The Audiophile Fallacy

I was reading a book of Leonard Bernstein’s letters recently. (, Amazon UK) This book contains letters both to and from Bernstein and a variety of people: friends, family, and other musicians, composers and conductors. In many occasions, one of the correspondents mentions having listened to a record or a live performance on the radio. And not once did any of those people write, “Oh, I wish this sounded better…”)

Of course, when you live with a given technology, it’s hard to imagine improvements in that technology. Also, these letters are merely a selection of thousands of letters. I’d be curious to know if Bernstein ever talked about stereo recordings; a technology that was developed early in his career.

But this made me think about something: those who make music – the performers, conductors and composers – didn’t seem to be too concerned about the quality of the sound they were hearing. They knew it was an approximation, and they accepted that. I’ve written in the past about why I think music is more important than sound, but thinking about these early days of recordings and radio made me realize that the basic premise of audiophiles is a fallacy.

The Wikipedia article about “audiophile” says the following:

“A key goal of audiophiles is to capture the experience of a live musical performance in a room with good acoustics, and reproduce it at home. It is widely agreed that this is very difficult and that even the best-regarded recording and playback systems rarely, if ever, achieve it.”

I think it’s fair to say that we will most likely never be able to reproduce the sound of a live performance on a recording, regardless of how much money one spends on hi-fi equipment. And that begs the question: why bother? Sure, there are incremental improvements one can make to an audio system. A better amplifier, and especially better speakers, may improve your sound, but you’ll quickly reach the limit beyond which any improvements are so marginal as to be comparable to a placebo effect.

Yet many people fervently seek this holy grail of perfect sound. I wonder what makes them tick? Anyone spending a large amount of money on an audio system must be aware that they will never reach their goal; so why bother? Why not spend money on more music, instead of spending potentially thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars on hardware?

I think the answer is that, beyond a certain point, it’s no longer about the sound. It’s about the joy of buying new hardware, of showing it off, of comparing it with others; it’s a pissing contest.

To be fair, audiophiles are a bit like NASA; the technologies companies develop for them eventually trickle down into improvements to more affordable components. It’s fair to say that one of the most obvious examples of this is the quality of DACs (digital-analog converters) that are now available at reasonable prices, and which improve the sound of music played from computers or other digital devices with mediocre sound cards. But most audiophile hardware offers at best tiny incremental differences (not necessarily improvements) in sound.

If someone were to offer me $10,000 to buy either audio hardware or music, my choice would be obvious. I’d buy music, because that’s what all this is about.

15 thoughts on “The Audiophile Fallacy

  1. If you can’t get it to sound perfect, go the other way. This reminds me of a bit Meredith Wilson used to do on his radio show, “The Band Across the Lake”, whereby microphones were positioned in the broadcast studio in such a way to make it sound like the music was coming from far away. The impression he wanted to create was that the listener was sitting perhaps a quarter mile away listening to a concert band playing (early on a Summer’s evening, very “Music Man”-ish”). Thus, he used degraded sound to a create an interesting, pleasurable experience.

  2. In my opinion, audiophiles overlook the elephant in the room, which is the room itself. Very few personal spaces can come close to the acoustics of a well-designed public concert hall, so no matter the fidelity that comes out of the speakers, the room is going to change it. Sure, you can adjust EQ, reverb, etc. to try to match, but it will never be perfect, and isn’t all of that adjustment just tampering with the “true” sound.

  3. Apparently you can’t hear. A crappy audio system can make music sound like crap. and what would you listen to that $10,000 of music on a $5 set of head phones? Just cause you don’t appreciate good sound doesn’t mean others don’t. And remember the cheapest car you can buy still gets you to your destination. So sell your fancy car.

    • You don’t get it. I’m not saying to use $5 headphones; I have decent audio equipment; between the setup in my office and the one in my living room, I spent a few thousand dollars. (A little bit more than my car, in fact.) But there’s not much point in spending much more, since the return is so limited.

  4. I won’t argue with your basic premise – that hi fi, like most things, is subject to the law of diminishing returns – but we might disagree about where the threshold lies. I don’t think of myself as an audiophile, but I do appreciate well-recorded music, the virtues of which can so easily be masked by inferior playback equipment.

    I certainly don’t think it’s practical or desirable to try and replicate the Albert Hall in one’s living room, but it is worthwhile pursuing musical presentation that allows one to hear the notes rendered as faithfully as possible. I have just reviewed a CSO Resound download of Muti and the Chicago SO in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites and the technical accuracy of this recording is just astonishing. I wonder how much of that comes through on a vary basic system or device? I don’t know, but what I can say is that one doesn’t need to spend $10,000 to realise just how good David Frost’s recording is.

    Ultimately recording is a sleight of hand, a trick, and the end result depends very much on the skills of the prestidigitator. This encompasses all the elements in the recording chain, from the hall to the microphones, the electronics and beyond, and to appreciate the skills involved it makes sense to invest in good playback equipment. If those things don’t matter, then the cost/quality of your equipment is immaterial.

    • Dan, I have a great deal of respect for you as a reviewer, but some of what you say is exactly what I’m talking about. You say:

      “hear the notes rendered as faithfully as possible”

      How do you know if it’s faithful? You can only compare the sound to an internal, subjective ideal; you can’t compare it to the actual sound of the performance in its venue. As you say below, it’s all sleight of hand; so what exactly does “faithful” mean?

      Then you say:

      “I wonder how much of that comes through on a vary basic system or device?”

      I think the music comes through. If it’s the sound that’s important, then, perhaps, it won’t; but if it’s the music that counts, then I’d posit that most anything these days – except for crappy standalone Bluetooth speakers – do a darn good job, compared to the stereo equipment I had in my youth.

      I appreciate good recordings; bad recordings irk me. (I was listening last night to an old Julian Bream recording; I got that box set of his stuff recently. Some of the tracks were badly miked, others were very loud while some were soft.) But if you don’t need to spend $10,000, I’m curious: how much is your audio system worth?

      One final note. I love the anecdote about how the Rolling Stones, when they finished the mix of Exile on Main Street, decided to try it out in real-world conditions. So they drove around Los Angeles and listened to it on a car stereo. Producers and engineers record with the best possible sound, but they are also aware that few people listen to their recordings on the same type of equipment as they do.

      • The sleight of hand has more to do with representing the scale of the music – cf. my Albert Hall remark. And yes, faithful is a subjective term, but it can be used with some confidence by anyone who listens to music – lIve and recorded – on a regular basis.

        I agree, the music is always paramount, but when it’s exceptionally well presented – as it is in that CSO Resound recording – that ought to be acknowledged. I imagine the few vices of this performance will be evident on any system/device, so in that sense some musical values will prevail. But what of the finer details/nuances, which are buried in the score and enhance the performance when excavated? True, engineers know these qualities won’t be heard on, say, a car stereo, but that’s no reason not to aim for the highest quality possible.

        indeed, one just has to sample the RCA Living Stereo, Mercury Living Presence. Everest and Decca recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s to realise that quality of sound was as highly prized as quality of performance, even though playback equipment of the time could not do full justice to their efforts.

        I have an analogy; Apple devices. Is the 5k iMac really worth double the cost of the conventional one? Is the iPad Air 2 a significant improvement over its predecessors? You recalibrate your expectations with each new generation of product, yet you seem oddly reluctant to accord that privilege to those who do the same with recorded music.

        • Let me begin at the end of your comment. Yes, the 5K iMac is worth the difference; the quality of the display is such that anyone can see it. It’s analogous to going from SD to HD video. As for the iPad Air 2, no; it’s not much of a difference.

          And there’s a good point there. With video, most people can see the difference (as long as they’re not too far from a screen). But there is a physical distance (I think it’s around 1.3 times the diagonal of a screen) at which one can no longer notice the difference. So lots of people whose TVs are far from them don’t really benefit from the quality of HD. With 4K TVs, it’s similar; even when there is 4K content available, if you sit far away from the TV, it won’t make a difference. It will, however, make it possible to make much larger TV screens, because the s-smaller pixels will make a much sharper image.

          I’m all in favor of appreciating good sound, and I agree that good (or poor) recordings should be noted as such. I just disagree with what becomes an obsession for some, in an attempt to achieve the unattainable. When something that changes clearly makes a difference (such as SD > HD), then it’s certainly a good thing; when it comes down to needing blind tests to try and prove that, say, a cable makes a difference, it’s just an obsession.

          • And, by the way, upgrades to devices like the ones you mention have measurable improvements: speed, size, battery life, etc. With most audiophile equipment it’s subjective (aside from, say, an amp with more power).

  5. It really is kind of interesting that, in the audiophiles universe, the only alternative to spending 10s of thousands of dollars is to buy $5 crap. I guess you are either for them or against them.


    • Yep. That’s a rhetorical device use for derision. You can’t even get much for $5, though you car probably find some earbuds at that price…

  6. I just came across this article. The definition of audiophile given in the article is not all encompassing. Many audiophiles keep buying gear because they are searching not for fidelity but their preferred sound signature. Just the right amount of bass, mids, treble in just the right relative proportions to sound sweet to their ear with all of their music. On audiophile forums I’ve seen that much more often than the search for accuracy. And since every speaker and headphone manufacturer knows this they distinguish their products by offering unique sound signatures. Enthusiasts that only want accuracy are about as common as the videophiles that desire only accurate color. Take for example the objective amp. It is designed to cleanly power all range of headphones with exceedingly low THD, output impedance, is perfectly neutral and is relatively inexpensive. That should have killed off the niche high end headphone amp market right? Nope, not at all. Do the studio monitors kill off all other types of speakers and headphones? Nope.

    I see that you gave a free pass to videophiles because resolution differences are obvious (as if stock earbuds as compared to midrange iems and headphones were not obvious). But if you look more closely you’ll see that videophiles will spend hundreds of dollars if not thousands more for slightly better contrast that most people would not even be able to discern let alone casually notice. They spend hundreds of dollars to have their sets calibrated so that they can have slightly more accurate color than out of the box movie mode.

    I also find that tired argument (that since no recording can faithfully reproduce being present for a live performance, striving for that goal is a waste of time) to be odd. Since you seem to put more value on visual quality let me give you an example. Boy I love the Godfather. You know dvds, blu-rays and streaming are all lossy digital presentations of the film, but not the film itself. Therefore all of these are not and can never be faithful reproductions of the original film. Should I simply buy the cheapest version then because if none of them can be faithful then who cares?

    Do you see the problem with this argument? There still exists a concept a concept of fidelity even if you deny it. On 50 mm headphones like the akg q701 I can hear more overtones on violins as compared to my ultraportable Beyerdynamic 30 mm headphones. That makes the reproduction of the violin’s timbre more faithful on the larger headphones than on the smaller headphones. In the Godfather, I’m more likely to see subtle detail including film grain on the blu-ray than on dvd.

    There is alot of absurd nonsense in the audiophilia world. But this blog addresses none of it. It is just trite and spiteful.

    • You were very polite until the last line.

      It’s true that you can buy TVs that cost ten times what mine did (and mine’s not a bad one). But I’d say there’s a similar problem with TVs; if your room isn’t prefect as far as lighting is concerned, then you won’t get the full extent of what you paid for.

      I would think that there are far fewer TV buyers that fit into the “video/cinephile” category, and who seek out every new gadget to make their TVs better.

      Regarding film, I think it’s a shame that we’ve gone from film to crappy 2K projections in cinemas. When I see a movie in a cinema, it looks like a blown up Blu-Ray.

      As for sound signature, isn’t that against what audiophiles claim? They say they want to hear the music as it was recorded or played live. As such, they should be looking for neutral sounding equipment. I certainly agree that there is a vast different in sound signature from one company to another, on headphone to another. But I don’t see how a self-professed audiophile would be seeking out something like that.

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