Life, Love, and The Big Ahh

A fellow member of the Bay Area Audiophile Society recently forwarded to me a link to Wikipedia's entry for audiophile. It's a horror. Even before the page defines the word, it begins with a large question mark, circled in green, and the warning, "This article or section may contain original research or unverified claims. Please help Wikipedia by adding references."

The one-sentence definition that follows, "An audiophile, from Latin audire 'to hear' and Greek philos 'loving,' can be generally defined as a person dedicated to achieving high fidelity in the recording and playback of music," accurately reflects a consensus among online dictionaries. But the next section, "Audiophile Beliefs," is preceded by a second large question mark. This one, circled in red, precedes an alert: "The neutrality and factual accuracy of this section are disputed."

Lest you're prone to ignore red flags, next comes the sentence that, in true Bette Davis fashion, warns you to fasten your seat belt, because it's going to be a bumpy ride: "One statement that has influenced some subjectivists' values is from Harry Pearson, longtime editor of The Abso!ute Sound: 'We believe that the sound of music, unamplified, occurring in a real space is a philosophic absolute against which we may judge the performance of devices designed to reproduce music.' "

Subjectivists? We haven't even begun to understand audiophile, and we're already drawing battle lines? Realizing that someone has put the cart before the horse, one anonymous contributor is only too eager to redefine the term: "There is much skepticism inside and outside the audiophile community as to which practices and products have discernible or measurable effects on the listening experience. Those skeptical of the benefits achieved with exotic or fanciful equipment setups are generally referred to as objectivists. People who set up customized audio playback systems according to personal tastes are generally referred to as subjectivists."

Resisting all temptation to ponder why someone would intentionally set up a system without regard to personal taste, I take a deep breath and read further: "People on both sides of the debate concede that because many audiophiles are laymen and lack technical knowledge, they are vulnerable to exploitation by fanciful, nebulous, and outrageous claims made by unethical equipment vendors. Audiophool is a derogatory term sometimes used by objectivists to refer to what they see as gullible audio consumers willing to spend a great deal of extra money [on] imperceptible or unnecessary system-performance gains....Actual scientifically measurable audio-equipment performance figures are often omitted or obscured from advertisements and user-review literature in favor of vague notions of style, power, fidelity, durability, etc. that would not be discernible or evident to most listeners."

From there it only gets worse. While I found some solace in Wikipedia's entry for high-end audio, which "can refer to the build quality of the components, but more specifically, refers to the ability to reproduce a recording with the highest fidelity to the original performance that has been committed to the recording," the page for audiophile grows increasingly contentious as one scrolls down, down, down. The final section, "External Links," divides publication entries between "Objectivist" ("The Audio Critic," "The Cable Lie," "Dispelling Popular Audio Myths," "The Ten Biggest Lies in Audio," etc.) and "Subjectivist" ("The Absolute Sound," "Stereophile," "," "StereoTimes," etc.).

What disturbs me about this travesty is not the names people call us, but rather what the page does not say. Where is there any indication of the large number of audiophiles who love, and are in fact devoted to, music? Where can we sense that equipment reviewers such as Wes Phillips, John Marks, Michael Fremer, and Kal Rubinson write passionately about the music that thrills them; that John Atkinson, Art Dudley, Bob Reina, and this writer are among the many reviewers who are also active musicians; that Jon Iverson is a composer; that quite a few equipment designers, distributors, and reps (Allen Perkins of Immedia, Joe Freitas of ART Audio, Phil Jones of AAD, whose speakers are reviewed by JA in this issue, and Frank Doris of the FM Group come to mind) have a history of instrumental performance; and that a sizable number of devoted audiophiles choose to spend many of their "free" evenings enjoying live music in clubs and concert halls rather than sitting before racks of equipment?

The reason so many of us spend countless hours, months, years, and dollars assembling and fine-tuning audiophile systems is that we wish to experience from recorded media the same sonic and spiritual epiphanies that have transported us during live performances. Those revelations—the moment when a pianist, conductor, and 80 musicians sound as of one mind; the instant when a Schubert song about a fisherman triggers a vivid flashback to that day 40 years before when, as a child fishing from a boat in the middle of a lake, we too experienced a tug on the line, and we understand for the first time that the almost imperceptible shift in the piano's cascade of watery notes magnificently mirrors the excitement of that youthful experience; the time when, during one of their countless unrehearsed jams, the Grateful Dead seemed to come together like never before to give us the contact high of a lifetime; and the night when a quartet of jazz musicians who had never before played together suddenly created music so unified and elegant that we had trouble catching our breath—are the revelations we seek as much from our sound systems as from live performances.

It's easy to make fun of such reviewer clichés as "I've listened to this recording well over 100 times, but it wasn't until I put this quarter-watt amp in my system that I could hear the distinct line of the clarinet, and its poetic contrast of timbre with the French horn." But the same thing happens in live performance. A pianist puts more emphasis on certain notes in the left hand, a masterful conductor puts more emphasis on the middle line, a vocalist pauses an extra second before singing the final notes of a classic ballad, and something we had never previously experienced from this composition speaks to us, and the music sings to our soul as never before.

These are not small things. They provide an entry into The Big Ahh—the place where the distinct communicative eloquence of music lifts us out of our private dramas and connects us with something far bigger than ourselves. These musical epiphanies reveal truths far more exalted and profound than those most of us experience while commuting to work or doing the dishes. They are moments of ecstasy, bursts of unexpected joy that transcend the temporal.

This, for me, is what being an audiophile is about. The more I feel connected with beauty and oneness, the more I am transported when listening to music in the relative comfort of my living room, the more grateful I am for all those wires and tubes and boxes that sit immobile before me, and the reviewers whose insights have helped guide my choices.