Enough with the Hobby Already

For the longest time, I've found the label "hobby" inadequate to describe the audiophile goal of better sound reproduction. Yes, for some, the mechanics of the High End have become an end in themselves—a way to tinker and tweak, build and rebuild in classic hobby fashion. But for many others, specifically earbud listeners, folks with whole-house systems, and those who'd rather push a button on a remote and sit back or dance rather than roll tubes or tinker, the descriptor hobby falls woefully short.

Recent conversations with high-resolution advocate Marc Finer, of the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) and Stream the Studio; Meredith Gabor, of cable manufacturer Nordost; and Craig Allison, of retailer Lavish HiFi, in Santa Rosa, California helped clarify my belief that, to the extent our industry continues to cling to the hobby paradigm, we're hanging a noose around our necks. In an age when the traditional outlets of man-cave tinkerdom are closing down—witness the fate of bankrupt RadioShack—and increasing numbers of women are pursuing quality audio reproduction, retailers and manufacturers who fail to adapt their sales approaches to the tens of millions of people who've made new ways of listening to music central to their lives are doomed to failure.

As much as I may cringe at the taints of market manipulation and branding that the word lifestyle is saddled with, the vibrant truth is that music has become an essential part of the modern lifestyle for entire generations of people worldwide. Music's initial roots in tribal rituals intended for prayer, healing, and transformation may have shifted, but the 21st-century phenomena of music-pumped raves and yoga/cardio workouts, file sharing, families cooking and eating to music, and home-theater systems suggest that music retains its central role in our individual and communal lives.

Allison cited a 2016 two-pronged study conducted by Sonos and Apple Music, in part with the help of neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. The first part of the study involved an online and global survey of 30,000 smartphone users, aged 18–79, all of whom lived with at least one other person, which explored how listening to music together affects their lives. Among the interesting discoveries: 71% of households who engaged in what Levitin terms "communal listening" saw a marked increase in kids helping with cleaning. On the adult side, 59% of people reported finding others more attractive if they liked and listened to the same music, and couples reported having twice as much sex.

Granted, this study's results may have depended, in part, on people using music as a kind of wallpaper or soundtrack for their lives. But since it can easily be argued that better-quality sound contributes to positive feelings about one's life and a desire to improve it even further, anyone in the industry who pooh-poohs these findings is missing the point.

Levitin worked on the second part of the study, in which all members of 30 different families spent five years using Apple watches, iPhones playing through Sonos speaker systems, and iBeacons to measure their heart rate and activity throughout the home. In an interview in Billboard conducted by Andrew Flanagan (footnote 1), Levitin noted what he considered the study's most surprising findings: People tended to spend more time in closer proximity when they heard music playing in the room compared to when they didn't and stayed together in the room more often (with 12% literally moving closer).

In a paper published in May 2015, Levitin showed that listening to music increases dopamine levels in the brain and enhances empathy. As he explained in the interview, "If you listen to music out loud with somebody for fifteen or twenty minutes, it can have the same effect as actually being their friend, even if they were a stranger. There's this binding force." Levitin related this binding force to the release of oxytocin, which he dubs "the social salience drug."

In terms of musical genres, Levitin declared, "genre is a red-herring . . . One man's Mozart is another man's Madonna. And one person's Grieg is another person's Gaga." I may love classical music, but heavy metal can have the same effects.

Allison, a longtime audio retailer who spent three decades as front singer for the Bourgeois Blues Band, summarizes the study's message thusly: "Music is an integral part of the good life, like good water and food. Raise your music-intake quality up to the level of the rest of your lifestyle and your whole life gets upgraded."

There are, of course, infinite ways to reframe these words, some of which have less of a West Coast/Northern California ring. But the message that retailers, marketers, and publicists need to hear is clear: Listening to music in high-quality sound is not an ancillary aspect of our lives, or something that can be dismissed as a "hobby" pursued by the members of one small niche: audiophiles. Rather, it's an essential component of better-quality living and sense of self.

Let's have some vision, folks. The promise of easily accessible, high-quality streaming, as presented by MQA, Tidal HiFi, and multiple other streaming services poised to jump on the hi-rez bandwagon, as well as the increased availability of vinyl, make the embrace of affordable playback devices that fill entire rooms with music in high-quality sound not only practical but inviting. With a paradigm shift from hobby to life enhancement, our industry will soon discover new life in those old audiophile bones, and a new way to share the truth that better-quality music playback equals better-quality lives.—Jason Victor Serinus



Footnote 1: Andrew Flanagan, "What Does Music Do to Us When We Listen Together? Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin Helps Sonos Find Out: Q&A." Billboard, February 9, 2016.

COMMENTS
PeterMrozik's picture

I think I get the point of trying to reposition what we do/pursue as something other than a "hobby" with the mental image of the pocket-protector wearing "hobbyist" looming in one's consciousness. And I agree very much that music brings people together, I see that happen all the time. BUT, I see them enjoying Spotify on a Sonos Systems just as much as I enjoy listening to Tidal Masters on my much better home system. They may not be able to tell the difference, or if they can it's not enough to make them follow the "hobbyist" path. And I definitely think that hanging with family that is enjoying their time together because of a minimalist system is far better than haranguing them about their hardware or streaming choices.
Also, the thought "I'm heading down to my life-enhancement dealer to buy a new DAC" does not parse particularly well.

foxhall's picture

I'm guilty of allowing this to become a hobby and to refer to it as a hobby.

There are true music lovers in my social circle who have no interest in their electronics (all chosen by me) but are completely engrossed with listening enjoyment and the never ending quest for new music.

I'm envious.

brillcat's picture

Music seems to bypass most of our cognitive processing and goes straight the part of brain that elicits emotions, and in so doing embeds itself in a near-permanent fashion. And we seem
to bond better with family and friends, even strangers, when we share the experience.

When our kids were young, before iPods and mp3, there was a constant back and forth about whose radio station or tape or CD music got played on our modest stereo system. While the discussions could get animated and testy at times, it created a music dialog that otherwise would have been absent in our home.

As parents, we developed an appreciation for their budding tastes, and the kids were exposed to the music of our (mostly) youth. The dialog continued into their adult years. A son came home from college with a newfound love of classical (it lights up the mathematical synapses of his cortex) and for the first time I began to appreciate the genre. Our daughter and I constantly ping each other with the names of up-and-coming groups/acts. Another son has helped me appreciate the underpinnings of rap.

When I think about the very different ways that we experience music through technology, I have to remind myself that our brains are the ultimate signal processors, enhancing the experience in whatever manner brings us the most joy. As I type this I have Beethoven streaming, and just having that running in the background has called up these memories and made the creation of this comment much richer for me.

Thanks for reminding us all -- and the industry -- how the experience of music can breathe life into our hectic lives and that whatever tech makes music sound better -- and more accessible -- can only be a good thing.

Anton's picture

Sorry, it's not a lifestyle, I was born this way...an audiophile.

_

So, in counterpoint, I think Radio Shack died because it left behind its hobbiest roots and became a 'lifestyle' destination.

I think Magnolia was a 'lifestyle' store, as well.

Give me hobby Hi Fi stores over 'lifestyle' destinations.

Martha Stewart Living is a lifestyle. Kim Kardashian has a lifestyle. Audio is my hobby. Perhaps you could argue that your lifestyle is what enables you to pursue this hobby?

_

"Granted, this study's results may have depended, in part, on people using music as a kind of wallpaper or soundtrack for their lives. But since it can easily be argued that better-quality sound contributes to positive feelings about one's life and a desire to improve it even further, anyone in the industry who pooh-poohs these findings is missing the point."

Sorry, can't be easily argued with logical validity.

I could easily argue that being an audiophile destroys many people's ability to appreciate music because audiophiles are constantly critiquing the sound, listening for flaws in reproduction, wondering if the gear is working right, or thinking they need to hear the 'train sounds' in order to know they are properly hearing Harry Belafonte in high enough fidelity.

It could easily be argued that audiophilia is a neurosis or compulsion that diminishes musical enjoyment.

As long as we are making 'easy' arguments....

Question: Can you, me, or any audiophile 'fully' enjoy a musical recording rendered on lower fidelity systems?

JoeinNC's picture

Well put, Anton

And I miss Radio Shack.

-Rudy-'s picture

Question: Can you, me, or any audiophile 'fully' enjoy a musical recording rendered on lower fidelity systems?

Yes. "Ultimate" at home on my best system, and enjoyable everywhere else. I don't have that snob mentality going.

davds1582's picture

Jason:

First, welcome to the hobby ;)

Personally, I have been using "hobby" to describe my audiophilia for some time now.
I find it helps to keep my non-audiophile friends and family (which include virtually everyone I know) from pathologizing things, and using expressions like "insanity", "obsession", and the ever popular "well alright then". And it has worked. After all, it's just a hobby.....

BradleyP's picture

I love audio and would be a hobbyist if I could afford it. So, my hobbies are listening to and collecting lots of music via a streaming service...and reading about audio.

The extent of my traditional audio hobby was buying separates in 1993, then replacing the speakers in 1998. I still have that system and get the upgrade itch once in a while, but I seldom listen to it, wonderful though it is. Instead, I listen at my desk where I work, and that's where I've upgraded my DAC, monitors, and headphones, but only once.

As much as I love the music, I also love that the equipment can produce such sound and evoke such feeling. The tactile experience of a good volume control is so much more satisfying than a loose, lightweight one. The sight of my fat power cord makes me feel like a king in my castle. Knowing that my monitor stands sit in some of the finest recording studios in the world gives me a connection to greatness. I'm in awe of the *stuff* and don't understand why so many others, comparatively speaking, aren't.

I did roll my 6922 twice, so perhaps I am a hobbyist after all.

davds1582's picture

I believe I know just how you feel.
My system, which is well into the five-figures now, is the result of an 11-year upgrade path.
But it is the music that matters above and beyond all else.
If forced to, I would give everything else up, and keep my earphones and Deckard amp.
And I would probably be very happy....!

fetuso's picture

I think the term "hobby" is a perfectly reasonable description for many of us, especially those of us who purchase records and cd's. It's like collecting stamps, or roaming the beach with a metal detector.

Anton's picture

I know some of those metal detector guys....now that's a lifestyle!

I can take a trip without bringing my Hi Fi, is all I'm sayin'.

;-D

es347's picture

hob·by 1 (hŏb′ē)
n. pl. hob·bies
An activity or interest pursued outside one's regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure.

..it's not like this is drudgery

davds1582's picture

Evidently, you have never met a hifi salesman....or G_d forbid, a distributor! Human garbage!

Anton's picture

So, who do you buy your gear from?

How do you navigate your lifestyle while not rewarding human garbage?

Audio_Visionary's picture

What do you think of manufacturers? Also Human Garbage? I would love to know what you do for a living and then let's see what we can say about your vocation.

davds1582's picture

I raise money for nonprofits (sick kids, low-income families, etc.)
Sorry :)

Anton's picture

Still wondering how you acquire your gear.

Only from socially vetted manufacturers?

davds1582's picture

What do you mean? Are you saying you are entitled to be here and I am not?
Meantime, it just so happens that I like me a nice ster-e-o!
Whoever has the piece I want, at the price I want, when I want it, gets my business.
I just hold my nose and dive in!

dalethorn's picture

Holy cow - I just realized that I'd get more "intimate fun" if I stopped talking about my musical preferences, and listened more closely to what certain attractive acquaintances have to say about their music. But then, I'd feel guilty about manipulating them. What to do, what to do....

Trace's picture

I can only call it a hobby as that is all "non hobbyists" will understand. I no longer wish to explain "audiophile" or what it costs. I am tired of the "deer-look". I do not wish to tell them I have a Porsche/Ferrari(used) in my living room. Even my wife does not know the cost(s). For the most part my friends/associates just ha NO interests in all this. I think the desire must be genetic.

Anton's picture

I recognize the eternally debonair Herb Reichert on the left, but who is the fascinating woman he is obviously charming while playing her the captivatingly colorful 'Debussy's Préludes' on Philips vinyl while explaining low torque LP motors?

Perhaps some Esquivel, my lovely?

Lifestylin' is what that's called.

rt66indierock's picture

At RMAF 2017 let’s do an experiment. If you don’t hear “The Gilded Palace of Sin” reissue by The Flying Burrito Brothers coming out of rooms ask to hear it. If either of us finds 20 rooms refusing to play a few tracks of the album I think it’s time to write the industry off. No excuses, it’s the bestselling 2017 audiophile album in Phoenix, pot is legal in Colorado so its right in their musical sweet spot and Michael Fremer gave it a thumbs up on May 3, 2017. I’ll happily buy you the beverage of your choice (less than $25) Saturday night and compare notes.

Take care

mmole's picture

My uncle and I love this plan. We're going to jump in our wheels, grab our do right women Christine and Juanita, and head for Sin City. We'll meet you at the dark end of the street. You'll recognize me, I'm an old hippie boy. We'll ask those poseurs, "do you know how it feels?" And if we get hungry I know a great little Mexican place. You can have hot burrito #1 and I'll have hot burrito #2.

rt66indierock's picture

I may be the devil in many people’s eyes at Stereophile because of my opposition to MQA.

“And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said FIFTY people a day . . . walkin' in,” asking to hear The Flying Burrito Brothers. “Friends, they may think it's a MOVEMENT, and that's what it is.”

Anton's picture

Should it be legislated against?

;-D

I don't think your are the Devil in anyone's eyes. I hope this Hi Fi stuff never rises to that level!

Cheers, man.

rt66indierock's picture

But not many journalists were happy I wrote about Utimaco’s MQA encryption, that Meridian Audio, MQA Ltd and other British companies financial information is public information easily accessible by all.

tonykaz's picture

Well said!

Every once in a Blue Moon I get to visit an Audio Show ( 2011 RMAF, the headphone meet in Ann Arbor,Mi and that last Show in Chicago ) with other Auto Industry types. The Auto Industry is 20 times larger in Audio than the entirety of consumer audio, so, we are the Gigantic Gorillas at any Audio Show but we don't feel any need to Exhibit. Why should we? We sell to regular folks that DEMAND music in their lives and aren't all that fussy.

Go shopping for that Audi and you won't hear about the Wire connecting those 8 Speakers or the Jitter in the DAC. egads!

Audiophile Audio stuff like that ultra low output Ortofon Moving Coil for $4,300 or the $30,000 Arm or manual starting Turntable or a $30,000 step-up Amp for a phono cartridge are the stuff that kills Audio Retailing. ( I was a Retailer of this kind of gear ; Esoteric Audio r.i.p. 1985 )

If the Audio Industry won't service regular customer's needs we will, typically charging around $5,000 for a nice Car System that most people will say is the best sound system they own. They can be in their Car for one hour at a time ( work commutes ).

Tony in Michigan

ps. having said all that, I admire Kevin Deal and PrimaLuna & Mystere as well as what Blackie Pagano does with Dynaco stuff and I love following along on these Audiophile Adventures that JVS & HR & Jana take us on, I even watch the Analog Planet Videos ( which is like watching the "History Channel" )

untangle's picture

My comments come from the perspective of a "recovered" or "normalized" audiophile. As Jason can attest, I was into audio all the way for years. I have not connected my main system (MSB Analog DAC, Quad 2905, etc.) for many months. I'm deliberately letting my brain relax. (OK, I do have a decent portable rig - A&K, etc - but I don't use that much either.)

The downside of this choice is that I am absolutely certain that I have lost some auditory acuity and the ability to judge nuances in sound quality. The upside is that I'm able to listen to and enjoy more music in more venues without the distraction of judgement. For one thing, I used to have a hard time enjoying headphones because I so missed the spatial cues. I'm pretty much over that now.

(I still cannot listen to SeriusXM. Something about the sonics drives me bonkers.)

Another upside is that I'm better able to understand lifestyle audio and mobile phone listening.

Regarding the cited research, I find it completely unconvincing. The design of experiment is statistically shoddy. And the "correlation vs causality" conundrum seems to be ignored. Did the presence of music bring families closer together or were they about to have dinner and fire up Dead Can Dance as background? Does music increase sexual appetite or do sexually active people listen to music?

It seems like more marketing-level science than rigorous study. I couldn't read the paper through the paywall. Was it peer-reviewed?

Finally, I believe that if a renaissance is to occur in our "hobby," it will be from portable audio rigs and lifestyle systems getting better and not from the "high end" becoming somehow more accessible and affordable. That ship has sailed, and we missed it (or just didn't want to catch it). The fate of audiophile-as-mainstream is now in other peoples' hands - not ours.

So I suppose that my opinion stands as a dystopian variant of that voiced in Jason's powerful last sentence.

JoeinNC's picture

It's this kind of thing that turns people off to the audiophile hobby. That it somehow transcends "hobby" and and is more special and precious.

Audiophiles aren't the only ones sometimes guilty of elevating our hobby to precious levels: Car guys who dismiss mainstream autos as not "driver's" cars; computer nerds who enjoy doing things to their PCs more than doing things with them; amateur photographers who aren't satisfied with snapping pictures with their iPhones.

I am or have been all of those at some point. The main difference is that the hobbyist is more deliberate. Yes, we enjoy the better sound, the more spirited performance, or whatever, but the attraction is the process as much as it is the end result, and I don't pretend that fiddling with the cool hardware isn't a big part of it.

-Rudy-'s picture

Jeez, let's overreact about the usage of the word "hobby." It is what it is. Only when someone reads too much into the word does it start to look absurd. I don't have time to worry about stuff like this. And I'm not an overprotective snob like many audiophiles can be over their pastime, and how it is discussed.

Sheesh.

"Hobby" basically means any pastime you enjoy that is not part of your work life, or your domestic life (like chores, sleeping, etc.). That's it. Don't get the panties in a bunch over it.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Where is the dividing line between something that is part of someone's "domestic life" (assuming one is "domesticated," which, given the vituperative nature of some of the commentary that precedes yours, may not always be the case), and something that is a "pastime"? If you spend as much time as you can sitting in front of your sound system, is that a "pastime", or is it an essential part of your life? If you carry your portable music player with you wherever you go, and then play music through your computer or office system while you work, is that a hobby or a pastime or an essential part of your life? Finally, if were trying to manufacture or sell products to someone who spends considerable time listening to music, would you frame them as hobby material, or as something essential to the buyer's quality of life?

Anton's picture

Bowling and golf are pastimes.

That's about where I see Hi Fi in the pantheon of lifestyles.

Being an audiophile should not be equated with being the only class of person who passes the test of who should be called a 'lover of music.'

They are two different things, audiophilia and love of music are two Venn sets that perhaps sometimes overlap.

My wife loves music as much as I do, maybe more than me or you, and she only knows that Hi Fi exists because of my hobby. Is she less of a music lover or appreciator than you, or me? Nope.

This lifestyle vs. hobby thing has a bit of a scent of "I love music more" elitism. I won't buy into it.

You, of course, are free to have "music" as your lifestyle. Really, though, more like "listening to music" as a lifestyle, if we want to be precise...but that doesn't sound as passionate and 'active' to be a lifestyle.

If 'listening to music on Hi Fi electronics' is your lifestyle, then there are more questions we need to ask:

How many lifestyles can you have?

If the answer is "one," how does that fit in a full life?

Perhaps audiophilia can be your predominant lifestyle. But, that also seems to be lacking in apsiration, I'd say. Would we say, "Being a fantastic music listener" is a lifestyle?

Or....If we can have many lifestyles, then what's the difference between that and a plain old hobby?

(I think audiophilia is more likely to meet the criteria for being called a fetish...perhaps a platonic paraphilia? :-D)

I would put 'wanting music in my life' down as part of my lifestyle, but without any obligation to Hi Fi, or that bullshit term "High End."

I listen in the car, and sing along. Not Hi Fi.

We listen to music at work, taking turns picking the Sirius channel, but there is work to be done. Sometimes I sing along. Not Hi Fi.

I get home, greet the family, play some tunes. The kitchen is not in the sweet spot (how do your Wilsons sound in the kitchen?) I cook, hear about their day, listen to what new tunes my teen has discovered....best I can hope for is "live in the next room" while I am living my life. Still not Hi Fi.

We eat, perhaps a bottle of wine appears - the nice thing about wine is that it does not require I sit in one spot to fully revel in it.

After discussing life, home work, our trials and travails, perhaps some time with the Hi Fi system.

Hi Fi has to fit into my lifestyle, perhaps it's part of my lifestyle, but it's certainly no lifestyle for me, and I think I am a dedicated audio nut!

So, it's fair to say audiophilia is your lifestyle, but no fair projecting it on to your fellow hobbyists or manufacturers.

I enjoyed your take, it makes me wonder what is "my lifestyle?"

tonykaz's picture

I'll contend that Music is an essential component of Life.

It can be a hobby ( me )

It can be a business ( me )

It can be a dopamine high ( definitely me )

It can be an Obsession ( has been me )

It can be a Collector's focus ( not me but is for plenty of folks )

It can be a Religious feature ( the "Chant" )

It's part of everyone's life. ( except the deaf )

It's beautiful Art ( what is more beautiful than Joan Sutherland performing La Traviata ? )

Tony in Michigan

ps. My wife lives without music, she's not deaf!

dalethorn's picture

I learned to love music as a wee little boy, I suppose partly because my parents loved to gather around the piano and sing songs, and partly because they played services (mostly music as I remember) from the local Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday morning, before we trundled off to the very staid and reserved mostly-white church down the street. I think the fact that a few of my relatives were big fans of Allan Freed (a local man in Akron) and his R&B collection, and what they shared with me, also played a part. But then, as I encountered various radio sets and speakers and even tape recorders later on, my curiosity got the best of me, whereupon I found that I could improve the sound by tinkering with the gear. Eventually I gave up what to me was the hobby, i.e. tinkering, but not the curiosity for better sound and better recordings. Today I don't feel compelled or driven to collect recordings or replace any particular gear, but I read this magazine and others and buy some of the reviewed music, and occasionally even an audio component if it has a strong enough appeal. I've had a few regrets from years ago when I *was* more driven to upgrade, but I've learned to relax now and enjoy more.

Glotz's picture

are two very different things. Are we separately listening to sound and listening to music? Sound in the service of music?

While music requires gear to play, it does not require audiophile trappings to play or intrinsically enjoy. Audiophiles replace old gear and introduce new gear, much akin to any other hobby, though doing so is not required to play and enjoy music.

The pursuit of improved gear to greater intrinsic enjoyment is the nature of almost every hobby. Cars, photography, guns, animals, bicycles, etc. Our pursuit is the manipulation of sound and audio, and in most cases, not the manipulation of music. I agree the lines blur, as they do intertwine.

There can be a cyclist that loves riding and buys the best bike components, but doesn't compete (as in a sport), but still spends a lot of time and money on the gear for greater enjoyment of riding, in and of the act of biking.

And in sound, unless one is an audio designer or an artist, none of the gear we employ is required for enjoyment of music. It doesn't mean that because of financial or artistic means that a pro is a better listener or "enjoy-er" of music than a amateur or hobbyist. An audio hobbyist responds well to products that speak of their individual audio focus, digital or analog, tubes or tapes.

The new cassette craze is a great example: They are collecting tapes for the simple fact they exist as music collectibles. Not for sound, not for lifestyle (really.. downloads are better and easier in the mobile realm), but for the simple fact they want to collect music that plays back on certain gear. How can that be anything but a hobby?

Because the act of listening to music is inherently human, any moniker of 'lifestyle' is inadequate. While some may be artists and designers, or even reviewers (with the requisite gear), all any of us need to listen and enjoy music are ears and attention.

avanti1960's picture

Depends on your personal interpretation / definition of hobby.
Some people are very serious about their hobbies, some to the extreme where it becomes an all consuming obsession.
"Lifestyle" to me represents fulfilling your goals (e.g. playing music) with the focus less on quality and more on convenience.

Allen Fant's picture

A nice piece of writing- JVS.