Audiophiles Are Attacking the Wrong Target in Their Crusade for Better Quality Digital Music

Audiophiles are strange people. They believe that things like digital cables, and even hard drives, can affect the sound of the music they listen to. And the defenders of high-resolution music dish out disingenuous statements about the quality of digital music, such as Neil Young’s dubious claim that “CD only gives us 15% of the original signal”. Yet it’s clear that much of what they claim is not true, or at least cannot be proved objectively, and is often the result of wishful thinking, placebo effects, and confirmation bias.

But I applaud part of the audiophile argument that clamors for better sounding recordings through better mastering, and by complaining about “the loudness wars,” which is even starting to affect classical recordings.

Yet I think that, in general, the audiophile crusade is misguided, because these people have picked the wrong target. Sure, there will be an infinitesimal number of people who are interested in high-resolution music, and who have stereos whose costs are in the five figures, if not more. But the vast majority of people don’t have audio equipment that comes anywhere near what they have. These are Ferrari owners talking (down) to people who drive Kias.

I had a conversation recently with someone in the audio business, a person who works for a manufacturer of medium-high end audio equipment. He pointed out that hardly anyone buys stereos any more. People are satisfied with Bluetooth speakers that they can use to stream music from their smartphones, often from YouTube. And, as we know, most people who listen to music on the go use crappy earbuds or headphones.

Perhaps audiophiles shouldn’t tout the type of audio that won’t sound any different on 98% of people’s sound systems. Perhaps they should shift their crusade toward better sounding standalone speakers; toward better headphones; toward educating music listeners that you don’t even hear stereo sound from a standalone speaker.

Cruising the news sites these past few days, I saw a plethora of new Bluetooth speakers that had been presented at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yet most of these speakers trade quality for portability. The majority of them are no better than a cheap TV set’s speakers (to be fair, TV manufacturers have vastly improved the quality of their speakers in recent years). And, since they’re so small, they have very little bass, and don’t reproduce stereo unless you are standing too close to them.

Audiophiles are just pissing into the wind when they talk about high-resolution audio files, because most of the world uses crappy audio equipment. Perhaps they should help music lovers understand that for a few hundred dollars, you can buy a decent music system, that will make your music sound much better than any standalone speaker. And that connecting a system like that to your TV will make your movies and games sound better too. Instead, they’re talking way over the heads of music listeners, and sound like grumpy uncles as they do so.