Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why I Hate Audiophiles

I've been a "techie" type of person for many years, and I've taken an interest in audio equipment since I was perhaps as young as seven or eight years old.  My father had an old Fisher receiver that I used to play with and at the time I thought it was amazing.  I can still feel the mass of the tuning dial in my hand as I could flick it and watch the dial swing across the AM/FM spectrum from side to side.  I would even make a game of it to see if I could  get the needle from one end to the other in one spin... which was difficult but not impossible.

My father's "hi-fi" system also included an old cassette deck and even an 8-track player that I fondly remember using from time to time. I don't recall the brand name of the speakers (I'm thinking perhaps RCA) but they were the large cabinet type that provided a lot of noise when asked although I'm sure they produced just as much distortion as they did music.

When I was a bit older, for Christmas one year I was given a small tabletop stereo of my own. It had dual tape decks AND a turntable, so clearly I thought I had something. The speakers were those small cabinets connected by what appeared to be paltry 24ga wire, but at the time I thought they were pretty amazing. I played all types of records on that system and I made more than my fair share of mix tapes from the radio as I listened to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.

Eventually my interest in audio led me to expand and improve upon what I had. In college I upgraded to what I thought was high end audio equipment at the time - or at least high end in my particular budget range. That setup included a Sony receiver that had surround sound, a Sony CD changer, and a set of Bose 201 speakers. They weren't necessarily bad components, but knowing what I know now there are much better options for the price. I do still have the Bose speakers and they are still capable of producing a good sound although I am the first to admit Bose is a lot better at marketing then they are at producing audio equipment.

My current receiver is an Onkyo which is paired to an Onkyo disc changer. I'm well aware this is nowhere nearly "high end" audio, but it is capable of producing clean sound and it didn't require me to take out a second mortgage to purchase it. I've used a number of different speakers over the years, but I'm the first to admit even when looking directly at the nameplates on the speakers my ears are hard pressed to discern a difference between a $500 set of Klipsch towers and a $3,000 set of Definitive Technology towers.

Throughout the years I've stayed fairly well informed as to the new technologies and I've paid attention to what works versus what people think works. I've read magazines and comparison tests, and in the past I've subscribed to magazines devoted to audio equipment (I recall a subscription to Stereo Review back in high school which was always one of my favorites although it has since been renamed to Sound and Vision).

I won't claim to be an audio snob, but I have been known to research what type of power supplies are found in various receivers and I've taken the time to research the various THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) levels of amplifiers. I'm not an electrical or audio engineer by any means, but I do have experience in electronics and at one point I was a Certified Electronics Technician and a Certified Broadcast Technologist, so I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the science behind audio equipment and electronics.

This is probably why even to this day I simply cannot stand when a self-proclaimed audiophile brags about his (and they are almost always men in my experience) ultra high end audio equipment. These are the types of people who brag about their McIntosh tube amplifiers without having any recognition of the fact that the tubes in these amplifiers are notoriously noisy and require a lot of circuitry required to clean up their signals. Even with that said the THD level of a high-end $5,000 McIntosh tube amp might be in the range of 0.50% with a signal to noise ratio (SNR) of 100dB. Compare that to a off-the-shelf receiver from Denon, Onkyo, or Yamaha and you are likely to find a THD level of something like 0.08% and a SNR of 106dB.

This is the part where I need to try and explain what THD and SNR are and how they relate. Obviously anyone who cares can read detailed descriptions elsewhere on the Internet, but I'll keep it simple by simply saying these are two of the most often cited specifications provided for audio equipment. THD is simply a way to measure how much harmonic distortion exists in a particular device. A lower THD is better, and the lower the value, the better that device is at reproducing the original signal. So this tells us that the THD of a cheap receiver purchased at Best Buy or Radio Shack is much better at reproducing the original input signal than a "high end" luxury tube amplifier which costs thousands of dollars more.

SNR is, as the name implies, a measurement of the difference between the original signal, and the noise added by the power supply and circuitry of the device. In this case a higher number is better. It may not appear a difference of 100dB and 106dB is significant, but because dB is measured on a logarithmic scale, this is actually much bigger of a difference than it may appear. I don't want to get boiled down in the technical aspects since this bores most people to tears, but the bottom line is as far as audio quality goes and in terms of how faithfully a musical recording can be reproduced, a modern and inexpensive amplifier will almost always outperform a much more expensive tube amplifier that many audiophiles seem to worship.

There is a reason that tube amplifiers cannot pass the testing process to become THX Certified even though a $400 receiver from Pioneer or Onkyo can, and it all boils down to faithful rendition of sound. If these audiophiles would simply admit they prefer tube amps because they like the faint glow of the tubes and they think they are "pretty" I might cut them some slack... but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

The next component that annoys me greatly is the turntable. I like listening to records as much as the next person, but the reason why I like records is due to nostalgia... not because they are a faithful rendition of the original recording. The fact is, audiophiles often claim records "sound better" and that they create a "warmer" sound, but they are actually listening to the scratches, pops, and crackles created by the needle running over the grooves in the record itself - none of which would exist in a live musical performance or in a studio recording. There is a reason why modern sound stages and recording studios are all digital and why they don't burn things directly to a record these days, and it all has to do with how faithful the recording can be to the original performance.

The fact is, an uncompressed digital format such as a CD will always outperform something like a vinyl record when it comes to the faithfulness of the original sound when compared to the recording. The same is true for analog formats such as a cassette tape or reel to reel tape. That isn't to say some people won't prefer the sound from a tape or from a vinyl record, but if they are interested in reproducing the most faithful sound possible... a record or any other analog source simply will not do.

Audiophiles are also the same people who will spend thousands of dollars on connecting cables from brand names most people have never heard of. Many technical people will openly mock people for spending money on Monster Cable or other more expensive name brands because these people understand in the digital era, connecting cables are not nearly as vital as they once were... yet to an audiophile, even something as overpriced as a Monster Cable connecting cable would never suffice. These are the types of people who will spend $2,800 for a single pair of connection cables, or $5,300 for a set of six foot speaker cables.

To make matters worse, these people will actually replace the receptacles in their houses with what they consider "audio grade" and/or "hospital grade" receptacles ranging in price from $30 up to over $150. That is $150 for a cryogenically treated audio grade receptacle with rhodium plating (because gold or silver would just be too mainstream I imagine). 

The amazing thing here is that some snakeoil salesman not only convinced these people that they needed these high-end receptacles, but they turned the dial up to 11 and convinced the idiots that they needed high end power cables to plug in to their high end receptacles.  Did I mention that these power cables can range from several hundred dollars to almost $7,000?  Yes you read that correctly... audiophiles have been convinced that spending $6,900 for a power cable will improve the sound quality flowing out of their speakers.

Yes seriously. I'm not making this up... I'm just not cynical enough to fabricate a story like this.

Spending thousands of dollars on cables which perform no better and produce a sound no different than those which can cost less than $10 is bad enough, but these self-proclaimed experts will go so far as to claim they can actually hear the difference. The problem is, aside from the fact they are willfully displaying their ignorance as to how traditional AC power works, they aren't able to hear any differences when subjected to double-blind testing. Whether the testing is done by people involved in the audio equipment industry, or done in magazines such as Stereo Review in the 1980s, or even tests where name brand speaker wire was compared to ordinary disposable wire coat hangers, it seems even the most ardent supporter of this woo is unable to support their beliefs (and their own ears) with hard, replicable data.

In fact, notorious skeptic James Randi went so far as to offer $1 million to an audiophile if he could prove that a pair of $7,250 speaker cables sounded any better than a pair of off-the-shelf cables from Monster cable that cost around $80. However when push came to shove, even the company that sells the $7,250 speaker cables wasn't willing to put their reputation on the line, so they backed out from the challenge. It seems there just aren't any audiophiles willing to put their reputations on the line in order to support the very claims they make on a daily basis.

This is why I hate audiophiles - because they cannot support their beliefs with any type of legitimate data or science. It is almost as if they are begging to be openly mocked and yet they don't care, because they assume if they have tens of thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment then their ears must be able to tell the difference as if having a bigger bank account somehow suggests your ears are more sensitive than the average person.

There are so many flaws in their logic I'm not even sure where to begin, but I wonder if these people ever stop to realize that their high end $150 receptacles are connected to the rest of their household wiring with the same traditional unshielded copper wire everyone else uses. This wire runs back to a breaker panel and through a meter which is fed power from the same source as everyone else, through the same transformers, the same substations, and from the same grid. Do they really feel a silver plated or gold plated or rhodium plated electrical receptacle is going to improve the sound quality? What is next... sucking the oxygen out of the air and replacing it with helium to allow the sound waves a cleaner path from the speaker to the listener's ear? Granted the listener will be forced to wear an oxygen mask when they want to listen to music... but hey - anything to get the cleanest sound possible right?

When it comes to speakers, things get even worse. It is not unheard of for an audiophile to have speakers that weigh hundreds of pounds each and which measure over seven feet in height. These speakers are often hand built with exotic materials like rare hardwoods and carbon fiber, and they can cost more than $50,000 for a single pair.

I'm not naive here and I do admit there can and is a difference between a cheap speaker and an expensive speaker, however there comes a point of diminishing returns. I'll go on record and openly state I'm convinced if you take a quality set of speakers priced in the range of $2,000 and you perform blind testing against a set of speakers costing ten times as much, that most people (audiophiles included) will not be able to state which is the more expensive set of speakers with any consistency.

In fact, I recall years ago reading an article about a blind test that involved several sets of speakers behind an acoustically transparent curtain. A sample of music was played using each set of speakers in random order enough times to eliminate selection biases. In the end, a set of inexpensive speakers was selected as being the "best" although none of the speakers in the test was statistically superior to the remainder. So in essence, when the supposed experts can't see what they are listening to, and when they no longer see the expensive name brand cables or the dim glow of a tube amplifier or the movement of a turntable these minor nuances they claim to be able to hear seem to disappear. I find the irony that audiophiles who are often seen listening to music with their eyes closed seem to rely so heavily upon their vision when they are performing comparison tests.

The entire concept reminds me of a professor who acts smart and seems to know so much about the material, but at the end of the semester you realize the only reason they knew more than you was because they had the book with all the answers printed in it. Take away the book and the notes you are left with nothing more than a nice tweed jacket and a laser pointer.

Now I realize it probably seems a bit harsh to say I hate audiophiles. I should clarify I don't actually hate the people, but rather I hate their (lack of) logic, their reasoning, their biases, and their tactics. In truth I probably hate the companies and snakeoil salesman who fool audiophiles into believing that they need a $7,000 power cable or a $150 audio grade receptacle much more than I hate the audiophiles themselves, however for the sake of simplicity I'm focusing on the audiophiles since they seem to be so vocal about their superiority.

Part of the reason I feel this way is because of how audiophiles can be presented with evidence proving their equipment is simply overpriced, and yet they make claims about how they can tell a difference. As mentioned previously we know they can't prove it, but that doesn't wipe the smug looks off of their faces nor does it remove the undertones of superiority from their voices.

Take for instance Michael Fremer who just happens to be senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine along with contributing to a number of other audio publications. Needless to say he is heavily involved in the audiophile community and could perhaps be one of the most influential or well-known audiophiles on the planet. Fremer has hundreds of thousand of dollars worth of audio equipment in his listening room and he will even make claims that he can tell the difference between a $2,600 power cable and a $4,000 power cable claiming the more expensive cable produces a "warmer, fuller sound".

In some cases, audiophiles like Fremer will even go so far as to make excuses for the hisses and pops coming from their tube amplifiers and turntables as if to suggest they don't matter. Really? The very same people who will spend tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars on audio equipment and cables and even little pucks to prevent their precious turntables from having to sit on a hard surface claim it doesn't matter? If these annoyances don't matter... then what does matter? If the sound itself isn't a priority, and if the faithfulness of the sound is secondary, then what is the point? Frankly aside from talking around the issue with fancy words and cliched phrases I'm not sure most audiophiles have any idea.

In Fremer's case, I have to admit the man annoys me a bit because I've seen pictures of his actual listening room and it boggles my mind how someone can claim to care about sound quality when he has a room full of junk surrounding him.  He has stacks of records leaned up against the walls and on the floor.  He has pictures hanging on the wall that are covered in sound-reflecting glass.  He has hard surface walls and furniture and stacks of equipment with wires running every which way. Does this sound like a place someone could detect minor subtleties in an audio track? Not likely.

If someone was really concerned with the ultimate listening room, I have to imagine it would start with covering the walls and ceiling with sound absorbing materials. The equipment and hard surface objects other than the speakers themselves would be isolated in a closet or another room, and obviously there would not be shelving unit after shelving unit of vinyl records sitting along the walls. This is why recording studios isolate the booth from the actual room where the music is being played and why they take so much time to soundproof the rooms as much as possible.

Better yet, if the ultimate audio clarity is really what they are after, a quality set of headphones will outperform practically every set of speakers known to man. Headphones all but eliminate reflected sound and outside interference, and you don't need a padded room to be able to get the best possible sound. Aside from John Cusack's character in High Fidelity, I can't say as I've seen many audiophiles sitting alone in their listening rooms or dens with a set of headphones atop their heads.

The fact is, in the real world people don't really have rooms with ideal acoustics. In the real world most music is listened to in a room with windows and doors and hard walls and furniture where acoustics are an afterthought. Most home audio systems - even those owned and operated by audiophiles - reside in less than acoustically ideal rooms. Speaker wires are often laid next to or routed on top of power wires which could create inductive coupling (electromagnetic interference) and a slight buzz or hum, HVAC systems blow air through ductwork, and dust finds its way onto vinyl records.

Yet to an audiophile, they likely will ignore the rushing sound of conditioned air or the fact that their patch cables are incapable of transmitting a signal with as much accuracy as a $5 optical cable purchased from Amazon or Monoprice... not because they haven't thought about it, but because they simply don't appear to care. The excess noises produced by a record needle are just part of the experience apparently. As Michael Fremer says, "It's like when you go to the symphony, and the old men are coughing—same thing". For an audiophile to use this logic is probably what tends to frustrate me, because it is almost as if they don't even try to hide the flaws in their reasoning.

Another aspect of audiophiles that tends to annoy me is the way they speak when talking about sound. They use phrases like "a dimensional and rich presentation" or a "euphonic sound experience". They speak about the color of music and the flavor of the sound. They talk about a sense of openness or space and how dark or bright the sound is and they make comments about the dynamic envelope, the ambience, or the subtlety of the tones. It seems they try to rely heavily upon personification as if the sound can reach out and touch someone or that it embraces the listener.

Even worse they rely so heavily upon cliches such as "jaw-dropping" and "tonal texture" that you can swap out the product names in most of the equipment reviews and nobody would notice. The entire concept reminds me of a hipster who turns a simple three line Haiku into a 40 minute discussion about what the poet was thinking when they chose to use the word "crimson" as opposed to just saying "red".

Try as they might, all the fancy wordsmithing and pretentiousness used by these audiophiles doesn't change the fact that the man behind the curtain is far from a real wizard... and in this case the wizard not only refuses to admit he has been outed, but he claims removing his curtain doesn't really matter in the first place.

26 comments:

  1. A few months ago, after my lifelong vinyl records fever returned from its long lethargy, I joined forums like Vinyl Engine and Audio Karma just to learn about stuff that I never thought about during the pre-CD days. While I can't deny that I've learned a lot about turntable setup and record care, I've got to know many of those so-called "audiophiles" and I can't believe how annoying they can be. I'm sure that what they consider high quality gear actually is, but the way they overlook (to say the least) what they don't think deserves to belong to their "exclusive club" is simply irritating. I didn't know about Michael Fremer until I found (and decided to buy) his "Turntable Setup" DVD. While I don't consider it a huge mistake, after finished watching it I thought anyway that I'd rather had spent my money on something else. I upgraded my not-so-good turntable for a really nice, solid and not so expensive one and I gave up trying to convince them that it isn't the piece of junk they think it is. What a bunch of douchebags.

    Thank you for this space. I really needed to say all of the above. Cheers!

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  2. Much of what you say about the snobby audiophiles is true however there are many who are not rich, who have a more cynical take on all the "snake oil" accessories in particular and just want to be as close as possible to a higher level of enjoyment of their beloved music.
    I am an audiophile on a very blue collar budget. I have heard many top dollar systems in my time at shops, shows and in homes of friends. What constitutes good sound and value for money differs widely for audiophiles. I have fairly average cable apart from some cottage industry stuff a late friend made who knew lots about amplifier and speaker design. He too thought much of the silly expensive cabling was marketing gone mad also.
    Asking the question -what equipment do the engineers reference the music I listen to most to mix and master this music is important? Answer in the 1960's till fairly recently lots of rock, pop and even jazz was created using JBL studio monitors with quality amplification connected to them. So as soon as my budget barely allowed the big J bangers came with an active crossover,multiple power amps etc. In a medium sized room I enjoy realistic volume levels and can hear most of the detail in the mix. As far as the source goes records are good but with the technical problems you speak of. Cd is the go 95% of the time as it just works and tracks are easily accessible.
    So many so called super fi systems with super car or mortgage prices are flawed in that they offer too much detail and bombard your senses with what is wrong with the recording etc. Lots of modern pop music is very compressed making all this money not good value. Sure there are recordings that astound but having only 50 albums you can listen to is crazy.
    The dealers are very stand offish in lots of cases. Unless you are ready to drop $50 000 on some pretty boxes and wire they don't want to stand and chat for more than a minute. I am a bit of a sceptic of exactly what you complain about too and once they are on to my mocking looks at the telephone number price tags they can be quite rude to me. Some dealers get the message and only stock gear that offers reliability and good value, to them I take my hat off. Knowing some very experience and well regarded technicians helps too. When you look under the hood at some of this big ticket stuff you see the marketing exposed. Some call this " jewel boxing" where makers offer a pretty box and put mediocre parts and circuit design in and charge lots based on their past glories and reputation. One bad review in a respected magazine can sink a brand also these guys need to remember.
    I see the elite audio mags as part of the problem. Advertising space and a good or very glowing review can go hand in hand. Some magazines are honourable and see things from the man on the streets eyes and these publications get my money each month.
    A way to get good gear at a fair price is to buy second hand equipment that has been cared for and has had a check up prior to the sale. I like uncomplicated big MOSFET amps that are and were used in recording studios around the world for good reason, they are good sounding, tough and dependable. Cheap in many cases now as many snobs consider them to be boat anchors and obsolete. Knocked around examples go cheap, cheaper with a fault and I return to my technician for help and bingo a kick arse 500 watts per channel beast for budget av receiver money.
    Some say my system is just a over complicated " disco pa" but she is the "fun ship" . Most audio snobs have forgotten how to have "fun" and over tweak their wimpy system so far removed from the recording studio model to bits. I have heard some "nice" sounding and "sweet" low powered tube gear. Late night listening at best. I does n't get the heart racing at all for me.
    Us audiophiles are not all wankers but I do see your argument is valid, diminishing returns abound in so many cases but you do have to spend a reasonable amount for something worthy of your music collection.

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    1. I hear you Ben - and I'm not quite so cynical as to honestly "hate" all audiophiles. I just hate the snakeoil and those who buy into it. For those interested in producing quality sound I'm very supportive of the quest to create and tinker with a sound system that appeals to the listener.

      I suppose one could say "good" sound can be had at almost any pricepoint, but the differences become more recognizable when someone wants to move up to "better" or even "best". I've known $500 stereo systems that were capable of producing incredible sound quality, but those are rare. I'm sure a $2500 system would probably appeal to a wider audience, and a $20,000 system should (in theory) sound simply amazing. However what kills me is when people perceive sound differences that simply are not recognizeable by the human ear.

      The special receptacles, the hundreds of dollars per foot connecting cables, the power conditioners and noise isolators, anti-vibration cable stand-offs, and the power cables that can costs hundreds of dollars... those are the things I find myself shaking my head at, and those are the things that even the most self-proclaimed audiophile cannot identify in blind sound tests.

      For those people who identify themselves as "audiophiles" and are just searching for the best sound while also acknowledging the electronic capabilities of copper wire don't actually care which direction the wires are twisted or whether they are wrapped in carbon fiber... well those people aren't who I'm picking on here - because I'm right there with them.

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  3. Great article. The only thing that annoys me about articles like these is that they focus on what shouldn't be purchased (expensive cables, luxury speakers etc) but don't make any suggestions on what to buy or what to look for. This leaves young audiophiles like me confused and unsure where to turn to find good value, good performing gear.

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    1. You're right - and the primary reason I didn't make recommendations was because they would probably be out of date in a year. However, for starters you should purchase all of your cabling and wire from places like Monoprice or Newegg. That will save tons of cash that can be used on what matters - the components and the speakers.

      As to the equipment, I recommend you visit AVSForum.com and spend some time browsing the threads. They are continually updated and offer reviews and opinions on the latest equipment. The members there are also well known to not pull any punches - they tell you what you want to know and they won't brag up a certain piece of equipment simply due to the brand name or cost.

      Personally I really like Klipsch speakers, and I don't think you can go wrong with anything in their line. That being said if you are looking for in-wall units, I am very impressed with the Monoprice units. The sound quality is on-par with units that cost three or four times as much.

      I would try to shy away from the smaller units (satellite speakers) only because they are incapable of producing a full range of sound. They work great in apartments or when you have limited space, but if you are focused upon sound quality you are better served with a set of cabinet speakers. I would also be tempted to find a set of speakers which is THX certified... not because you "need" that in a home system, but if a speaker meets the criteria for THX certification, you can rest assured it has passed a number of tests and is proven to be of high quality. It is one way to let the experts do the testing for you... and you reap the benefits.

      As to components, a lot of people swear by brands such as Onkyo, Denon, or Yamaha. Marantz seems to be popular as well although typically a bit higher priced. Personally I own Onkyo components and I love them - thus I have no reason to look elsewhere, but in the past I've owned brands as common as Sony and truth be told had no complaints. Provided you know what you are looking for and you are honest about your budget you probably won't go wrong.

      Now if you feel you need a brand only found in ultra high-end stores or that spend more time bragging about their chrome and carbon fiber construction - well I can't help you.

      The main thing is to not fall into the trap of gimmikry. You don't need special receptacles or noise isolating coasters to rest your equipment on. You don't need to spend $4,000 for an amplifier when your system will be placed in a typical family room full of glass windows and hard surface flooring or when your typical usage of your system is to watch the latest Michael Bay film. Be honest with yourself and your budget - and if brand names don't impress you, you'll probably be just fine. Your ears won't lie to you... so don't let anyone try to convince you that you're wrong.

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    2. One final word of caution - I'm not a fan of those "home theater in a box" systems where you get a receiver and a set of speakers all in one. I learned years ago that most companies produce either good electronics (components) or they produce good speakers... they rarely do both. This is why I will own Onkyo components, but I am not a fan of their speakers. Likewise as much as I like Klipsch speakers, I would probably shy away from their amplifiers. That isn't to say they are horrible by any means, but the fact is they don't have decades of experience or a reputation when it comes to components - and often times you find that the components offered by a "speaker" company are simply rebadged offerings from an off-brand company anyway.

      In my view those pre-packaged box systems are meant for the lazy consumer who doesn't have the time or knowledge to do their own research. They are filled with sacrifices and although they are inexpensive I do not feel they are a great value. I'd much rather opt for a standalone receiver and a nice set of cabinet speakers from manufacturers who have a reputation for producing quality.

      Best of luck!

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  4. Many valid points here, Craig. I have to point out, though you can't go by THD numbers by themselves. They are more of a suggestion. Unless you know that the numbers cited are for the whole audio band, 20hz to 20khz. Sometimes the spec on the receiver will say THD .05% @ 1,000hz @ 8 ohm. And a comment on tubes. There was a paper published in the 70's by a recording engineer about the difference between tubes and transistors and why some preferred the tubes even though on paper the THD numbers were horrific. It is the harmonics produced by the tubes and the clipping roll off on tubes is "softer." Tubes produce vast amounts of even-order harmonic distortion, which is not as objectionable as the odd-order harmonic distortion in early transistor amps. Of course now modern circuitry keep these harmonic distortion down to really low levels in solid state designs, but most tube designs still have high even-order harmonics, and some people prefer that sound. It's more than the glowing tubes, which are cool to look at. As for me, I'm happy with my Denon receiver. Though I have heard the difference of a stand alone quality amps. The biggest being dynamics.
    We all have our personal preferences for the way we want to enjoy our music. I personally don't care for all of the Klipsch line-up. It's hard to recommend a speaker to someone when we all have different ideas on what true fidelity is. I don't personally know any audiophiles that I talk to regularly, but I've noticed with my friends, each person seems to prefer some type of coloration to the original sound. It's interesting. And this is why I believe that there is always this endless feud on what to recommend. Ported, sealed speakers? Electrostatics? Horns? Multi-array? Single full range driver? Each person leans to a preference. My opinion on cables... I have yet to be able to tell a difference. I think those who can't don't want to admit it for fear of being ousted. This is also a topic that has many opinions and facts and there are some insightful websites into it. My favorite being Elliot Sound Products website. Thanks for the overall article, I mostly agree with you...mostly.

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    1. Of course you are correct about THD, but I merely use that as an example along with SNR because they are the most common specs quoted (and some of the easiest to understand). There is much more to it, and people could get headahces reading and comparing specs if that is what they enjoy... however my primary point is - on paper - a tube amp will rarely if ever compete with a quality solid state amplifier in terms of sheer specifications and a lack of added noise.

      I fully agree with you regarding tubes and how some people prefer that sound. That is exactly what I've said about turntables - some people just enjoy that 'warmer' or 'softer' sound and that is perfectly fine... people need to buy and use what they prefer, but my main argument surrounding audiophiles is that they claim these tube amplifiers are a more accurate way to reproduce the music and that they are the only way to be faithful to the original recording. I strongly disagree with that, because I believe a tube amplifier will never be as faithful to the original music as a quality non-tube (solid state) amp. The same could be said about over-processsing and 80 channel 'graphic' equilizers.... but that's another story.

      The simple truth is, recording studios invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment to capture sound as accurately and closely as possible so anything that introduces noise of any type after the fact is detracting from that original performance. It is sort of like someone putting a thin screen in front of their television and saying they prefer the way it looks because everything has a slight grey tone to it. Sure they may prefer it, and if you took the screen away they wouldn't enjoy the film as much, but at the end of the day adding something like that to the experience just isn't as faithful to the original performance. Same is true with sound - adding or taking something away from the original (assuming of course what is added or taken away falls within the range of sound heard by humans) is less faithful to the original and in my view detracts from the original.

      I personally feel the idea of sound reproduction should be to experience something as close to the original as possible. Thus listening to a recorded musical performance should be as close to the original live performance as possible. How we hear it with our ears live should be how we hear it with our ears from a recording... but I completely understand people have different opinions on the matter. Some prefer to hear higher highs and muted lows. Some prefer to hear rumbling base while they might be willing to sacrifice definition. Some may prefer a warmer sound that lacks some of the mid-range clarity... just depends.

      I really don't have any issues with those who buy equipment because they prefer it, because opinions are opinions and each person has his or her own. What I do have a problem with is when people pretend his or her way is the only acceptable way and that anyone who disagrees is ignorant or simply lacks the trained ear.

      I also take issue with the blatant snobbery associated with the silly $200 power cables, the $1200/pr speaker wires, the $100 gold plated receptacles etc. etc. Those items are nothing more than snakeoil, and considering I've yet to hear of or read about a single audiophile who could identify these items via blind listening tests, I guess I just like to point out how much of a placebo effect appears to be at play within the audiophile community.

      Thanks for your comment - and I'll check out that website you mentioned as I'm always looking to increase my knowledge.

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  5. Hi Craig...I enjoyed your article. I cannot stand these snobby pretentious audiophiles. Anyways...could you suggest a decent set of headphones for around $100 or less? Yes, I'm poor. lol

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    1. I'm reluctant to state a specific model as I'm not sure what type of headphones you are looking for (over the ear, earbud, studio monitors, noise-cancelling etc.). Also, it really depends upon your usage because a headphone that is great for home use in a quiet environment might not be ideal for riding the subway, walking in a busy city, or sitting in a cubicle.

      There is also the type of sound you prefer. Some prefer a really heavy bass sound, while others focus upon mid-range or overall clarity. If you want heavy bass, most of the time this will require a true over the ear headphone with larger drivers - but there are exceptions. If you prefer a headphone that blocks out ambient sound, you might opt for noise-cancelling... however they come at a price.

      In truth there are a lot more qualified experts out there that can recommend specific models of headphones, so personally I'd pay a visit to AVSForum and see what is recommended for your budget. That being said, there are a few common themes you will hear when discussing headphones with people that really know headphones (such as audio engineers). I consistently hear good things about Sennheiser and Audio-Technica so anything in their line that fits your style and pricepoint would probably be just fine. I also have read a lot of positive reviews of the Sony Monitor Series headphones - they have a proven design that has been in continual use for a long time, and people keep buying them for a reason.

      I personally have never spent more than $100 on headphones and can't say as I have any complaints... but tastes vary. My current over the ear headphones are a relatively inexpensive set of Technics that cost around $40... they work just fine. However, 95% of my listening these days is via earbuds because they are portable and I'm not a fan of the over the ear look in public spaces. My earbuds are made by Philips and include several sizes of inserts to make them fit... they work great, but in truth they aren't anywhere near high-end. In my case I prefer to hear the world around me, so I don't want anything that blocks out all of the ambient sound... thus a noise cancelling or custom fit design wouldn't work as well.

      One thing is for certain - I would not waste money on anything that says "Beats by Dre" on the side, because in that case you are paying for the name and brand recognition as opposed to sound quality. They are designed to pump the bass up, but as a result they suffer in other areas, and you'll never see anyone in a recording studio using them (aside perhaps Dre himself, but even that is doubtful).

      If nothing else, head to a local electronics store that has some headphones on display and try them on. Even if you find a pair that you feel sounds amazing, if they hurt while wearing them or if you don't like the controls or build quality you aren't going to be happy... so you need to find something that works for you.

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    2. Thanks so much for your reply, Craig.

      I did some research and I came across the JVC Flats (yes, I'm looking for an over the ear). I've read nothing but great reviews about them and they are actually on sale right now at Best Buy for only $15. I might as well give them a try, but I will check out the Technics in my price range as well.

      I never buy anything by just going by a brand name. I would never purchase a pair of Nikes, a Coach bag for my girlfriend, or a pair of Dre's headphones. I research just about everything I purchase.

      Thanks again for your reply. I really appreciate you taking the time! :)

      ~Matt

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    3. Glad to help - best of luck in your search.

      P.S - Amazon sells the JVC flats for just over $12. If you are doing any other shopping and can get to the point of free shipping it is a nice option, otherwise swinging over to Best Buy would work even though personally it pains me to spend money in their stores. That just might be a future blog post. :)

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    4. I'll have to read your future Best Buy article.

      Thanks again for taking the time to help me. I found the JVC Flats (brand new) on ebay for $10 with free shipping. lol

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  6. Yea we need more people like you in this hobby to prevent it from destroying itself. Saw $350 hdmi cables the other day at best buy after spending $299 on my Marantz avr. Stupid.

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    1. $350 HDMI cables.... I'd love to see the president of the company who makes those try to explain how they are superior to the $5 versions I order through Monoprice.

      Insanity!

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  7. On my new computer i built recently theres 2 staples i keep around (im picky about sound, not snobbish or anything)

    My 1998 Soundblaster PCI-512
    and my solid state SA-133 headphone amplifier from sometime in the 80s

    add in some panasonic headphones and thats what i have been running for a long time now. (i started with Sony headphones and they were great but these panasonics are better)

    Gives me the sound im used to hearing, ive tried all these new soundcards, and you know what the problem is? its too perfect! its too clean and neat! i hate 'non-colored' audio as they call it, its not right, i have always listened to music through a beastly amplifier that colors the sound to no end and makes my windows rattle.

    Likewise here, i like my old soundcard, hes ancient and decreped but it has a nice big control sliders for BASS/TREBLE, i crank them up and feed it to that amp which adds that nice muddy colored bass i love and bam....

    So im the opposite of a audiophile, im an audiophile's worst nightmare come true. Though i bet if you blind folded one of them and had them listen to my setup it would be the best audio experience they have had this year.

    Analog stereo will never die, these audiophiles need to figure out that they are not chasing perfection, but rather the imperfection of audio. That is what they really want but do not seem to notice. That 'warm' sound they covet is an imperfection, its colorization of the audio, the same kind im getting from my 27 year old solid state amp.

    (i had vinyl records several times, guess what? remove the pops, cracks, and hissing, you got yourself an amazon mp3....i hear no difference in the sound whatsoever, also a high bitrate mp3 is easier to move around than a 200lb crate of LP's)

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  8. Audiophiles make me laugh. They seem to try to over perfect sound. In many ways in my opinion they take away the essence of a performance in some respects. Live performances in many ways are special on to themselves. Their acoustic properties unique to the location its performed. In do or out door. In live performance depending on the position you are in the audience, Your perception of sound changes dramatically. Not all performances are suppose to have the perfect sound separation amongst vocal and instrumental aspects of it. In many ways its the merging of it all together that create the magic not just one instrument unless it is once instrument being used to perform. I have 2 companies that fall on both sides of the gambit on this discussion I very much like. One is Bowers and Wilkins, The other is Bose. Bowers tries to go for excellent speakers and in my opinion they do well at making them. Bose goes for compact and the principal of how one experiences the sound to make what they make. I for one think Both Companies sound good at what they do. Remember folks your perception is your reality.. People don't always have the same level of hearing be it by genetics or life changes such as working in a warehouse environments with active belts. People lose their hearing over time. That is actually a proven fact. I respect many companies Such as Klisph, Boston Acoustics, Denon, Yamaha, and various others. My top 2 are the ones I fore mentioned earier. People knock on Bose to what end. Its an option. Choice is good.

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  9. It's all a matter of choice and personal preference. I've owned Bose 901's - but the best speaker they ever made was the 301. Since then I've owned B&W, VMPS, Polk Audio SDA, Infinity, Yamaha Ns1000's, Klipsch Heresy, and now Klipsch Cornwalls. To some I may be considered an audiophile, to others I'm not (I'm not a fan of the cable snake oil). However like Mr O'Connor , I believe that it's all a matter of perception. No one knocks you for buying a $4000 TV but if you buy $4000 speakers - you're viewed as foolish. I'm of the thinking - its your thang - do what you wanna do!
    I may not be of the cable crowd mentioned above - but I may fall in to the language crowd, because music has an emotional effect with me. Music to me, should be holographic (or the band is there) experience - but everyone doesn't have to agree with me, it's just my thang. ;)

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  10. The most ridiculous thing I've heard is some idiot saying "Well, maybe your phone/iPod is fine if you listen to $150 toy headphones." You can get perfectly good headphones for that price. Unless you're looking for some outstanding headphones you'll use with your $2000 amp, there's no need to go higher than $300 on headphones with a 3.5 mm jack.

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    1. Very true - and we have seen time and time again that price doesn't correlate to quality when it comes to audio equipment. Some of the most highly reviewed headphones out there are from Audio Technica and they cost much less than the average pair of Beats.

      There is probably less than .01% of the human population that would benefit from spending over $300 on headphones.... and I dare say most of the time even they wouldn't benefit from anything more unless they are used inside of a recording studio or in the home where ambient sound can be controlled.

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  11. hmmm, I see a new emerging market for audiophile power stations and high voltage transmission lines. Along with audiophile coal and uranium fuel rods.

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  12. I, unlike many self acclaimed 'audiophiles' have taken blind tests and actually been able to hear the difference. But do I spend thousands of dollars on audio equipment because it "sounds better?" No. In my opinion the best headphones you can buy are Sennheiser 598's with a Fiio E10 amp. Is there better sound than that? Yes. Is it worth the money for the improvement you get? No. But for studio the HD 600's would be better because it has even less distortion, but I personally would not recommend it unless you are a music producer or similar. I have not listened to the 599's yet, but the 558 is just under a hundred dollars right now on Amazon, and there isn't a whole lot of difference between the 598 and the 558. In fact the whole 5X8 series uses the same driver, just different designs, and the higher models than the 518 are slightly more refined than others. Find a quiz online and blindly take a MP3 vs flac quiz. If you can't tell the difference 5/6 times, you probably won't notice a difference between the sennheiser 518's ($60 online) and the 598's or better, costing double to triple the price.

    Just because you buy expensive equipment doesn't mean you can hear the difference. But just because you can hear the difference like I can, doesn't mean it's worth the price. I would personally never spend more than 3-400 for a whole setup, including headphones, amp, and soundcard if yours is crap. Because I personally believe that's the point of diminishing returns. Until that range, each price increase does a lot for sound quality. After that range you pay lots more for hardly any improvement in sound quality. Maybe from 1% distortion to .5%, but for some reason the price is doubled. Make sense? No.

    (I started violin at 3 and along with it was ear training, so I learned to hear small differences so I could play violin better. I can hear a .1 hz change in pitch and tell which direction it's going, and a .1-.2 change in db and tell which way it's going as well. I do not claim to be an audiophile for reasons stated in this post)

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  13. A lot of great points - and very true that often even a slight improvement in audio quality may not be worth a significant increase in cost. Also true that as you reach high quality levels there is a law of diminishing returns. Paying a few thousand dollars for headphones that might sound a tiny bit better to the 0.2% of listeners capable of hearing the difference probably isn't worthwhile.

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  14. Please don't lump all audiophiles into one category.

    I have a dedicated audio room with modest equipment. The room has substantial acoustic treatment (extensive bass trapping + mid/hi freq absorbers), which makes a HUGE difference in sound quality. I use "green" Class D amps (which of course are solid state), a good DAC fed by a Mac Mini as a source. I don't believe in ridiculous cables or other tweaks. I think modern digital audio technology is ridiculously good, without all the limitations of vinyl.

    I do agree without you that a good pair of headphones can provide a very clean sound, unencumbered by room acoustics. But, it does not provide the realistic visceral "the band is front of me" speaker sound. It is a weird - in your head - sound. Also, it lacks in bass.

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    1. You make a lot of good points - and I agree that not all audiophiles can be lumped into one category. Obviously my feelings expressed here are targeted towards a specific type of audiophile who is the type to not only buy the snake oil, but also who tries to convince you that spending the money was a worthwhile investment because they can feel a difference.

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