Reflections on the Audiophile Image

"Blondy watched this proud, drum-tight personality fidget past him on the street and began projecting; he couldn't help it: an unfinished degree in journalism, concerned married sisters in New Jersey or Connecticut (but probably New Jersey), weights but no cardio, aggrieved blind dates, Cigar Aficionado and Stereophile, takeout menus, acres of porn." —from "Lucky Alan," by Jonathan Lethem; The New Yorker, March 19, 2007

When did being interested in hi-fi lose its cool? When did it become antisocial? One minute hi-fi was hanging with Hef center-stage in a groovy bachelor pad, and the next thing you know it's a prop used to describe someone who "walked in a fiery aura of loneliness," as Lethem described it. I ask because I'm genuinely concerned. Some of my best friends are audiophiles. But it seems that if you want to be anything related to music, the last thing you want to be is an audiophile.

An audiophile is a hi-fi enthusiast: someone who cares about the quality of his or her experience when listening to music on the hi-fi. And audiophiles give music their undivided attention. Because they spend an inordinate amount of time just listening, audiophiles also care about the equipment responsible for the quality of that experience. Some go so far as to become interested in the mechanisms behind the experience, while others focus on the quality of the recording. It all makes perfect sense; ignoring the quality of an experience and the things responsible for it when it's something you intend to do frequently is just plain careless—negligent, even.

The audiophile experience offers many layers of enjoyment, from the industrial design of the gear to the science and neuroscience that make it (and you) work. Most important, it offers access to the practically infinite and ever-expanding living library that is our recorded musical heritage. While the ultimate goal of listening to music on the hi-fi can be expressed in many different ways, perhaps the most meaningful end of the audiophile's means is a deeper connection to and, ideally, a better understanding of music itself.

I know what some of you are thinking: Audiophiles are just in love with the gear. I've actually heard audiophiles express this half-baked notion. While I almost agree, it's an incomplete thought. Allow me to finish it: Audiophiles are in love with the gear for its ability to play music. We need music in order to consummate the relationship, so to speak. We need music for the emotional attachment. Otherwise, we're not talking about an audiophile, we're talking about a collector of industrial-design objects, or a case of objectophilia (footnote 1). While music can survive without audiophiles—music has been a part of every culture; audiophiles haven't—I'm certain we cannot be audiophiles without music.

Listening to and enjoying music is an emotional experience. Don't take my word for it; read Markus Sauer's wonderful essay, "God Is in the Nuances," from the January 2000 Stereophile. And don't let the date fool you; it's completely relevant today. As a matter of fact, there is a host of essays from Stereophile's past and present that talk about what it means to be an audiophile from many different perspectives. (footnote 2). If you have any interest in this topic, I suggest you take some time to read your way through them. You may come out a better-rounded audiophile, or you may just want to give an audiophile a big hug.

Of course, audiophiles argue among themselves about what is more and less important. No one is more critical of the audiophile than the audiophile. But such behavior happens within any group of people, especially those who share a passion. The only time someone agrees to disagree is when he or she doesn't care very much about the cause of the disagreement. There are those audiophiles who commit that most heinous of social crimes, which is voicing their certainty that they are right, that they know better than you do what's best for you and how much money you should spend to get it. Their obvious mistake lies in not recognizing the fact that hi-fi is a hobby whose enjoyment is based on personal likes and dislikes.

Since the subject of money is so prevalent and divisive, it's worth clarifying that how much someone spends on hi-fi is not necessarily related to his or her level of enjoyment of that equipment. However, the argument can be made that the amount of money spent can have a direct impact on performance. Which leads us to the logical conclusion that performance and enjoyment are not interrelated. (I picture many self-satisfied Cheshire smiles appearing in the air at the thought that someone else has spent more for their enjoyment. This is inevitably followed by those smiles' sudden disappearance, with a pop!, as their wearers realize that it also means that someone else has spent even less than they have themselves.)

This brings us to the saddest case of all: overly refined audiophiles who brag about their inability to enjoy most records on most hi-fis, and who love more than anything to explain to you why that is the case, thus establishing their own sophistication while making you miserable, in a single supremely elegant and edifying gesture. But every hobby has its extremists, and audiophiles—as far as I know—have never caused themselves or anyone else real harm. Loud, whiny, and annoying is about as badass as we get.

What's wrong with audiophiles, beyond the facts that we're our own worst enemies, and that some of us have wandered into Plato's man-cave and gotten lost chasing shadows? I'd say nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps the most fatal audiophile flaw is intolerance, and the inability to enjoy music that isn't served up according to our own exacting specifications. We can become overly sensitive to our dislikes, effectively limiting our capacities for discovery and enjoyment (which, admittedly, may stem from spending so much time alone).

But in reality, and in the grand scheme of things, what is the worst-case audiophile scenario? Listening to something you don't particularly care for? Complaining about listening to music on the hi-fi sounds awfully decadent because it is decadent. The phrase "audiophile angst" would strike most people as an oxymoron.

One morning, with these things in mind, I drove our daughter, Nicole, to school. I find driving to be a nice break from writing and thinking about audiophiles. As we turned in to the school parking lot, Nicole said, out of the clear blue, "I couldn't live without music."

I hesitated, not wanting to spoil the magic of the moment. But I couldn't help asking, "Why?"

She answered without hesitation. "It fills my life with happiness."

If that doesn't ring true for you when all is read and your selection and set-up is done, you've probably picked the wrong hobby.

Footnote 1: Object sexuality, or objectum sexuality, commonly referred to as OS or objectophilia, is a pronounced emotional and often romantic desire for inanimate objects. Erika Eiffel, who married the Eiffel Tower in 2007, is a prominent OS spokesperson.

Footnote 2L See the new section in the magazine's website archives, "Audiophile Essentials," which is where you will find all that you need to know about the background to our shared enthusiasms.—Ed.