Are you an Audiophile?
June 13, 2001 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Are you an Audiophile? I found this article on Slashdot, but I know some folks here don't read that site regularly and I think it's worth parroting here. I thought I was going a little overboard with my Technics SL-1200mk2 turntable the other week, but this is crazy. Or is it crazy/beautiful? Anyone here approach the depths of some of these music fans?
posted by moz (22 comments total)
And in the middle of the interview, he suddenly announces that CDs are harmful to people.

Harmful? As in physical harm?

"Yes, they adversely affect humans," he says.

I am scared. Hold me.

I have often wished that I could build a system like I heard at a party one time, a system that I thought was insanely expensive - about $20,000. I guess I do not like music as much as I thought I did. I would like to hear that system though. I am curious as to what a $140,000 sounds like. =)
posted by bargle at 8:28 PM on June 13, 2001

Actually, in the rarified air that sound must travel through to reach the ears of the most devout audiophiles, that's nothing. How about $23,500 for a pair of 8' cables? That's more expensive than the $20,000 Wildon Watt Puppy's they should be hooked up to. Throw in some Mark Levinson pre-amp/amp gear, or maybe some Cary tubes, a good Rega turntable (you can drop $5,000 on good tone arm), a CD transport and you're already way over $100,000. Then with that kind of gear, you probably want to condition the AC power. And we're not talking about surround sound are we? Because then you've got to outfit the whole media room. Definitely need a Velodyne sub for the F/X. And of course the plasma TV. Arrgh!

I own none of the above. I am an audiophile on a budget. But I can quit any time I want. Really.
posted by JParker at 8:35 PM on June 13, 2001

I love the fact these guys are spending so much money on technology and equiptment, they could just hire live musicians to come to their home on a regular basis and it would be an improvement. That got an honest to God *laugh out loud* from me.

I'm more than content with the tinny sound that comes out of my little PC speakers. I can't tell the difference between live and Memorex and haven't been able to for some time. My hearing's not what it used to be anywayz, cuz when I DO want live sound I drive to Deep Ellum here in Dallas and am bombarded by live bands playing through sound systems that dwarf the decibels generated by a 747 jet on take-off.

I have earplugs in the glove compartment of my car but somehow always forget to take them with me. When I find myself in an old-folks home forty years from now with a little jambox on my nightstand, the youngsters living next door will be telling ME to "turn it down, pops!"

Self-link warning: This is the kinda stuff I listen to.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:35 PM on June 13, 2001

If you're used to typical mass-market consumer audio (e.g. Sony, Bose, etc.), and want to improve your listening experience dramatically without spending tens of thousands of dollars, the absolute best thing you can do is throw a grand or two at a nice set of speakers, because on most systems the speakers are definitely the weakest link.

I have a pair of Vandersteen 2ce speakers (about $1500) and for weeks after I got them, I spent every free moment on the couch re-listening to all my favorite CDs and hearing things I'd never heard before, my jaw hanging open. I'd put on Deep Forest, close my eyes, and god damn, there were pygmies in the room. Like they said in that article, the experience of a good soundstage is eerie. (The rest of my system was nothing special, and still is.)

There really is a noticeable difference when you move from the lowest tier of speakers to an audiophile brand. Even if you never go any further than the speakers, you'll find that that step alone increases your enjoyment of music by an order of magnitude. I spent three days auditioning various speakers before settling on the Vandersteens (it came down to those or the NHT Model 2.5) and I can honestly say it was worth it. Yeah, some people think $1500 is a lot for a pair of speakers, but they're usually built to last a lifetime, and priced accordingly.
posted by kindall at 8:55 PM on June 13, 2001

speakers? unless you have majr crap to begin with, i'd change the amp first.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:18 PM on June 13, 2001

I used to be a low budget audiophile. My system cost right around $10k and was just barely approaching the treshold for what audiophiles consider 'acceptable' low end gear (a mix of Snell speakers, Acurus amplification, Tara Labs cables, and so on).

I was preparing to move and foolishly let my renter's insurance lapse for a two month period. During that time, I was burglarized and my house was cleaned out. I lost everything (not to mention seven PCs and a fairly massive collection of consumer electronics) and had no insurance.

After that, I gave up. It took a while to readjust to low-quality, mass-market sound, but I'm finally happy just listening to MP3s on my computer now.

I still shudder when I think about the money I spent and lost. (Rest assured, I don't go a single minute with insurance and thorough documentation now.)
posted by daveleck at 9:26 PM on June 13, 2001

Clearly, I meant to type 'without insurance'. Sorry about that...
posted by daveleck at 9:31 PM on June 13, 2001

Most speakers with a well-known brand stuck on the front of them are major crap, yeah.
posted by kindall at 9:37 PM on June 13, 2001

I'm an aspiring audiophile -- but I'm also a college student. Therefore, I'm quite happy with my dad's old amp from graduate school, my RCA turntable, and my Bose 301s. Yes, I know that the only reason people think Bose is any good is because of the advertising -- but they're still the best mass-market bookshelf speakers available. And I bought them at an outlet, meaning I saved about a hundred bucks -- for $200, they're frickin' sweet. I'll tell you, Kid A on vinyl is the warmest sound I've ever heard.
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:38 PM on June 13, 2001

It's not the money. It's the sound. Some people like different kinds of sound. Some speakers are better for some kinds of music. Go listen to the hi-end gear and figure out what it is about the sound that you like, then compare speakers within your budget and try to find it. Here are my best hints:

Listen for awhile. At first the boomy boxes sound best, but louder bass is not deeper bass. "Listener fatigue" sets in on bass-boosted speakers, but it takes awhile.

Take some CDs you know really, really well. Don't rely on the assortment of test CDs they have in the listening room.

Pay close attention to the soft sounds: the inhaled breath before the singer sings, the bite of the bow on the violin before the note, the decay of the piano note in the hall.

Always do A/B comparisons and make sure the volume is the same! Different speakers have different sensitivities, so you need to adjust the volumes to be the same before doing any critical listening. Otherwise louder always sounds better.

If you're spending serious green, ask the dealer to let you take the speakers home and try them for a week. Any reputable dealer will do that.

kindall's right. Try to spend your money two places: where the sound goes in, and where it comes out. For most people, that's a good CD player and good speakers. In the cost of your entire system, those two components should probably be at least 50% of the total.
posted by JParker at 9:42 PM on June 13, 2001

Don't rely on the assortment of test CDs they have in the listening room.

Yeah, but do let 'em trot out the ones they like, it can be great fun even if it's of basically no help choosing equipment. I found this awesome a cappella gospel recording that way...
posted by kindall at 11:27 PM on June 13, 2001

Some of the examples the Post article cites seem a bit odd. Granted, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on gear might be out of reason for most of the population (myself included, though it'd be near the top of my list of 'frivolous' stuff to buy), but the article also calls people like Slash and Tony Levin audiophiles as though it's a mere hobby. For people who've devoted their professional lives to making music, getting a decent system seems to me like more a necessity than a frivolity. With hundreds of studio credits to his name, I think Levin could rightly call a good stereo an investment in his career.
posted by disarray at 12:08 AM on June 14, 2001

Even if you never go any further than the speakers, you'll find that that step alone increases your enjoyment of music by an order of magnitude

Until recently I thought £500 on an entire system was plenty, I was happier spending the money on CD's and albums than equipment to play them on. Then a friend persuaded me to spend £600 on a pair of Kef speakers and my jaw hit the floor. Clearer voices, sweeter strings, crisper bass notes....
The only thing is, once you start it's difficult to stop......
posted by Markb at 5:40 AM on June 14, 2001

Too true. I think we're lucky in the UK to have some of the best small-scale hi-fi manufacturers, without the ridiculous markups -- especially on peripheral stuff such as "circuit cleaners" -- that are all too common in the US audiophile market.

Anyway, last night I was listening to a friend's vinyl collection, piped through a second-hand turntable and second-hand amp (and some lovely Linn speakers). Oh yes.
posted by holgate at 6:02 AM on June 14, 2001

Reminds me of an old Steve Martin bit --

"yeah, I just bought this google-phonic stereo, but it sounds like crap....I put it in my car...."
posted by briank at 6:28 AM on June 14, 2001

If you're on a budget (or just have too many hobbies to spend so much money on just hi-fi stuff - like me) then the best investment is a pair of good headphones. For $300, you can get a set of headphones that'll be comparatively as good as a pair of $1000 speakers.
posted by wackybrit at 7:14 AM on June 14, 2001

Markb: Ironically, the thing that got me to buy a good set of speakers was when a friend of mine stayed with me for a couple of months... and brought his Kefs with him. When he left to move in with his girlfriend, he took the Kefs, and I nearly cried when I hooked my old speakers back up.

Kef makes some models that really are not that expensive, too. Good stuff.

If you go the headphone route, check out Headroom. They have headphone amps with a feature that (they claim) alleviates the feeling that the sound is coming from inside your head.
posted by kindall at 7:29 AM on June 14, 2001

Does anyone know what exactly makes up the cost of these speakers and other components? What percentage is just mark-up, and what part is rare materials, special electronics, hand-making?
posted by Joe Hutch at 7:29 AM on June 14, 2001

In some cases, the audiophile gear is comparably priced to the mass market. I spent 4-5 hours listening to headphones at places like Best Buy, Circuit City, etc. When I tried a local audiophile store I found a pair of Grado headphones that were cheaper than the Sony, Kenwood, etc. and sounded incredibly better.
posted by cludwig at 7:56 AM on June 14, 2001

I imagine that even in relatively low-end audiophile gear there's a good amount of markup. However, a bigger factor is likely the fact that these more obscure brands lack the economy of scale enjoyed by a company like Sony. When you get to speakers, they're much more likely to be made of real wood (or at least to be covered in real wood veneer) than plastic or painted particleboard. Your speaker cones will be made of exotic materials like Kevlar (tantalum in the case of tweeters) which are light and rigid (thus preventing distortion), rather than paper. The speaker baskets will be more sturdy, and the driver will probably have a more powerful magnet. The crossover will likely be designed specifically for the drivers being used rather than being an off-the-shelf part and will often be more complex than a typical consumer crossover to keep the various signals more in phase. All the parts will likely be somewhat overengineered, so that at normal home listening levels they are operating at a much lower proportion of their design spec than consumer gear, giving them a lot more "breathing room" before things start to break up. And, of course, to a certain extent, you pay for the expertise of the guys who design the equipment. In many small companies, the man (it's always a man) whose name goes on the product actually designs it and often has years of experience in the field.

Now when you get to $10,000 speakers, you're definitely (IMHO) reaching a point of diminishing returns. The tweaks you can do at that point cost, a lot but may improve specs by only a few percent.
posted by kindall at 7:57 AM on June 14, 2001

> I love the fact these guys are spending so much money
> on technology and equiptment, they could just hire live
> musicians to come to their home on a regular basis and
> it would be an improvement.

That would only make sense if what you love is music, rather than technology. There's a major difference between being an audiophile and being a music lover.

I lived for a while in Cambridge, Mass., and my next-apartment neighbors were Harvard students in the department of music. One was a gradulate student (who got an MA in conducting and then immediately got a tenure-track faculty position at another college); one was an undergraduate then working on a summa, which he got, and then went directly to a conducting job in France. No, he was not French, he was from Boston.)

Now then, what kind of stereos did these prodigies have? The answer is, their equipment was absolute crap. Boombox-level stuff. When they had money they bought tickets to live performances, not fancy gear. They listened to recordings score-in-hand, sightreading the notation slightly ahead of the performance and arguing about the performers' decisions. Actually all they were getting from the recordings was tempi and pacing (how fast does Toscanini take this section? How about Furtwangler? Who's right?); everything else was being supplied from the score and from their aural memories of how voices and instruments sound live.

Obviously not every music lover has this level of ability, but (according to H. L. Mencken) there is one infallible test to distinguish between those who really love music and those who actually love something else - gearheads, maybe, or people who like being considered music lovers because that's so hip or cultured or whatever. Real music lovers, without exception, will attempt to make music themselves. No matter how clumsy or absurd the attempt or the result, a real music lover can't help but try.
posted by jfuller at 7:58 AM on June 14, 2001

Yeah, but do let 'em trot out the ones they like, it can be great fun even if it's of basically no help choosing equipment. I found this awesome a cappella gospel recording that way...

Thanks, kindall. Good one!
posted by JParker at 1:47 AM on June 15, 2001

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