Notes to a New Audiophile

Dear Newbie: Welcome to the wonderful world of hi-fi! If you're besotted with a desire for audio gear that can make your recorded music sound better than you've ever heard it, you've come to the right place.

And at just the right time: Not only is there an unprecedented amount of sanely priced, excellent-sounding audio gear on the market; there's this thing happening between us right here and now—the fact that you're reading a letter I wrote especially for you. It's a serendipitous concurrence, because when I think back to when I was a tenderfoot, I wish I'd had a mentor—or, better yet, The Me Of The Future—to prep me mentally for the big trip into Audioland.

So, in hopes of handing the decades' worth of knowledge I've accrued to a new generation, I offer this incomplete list of tried-and-true suggestions— starting with:

Don't sweat that whole "absolute sound" business. I don't mean this pejoratively. It's just that trying to replicate the real thing in a home environment seemed a more sensible goal when audio in general sounded nowhere near the real thing. It gave us all something to shoot for while providing a means of keeping tabs on our progress. But the ideal we seek defies absolutes. What, precisely, constitutes the real thing when so many sonic variables are at play in the performing and recording of any piece of music? It's best, as a rule, to focus less on absolutes and more on ensuring that your next purchase connects you to the music more than the product it replaces.

This next tip may strike you as counterintuitive: Spend more than is comfortable on your next upgrade. Not too much—personal bankruptcy is no recipe for audiophile bliss—but stretch a little to get something better. Sell the superfluous exercise equipment in the basement. Use credit if you have to. We audiophiles will repeatedly, throughout our lives, beat ourselves up wondering if we spent too much for a hamburger with a frilled toothpick in it, or a pair of boutique jeans, or a gift for our spouse. But we will never feel like we spent too much for an audio component that is a constant source of joy. It can't happen.

Speaking of money, don't worry that you don't have as much as the next audiophile. I say this unequivocally: Like music itself, there's enough audio gear to experiment with over the course of two lifetimes. Sure, you'll hunger for gear you can't afford, but there's excellent equipment for almost every budget, and while pricier stuff tends to be meaningfully better, often the difference isn't as big as you'd think.

Ultimately, what drives us is our hunger for better sound. It dwells in our subconscious like the pouncing instinct of a rapacious wolf—and here, dear neophyte, is the gist of it. Regardless of our respective net worth, there are always one or two audiophile products we hunger for. No amount of money will satisfy that hunger.

This next one, too, may seem off-putting, considering the private nature of our hobby: Try to mix and mingle with other hobbyists. Attend audio shows, crash audio-society meetings, swap gear with fellow enthusiasts so you can listen to different combinations together and then yap about the sound. How the new thing enhanced the music. How it didn't. How it made you feel. You'd be surprised what you can learn about audio and your own audio values by listening to others speak of theirs.

Keep your mind and ears open. More importantly, listen to your heart, since that's where the real message registers. That's how you'll become the audio hobbyist you were meant to be. This won't be an overnight process. It takes time to grow into our audio persona and to realize where in Audioland we fit. Analog? Streaming? Solid-state? Vintage? Electrostatic headphones? That's the beauty of our hobby: It's vast and layered and has a warm place for each of us where we can feel free and be ourselves.

A final piece of advice—but for this to work, you'll need to perform a faith-based mental trick. Imagine that your own audiophile Me Of The Future, from 30 years up that road of amassed personal experience, has come to visit the you of today. Imagine that your more seasoned self grabs you comfortingly by the shoulders, tells you that everything will be okay, then delivers the overarching principle you should follow to bring you audio happiness.

Listening to your heart, what do you think you told yourself?

COMMENTS
Long-time listener's picture

If I could go back and give the earlier me some advice, it would include this: If you see the words "bright," "too much upper-midrange energy," "upper midrange emphasis," "presence region emphasis," or "unforgiving" in a review (they mean pretty much the same thing), don't buy that piece of equipment, even if the review is positive overall. You'll end up spending a lot of time wincing at aggressive sounds as you listen, wondering how to cancel them out, and won't spend much time enjoying the music. If a reviewer spends a lot of time telling you all the things he did to make a piece of gear sound good, let that raise some questions in your mind.

The other thing is that, while it is true that more expensive stuff tends to sound better, be open to the idea that it's not ALWAYS true. I recently bought an expensive Audioquest Diamond digital coaxial cable, and it's true it did sound better than the two I had previously used, which were a Kimber KS2020 and a DH Labs D750. But on a hunch, or a suspicion, I bought a $20 Blue Jeans brand coaxial cable. After listening for quite a while, I'm not sure--at all--that the Audioquest sounds better. In fact, it seems that the Blue Jeans cable has the same level of detail, but without the hard, dry digital edge of the Audioquest.

So be careful, and don't be in a hurry to spend your money.

JBLMVBC's picture

New audiophile? Optimize. Don't buy amplifiers that offer only 3 years warranty non transferable like the one reviewed above. Buy a 20 y warranty brand that produces dynamic natural sound and is reasonably priced.
Do not waste money in cables, get big gauge solid cables, and pro connectors, not the fancy $$$$/ft audiophile stuff. You can't build CD player, turntables and electronics, but you can build speakers for a fraction of the cost. Don't waste money in audiophile fads that are using tin baskets with little magnets: buy pro drivers, and build solid enclosures and recommended crossovers. Enjoy setting it up and get the reward of quality, durability and listen to the music you love. Then later you can start to improve but at least you start from a solid high quality base.

ok's picture

one should first and foremost learn how to read between the lines; when the going gets tough most reviewers have a knack for understatement and quite rightly so. Their personal preferences are also out of the question; for all that's worth one should pay heed to specifics, sonic attributes and measurements included, and keep the final verdict solely for oneself.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Robert Schryer is rather kind in his assessment of audiophilus nervosa, that disease, young and old, that we all share. I may have had a more severe, more neurotic, case of this ailment than others here. I'd really have to go 50, maybe 60 years back, to find that young dude that needs a good talkin' to.

Boomers were raised on LPs as status objects---"Look, I've got the 'Trademark of Quality' pressing of 'Live-er Than You'll Ever Be'!---while younger generations still have a few LPs as art/status objects, most have moved on to streaming. Some younger folk have asked me "Do you still collect music?", my answer has to be "sorta". I've stopped collecting LPs altogether. No more room, and I can't stand the way they sound anyway. They always run out of gas as the stylus approaches the deadwax, not to mention all the awful stuff what happened to that 50 year old record on its way to my turntable. Don't get me started on modern LPs derived from digital masters/intermasters. Logic dictates that the digital file an LP is derived from will be superior to the LP produced from that file. I still pick up CDs, but only to rip the files for my DAP. And I find a ripped lossless file played back on one of my DAPs sounds better than that same music file played back from its CD-based source. I suspect that has something to do with the lack of moving parts and the really short signal lengths one finds in DAPs.

My main advice to a young audiophile is to spend less time listening to recordings and more time learning how to make music on your own. Nothing else will demonstrate what it's supposed to sound and feel like quite like being absorbed in the real thing. Even if you're not so good at it, playing music with others sharpens listening skills more than swapping out cartridges and cables. Also brushes up those social skills that many of us lack. The audiophile thing is mostly antisocial, particularly as one gets into the minutiae of the hobby.

ok's picture

..antisocial is the essence of our hobby.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Touché.

tnargs's picture

Dear Newbie,
how did you get here? What did you think you were doing, coming here? What sort of person would send you here for advice? Beware, you are in great danger!

Luckily for you, I was sent here by they who live on the side of the light, to spot you as you come in the door and try to save you. This is it: this is your one chance to turn back and avoid the dark practitioners and be an audiophile dedicated to music instead of gear.

Good, I see you have already turned around and are starting to leave. Then let my tips be the ones that ring in your ears as you go:-

1. Keep your smartphone for music and invest $100-$120 on the best earphones or headphones that you can find at that price. Dark Side Warning: don't shop around. Just go to your local outlet that has a range that you can actually audition, and pick the one you like the most. Buy and stop looking.

2. Stay like that for at least 5 years in terms of gear, and invest as much as you can on buying music, without ever spending so much that you need credit.

3. 5-year review. Reflect on how much pleasure all that music has brought you, and how much you would have missed out on, if you had diverted money from buying music into largely pointless gear that seems to cause a lot of dissatisfaction (living on the dark side can do that, you know), wasted countless hours of could-have-been-listening-to-music time on listening-to-GEAR time, reading-about-GEAR time, asking-questions-about-GEAR time, frustrated-dreaming-about-GEAR time. Wow, what a disaster and how narrowly you averted it. Think back 5 years to the time that you walked in that door. Wipe the sweat off your brow, whew!

4. Optional loudspeaker tip. Yes, loudspeakers are truly optional and carry many risks to your audiophile music-listening pleasure, because suddenly you are listening to your room and its many disastrous effects on music playback, and trying to *really* sort the mess will introduce you to debt, unhappiness, less music-listening-pleasure time, and all the wasted GEAR time that I warned you about under tip #3. But, if you feel the need to listen to echo-laden, resonance-laden music presented in front of you, just like those old guys looking very serious in their sitting-rooms 20-50 years ago, then my tip is to invest at most $300 in a pair of powered 4"-5" monitors like the JBL 305P MkII -- in fact you could not do much better for $300 than to buy that model and stop right there, so there's a tip, but some other equivalent and just as good model will do, but don't get in a tizz about gear. Hook it to your smartphone and use your smartphone's tone control / equaliser / DSP software to fine-tune the sound to your liking, then STOP.

5. Prepare for your 10-year review. Reflect with deep satisfaction on your vast music-listening repertoire and pleasures, your absence of debt, absence of squabbles with loved ones, absence of dissatisfied wishing for gear that (when you finally get it) only leads to wishing for some other gear, and how you actually optimised the audiophile game to a degree that escapes most of us.

Well done champ. But don't come back here to thank me: it might upset you to see me subjected to abuse, but I volunteered to stand just inside this door, so I have to half-expect it.

Best regards

Robin Landseadel's picture

This is good advice. My 2 cents as regards headphones. I'm nearly at that starting point for newbies, with the bulk of my listening via DAPs and headphones these days. Though I know there are better sounding portable digital audio players these days than bottom of the line Fiio DAPs [X1, M3K], they are still remarkably good, better sounding than the many CD/DVD/Blu-Ray players I have used to play back Redbook files. Like smartphones, the wattage/current available from low power DAPs means that the headphones need to be match. Here's three, wired, headphones suitable for smartphones and low-end DAPs.

The easiest to find headphones that will work with low power players are Sony's V-6/7506 models. They usually go for around $100, are light, pretty comfortable, have great clarity in the mids, enough bass for most music. If there's an issue it's that some will find the upper octaves a bit strident. But for most people listening to most music, these will do the job without breaking the bank. You can walk into a Best Buy or Guitar Center and find a pair for auditioning. The 7506 headphones are a refinement of the V-6s, with a boost around 3k for additional clarity for voice work.

B + H has been blowing out AKG K167 "DJ" headphones at $50, down from their $200 list. More bass, more resolution than the Sonys. Not as comfortable, need more power to sound their best. Good for all types of music.

Finally, Sennheiser HD 599 headphones are open-backed, so sounds from outside come in, and a little sound from the headphones will leak out. The 599s are the current top of Sennheiser's 5XX series, but the emergence of wireless headphones means they are being offered from some vendors at a price much reduced from their $250 list. BLINQ has returned and refurbished Sennheiser headphones at a big discount. I got mine for $120. Very comfortable, lightweight. Detailed sound, plenty of bass, needs little power. Right now, my favorite headphones.

JoeE SP9's picture

tnargs:
Love the way you dis speakers and a room. Your headphone bias is quite evident. Please note that not everyone is headphone centric. I for one find them all to be sort of creepy in that the sound comes from a straight line from one ear to the other.

IMO/E a properly set up pair of decent speakers always sounds better then headphones regardless of the cost of the phones. For one thing speakers produce a sound stage. Headphones simply do not. And then there's the visceral bass. Bass you can feel from phones? I think not.

For those who say headphones produce a soundstage, I suggest you listen to a good pair of speakers properly set up in a treated room. No headphones ever made produce anything even resembling a soundstage. Binaural recordings and/or using a Smythe Realizer are excepted.

The JBL's you recommend would be at the bottom of my list.

Lazer's picture

With everything you said. I’ve NEVER heard headphones or music from my phone sound as real or close to live as the system in my dedicated listening room. Headphones, IMO, are best for watching analogue planet videos. When I want to hear great sound, I listen to loudspeakers in my listening room.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Different strokes, not to mention different living circumstances. If one lives in a small unit in an apartment complex, 5.1 with multiple subs is not a realistic option. Besides, headphones are simply a different listening experience and for folks like me, the only serious option. Most of the recorded music I have heard in the last three years was at work, via headphones. The WAMM Master Chronosonic would not be an option in my cubicle.

LA mitchell's picture

I wish I would have stopped at a pair of Audioengine speakers, Dragonfly, and HD600 headphones :)

Having said that, I did get on the "merry go round" for a while... and being off it, I am glad I lived to tell about my journey of buy-sell-listen that lasted a few years (and is thankfully over I hope lol).

Anton's picture

Note to younger audio lovers:

1) In your audio life and your love life, "different" does not necessarily mean "better."

2) Good source material will get you through time of otherwise bad gear better than good gear will get you through times of bad source material. (A tip o' the cap to The Fabulous Fury Freak Brothers.)

3) Don't let other people tell you what to like. No guru, no method, no teacher. Be still and listen.

4) Bass speed beats bass depth.

5) Keep your records clean.

6) You don't really get to know a piece of gear until it's been in your system for 90 days.

7) Sometimes, it's not the gear you are breaking in, it's you.

8) Never let your system know in advance that audiophiles are coming over. If it finds out too soon, the stress will be too great and it will break down before they arrive.

9) Stay well 'grounded.'

10) As you imagine moving a big piece of gear into your life, imagine the work of moving it anywhere.

11) It's much harder for a thief to steal 2,000 records than it is to steal 2,000 digital files.

12) Beware unhappy audiophiles.

13) A good system helps alter your consciousness, as do some other things. Don't be afraid to mix and match.

14) Tweeters and phono needles tend to break easiest.

15) Don't settle for a single-person sweet spot. Enjoying Hi Fi should not be solipsistic.

16) Don't be afraid to challenge yourself. Blind listening only causes deafness when it encounters psychological defensiveness.

17) Find a group of like minded audiophiles and enjoy them.

18) Make at least one of your audio interfaces kid/drunk proof.

19) Find a comfortable chair.

20) "Enjoy every sandwich." Audio is impermanent.

A good audio koan...“You hear this system? I enjoy it; I listen through it. It plays music admirably, reflecting the sound in beautiful patterns. If I should ponder it, it has a lovely character to it. But eventually, it will wear out, or parts will break, and when it will no longer work in the same lovely way I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the system is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

rschryer's picture

If I may expound on your #18, "Make at least one of your audio interfaces kid/drunk proof."

When drunk, best to stick to digital playback than to fiddle dangerously with vinyl.

ok's picture

..really-drunk-proof.

rschryer's picture

...you learned this lesson the hard way. :-)

Anton's picture

I have several advanced degrees in learning/or not from experience.

They claim it leads to wisdom, I think it leads to the next party.

By the way, Mix #3 is a classic.

I heard the the cover of Let It Bleed was inspired by a party at Herb Reichert's place.

rschryer's picture

Did you mean Mix #3 as in tip #3, or as in tip #13 wherein you talk about a mix?

And it would delight me more than surprise me to learn that Herb's place was the inspiration for the Let it Bleed cover.

Anton's picture

It had all the classics...

Side A

My Mix #5

My Songs #5

All timeless.

;-D

rschryer's picture

You're keeping me on my toes, Anton. :-)

ok's picture

lucky guess ;-}

misterc59's picture

This is a great topic, love it, thanks for bringing it up!
I have noticed, (most likely due to being in this hobby for so long) that a small few comments may confuse a budding "audiophile". Foe example, point #4 about bass (no offense Anton, you raise some awesome thoughts!) probably wouldn't know what that means. Otherwise, most comments/points are excellent! I wish I would have had these pointers when I began my never ending, but amazing journey!
Cheers!
Terry

YetAnotherAcct2Register's picture

Source material has the greatest influence on sound quality, unless the hardware is seriously defective.

Treat components as black boxes. Don't worry about descriptions of circuits & parts, because you won't learn enough from reviews to understand what actually matters there. Most reviewers don't understand it either. Those descriptions are typically marketing wank from the manufacturers.

Remember that electrons & air molecules don't know about the system's price tag. Spend a few hours reading about intrinsic value & aspirational marketing.

Subjective reviews are generally based on this philosophy:
1) You have to listen for yourself.
2) A component's output is significantly affected by what it's attached to & numerous other variables.
The conclusion's obvious, right? "This is what I thought about XYZ, but God knows what you'll experience." Read reviews for functional insights, or spend your time reading about music.

Bonus tip, which I was lucky enough to know already: Whatever you buy is not an investment. People will keep using that word, so don't be fooled.

Beaubrummel's picture

I have found since 1975 the best method is to audition, demo at home and finally purchase equipment is to find an audio store that wants you to learn and experience but tries not sell you anything. Their recommendations and advice will be priceless to your future enjoyment.

stbm5's picture

some advice to the audiophile newbie:

1. most amplifiers are pretty good. most brands that have been around 20+ years are making good amplifiers. look for brands that arent changing models every year. companies like mcintosh, parasound, bryston etc arent really making big changes or if they do its pretty infrequent. dont get caught up in upgraditis over amplifiers. there simply arent tons of technological advances for these products. the major players are pretty safe and are well engineered. i would go so far as to say that the major japanese brands that have audiophile products are making good sounding well designed gear and theyve been doing it a long time.

2. i personally think budget hifi is a lot more fun than cost no object hifi. a well put together system that cost 2-3K is waaay more rewarding than being in debt from a 50K system. AND to be sure, its possible that a system costing 3K can sound as good or better than some high priced audio jewelry.

3. do not be tempted by gray market products. be wary of buying used. it really sucks to think you got a sweet piece of gear for 1/2 off only for it to break after 6mos and have no warranty, receipt and an unsympathetic customer service rep... it can take many weeks to have a component repaired and it likely wont be cheap. if u must buy used then do your research, make sure the seller can help you, get original receipt.

4. for most people headphones are not the answer. yes ive spent thousands on headphone set ups, but i always go back to speakers. less confining.

5. swapping out gear is fun, i encourage it. just be smart about it.

6. cables do make a difference but that doesnt mean costlier cables sound better.

7. find a dealer you trust and carries multiple brands that you like. having a long term relationship with a good dealer can save you much money and heartache - and yes this can be accomplished online as well. point in fact is that most mid size cities have no audiophile brick and mortar presence. there are some fantastic audio shops online that know how to make for a good online experience. having a good relationship with a shop you like is kinda priceless. the shop i work with knows what i like and dont like, they do not try and sell me the most expensive of everything and give me the honest scoop.

8. lastly, AVOID HOME THEATER. lol. home theater is an endless battle of formats, space challenges, never ending upgrades, complicated operation, burdensome installation and more. get a good soundbar and call it a day.

Manuel Encinales's picture

There is no absolute sound.

Don't spend so much money, it's not worth it.

More expensive is not synonymous with reproducing better sound.

Simply enjoy the music.

taxonomy's picture

I keep thinking about a recent visit to Pro Musica in Chicago where we listened to some incredible systems. It is now my benchmark for amazing. Lately I've begun to wonder if part of that experience was simply that the music was louder than we normally listen to it. It's was a little like a ride in a fast exotic sports car. It seems amazing but when it becomes your daily driver problems emerge. The "salesman" was also charming and gracious. I felt like I had somehow snuck into something exclusive. The glamour has an effect. I am sure all the sound systems we listened to were great but I wonder about my ability to separate the experience from the sound quality.

I've also come to the conclusion that coloration doesn't matter because it's inevitable. The goal isn't accuracy, it's enjoyment. Accuracy is a component but I weigh it less than others might. There is no reference. I heard a small classical ensemble play on a farm in Vermont. I was sitting on a hill with an apple orchard behind me. This may be an extreme example but nothing is going to sound (or look) like that. When I used to see arena concerts I tried to sit in front of the sound board. Anywhere else in a stadium sounded less good. Clubs, oh my god. What a disaster. First off, I am mostly listening through earplugs. Many have a terrible shape and there are either too many or not enough bodies so it sounds muffled or like an echo chamber. Clubs never seem to have a middle amount of people attending.

I also don't think a recording is an approximation of a live performance. It's a product in and of itself. If it as an approximation of a live recording it's a choice the engineer made. but in a lot of the stuff I listen to the engineer / producer is like another band member influencing just as much as the artists. (e.g. "more cowbell") In some cases the engineer is one of the artists. If the product is an approximation of a live recording the engineer has left things on the table, which is fine. So, if you start with the idea that the recording is an approximation of a live recording you can try for an accurate reproduction of that, but you will fail, mainly because it will sound too good. If you start thinking that the "record" whatever format is a product in and of itself then playback becomes the penultimate piece of that piece of that chain. The beauty chain . The last link in the creation and enjoyment of a piece of art is you. You're part of the beauty chain. For me that extends to the aesthetics of the equipment itself. It helps if it keeps the room beautiful or even enhances it.

I'll always love surfing more than motorcycles or bicycles because there are so few parts to upgrade. It's you, the deck and the water. Audio always leaves me feeling not right to some extent. If I have solid state I want tubes, if I have tubes I want solid state. If I have solid state I want better solid state. I'd I am happy with the amp I want better speakers. If I have sealed I want ported, if I have ported I want transmission line. If I have transmission like I want planners. It's easy to wind up with an attic full of parts.

The last thing is to listen. I had a full day yesterday that ended with beekeeping in the heat. Lots of heavy boxes and on the spot decisions and, well, bees.

I finally plopped down yesterday and listened to the new Tunng album Magpie Bites and chose to do so on the little SET amp in the little listening room. I let myself just listen and not check email or think about anything else. I ran the AC in there while I took a shower so I could shut it off and be quiet and cool and out of the main part of the house. Maybe the SET has no highs or lows or is super compromised in some way. I have no idea but it sounded great. I love Tunng and I am really happy they came out with a new album which means that I may yet get to see them live. We (maybe) planning to go to England next year to see them. So it was delicious to hear the new album. I felt like a kid, stoked my favorite band had a new release out. For a while I turned off the lights just to marvel at the glowing tubes and the fact that somehow hot metal makes music. Sorry about my subjectivist approach. I am not measuring anything. There is no likert scale or anholic chamber.

I am the last part of the beauty chain. Making time to listen and wonder that great creative people can do something so amazing and me, on the other side of the world can enjoy it after a hot day of beekeeping and projects for a few hundred bucks is a kind of miracle. I don't know what your miracle looks like, but I hope it's as good as all that.

I guess my advice to a new audiophile would be "don't forget to listen to music". Ironically, winning may mean giving up.

rschryer's picture

"I've also come to the conclusion that coloration doesn't matter because it's inevitable. The goal isn't accuracy, it's enjoyment."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think you dislike accuracy, if, by accuracy, we mean more natural, lifelike sound.

The good news is we don't have to choose anymore between gear that either photoshops our music or makes it physically unbearable to listen to.

So much great, moderately priced gear exists now that occupies the middle ground, that sounds enjoyably accurate. :-)

taxonomy's picture

Thank you.

I don't dislike accuracy. I think clarity, detail and dynamics are all good things and I have strove to improve those in my systems. Accuracy is a lighthouse to navigate by but you'll never step foot on the shore there.

tonykaz's picture

Can we allow the simplicity of " Garbage in, Garbage out" that our Linn Originator presented?

or should we follow along with : Paul at PS Audio who advises investing in Good Loudspeakers first and foremost.

I'd probably start your beginner off with a few boxes of Schiit & Sennheiser if he's in the Frozen North.

If he's in the Tropics I'll recommend an Old Town Peddle Kayak & an iPad full of Music thru some Bluetooths.

I'll going with: Quality of Life over Sound Quality, now-a-dayz.

Your pal till the end,

Tony in Tropical America; the finest Country in the United States.

rschryer's picture

...Country in the United States.

I missed your colorful writing.

Welcome back.

X