Snob Appeal

It began innocently enough. In June, published a sampling from an exhibit by the photographer Kai Schaefer, in which classic LPs of different eras were partnered with the similarly classic record players on which they might have been played: Tea for the Tillerman on a Dual 1219, Kind of Blue on a Rek-O-Kut Rondine, Sgt. Pepper's on a Thorens TD 124—you get the idea. The photos worked as cultural documents, as good-natured kitsch, as surprisingly beautiful and compelling industrial art. I was thoroughly charmed.

Schaefer's own website,, has as its epigraph a quote from the writer Jean Paul: "Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be driven." Resoundingly true—nonetheless, some nitwit on Slate tried her damnedest. In yet the billionteenth example of the questionable value of inane online fora, someone calling herself Tinwoman offered this sage observation:

I had an ex who was an audiophile. They do not listen to music, they listen to their equipment. They are congenitally incapable of even enjoying music, because they are too focused on imperfections perceived and real. Also audiophiles are snobs. Avoid them. (footnote 1)

Nonsense, of course. Sexually tinged nonsense at that—which is no less reprehensible than racially tinged nonsense, irrespective of the gender of the target. Yet apart from reminding us that "congenitally" deserves a place of honor on The Inigo Montoya List of Commonly Misused Words, Tinwoman's hissy raises a single worthwhile question:

Are audiophiles snobs?

If by snob one means that I condescend to people who neither share my enthusiasm for recorded music nor are able to afford my level of participation in the hobby, then my own answer is clearly No: I don't have it in me to look down on others for such reasons. The thing is, neither do the overwhelming majority of audiophiles whom I've met over the years—even the ones who are, in other respects, complete idiots. In fact, after decades in this field, I still think the notion of the audiophile who condescends to those who don't own five-figure phono cartridges and coffin-sized speakers is largely a construct of the insecure and the envious. The only condescension I see in this hobby is the sort that's aimed by audiophiles of one camp at audiophiles of another—a childishness that reached its apotheosis in The Flat Response, a wretched fanboy mag of the 1980s in which people who sold gear that wasn't made by Linn or Naim were mocked in a series of amateurish cartoons.

If, however, the qualification is the dual belief that there exists a subject in which I'm more knowledgeable than the average person, and that the depth of my knowledge and experience adds to my understanding and enjoyment of an important endeavor, then the answer is Yes: I am, unapologetically, a snob. I own thousands of LPs and a nice playback system; many of those records and much of that gear have entertained and enlightened my family, my friends, and me—and will, I hope and presume, continue to do so after I have passed away. And that's a good thing. Moreover, my record collection will never be "done." It will continue to grow and to change and, I hope, to improve, in the sense that it will offer even more enjoyment and more points of view on the art of music. Concomitantly, perhaps my system will continue to change, at least for a little while longer. Nothing wrong with that, either.

The world is full of people whose appreciation for music doesn't run terribly deep, and one can't deny that audiophiles account for some of their number—especially those hobbyists whose attention is focused on such things as spatial effects, and whose record collections aren't really collections at all but merely accumulations of technically well-made recordings, most purchased on the recommendation of whatever guru "discovered" them. I think a bottle-cap collection has more artistic value than a wall full of records that are all on audiophile labels, but that's just me.

That said, I believe that far, far more of the world's most superficial listeners—people for whom music is merely a pleasant background for shopping, driving, jogging, dancing, eating, and, most insultingly of all, talking—come from outside the ranks of audiophiles.

Lately, through estate sales, auctions, personal gifts, and the like, I've had a number of opportunities to acquire music recordings from the recently deceased—and the audiophile still comes out on top. Every time I've been invited into the home of a departed collector who owned a thousand or more classical or jazz records, I have been struck by the high quality of the decedent's playback gear: at the least, Acoustic Research AR3 loudspeakers and Philips GA-212 turntables—far from the curbside junk some of our comrades think everyone should have—and quite often such things as Thorens TD 124 turntables and Marantz Model 7 preamplifiers. Most serious record enthusiasts care about their playback gear.

Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who, when asked what they enjoy listening to, reply, "female vocals." Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who declare that every new tweak they try adds "a half an octave of bass." Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who don't appear to know how to dress themselves, and who wander the halls of audio shows in soup-stained fleur-de-lis polo shirts. Hell, hate me for condescending to audiophiles who hate. But ask me to hate audiophiles who keep alive the very notion of serious listening? You've come to the wrong guy.

Footnote 1: One imagines Tinwoman's lucky ex as a character in some gender-inverted slasher film, taking a call from the police and being told, Get out of the house—now!

eugovector's picture

"Sexually tinged"?  I'm not sure where you're getting that.

However, this we could use more of:  "Hate me for condescending to audiophiles who declare that every new tweak they try adds 'a half an octave of bass.'"

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

The gear is nothing more than an imperfect time machine, taking us back to the artist saying what they think the composer meant.

The composer sat alone in a dacha in the woods, in winter, depleting his food stock, scribbling notes in the hope that someone, somewhere, someday, would understand his agony and ecstasy; hoping to transcend time, place and cultural differences.

The artist, learned and practiced to the point of exhaustion, sat before a microphone, hoping the engineer would faithfully record their interpretation of the composer's message.

If we appreciate all this talent and all this effort, we'll just shut up and listen to the composer's message. And, if it all works out - from the original note scribbling through to the transducer pushing sound waves at us - we'll get it, and smile in appreciation.  And then, it will all have been worth it.

Music_Guy's picture the eyes of NARPs (Non-Audiophile Regular People) that is. Correcting their grammar doesn't help things, by the way.

It is common for people to label others who are enthusiasts/connoisseurs about an endeavor as snobs when the labelers don't participate in that endeavor themselves.  Tinwoman did that to her Ex.  Apparently, she didn't "get" his audiophilia.  So instead of supporting his pastime, she called him a snob and went her own way.

I find the percentage of audiophiles who are audio snobs to be about the same as the percentage of NARPs who are snobs about their thing.  (Cars, homes, wine, sports, alma mater, cigars, vegetarianism...)  And I agree that audiophile snobs are at their worst with other audiophiles of different camps.  (analog/digital, tube/sollid-state...)

This snob thing ain't gonna change until people change.

Let's keep sharing about better music recordings and better sound reproduction with as little condescension as possible.



misterc59's picture

Very well said, and I totally agree with your last point!   Thanks


Utopianemo's picture

You guys are all correct, but she does have a point.  Unless any one of you have met her ex, you should give her the benefit of the doubt. 

I realized at some point that there are a lot of ways to listen to music.  I think that audiophiles tend to focus a lot on how the music sounds, whether it be the quality of composition, performance, quality of engineering, recording, pressing, transmission, environment, and do on.  I'm not saying that's all audiophiles focus on, but a lot of the time it is.  Non-audiophiles who actually listen to music tend to focus more on what the composer is trying to say, what the writer is saying, what the instrumentalists are saying, and the skill and method of which they say it.  They often desire a basic level of quality of transmission but they aren't overly concerned with it.....much to the chagrin of the audiophile.

That is where the impasse is; the audiophile can't understand why the non-audiophile doesn't care about the way in which the message is transmitted, and the non-audiophile, who doesn't care to spend time buying, tweaking, and critiquing ad nauseum, mistakes the audiophile's figeting as being concerned with the quality of the transmission to the point of missing the conversation.  In my opinion, both have a valid point.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

and it reminds me that photographers have the same distinctions; pixel-peepers (all about the gear and image sharpness) v.s. photographic artists (who use whatever tool is available). Those interested in process v.s. those interested in results.  

Utopianemo's picture

Pardon my vulgarity, but I came to that conclusion by way of Home Theater enthusiasm.  As much as I love the pristine transmission of a well-put-together system, some of my fondest memories of watching movies occurred when I was a kid watching rented videocassettes on a subpar 25" crt, listening on tinny 3" tv speakers.  I think that once a person has become comfortable with their respective setup, they are free to focus on what the creator has to say.  I think sometimes audiophiles miss that.  

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Happiness = Reality divided by Expectations

JoeinNC's picture

"If by snob one means that I condescend to people who neither share my enthusiasm for recorded music nor are able to afford my level of participation in the hobby, then my own answer is clearly No: I don't have it in me to look down on others for such reasons."


Wha..? Oh... Hahahaha hahaha hahaha haha! Hahaha haha hahaha haha! Hahaha haha hahaha haha! Hahaha haha hahaha haha! 


Oooh... oh, that's funny! I thought you were serious there for a minute, Art.

Metalhead's picture

Well Rick an imperfect but FUN time machine to listen to, oh I don't know maybe Bon Iver!!!!!!

Doctor Fine's picture

Problem is too many of us "audio geniuses" are incapable of actually building a "correct" set.  And then LEAVING IT ALONE.

Tinwoman was probably afflicted by one of us "audio geniuses" that constantly jump up from our seats and twiddle with the subwoofer settings.  Or constantly fiddle around with "interconnectors" as though they were the be all and end all of the universe.

It is maddening.  And insufferable.

So what is wrong with "audio geniuses" that they are incapable of building the damn system right the first time and then LEAVING IT ALONE????

I would argue that most of those involved in this hobby are fakes.  They do not actually know how to build a completely balanced "finished" system that kicks ass for what it is---and then just sit back and enjoy their work.

Most are little perfectionists that don't understand the basics of setting up and dialing in a system in the first place.  They suffer from continual "upgrade-itis."  Because they never confronted the difficult process of "getting the most out of what you have in the first place."

To wit:  they don't actually know how to build a real "hi-fi" in the first place.

Most only know how to spend big bucks.  As though big bucks and uber-expensive gear will "take you there." 

Actually-----------it WON'T!!!!

You have to actively get engaged in this hobby if you are ever to escape all the cliches, my brethern.  You must study acoustic engineering and know how to properly dampen your listening area.  And understand what your components are doing to destroy the original signal and how to minimise this effect.

You must learn how to build a system that is an actual "fly on the wall" reverse-engineered replica of the original signal that somebody bothered to record.  In the first place.

Most of you are waaaay too busy trying to build "great systems."  Hahahaha.

And you like to argue endlessly about interconnects and bullshit.  Instead of realizing how much the last quarter inch of speaker placement really changed the "room lock" which your system was producing in your own environment.

My vote goes entirely to Tinwoman.

I built my own system fifteen years ago and have yet to move even one component a quarter inch since then.  All I do is LISTEN.  Listen to the greatest music ever recorded in history.

So sue me.  Get lost audiophiles....

I am not in the groove with phonies.  Art Dudley is a bit of an equipment "piece by piece" moron.  But Art DOES care about quality.  I only wish he could have sussed out what Tinwoman was complaining about.

Art needs to get his act together...

alexi2's picture

"You must learn how to build a system that is an actual "fly on the wall" reverse-engineered replica of the original signal that somebody bothered to record. In the first place."

Perhaps, however, a strong case could be made that playback will never mirror the recording. In what sense? A recording, even one made of a live band, will sound different to each member of the recording process. The engineer who is sitting at the mixing console is the first step, and they-along with the others involved in the production-will influence the sound of this recording as they adjust the various recording parameters. The mix, once finished, is mastered, which will again change the process. If one wants to listen to the final product, as it was heard by the mastering engineer and producers involved would have to exactly replicate the conditions in which the final mix was processed. After this moment, every next step distorts the sound.

An audiophile wants to recreate the best listening conditions, yes that is true, however each person has a different perspective. Sure, you may enjoy the conditions you have created. Others may want to continually try different set ups to see what other perspectives they can have on the recording.

The premise that you can reverse engineer to the point of "replication" is absurd. "Replication" of what, the artist's perspective, the conductor's perspective, the mixing engineer, the producer, the artist listening to their own music in the mixing room or mastering suite? What are you talking about? Seriously, there is nothing wrong with setting things up as you like them and sticking with that, but don't premise that statement on the notion that you have recreated a set of conditions that is some way mirrors "the original signal".

Personally, I enjoy getting the most out of what I have, but likewise enjoy adding to my system when the opportunity arises.

Warm regards,

makarisma's picture

Perhaps as audiophiles we are plagued with the infamous "OC Syndrome" towards improving our gear. I don't think there is anything wrong with that as it too is a hobby just like many other hobbies. Some snobishness will naturally come with any hobby. But what I don't get is the snobery of the dealers selling high end when the ones they are showing this attitude towards are who keep their business going.