It’s the time of year for saving money!
Noted humorist Mark Twain once said, “we are all ignorant, just about different things.” I have also heard a variation that goes – “we are all ignorant about something.” It seems to make sense that while any of us are knowledgeable about some, maybe even many things, we are not experts on everything. High performance audio included.
When we look at the number of audiophiles who spend ever increasing sums of money on a musical playback system and compare that to everyday, plain ole music lovers, we easily find a schism in the numbers. How many audiophiles there are compared to how many music lovers there are makes our hobby indiscernibly small. “i” somethings or other sell in the tens of millions, maybe even more. Most all play music. Yes, not great music but music none the less. How many, by comparison, world class, best of the best amps sell each year?
For most listeners, taking a smart phone and connecting it to some type of Bluetooth device is wonderful. A magical feeling usually ensues. Better still is connecting that smart device to a home network allowing listeners to enjoy music stored on their “i whatever” – all over the house. And of course, there are devices that play music on demand – “Alexa, play some jazz” and poof, jazz plays.
If this is the extent of real world, practical experience an ordinary, everyday music aficionado uses to play a song, and little is known about better playback methods, how does an audiophile explain the hobby to one who could care less about dynamics and standing waves? Try doing so may enact a deer in the headlights look, and an internal question that resembles “what is he talking about?”
How then do we, as music lovers, as listeners who want something better and are prepared to pay to have it, even as audiophiles, explain our hobby to someone who feels an iPhone is all the musical excellence one should ever req uire? How do you explain the driving experience of a Ferrari to a person who feels a scooter is all one needs to get around?
Over the years, I’ve had any number of non-audiophiles in my audio room. I try to explain what they first see, most notably the acoustical panels on the walls. In all honesty, the correct answer to “what do all these things hanging on the walls do?” is steeped in physics. Providing an accurate answer relies on discussing the conversion of sonic energy to heat and the resultant reduction of harmful reflected sound waves.
When asked that particular question, however, I usually stumble around with some sort of answer like “oh, they help make music sound better.” No one, not one single person has ever asked me “how?” I seriously doubt anyone is substantively interested in the laws of thermal dynamics and using kinetic energy to convert sound energy to heat, thus nulling reflected sound and improving sonics.
Less still do non audiophiles seem to be even remotely informed about the various components in my audio rack. “What is that thing with the blue light?” When I answer “that’s a DAC” I typically see an eyebrow bending and quizzical look on their face. “What on Earth is a DAC?” comes the reply. I sometimes feel compelled to answer, “why not ask Alexa?”
Most people who find their way to my audio room are polite enough to not ask the daring question about how much things cost. Because in the real world, revealing to a non-audiophile the cost of our hobby can be markedly overwhelming. When a big box system may be bought for somewhere around a thousand dollars, and Alexa and a music subscription may be purchased for less than a $100.00, an audio system investment of five or six figures, let alone more, will usually impart an attitude best summed up by “seriously?” “Just to play a song?”
A dealer friend of mine has a neighbor who loves golf. Adores it. Plays nearly every weekend and during the week if possible. He has thousands of dollars invested in the latest technology in woods (which is a misnomer as drivers, 3 and 5 woods are seldom made from wood anymore), irons, putters, bags and shoes. Who knows how much he has invested in golf clubs. A Scotty Cameron putter is about $400.00 or thereabouts. Add in the rest of the bag and thousands of dollars is very realistic.
My dealer friend’s neighbor does not stop there, however. He takes trips to world class golf venues, stays in magnificent resorts and spends incredible amounts of money sufficing the effort of hitting a ball into a hole in the ground. Now don’t misunderstand me, I love golf. I don’t play anymore, but I have visited, and played some of the most hallowed golf venues in the country. I am not criticizing golf by any stretch. I am merely using it as an example of how any of us can choose to use our spare time – and the resultant cost in the effort. Should it be different for an audio system?
And for some reason I cannot seem to fathom or understand, other hobbies costing considerable disposable income seem perfectly acceptable to most folks. Audio, on the other hand, yields quizzical looks with that “what” expression on their face. If I have six figures in my audio system, how is that worse than a guy who spends an equal amount of money on a sports car – and then drives it only when the weather is nice and never to a destination, just out of the garage, around for a while and back?
Admit it, we audiophiles face a difficult road in trying to make those who have yet to drink the Kool Aid understand. We have these machines to play a song that cost a fortune, need all these ancillary things to help them out, demand precise adjustment, and are owned by seldom satisfied people who are always looking for something better.
In the end, we may best find a workaround by inviting that non-audiophile to sit in the listening chair, play a brilliantly well recorded song and allow the listener to hear a previously unknown experience. Proofs in the pudding. And in this case, listening is all the explanation one should ever need.
With performance analyses in hand, one can put together a high fidelity systems rather inexpensively:
For personal audio, I’ve done for as little as $450USD. Give me a smartphone, an Apple USB-C to 3.5mm dongle, and a set of high sensitivity IEMs and I’m good to go.
For home audio, give me a ~$200USD integrated amp, a Chromecast Audio, Infinity Reference 162 speakers, an Infinity Reference Sub R10, and I’ve got a high fidelity system for <$1,000USD. This is dependent upon catching the speakers and subwoofer on sale, though, which they often are. The average person can deal with prices like that; the sound quality from each system would be excellent and pass the high fidelity mark. What the average person can't deal with is, $5,000+USD DACs whose performance is demonstratedly less than the Apple USB-C, multi-thousand dollars cables that do absolutely nothing for sound quality, $5,000+USD speakers whose performance is incredibly poor when measured, and $10,000+USD turntables that still sound like vinyl with pops, clicks and static as usual. Come to think of it, I can't either... 🤔
It might be worthwhile to remember that what sounds pleasing and acceptable to one person may not to someone else. Otherwise, no one would ever, ever buy a $50K speaker system, or any of the other items in your last paragraph. While you may not ever be able to justify buying expensive components and cables doesn’t mean everyone else will feel the same. And while you may feel those “other people” are absolutely wrong for having expensive gear, it’s worth noting that they probably would feel the same about the opinions you noted in your comment.
Thanks For Responding!