It happens so easily and innocently. One day, you’re laughing at a party while tunes pump through a Bluetooth speaker at the back of a room. The next thing you know, you’ve dedicated an entire room as a temple for the purest, uncompromising audio fidelity, where you sit motionless in a state of emotional euphoria as your favorite songs fill your ears with the vibrant sounds their creators so painstakingly crafted. It’s difficult to know why some become passionately obsessed with the sound of music, while others are perfectly content with the speakers on their smartphone, but sometimes all it takes is a small spark to ignite a burning desire for impeccable sonics.
Where It All Begins
Gleaning from observations over the years, I’ve concluded that “the change” from typical human to audiophile is often a result of routine social elements. The good made by individuals rich with experience in producing high-quality sound drips down to amateur musicians and everyday people through commonplace interactions such as going to a concert, hearing a friend’s stereo system, or getting new music recommendations from a pal. The trickle-down model does work, just not in economics… sigh.
The first exposure to a venue’s killer PA speakers, someone calling your attention to a special detail you never noticed in a record you’ve heard a thousand times, or borrowing a pair of premium headphones in place of cheap earbuds; these moments can send a jolt of excitement to the brain, move the soul, and trigger the body (e.g., goosebumps, anyone?). From there, a fresh enthusiasm takes hold, driving the urge to experience more of the same thrills. Curiosity prompts the person to learn more about quality sound and how to get it. Questions like “How much did these magical headphones cost?” or “What else should I be hearing in this record?” are catalysts for the big change.
Dabbling in the Dark Arts
Rarely does someone flip a switch and go to all from nothing. Unless you’ve been blessed with an abundance of funds, time, and space, you won’t go from smartphone speakers to a decked-out audio showroom in your home overnight. No, the process is more gradual. Gear purchases here and there, tweaking settings in apps, and learning how to listen; these things take time and that’s part of what makes it an adventure, a journey, and a joy.
The simplest and most impactful change you can make is to your transducers (speakers or headphones), not to the source (CD, vinyl record, digital file, etc.). A low-quality MP3 file of Matt Corby’s “Miracle Love” played through great speakers will sound shockingly better than a 24-bit / 192 kHz ultra-high-resolution file of the same song sent through laptop speakers. I’m not saying the source is inconsequential. It does matter, but if you only change one thing, it should be the transducers.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not challenging to spend immense sums of money at this juncture. Great headphones can easily span the $100 to $1,000 range, while memorably good speakers frequently cost several to many thousands of dollars. Can you get carried away? Absolutely. I encourage no one to drop $50K on Sennheiser’s Orpheus headphone system immediately after retiring their stock Apple AirPods… unless their intention is to graciously give the Orpheus to me. In that case, do proceed.
Beware the Rabbit Hole
There is a danger to the pursuit of audio grandeur. Like any obsession, it can be taken to a point that becomes unhealthy. There are countless forums, YouTube videos, ad campaigns, and know-it-alls overflowing with “knowledge” and advice; without self-control and a sense of perspective, you may spend the rest of your life being tossed back and forth by conflicting sources as you drain your bank account with superfluous purchases.
Not only that, but the amount of time allocated to researching the many factors of Hi-Fi sound can yield a person who is isolated from the natural world. They decline friendly banter and shy away from social outings, singularly focused on the mission to attain the ultimate playback system. They can’t justify buying a birthday gift for Mom because they need those $300 handmade, low-resonance Kevlar cable ties and the $500 limited-edition electrical outlet covers guaranteed to be phase accurate.
Go too far down the rabbit hole and you risk compromising your quality of life and impeding your ability to appreciate music. Every time you hear Sam Cooke singing “Trouble Blues,” do you really want your mind to be on the trouble you’ve had finding an upgraded pot for your receiver’s rotary input selector? What if Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is what made you love music in the first place, but you couldn’t stand listening to it anymore because it was too noisy at the start of the intro? How tragic would that be?
There are folks who are just as concerned with the smallest element of their sound system as they are with the simple pleasure of chilling out to some good tracks. If it makes them happy, it can’t be that bad. Unbridled audiophiles thoroughly investigate all parts of their signal chain and listening environment, and they insist on obtaining the best components at each point. If that sounds exhausting, you’re right. It is an unrelenting commitment to technical excellence, even if it means going beyond the capabilities of human hearing and measurable differences.
They start at the source of the music, making sure it was produced with studio-quality systems; their preferred formats include heavyweight vinyl records, DSD files, SACDs (Super Audio CDs), and ultra-high-resolution streams such as Tidal MQA and 24-bit / 192 kHz lossless audio. Of course, only the pinnacle of turntables, media players, and Hi-Fi music streamers will do.
From there, it’s a matter of obtaining equally superior phono preamps, DACs, integrated preamps, and power amplifiers for speakers and headphones. Rightfully, the speakers, subs, and headphones they choose must be of an appropriately high caliber. Speaking of caliber, unapologetic audiophiles aren’t just fanatical about the performance of their gear, they’re also quite selective about the aesthetic ingredient. Yes, a proper sound system should be aurally amazing AND it should be visually pleasing.
Things that “commoners” would overlook—cabling material, connector construction, power lines, and even the feet upon which the gear rests—are vigilantly checked by serious audiophiles. They live by the motto, “Your system is only as strong as its weakest link.”
Good Luck and Goodbye
When the dust has settled and the receipts have been tallied, an audiophile’s ultimate system may live in the range of five to six figures. And that doesn’t include the cost of acoustic treatment and the therapy needed to cope with the realization that your family will never understand why sound is so important. I advise you to start small and stop when your heart is content.
We love gear here and are always eager to learn about new stuff. So, break out your wish list (or your current equipment list), share it in the Comments, below, and you might just provide the spark for a future audiophile.
Looking for more great music-related content? Check out Music Appreciation Week, the place to go to further satisfy your inner audiophile.