collector who owned a thousand or more classical or jazz records, I have been struck by the high quality of the decedent's playback gear: at the least, Acoustic Research AR3 loudspeakers and Philips GA-212 turntablesfar from the curbside junk some of our comrades think everyone should haveand quite often such things as Thorens TD 124 turntables and Marantz Model 7 preamplifiers. Most serious record enthusiasts care about their playback gear.
Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who, when asked what they enjoy listening to, reply, "female vocals." Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who declare that every new tweak they try adds "a half an octave of bass." Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who don't appear to know how to dress themselves, and who wander the halls of audio shows in soup-stained fleur-de-lis polo shirts. Hell, hate me for condescending to audiophiles who hate. But ask me to hate audiophiles who keep alive the very notion of serious listening? You've come to the wrong guy.
Footnote 1: One imagines Tinwoman's lucky ex as a character in some gender-inverted slasher film, taking a call from the police and being told, Get out of the housenow!