What it is we do when we do this thing we do

Back on April 13, Stereophile assistant editor Stephen Mejias posted the following thought on his "Elements of Our Enthusiasm" blog: "Is it possible to listen to music and listen to the hi-fi? Or are they two entirely different activities, incomparable and incompatible? Right now, for me, they seem to have nothing in common, whatsoever."

Oh Stephen, Stephen, Stephen, I thought. What a simple question. How easy it is to answer.

Until you actually attempt to do so.

Is audiophilia about the gear or the music? All audiophiles think they know the answer—just as all non-audiophiles are convinced they know the answer. I think the bigger question is, why do we have to have an answer?

Three days later, Stephen came up with the definitive answer to his own question:

"Listening to music on the hi-fi is:
1. Listening to music.
2. On the hi-fi."

I like that answer. It seems to encompass all the fake divisions that Balkanize our hobby. It makes no distinction between formats or design philosophies or camps. As a result, I imagine it will be completely unacceptable to anyone who—unlike Stephen—actually considers himself an audiophile.

Because audiophilia has a 500-lb dead elephant lying in the center of our hobby: We like being exclusive. We like being disputative. We just loves our arguments. How else can you explain the putdown—the most typical audiophile response to any question?

Based on my experience of music-making systems owned by audiophiles, we're living in a golden age. I've heard a ton of them—it's in my job description, after all, and I enjoy hanging out with audiophiles and music lovers. I have almost never heard a deliberately assembled hi-fi system that I could not enjoy listening to. Maybe I wouldn't want to live with all of them, but I get most of them.

I'm not talking about hearing systems in showrooms or at hi-fi shows—which are quite frequently just plain wrong. I'm speaking of systems that have been lovingly put together piece by piece and lovingly tweaked.

Yet, ask a question on an audio bulletin board and you'll get ripped apart for liking thin-sounding solid-state gear or distortion-laden tube kit. You'll be savaged for preferring LPs and derided for choosing harmonics-deprived digital. Heck, DSD fans will mock you for liking wide-bandwidth PCM. And cables and interconnects and AC management? Fuhgeddaboudit—my ears burn just from mentioning it.

Listening to music.
On the hi-fi

But you know what really gets my goat? It isn't the condescension from my audiophile brethren, it's the disdain from everyone else. I was busy unloading a truck at the Park Slope Food Coop one afternoon when I discovered that the guy I was handing boxes to designed tube gear. We began jabbering about audio, and a musician on our crew sneered, "Oh, you guys are one of those." I mean, this from a guy who, if he didn't have a girlfriend, would be homeless?

Of all the audiophile putdowns I dislike, I dislike most intensely the one implied in Are you a gear lover or a music lover? How come? Well, it's two slams in one. First, it implies a hierarchy that I think does not exist. Well, maybe it exists a little—surely there are folks who purchase an expensive hi-fi just to prove they can, but I don't really count them as audiophiles unless they really hew to the "listening to music" part of Stephen's koan.

Yes, we audiophiles care about the equipment. Whether we fetishize it or merely tolerate it, it is necessary to our doing what we like to do:

Listen to music.
On the hi-fi.

The second thing I dislike about this putdown is that it implies that there's something purer about listening to music than about caring about how that music sounds. Musicians care about how their instruments sound; producers care about how their recordings sound (well, some of them do); and most recording artists want their records to sound like them. It seems to me they'd appreciate that I care, too.

I used to correspond with someone whose e-mail tagline read: "Listening to music ennobles the soul." What I remember most about that correspondence was his contempt for audiophiles who didn't hew to his party line. Perhaps his hi-fi wasn't good enough—or perhaps he wasn't listening to it enough.

I'm sorry—that was catty and uncalled for. I think it's time for me to do what makes me an audiophile:

Listen to music.
On the hi-fi.