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The Absolute Sound

September 2006
By Wayne Garcia

Are Audiophile Really Music Lovers?

  This question has probably been around ever since the term "audiophile" was coined, but it's one that deserves re-asking every now and again. Before I chime in, however, I'm not going to claim that there's a right or wrong answer, or even just one single answer (though naturally I have my own rather opinionated point of view). What I can do is share what I've observed — over the past 30 odd years in this hobby (first in high-end audio retailing and for the past dozen or so on the publishing side), what writers and readers of this and other audio magazines seem to be listening to, what I hear manufacturers demo-ing their gear with at shows, and what I know about dealer showrooms. And based on these collective observations I'd say that some audiophiles are true music lovers, with a wide, eclectic, and limitless thirst for new musical discoveries, and record collections that reflect their musically adventurous nature, where sound quality is important but a distant runner up to musical content. Some audiophiles are sound lovers, with audiophile "approved" record collections built from the received wisdom of this and other publications, where musical content is relegated to a secondary consideration. Some audiophiles are equipment lovers, with limited record collections based almost solely on audiophile label releases. Here, sonic thrills take total precedence over the music. But I think most audiophiles fall into another category that I would call limited music lovers — people who listen to the same stuff, much of it what they loved when they were growing up, over and over and over again (with the enthusiastic support of the audiophile reissue labels, that never seem to tire of reissuing their reissues over and over and over again). To my way of thinking this seems backasswards. Presumably (though I could be wrong), the majority of us got into this hobby because we love music, and presumably (though here I'm almost certainly wrong) it's the constant discovery of new music that keeps us in this hobby and helps to keep it, and us, fresh. As an equipment reviewer, even though I'm a self-confessed serial-binger (when I get into something, say, Wilco, or Monk, or my current bender, 20th-century classical, I plunge in head first), I get bored to tears listening to the same tracks all the time. And here I must add this: When I sit down to listen to music I typically (though as time dictates not always) play entire albums, not just a few well-worn tracks. I'm astonished when reviewers write things like, "Over the XYZ speaker system, the music sounded so good I listened to the entire album!" Wow. Really? Sorry, but I just don't get it. Did Richard Strauss really have nothing left to say after the opening fanfare of Also Sprach Zarathustra? Are we so quickly bored that we need to lift the tonearm or push the stop button as soon as we've had our jollies? Are we listening to music or our stereos? The answer, of course, is both — that's why we're audiophiles.

Now, I'm all too aware that evaluating new components means having a benchmark to gauge with, and at some point in the process it's not only natural but necessary to pull out shopworn favorites. The trap for reviewers, though, is that we not only risk boring ourselves, we risk boring our readers. And citing the same limited number of discs review after review tends to make them all read the same. I don't think I'm alone in saying that my eyes start to glaze over when I see certain warhorse titles listed in a review. (I'm sure you can easily write your own list.) Oh, I'm guilty, too. If not of listing audiophile clichés then at the very least of relying a little too heavily on recordings I've listed in previous reviews. So I'm challenging not only my colleagues but also myself when I say, get thee to the record store, discover some new treasures, and use them in future audio reviews.

And where to find them? In this regard, I'm especially proud of our upfront music features and back of the book music section, which typically runs a richly informative 18 pages. Under the guidance of our managing and music editor Bob Gendron, our staff reviews any number of discs in the classical, pop, and jazz fields that intrigue me. From each section I make a list of the titles that seem of particular interest, and regularly purchase from it. This is partially because as TAS editor I feel the need to stay informed, but it's mainly because I'm one of those guys who have an insatiable thirst for new musical pleasures.



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