What's an Audiophile? (Part 634)

Most of us have experienced the proverbial curveball that comes out of nowhere to smack us right in the head. My most recent such encounter was pitched by Stereophile contributor Steve Guttenberg.

Steve's whammy arrived amid an e-mail exchange among Stereophile writers concerning a rather clueless column in another publication on the dearth of women audiophiles. After asking how many female audiophiles each of us knew, Steve G. defined what he meant by audiophile: "a person who frets over their system, agonizes over choices, loves gear, and sometimes music. You know, the kind of person who reads Stereophile or The Abso!ute Sound. Merely owning a nice stereo doesn't make you an audiophile. Owning a Leica doesn't make you a photographer. You have to be at least a little obsessed."

Huh, thought I. That may be true of some audiophiles, especially gearheads, but it sure isn't true of me. Decades ago, when I made my first foray into the High End by buying used Advent and then Spica speakers, heavy speaker cables, and a CD player (which I hated), it was because I wanted to get closer to the source of musical creation. I wanted to get inside the throats of singers I loved, and feel more of that unquantifiable melding of head and heart, viscera and spirit, that is the essence of transcendent musicianship. For me, better gear = greater chance of liftoff.

Does my obsession with music rather gear make me a pretend audiophile? Might it be possible that my real reason for writing for Stereophile is that it provides perfect cover for a lack of true audiophile credentials?

Then came the reality check. I bought those heavy speaker cables after reading an article in Stereo Review that purported to prove that speaker cables didn't make an audible difference. My intuition told me that the article was wrong and that I should try heavier-gauge cables. Wasn't I already eager to spend hours comparing cables and components?

Decades later, don't I have a large collection of Styrofoam packing squares that I stick between cables to keep them at least an inch apart? Don't I insist on repositioning both them and the 2x4s that support my Nordost speaker cables every time the slightest movement propels them to the floor? Haven't I spent endless hours trying to keep that little Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC on its supports, even as my interconnects pull it off yet again and I scream to myself, "Just rest it on your desktop, you stubborn ass, and pretend you can't hear a difference—even though you can!"

Momentarily shaken to my knees, which is often where I find myself when I'm tweaking things, I acknowledge that I am guilty, as charged, of being obsessed. But is it obsessive behavior that makes me an audiophile? Or does it simply confirm that I've been saddled with a generous helping of neurosis that finds its perfect outlet in audiophilia.

It was time to confer with an audiophile buddy, Jeremiah Horn, who studied bass performance at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He'd just spent $3000 on a new Sony HAP-Z1ES music server and a Shunyata Research Zitron Alpha Digital power cable. I asked Jeremiah what made him an audiophile.

"A sensitivity to nuance, and a desire to hear everything that artists put into their music." Phew. That's more like it.

I then had another opportunity to test Steve G.'s theory. Jeremiah told me that he was first going to listen to his Sony with its stock power cable, then swap that out for the $995 Shunyata Zitron, to hear if there was enough improvement in the sound to justify the extra expense. I asked what his Sony was plugged into, and what other power cables he had in his system. When he told me that his power source was a PS Audio Power Plant Premiere connected to a Wyred4Sound P-1 Ultra, I suggested that he also try switching that power cord out for the Shunyata, to see where each would make the most difference. Things got even juicier when I learned that, for two other components, Jeremiah was also using Acoustic Zen Tsunami III power cords, which he could also move around to determine optimal positioning.

According to Steve, any bona-fide audiophile would have jumped at the opportunity to add more variables to his listening tests. Instead, Jeremiah moaned. He was far more interested in doing one simple experiment, and listening to music. His ultimate obsession was not listening to multiple permutations and combinations of gear, but to as much music as possible, at the highest quality.

What's an audiophile? I asked engineer David v.R. Bowles, who has served two terms on the Board of Governors of the Audio Engineering Society, is a guest lecturer at NYU Steinhardt, and records the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and other artists. "An audiophile loves good sound and good music," he declared, "and strives to extract great sound from quality recordings in order to experience music to its fullest."

A devil's advocate might counter that topflight recording engineers such as Bowles invariably obsess over microphone placements, choices of equipment, formats, edits, and all that. But I'm sticking with his and Jeremiah's definitions. For most audiophiles, I believe, music is primary, not gear. Which is not to deny that, when it comes to obsessing, many of us get so lost in fussing over details that we lose sight of the forest for the trees. But that just makes us ecologists as well as music-loving audiophiles.—Jason Victor Serinus

monetschemist's picture

Jason, wonderful article.

My perspective: I WANT to be an obsessive audiophile, but I am like that guy in the wrong part of Amsterdam: I walk down the street and look in the window but I don't touch it.

I have a lot of old Linn gear and a Schiit DAC and a fine little Linux computer that comes from an Israeli company that runs MPD and a Lacie 2tb hard drive and a VPI Classic. I LOVE my music. But I haven't yet started obsessing over it, though I want to. Styrofoam packing bits, wait - I'm sure I have some of those...

What I do instead, it seems, is enjoy you and the rest of the wonderful gang at Stereophile and its sister web sites and occasionally the gang at TAS obsess on my behalf.

Which is actually quite comforting! Really!!!

Virtually obsessing, how sad is that? But it's practical. For example I did not have to put any photos of Michael Fremer in my freezer. Nor must I go downstairs into the basement room affectionately known as "the hole" to search out bits of styrofoam.

So: please keep obsessing. Please continue to keep your Nordost cables off the floor with 2x4s (by the way are they spruce? pine? from where?). And more still, please please please keep writing about it!!!! This is a hobby, not a science experiment. Let's have fun!

Thank you!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you and all for your comments. Please note that, due to platform incompatibility issues, comments posted to the web are not visible to folks who read this website on mobile phones. Nor are web comments considered for publication in the print version of Stereophile (which is read, in web form, by many others). If you wish your letter to appear in print, you would be wise, as soon as the issue hits the stands, to submit your comments by email to the address that appears in the magazine.

dalethorn's picture

I obsess in disproportion to my budget, which leads to missing meals, avoiding dates, skipping car repairs etc.

Venere 2's picture

[flame deleted by John Atkinson]

jporter's picture

An individual who distorts reality to improve their self-worth.

donunus's picture

There is a difference between people with audiophilia nervosa and just being an audiophile. Most audiophiles have the disease though lol

prerich45's picture

Great article indeed!!!! Now you need to write one on audiophile subspecies:

;) LOL!!!! Truly a great article!! One of the best reads I've had in months!!!! Bravo Zulu!!!!

audiolab's picture

Audiophile : I use it to avoid saying I am interested in hifi, so that the person asking does not immediately saying "oh really I've just bought a bose surround system its amazing" and me having to tell them what I think of it...........

Audio_Visionary's picture

It is a religion not unlike others, but for the mostpart, harmless to others. Filled with false gods, promises of salvation, high priests and disbelievers. Some put large donations in the collection plate, others steal from the collection plate. It is another chapter in humanity and usually a first world affliction.

JUNO-106's picture

As with pretty much any activity that is not directly associated with survival, being an audiophile is mostly about filling time here on earth. If you weren't obsessing over this you would probably be obsessing over something else. Nothing wrong with any of it. Though I don't like how money obsessed this hobby has become. The idea that one MUST spend a certain amount in order to be considered a legitimate audiophile or the idea that dollars always equal more musically induced goosebumps.

Would love to see it all come back down to earth, and it will, someday.

As for me, I'm on autopilot with this hobby and, as a previous commenter here said, I rely on these publications to "do" the hobby for me.

I feel pretty apathetic about buying new gear these days but I like to look at pictures of gear both new and vintage.

I actually get more thrill now from music purchases on PHYSICAL MEDIA since they are constantly telling us that the future is streaming and I know that some day I will tire of being "connected" and will most likely go "off the grid."

When that day comes I hope to have a physical music library large enough that it will last me the rest of my life.

Actually I have more now than I can get around to listening to but I am finding music for so cheaply that I keep on buying.

BradleyP's picture

An audiophile is person, usually male, who loves great music recorded well and played back through equipment of superlative quality. Such a person usually seeks to improve playback with newer, better equipment in which the audiophile exhibits pronounced pride of ownership. While most are well-adjusted, many grapple with OCD, Asperger's syndrome, narcissistic personality disorder, and obesity. Common cognitive pitfalls are confirmation bias and magical thinking.

willdao's picture

Ah, would that it were not so...

Nicely said!

I might only add that many (undoubtedly among those not-so-well-adjusted specimens) can only WISH they could tilt at the windmill that is the proverbial "Spousal Acceptance Factor," as it's rather hard to do without a chance in hell of ever attaining any kind (or even degree) of "spouse"...

handler's picture

The typical audiophile is preyed upon by an industry that understands most of its customers are ignorant: Lacking an understanding of expectation bias and flat frequency response, for example. Instead of using a more scientific descriptor like problems in the lower midrange due to "lacking energy in the 150-400HZ region" the audiophile will use a vague term like "thin"; or worse not even notice that there's a problem. A typical audiophile will buy based on price and chassis finish rather than sound quality. Audiophiles will also disavow things like blind listening to justify fancy $10,000 D/A Converters when a more affordable one may be just as satisfying.

romath's picture

Talk about MCP egoism! Steve G raises a good question about the number (paucity) of women audiophiles and all you can do is prattle on about a quibble over the definition of audiophile.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You have drawn inferences from my statement that are not based in fact. The entire Stereophile intra-staff email discussion of women in the high-end was initiated by me after I had encountered a totally clueless article on the subject by someone who writes for another publication. The tenor of my comments was something to the effect of, is it any wonder that women steer clear of the high end when men write such clueless commentary about their absence?

Yours truly, whom you would frame as a male chauvinist pig, has in fact spent years been urging folks in the high end to abandon the term "wife acceptance factor" (WAF). I remind people that many people who are heterosexual are in unmarried relationships, and that many people who are gay or lesbian have partners of the same sex. I used to urge people to say "spousal acceptance factor" (SAF) until a person who left an excellent comment on this website led me realize that the best term for the phenomenon of making one's other half happy should be "partner acceptance factor" (PAF). Finally, I remind people that a hell of a lot of men - me for one - care about appearances.

I regret if the brevity with which I touched on the subject of women in the high end led you astray. The reality is that my essay is about the definition of "audiophile," not women in the high-end, and only so many words can fit on a single page. But I do wish to point out that your quick-to-the-draw, fast-to-fire ad hominem attack is precisely the kind of behavior and mindset that many people of both sexes label as quintessentially male and wish to avoid.

romath's picture

Your column after the introduction amounts to about two, maybe three sentences of substance: some people like equipment (which I translate to what I call "sound"), some people like music and pursue equipment to get the best enjoyment they can get from that angle. [Snore...] There's nothing wrong with talking about, or joking about, the spousal acceptance factor, as that's part of life as it is. However, while you were trying to delineate (analyze!) about the definition of audiophile, the question Steve posed, which offered the chance to ruminate about a profound social and psychological and economic one and perhaps more, you avoided. Entirely. As a woman would note: how stereotypically male.

miguelito's picture

I would love to meet them!

Doctor Fine's picture

When your system reliably produces an Oh My God response from Yourself and those you allow to hear it---then you have made it as an Audiophile.

My personal system can be relied upon to generate close to an orgasm EVERY time I turn it on.

And when I allow unwashed civilians with no credentials or appreciation for the art to listen---and THEY have an orgasm listening to it. THEN I know I am truly an audiophile and can produce a GREAT system.

Those of you that can not produce such a system are many. It must sound as though the artists are ALIVE and IN THE ROOM with you. NOT an easy feat.

And therefore you losers you are to be patronized. And mocked. And made fun of. And laughed at.

Because you are PHONIES.

MY system consistently gives people an ORGASM. YOURS is a limp D***.


Just telling it like it is...

As a recent listener commented upon hearing a corny 60s recording by Dean Martin which otherwise would have been forgettable: "Oh My God HE WAS IN THE ROOM."

readargos's picture

but I agree with your premise, and that it is not easy to achieve. That is where artistry and sense of aesthetics comes into assembling and tuning a system. There is a difference between those systems that produce sound (which I think of as "hi-fi" in the pejorative sense), and those that make the magic happen. It is not about more detail or greater bass extension, but about creating an experience that, momentarily, allows access and provides escape. The great systems are time machines and space invaders.

Sal1950's picture

$1k power cords, aligned speaker cables, interconnects spaced with foam, etc etc etc. That's not an audiophile or an obsession, it's just plain nuts. Your hearing things that don't exist. Have any of ya'll talked to the folks at Shunyata about wiring your whole house back to the pole with their wire? Don't forget to use some knob and tube hardware inside the walls to keep things spaced well. LOLOLOLOLOL
I love reading this stuff, been doing it for near on 40 years.
If JGH could read this stuff he'd laugh you off the net.
I can think of no other hobby wear people can make up so much imaginary stuff to justify wasting ridiculous amounts of money.
At least try to by American when you can guys, our GNP needs the boost.

twistedcrankcammer's picture


twistedcrankcammer's picture

Jason Victor Serinus,

I would add to what David v.R. Bowles said in that Audiophiles are not striving for the best sound reproduction, rather they are striving for what sounds best to them! As Paul Wilbur Klipsch once stated; "There is no such thing as high fidelity, something either has fidelity or it does not" No where that I can think of is this more evident I would think than your quest at spending large sums on expensive cables. Expensive cables can "Color" the sound, usually through capacitance changes, but that is precisely what I am talking about. You are adding something to the signal that was never there in the first place, so how can it possibly sound closer to the original source? It may sound better to your ears, but you are not increasing it's fidelity! A simplplistic example would be the top of their line Bose 901, which needs it's own special EQ to sound somewhat correct.... REALLY?? My advise on the expensive cables is that there is also a proven positive effect of placebos and you are fooling yourself, as once again, you are not adding fidelity!

Sincerely, Roger Gordon

Deaconblue1955's picture

An Audiophile is any person that seeks to get the most pleasure from the system they have. We all know that set up and placement, etc. matters to us all. Are we obsessed? Sometimes.
The biggest issue that I have with the moniker of Audiophile is that some people think that all of us have $50,000 systems and drive an exotic car. I am a budget audiophile that owns a Honda Element.
My point is that this hobby or obsession is not based on riches, snobbery, or social status. It is about people that love music and seek to get the most from what they have. Sadly, I think that the status quo of this hobby are guilty of selling the fact that all Audiophiles are fat, rich white collar snobs that have more money than sense. I believe that if this hobby is to survive in the future and be passed on to the young folks, all of us must spread the word that Audiophilia is for everyone to enjoy. Otherwise, we will be dinosaurs.

readargos's picture

I started out years ago with a modest system. I paid attention to setup and listened to music as a focus activity. The system has improved in the intervening years, but setup and music as a focus activity remain the same.

Swineshead's picture

...is what I strive for in my recordings. Yes, I do obsess about microphones, cables, mic pres, A/D converters and DAW (digital audio workstation) software...and that's only for the recording! I had my room tuned acoustically last year and it made my [already expensive] analogue rig sound all that much better.

I agree that there is a "rich white male" stereotype, but there are some excellent female engineers rising through the ranks. Undoubtedly there will be more female audiophiles once they hear the difference between "good enough" and "fantastic" reproduction. Home theatre will lead the market, and this depends on having a Blu-Ray player (as the streamed films have been compressed somewhat). Audio-only titles will force one to listen to music without the distraction of visuals; this requires a single-minded approach. Come to think of it, reading requires a similar discipline!!

BTW, I drive a 2003 VW Jetta Diesel. Back to editing...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

In his drive to create the perfect edit that will please music-loving audiophiles no end, David neglected to identify himself.

tonykaz's picture

My "type" of Audiophile gets a thrill from recorded music.

That's me!

I'm thrilled by musical performances, the physically closer I get the more I'm thrilled!

My UofM medical doctors tell me that music releases Dopamine in my brain, so somehow I'm chasing that dopamine rush.

My iMac/ODAC/Schiit Asgard2/Sennheiser headphones deliver dopamine galore, more than any Big Box system I've ever owned.

Tyll at InnerFidelty is now writing about the best of the Dopamine releasers, I'm itching to get some of that Better High, I'm reading his every utterance, he's the top-"high" Authority available to us.

I've been in the Audio Industry as a Importer, a Retailer and a Manufacturer. Today I'm just a person hooked on Music.

Lots of people today are Gearheads ( like Steve G., god bless him ).

Lots of people are Show-offs ( they like stuff like Krell, which is good stuff )

A few are like Todd the Vinyl Junkie with thousands of records, I'm kinda like this. I have a huge collection of 16/44 music on my hard-drive playing, I keep adding to my collection. Today I added a Laurie Anderson and a Bobby McFarren.

So, there are three known types:

A) The Gear Collector

B) The Gaudy Show-offs

C) The Dopamine Addicts

If I missed a group, I apologize but I think I've covered 99.99% of us.

Tony in Michigan

MeCurious's picture

I've been in this hobby for 40 years. I've been to numerous shows. Heard some great sounds. But none of this has gotten me to the music I want. To just have the music flowing freely with no harshness or editorializing. To have the tone match real instruments. To just forget abut the equipment and enjoy the music. I can count on one hand the times I have encountered that feeling while listening. But those few times have kept me trying to bring it to my home within my budget. It's been a struggle. A fun struggle that I'm destined not to give up.

tnargs's picture

Yes, music is primary for the audiophile, BUT the controllable path to that great sound that lies within the music is through the equipment. If the equipment was not a major concern and music was primary to the point of dominance, we simply have another iPodophile who loves his or her music. The key distinguishing feature of the audiophile is a recognition of the importance of the playback sonics and a willingness to do what he or she can about it. One might say that an audiophile is unique in having high standards about the playback experience.

The other factors in the great sound of great music, such as the performance, the recording, and the formats it is released in, are not anything the audiophile can actually have an effect on.

Golden Ears's picture

When I decided to buy a stereo I thought I could get a pretty good one for about $600 that was in 1978. It turns out you really can't get a very good stereo for $600 even in 1978 dollars. I wanted something that looks cool, and sounded amazing, hopefully by a major brand. This was a huge mistake, I bought a Mitsubishi DA – 10 receiver and infinity reference studio monitors with plastic midranges and plastic woofers (All considered putting technology at the time) . It looked kind of cool, sounded kind of awful, and was incredibly unreliable.

As a high school student I certainly couldn't afford audio research, so I settled on Bryston 4b, apt Holman pre-amp and Sequerra Pyramid metronome three speakers . At least the speakers looked cool. But they still didn't meet my audiophule needs so I bought some Infinity Reference Standard RS1 (the baby IRS) another Bryston 4b and a pair of Entec SW-1 subwoofers and a Mitsubishi LT-30 turntable . I wanted a Linn but the Mitsubishi was a better choice for college . And even though by that time I hated Infinity and Mitsubishi , which I had bought a mid fi dealer Borgers Audio in NYC, Lyric hifi convinced me to buy these and was right.

I was an audiophile. To me the definition of an audiophile is willing to forgo either a normal budget or you living room for sound. I tried to cut back , selling the infinity speakers and buying ProAc response 1SC stand mounts, but they didn't cut it.

Now I have Chapman speakers who have the dynamics and clarity, sound staging , delicacy...without taking over my room. But I still run my Inifinty Reference standard RS1-b (3rd set now) with Entec SW-1 subs.

So you would think my audiophile days are done?

Not exactly.

My bedroom now has full sized floorstander Chapman T-8 with Sherwood s5500II integrated tube amp. And Aqua La Voce DAC. And a 65" Panasonic VT-60 plasma. This was at the SPECIFIC request of my GF. I have no problems with WAF after she heard my systems.

My sunroom has another audiophile system with Chapman T-7 and a H.H. Scott 299b intergrated tube amp.

My GF has her system in my living room. On the other wall across from my Infinity Rs1-b and ENTECS.

Her system , bought with her own money 100% is Chapman T-9MKII $20,00 yikes! ! A VAC PHI 200 tube amp, and the $22k analog DAC stack. (And she also owns a set of Magneplanar tympani 1d! She has spent more than I have.

And in the bedroom there is a DJ system wiith GENELEC s30D powered ribbon monitors.

I can say you become an audiophile when ...no matter how large the home, you continue to fill every room with music of audiophile quality.

Even our dining room has a set of Magneplanar Tympani IV-a.

And the car systems and headphone systems are even more ridiculous.

So being an audiophile (or audiophile couple) means making compromises, it's wanting musicians in your home to the point of feeling a bit crowded since each speaker takes up the space of a person. We have 7 audiophile systems and really only 6 rooms for them. And no, we are not hoarders, we like everything nice and tidy. And the home is beautiful.

And with musicians seemingly everywhere, we never feel alone, even when only one of us is home.

rustybutt's picture

I agree with you that the music is what's important. People see my Linn table and immediately assume I turn my nose up at digital sources. I have great recordings on vinyl that will never make it to digital. It's all about the music.

But for me being an audiophile also means being someone who wants to "get his hands dirty" with it. For some that may mean building an amplifier, wiring cables, fabricating loudspeakers, room treatments, etc. And for me, it also means wanting to create recordings as well as just playing back someone else's work.

The amount of money you spend doesn't measure how much of an audiophile you are. For me, the people who bring things to Burning Amp are much more audiophiles than those who just drool over gear priced to compete with Real Estate in California.

Simon Moond's picture

Steve G's definition, and Jason's do not have to be mutually exclusive.

For the most part, Jason's (and the other gentlemen he asked) definition fits me. That is, the equipment is there to serve the music. As Mr. Horn put it, "a desire to hear everything that artists put into their music".

But that doesn't exclude certain days, where I am "a person who frets over their system, agonizes over choices, loves gear, and sometimes music".

I can enjoy being both types of audiophiles at different times.

Karystrance's picture

there is still a dearth of female audiophiles.