In case you haven't noticed it yet, ours may very well be the
strangest hobby of all time. No, I don't mean "strange" like the
strangeness of the famous Polar Bear Club and its bone-chilling ice-water "pool
parties" in the nude. And I don't mean "strange" in the sense of Andrew Zimmern
publicly eating, for the thrills, awe, and disgust of his Bizarre Foods audience,
just about anything that doesn't eat him first.
I'm not talking about circus act strangeness, either, or "speaking-in-tongues", or anything like that. Instead, (but fully as unusual), I'm saying that our hobby — one that is seriously embraced by, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of avid fans all around the world, is, among other things, almost impossible to accurately define or characterize.
Don't believe me? Well, then, just what exactly is an "audiophile"? According to Webster, it's "a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction", but what that really tells us is precisely nothing.
Just for example; what does "enthusiastic" mean, as it's used
here? Or "high fidelity"? Or "sound reproduction?. The fact of it is that each
of those questions leads only to further questions, and no satisfactory answer
is ever possible. And even that's not true; what is true is that
there may be as many correct answers as there are audiophiles and the people
trying to define them.
Let's take a look at the issues, and I'll show you why:
First, consider the concept of "enthusiastic": What does it mean? Sure, obviously it means something like "pleased; excited by; and in favor of", but how pleased; how excited; and how much in favor? Enough to prefer better sound quality when you listen to music on the radio or on your cell phone, but not enough to actually go out and buy a dedicated sound system? Enough to buy something "good-sounding"; that has some bass; that will make you feel good, and that will get your toes tapping, but doesn't necessarily try to perfectly reproduce the recording or original live performance?
Or does "enthusiastic"
mean so pleased, so excited, and so favorably disposed
that, reminiscent of this country's founding fathers, you'll (at least
figuratively) pledge your life, your fortune and your sacred honor" to putting
together a system so good that it will not only make you feel like you're right
there at a live performance, but like you also have a back-stage pass for after
What about "high fidelity" or "sound reproduction"? The fact
of it is that no one – not the musicians or other performers, and not even the
engineer who made the recording – has ever heard the music from exactly the
position (or all of the positions) where the microphone(s) were placed
for the original "live" recording session. And, for many recordings –
particularly of popular music – that original "live" session, might never even
have existed: The performers or orchestral sections might all have been recorded
separately, on separate "tracks", at separate times (and possibly even separate
locations); and the recording might just have been "laid-up" from those tracks
during the mastering session. So, if we're talking about "high fidelity", in the
sense that the sound is "highly faithful" to something; high fidelity to what?
Certainly not to the original performance, because nobody at the original
live recording session ever actually heard it the way the microphones did, and,
as to "sound reproduction", how can you possibly reproduce a live session
that never happened?
It seems as if everything about the dictionary definition of
an audiophile is wrong, incomplete, or ambiguous, so what is an
audiophile? And what's so strange about our hobby?
The first (in no particular order) is the guy (a few magazines
have done market research and discovered that almost all of their
subscribers and "pass-on" readers were guys) who, as you might expect, is a
music-lover and wants to hear his favorite works in great-quality sound.
The second is the guy who loves the sound even more than the
music, and will buy and listen to recordings of just about anything at all;
music, sound effects, jungle noises (like the album Rhythm Devils Play
Music Wilson Audio W8521) or even the sound of somebody banging on a metal garage door (Hi-Fi News
& Record Review Test Disc Denon HFN003) as long as it's brilliantly
recorded and he can marvel at the feeling of being "right there".
The third is the guy who – like the (surprisingly very
successful) dealer we had back when I owned XLO, who actually told me in all
seriousness that he doesn't like music, but loves the equipment it's played on –
is simply a "Gear-Head". What curls his toes is neither the music nor the
sound, but the toys and goodies that he can buy (or, in that dealer's case,
sell), play with and show off. Price, with him, is not the object, simply the
joy of brilliantly engineered, beautifully manufactured nice things.
The fourth is the guy for whom the whole system is an engineering challenge. He, too, may not be so much into the music, as such, or even the sound, but, for him, putting together a system that he can regard as "the best possible", whether at any price; at the limits of his resources; at some pre-determined price point; or at "the state of the art" is his goal, and the quality of the sound and the enjoyment of his music are the "report cards" of his success. If his knowledge or the advice he receives (I once met and sold another nearly $50,000 worth of XLO cables to a billionaire real audio enthusiast who had a full-time engineer on staff, just to maintain and help select the system for his stand-alone, acoustically-perfect sound room) are sufficient, his results can be astonishingly good. Or, like the guys I met in Asia, who put together systems 100% drawn from a magazine's so-called "Class A" equipment list without any knowledge of their own or any other outside input, the components can be "system incompatible" and a hugely expensive disappointment.
The sixth type of audiophile is the "the Statistician". For these guys, nothing about the system is the turn-on, and they may not even own one or have one set-up. (One person like this was an orthopedic surgeon I knew, who bought several systems worth of equipment but never bothered to set any of it up until he had achieved "at-least-on-paper" theoretical perfection.) Guys like this go to Shows; collect and pore over product literature, and spend endless hours discussing or arguing about it with their like-minded friends. For them, audiophilia has little to do with listening and a lot to do with becoming a walking source-book of audio specifications, reviews, and lore.
And, finally, at least for here, there are "The Religionists"; audiophiles who may be of any of the other types, as well, but who are, and who love to be zealots on either side of any of Hi-Fi's very many "voodoo" or "snake oil" issues. Do cables make a difference? Do amplifiers? Will putting little pieces of (whatever kind of) stuff around your listening room affect your sound? Are tubes really better than solid-state? Is it really the other way around? What about lifting speaker cables off the floor? With or without knowledge, and whether whatever knowledge they think they have is actually the truth, these guys (and there are lots of them!) will figuratively "fight to the death" to defend their point or to attack the other guy, and will do so gleefully and without end, with everybody, including their in-person or internet audience, having a high ol' time in the process.
The all-time greatest of these issues is "Can you trust your ears, or are measurements and double-blind testing the only paths to accurate judgment?" and that, just in itself, qualifies our hobby as the world's strangest.
Car buffs; camera Crazies ("shutterbugs"); sports fans; the followers, advocates of, and adherents to, every other hobby or avocation of any kind all recognize and accept the fact of difference in the practice or performance of the thing they're interested in and all accept and rely on the evidence of their own senses: Auto enthusiasts may very well disagree over which car is best; Camera fans do certainly argue about the merits of different lenses, shutters, or media (film or digital); sports fans often disagree on the best team or player, but, unlike audiophiles, they never deny the evidence of their own senses. The car that crosses the finish line first wins; the lens that takes the clearest picture is best; the athlete or team that takes the trophy is the champion – at least for that one game. Only audiophiles will ever go to war over whether what they hear on equipment whose only purpose is to be heard is to be believed.
How's that for strange?
Me; personally, I can find myself in all of the types I just
mentioned, but I'm not going to worry about it. Instead, I'm just going to sit
down, put on some sounds, relax, close my eyes, and...