I like to think of myself as an audiophile. I know high-fidelity sound reproduction quite well since it’s my job. And as a reviewer, I have access to lots of great gear that I can enjoy without spending a lot of money. It’s a system that works well for me.
I’ve met all kinds of audiophiles in my time in the industry. Personal audio and headphone specialists like me, digital audio fans, analog audio enthusiasts, home theater enthusiasts, two-channel enthusiasts, and my personal favorites, the “all of the above” bundle “. And then there are the hardcore enthusiasts, the Faith Militants of Audiophilism. They are the ones who reposition the loudspeaker by a fraction of a millimeter to obtain better sound staging; use metal spikes worth thousands of rupees as they reduce vibration and resonance and eliminate that almost inaudible hum; and break out their dehumidifiers because they insist that the humidity in the room affects the sound waves as they travel through the air.
The thing I find most annoying about these militant audiophiles is their choice of music. They search for new music based on the quality of the recording – as opposed to the quality of the song. I’ve seen them listen to bland, boring tunes with very little character, simply because the recording itself is stellar, or because “you can hear the saxophonist exhale and it sounds so real!” I’ve been to many demo rooms and listening lounges, and all of their CD collections are just plain boring. There is little melody or quality to the tracks themselves.
I listen to a lot of music, but I admit that I like electronic music the most. I like my songs fast, exciting and melodic. So I like my speakers and headphones full of bass and drive because it adds character to my music. It brings out the excitement in my tracks, and I find myself enjoying the music rather than trying to pick out individual elements of the track or trying to place the soundstage and follow the imagery. I had emotional reactions and fell in love with tracks using budget headphones that weren’t as accomplished or capable as the big brands, but still had the right setting to get something I could enjoy.
And let’s not even talk about the money. Snobbish audiophiles might argue they’re spending all that money because they can hear the difference in sound, and anything less than the best (read the most expensive) will do. They buy speakers and amplifiers worth millions of rupees to improve the sound by such a small fraction that even trained ears cannot tell the difference beyond a point. They’ll only listen to lossless CDs and hi-res audio files, though a decent 320kbps MP3 will do nearly as good a job while taking up a fraction of the hard drive space.
They insist that they can hear the difference between MP3 and lossless audio files. They insist that 24-bit/192kHz audio is the way to go, even though the human ear can’t actually hear frequencies above 20kHz and going nearly ten times higher is scientifically insane. . In fact, Neil Young’s much-hyped Pono Player recently failed a controlled A/B blind test, where most test subjects actually preferred the sound of compressed AAC files downloaded from iTunes, to uncontrolled FLAC files. Supposedly superior compressed from Pono. The thing is, most people can barely tell the difference, and you’re probably lying if you say you can with absolute precision.
I was recently asked which are my favorite headphones. I heard a wide variety of headphones and earbuds including some that cost over Rs. 1,00,000. My answer was the Rs. 2,199 SoundMagic E10S. I’ve very rarely found audio products that do so much for so little money, and the SoundMagic in-ear headphones deliver more excitement and oomph than products that cost twice as much. This is a pair of headphones that play well with all types of music and sound really fun no matter what you’re listening to. The most important takeaway is that it was done for less than my monthly electricity bill, while some audiophile systems can cost more than a two-bedroom apartment in Mumbai.
Brands such as SoundMagic openly laugh at the idea of spending a lot of money to get great sound. It also completely mocks an industry that operates on ridiculously high margins and must perpetuate audiophile myths to keep their interests alive and healthy. Renowned cable maker Siltech sells the 2m Emperor Crown speaker cable for $45,000 (about Rs 29,000,000) to wealthy audiophiles, while offering half-hearted explanations of how the product actually is. better. Usually cable sellers resort to “You will hear the difference!” as their final pitch. One of my favorite debunking stories is about the Monster speaker cable and a coat hanger. Guess what? “Seasoned” audiophiles couldn’t tell the difference and thought the hanger sounded good.
I fully understand the concept of being passionate about something. I understand that people can be passionate about things that I don’t really understand (I once met a man who was passionate about debt securities). But when it starts to take over an aspect of your life that’s supposed to be personal, that’s where the problem is. Sometimes a little color and character in an audio product is not a bad thing. Sometimes neutrality and precision are not the answer. Sometimes I like a bit of exaggerated bass noise. There are many audio products out there that have different sound signatures, and you’re sure to find one that suits you and your listening preferences. But the important thing is to learn to enjoy your music, without worrying about whether you can hear individual (and unnecessary) details.