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.

58 thoughts on “Audiophiles Are Attacking the Wrong Target in Their Crusade for Better Quality Digital Music

  1. Hello Kirk

    I listen to my iTunes music through Airport Express, which is connected to my stereo; the Airport is not directly connected to my router, but is wifi. My iTunes library is mostly Apple Lossless, and the transfers to my iPod are lossless, too. Do I get better sound if I hook up my iPod to the stereo or is it the same (or worse) than wifi? Thanks.

    • It’s exactly the same. AirPlay transmits in Apple Lossless, so your music isn’t being downsampled at all. The same would be the case if you connected an iPod directly, as long as you don’t have dropouts in your wifi, which some people do have. In that case, a direct connection would be better.

    • The weakest (or in rare cases, strongest) link in the sound quality chain you describe will be your speakers. Are your current ones up to level of your Apple Lossless recordings?

  2. Hello Kirk

    I listen to my iTunes music through Airport Express, which is connected to my stereo; the Airport is not directly connected to my router, but is wifi. My iTunes library is mostly Apple Lossless, and the transfers to my iPod are lossless, too. Do I get better sound if I hook up my iPod to the stereo or is it the same (or worse) than wifi? Thanks.

    • It’s exactly the same. AirPlay transmits in Apple Lossless, so your music isn’t being downsampled at all. The same would be the case if you connected an iPod directly, as long as you don’t have dropouts in your wifi, which some people do have. In that case, a direct connection would be better.

    • The weakest (or in rare cases, strongest) link in the sound quality chain you describe will be your speakers. Are your current ones up to level of your Apple Lossless recordings?

  3. I used to yearn for some big, expensive speakers like ones friends had, but I happily dumped my stereo and Nakamichi player years ago. I use powered monitors in my living room connected to an Airport Express for my music now, streaming either from my ripped music collection or international radio stations, or podcasts from my iPhone. With a high-bit sound source Focal Alpha 65 monitors ($630 with discount coupon) sound fantastic.

    Indeed, for half that price you can get a pair of JBL LSR305 monitors and with ALAC stream music that sounds better than most stereos costing twice as much.

    When on the go I’ve found that the best sound quality for the price (especially since I’m very, very hard on headphones) is a modestly-priced set of canalphones – and when I find a decent set on sale I’ll buy several for the eventuality that one will get destroyed within months. (The Wirecutter has some good suggestions for earphones under $40.) When on the go you’re going to be dealing with ambient noise anyway, so high-end headphones (not to mention high-end players with expensive remastered high-bit music) don’t help much.

  4. I used to yearn for some big, expensive speakers like ones friends had, but I happily dumped my stereo and Nakamichi player years ago. I use powered monitors in my living room connected to an Airport Express for my music now, streaming either from my ripped music collection or international radio stations, or podcasts from my iPhone. With a high-bit sound source Focal Alpha 65 monitors ($630 with discount coupon) sound fantastic.

    Indeed, for half that price you can get a pair of JBL LSR305 monitors and with ALAC stream music that sounds better than most stereos costing twice as much.

    When on the go I’ve found that the best sound quality for the price (especially since I’m very, very hard on headphones) is a modestly-priced set of canalphones – and when I find a decent set on sale I’ll buy several for the eventuality that one will get destroyed within months. (The Wirecutter has some good suggestions for earphones under $40.) When on the go you’re going to be dealing with ambient noise anyway, so high-end headphones (not to mention high-end players with expensive remastered high-bit music) don’t help much.

  5. Great article, Kirk. You point out, “These are Ferrari owners talking (down) to people who drive Kias.” Indeed, it is often like the Ferrari owners talking down to the Porsche, Lexus, and Tesla owners. Those with sound systems costing in the five or six digits seem to see owners of anything less as the enemy, rather than allies in the fight for better music.

  6. Great article, Kirk. You point out, “These are Ferrari owners talking (down) to people who drive Kias.” Indeed, it is often like the Ferrari owners talking down to the Porsche, Lexus, and Tesla owners. Those with sound systems costing in the five or six digits seem to see owners of anything less as the enemy, rather than allies in the fight for better music.

  7. There is absolutely no reason why Apple does not sell lossless files (and make them available for free to those who purchased the AAC’s). The reason always given is that AAC is “good enough” and that uses don’t need lossless. This is a marketing pitch. SD TV was also good enough at one time and only a minority bought HD TV’s β€” does anyone watch SD after they’ve seen HD?

    AAC is good enough when listening on an iPhone/iPod with earbuds, but not when listening through quality speakers and a good DAC (yes, people still do this).

    With 2TB disks common and cheap and high speed internet also common, we should be able to get lossless audio that we can then convert to AAC for our portable needs.

    • Tony I got at least two reasons for you.
      Lossless needs bandwidth and in the wars of profit, serving lossless files is “expensive” if if need to serve them to all iTunes users.
      The other is space, right now the ipod touch (classic is no more) has about 57Gb of true storage space, that’s not much if you start using lossless files, thus showing a flaw that Apple doesn’t want end users to notice…lack of external slot to upgrade the available space of the player.
      With the users locked to lossy files, Apple defends it’s ipod ground.

      • Reason #2[b]: Apple surely would need to renegotiate deals with music labels for higher-quality files, making them more expensive (see prices at HDtracks, Qobuz, Pono Store, Tidal streaming etc). Want to spend $20/album? You’ve already got that option. Want to spend $20/month for 16-bit lossless streaming? Go ahead. It’s unlikely that Apple would be able to get prices down much for it when competitors all are paying the same, higher price (and labels don’t seem interested in dropping the higher prices).

        Reason #4: Relatively few people want or need these files, since most listening by most people is done on the go with tons of background noise and low-fidelity headphones. When Apple updates Genius on your computer’s iTunes files it sees what percentage is ALAC and surely understands that the people who are demanding highest quality files and streaming are a tiny minority, albeit a loud (and possibly innumerate) one.

        Apple doesn’t do everything, nor does it want to, and with music it has a history of offering the most to the biggest market.

          • I’m talking about Apple being able to see who uses it **now** – how many people care enough to rip lossless to their own collections. They have info you don’t, and the answer is ‘not many.’ And there’s a reason Amazon doesn’t sell high-bit files but tiny, niche companies do – low-demand (but lots of noise from alleged audiophiles).

            • Chip, you said that Apple “knows” who uses Lossless via iTunes Genius. Of course they will get a very small % as only those who converted CD’s to ALAC or bought ALAC from other vendors will be listed.

              There was a time when only a small % of iTunes tracks were AAC and most were mp3.
              Then Apple opened the iTunes store, sold only aac, and the % changed.

            • The poijnt is that they – and Amazon, and every other vendor of MP3s, high-bit MP3s, FLACs and high-bit streaming – understand *how small* the market is you’re talking about. As history has shown Apple doesn’t need to accommodate every niche, and this one has not-insignificant costs for what the market has shown is relatively little benefit (to themselves, and objectively to consumers).

      • As I said, Lossless is for using at home with better equipment than an iPod.
        When I want to listen on my iPod, I can easily convert the lossless to AAC.
        Which is what I do now. FLAC on my 2TB music server, AAC in iTunes. But this means that I need to buy CD’s and convert to FLAC, or buy from the few non-Apple vendors that sell lossless.

        But, I do understand that many listeners are ok with AAC on a wireless speaker at home β€” There were may users in the early 80’s that thought that the 8 Track sounded as good as vinyl πŸ™‚

  8. There is absolutely no reason why Apple does not sell lossless files (and make them available for free to those who purchased the AAC’s). The reason always given is that AAC is “good enough” and that uses don’t need lossless. This is a marketing pitch. SD TV was also good enough at one time and only a minority bought HD TV’s β€” does anyone watch SD after they’ve seen HD?

    AAC is good enough when listening on an iPhone/iPod with earbuds, but not when listening through quality speakers and a good DAC (yes, people still do this).

    With 2TB disks common and cheap and high speed internet also common, we should be able to get lossless audio that we can then convert to AAC for our portable needs.

    • Tony I got at least two reasons for you.
      Lossless needs bandwidth and in the wars of profit, serving lossless files is “expensive” if if need to serve them to all iTunes users.
      The other is space, right now the ipod touch (classic is no more) has about 57Gb of true storage space, that’s not much if you start using lossless files, thus showing a flaw that Apple doesn’t want end users to notice…lack of external slot to upgrade the available space of the player.
      With the users locked to lossy files, Apple defends it’s ipod ground.

      • Reason #2[b]: Apple surely would need to renegotiate deals with music labels for higher-quality files, making them more expensive (see prices at HDtracks, Qobuz, Pono Store, Tidal streaming etc). Want to spend $20/album? You’ve already got that option. Want to spend $20/month for 16-bit lossless streaming? Go ahead. It’s unlikely that Apple would be able to get prices down much for it when competitors all are paying the same, higher price (and labels don’t seem interested in dropping the higher prices).

        Reason #4: Relatively few people want or need these files, since most listening by most people is done on the go with tons of background noise and low-fidelity headphones. When Apple updates Genius on your computer’s iTunes files it sees what percentage is ALAC and surely understands that the people who are demanding highest quality files and streaming are a tiny minority, albeit a loud (and possibly innumerate) one.

        Apple doesn’t do everything, nor does it want to, and with music it has a history of offering the most to the biggest market.

          • I’m talking about Apple being able to see who uses it **now** – how many people care enough to rip lossless to their own collections. They have info you don’t, and the answer is ‘not many.’ And there’s a reason Amazon doesn’t sell high-bit files but tiny, niche companies do – low-demand (but lots of noise from alleged audiophiles).

            • Chip, you said that Apple “knows” who uses Lossless via iTunes Genius. Of course they will get a very small % as only those who converted CD’s to ALAC or bought ALAC from other vendors will be listed.

              There was a time when only a small % of iTunes tracks were AAC and most were mp3.
              Then Apple opened the iTunes store, sold only aac, and the % changed.

            • The poijnt is that they – and Amazon, and every other vendor of MP3s, high-bit MP3s, FLACs and high-bit streaming – understand *how small* the market is you’re talking about. As history has shown Apple doesn’t need to accommodate every niche, and this one has not-insignificant costs for what the market has shown is relatively little benefit (to themselves, and objectively to consumers).

      • As I said, Lossless is for using at home with better equipment than an iPod.
        When I want to listen on my iPod, I can easily convert the lossless to AAC.
        Which is what I do now. FLAC on my 2TB music server, AAC in iTunes. But this means that I need to buy CD’s and convert to FLAC, or buy from the few non-Apple vendors that sell lossless.

        But, I do understand that many listeners are ok with AAC on a wireless speaker at home β€” There were may users in the early 80’s that thought that the 8 Track sounded as good as vinyl πŸ™‚

  9. Agree that it’s Ferrari owners talking down to Kia owners, but I wonder…where are the Toyota and Honda owners? In the ’70s and ’80s, there was such a thing as mid-priced high quality stereo equipment, and there were stores in every medium to large town that sold the stuff. Now, it’s almost entirely either cheap crap or audiophool nonsense. I’ve been playing FLAC using a Squeezebox 3 driving a Yamaha A/V receiver and Bose AM-5 speakers (yeah, I know…) for a while now and have been happy, but Logitech put the Squeezebox line out to pasture a couple of years ago (demise of another mid priced high quality component) and I don’t know where I’ll go when mine eventually breaks. Sad…

    • There’s plenty of mid-priced stereo equipment, but I don’t think you see it as much any more. I think people are happy spending a lot of money on a TV, but don’t care that much about the sound. There’s a chain here in the UK, Richer Sounds, that sells everything from TV to audio, and that has stereo systems at all price points (though they don’t sell really expensive audio equipment).

      • “I think people are happy spending a lot of money on a TV, but don’t care that much about the sound.”

        I’m still at a loss as to why the AppleTV didn’t expand into a 2.1 AppleTV Soundbar at least a year ago. If there’s one segment of the consumer audio market filled with inexpensive crap (and expensive crap) and ripe for disruption it’s this.

        With good enough monitors (and with iOS apps) it could offer a compelling replacement for the now-moribund home-stereo market and offering an all-in-one A/V solution for most people.

        • Remember the “iPod Hi-Fi?” I think Apple was so embarrassed by that device that they’ll never go into audio equipment again.

            • Perhaps not, but I think it would give them pause; the idea of releasing a single device that combines both networking (Apple TV) and sound, might not be good enough, or might be too expensive. Soundbars are quite expensive.

            • Some are expensive, making them ripe for disruption. TheSweetHome recommended the $1500 Paradigm 5.1 system overall, but also picked the $250 Vizio S4221W-C4 as the best budget soundbar. There’s a big middle-ground where quality sound and unique AppleTV/Homekit advantages could easily play.

              Did the too-small 3rd-gen iPod Shuffle give them pause about the Shuffle in general? Did the hockey puck mouse lead them away from future mice designs? Did the Powermac G4 Cube of 2000 forestall the advent of a ‘headless iMac’? No, I think there’s no way a Jobs-directed flop from 2006 has any bearing whatsoever on current decisionmaking, especially since they sell a Beats Pill for almost that price today… and it sells well.

  10. Agree that it’s Ferrari owners talking down to Kia owners, but I wonder…where are the Toyota and Honda owners? In the ’70s and ’80s, there was such a thing as mid-priced high quality stereo equipment, and there were stores in every medium to large town that sold the stuff. Now, it’s almost entirely either cheap crap or audiophool nonsense. I’ve been playing FLAC using a Squeezebox 3 driving a Yamaha A/V receiver and Bose AM-5 speakers (yeah, I know…) for a while now and have been happy, but Logitech put the Squeezebox line out to pasture a couple of years ago (demise of another mid priced high quality component) and I don’t know where I’ll go when mine eventually breaks. Sad…

    • There’s plenty of mid-priced stereo equipment, but I don’t think you see it as much any more. I think people are happy spending a lot of money on a TV, but don’t care that much about the sound. There’s a chain here in the UK, Richer Sounds, that sells everything from TV to audio, and that has stereo systems at all price points (though they don’t sell really expensive audio equipment).

      • “I think people are happy spending a lot of money on a TV, but don’t care that much about the sound.”

        I’m still at a loss as to why the AppleTV didn’t expand into a 2.1 AppleTV Soundbar at least a year ago. If there’s one segment of the consumer audio market filled with inexpensive crap (and expensive crap) and ripe for disruption it’s this.

        With good enough monitors (and with iOS apps) it could offer a compelling replacement for the now-moribund home-stereo market and offering an all-in-one A/V solution for most people.

        • Remember the “iPod Hi-Fi?” I think Apple was so embarrassed by that device that they’ll never go into audio equipment again.

            • Perhaps not, but I think it would give them pause; the idea of releasing a single device that combines both networking (Apple TV) and sound, might not be good enough, or might be too expensive. Soundbars are quite expensive.

            • Some are expensive, making them ripe for disruption. TheSweetHome recommended the $1500 Paradigm 5.1 system overall, but also picked the $250 Vizio S4221W-C4 as the best budget soundbar. There’s a big middle-ground where quality sound and unique AppleTV/Homekit advantages could easily play.

              Did the too-small 3rd-gen iPod Shuffle give them pause about the Shuffle in general? Did the hockey puck mouse lead them away from future mice designs? Did the Powermac G4 Cube of 2000 forestall the advent of a ‘headless iMac’? No, I think there’s no way a Jobs-directed flop from 2006 has any bearing whatsoever on current decisionmaking, especially since they sell a Beats Pill for almost that price today… and it sells well.

  11. I’m hoping those that are streaming iTunes are using Airplay-ready receivers (or speakers), or if using AirTunes, they have placed a digital-to- analog converter (DAC) in their audio chain.

    Years ago when I first setup AirTunes (streaming iTunes to your stereo via Apple’s Airport Express), it sounded horrible — “packets” of audio at an unbearably low sample rate. Then I read about using a DAC — a WORLD of difference. This helped me to go (mostly) digital. Mastered for iTunes tracks (which use 24/96 masters) sound every bit as good as CDs when played this way.

    • To clarify what I wrote above: I was talking about situations where the user does not have a receiver/amplifier with an optical digital input. Otherwise the DAC is not required.

  12. I’m hoping those that are streaming iTunes are using Airplay-ready receivers (or speakers), or if using AirTunes, they have placed a digital-to- analog converter (DAC) in their audio chain.

    Years ago when I first setup AirTunes (streaming iTunes to your stereo via Apple’s Airport Express), it sounded horrible — “packets” of audio at an unbearably low sample rate. Then I read about using a DAC — a WORLD of difference. This helped me to go (mostly) digital. Mastered for iTunes tracks (which use 24/96 masters) sound every bit as good as CDs when played this way.

    • To clarify what I wrote above: I was talking about situations where the user does not have a receiver/amplifier with an optical digital input. Otherwise the DAC is not required.

  13. First what’s irritating: cannot select parts of text
    Second: replies unreadable, text is disappearing in the right outside my ipad display.

  14. First what’s irritating: cannot select parts of text
    Second: replies unreadable, text is disappearing in the right outside my ipad display.

  15. What’s the latest news about the biggest tech blunder in 2015, Neil Young’s Pono Player. There’s nothing new on the web, such as an update on how well the player did. Is this just something that everyone would rather forget?

    If only Neil had the guts to admit that what he was going on about had nothing to do with sound quality. What he’s really mad about is that fans are stealing his music. They take his work on CD and copy the tracks to Mp3. This is why he has so much contempt for those formats. CD’s are just to easy to copy and
    Mp3 makes it all to easy to distribute over the Net. He wants to get paid for the recordings he makes.

    Ricky D
    Toronto
    Canada

    • I wouldn’t call it the biggest tech blunder, but it certainly got a lot of press – because of Neil Young’s reputation as a musician – but was a failure. I’ve written about it a lot here, in part because he was disseminating false information (aka lies) about compressed music and sound in general, and because too many people were taking it seriously, when anyone with any understand of the portable audio market would immediately know that the market simply isn’t there for a device like this. There are other high-resolution players out there – and I hope to review a few soon – but they don’t make the same claims as Young, and they don’t depend on a store, which is probably the only thing that can make money for Neil Young.

      Also, it’s not clear if the Pono will continue. Young has made some statements that suggest that there will never be another version of the device, and others where it seems like there might be a second version.

  16. What’s the latest news about the biggest tech blunder in 2015, Neil Young’s Pono Player. There’s nothing new on the web, such as an update on how well the player did. Is this just something that everyone would rather forget?

    If only Neil had the guts to admit that what he was going on about had nothing to do with sound quality. What he’s really mad about is that fans are stealing his music. They take his work on CD and copy the tracks to Mp3. This is why he has so much contempt for those formats. CD’s are just to easy to copy and
    Mp3 makes it all to easy to distribute over the Net. He wants to get paid for the recordings he makes.

    Ricky D
    Toronto
    Canada

    • I wouldn’t call it the biggest tech blunder, but it certainly got a lot of press – because of Neil Young’s reputation as a musician – but was a failure. I’ve written about it a lot here, in part because he was disseminating false information (aka lies) about compressed music and sound in general, and because too many people were taking it seriously, when anyone with any understand of the portable audio market would immediately know that the market simply isn’t there for a device like this. There are other high-resolution players out there – and I hope to review a few soon – but they don’t make the same claims as Young, and they don’t depend on a store, which is probably the only thing that can make money for Neil Young.

      Also, it’s not clear if the Pono will continue. Young has made some statements that suggest that there will never be another version of the device, and others where it seems like there might be a second version.

  17. Thanks for the good news about PONO, I was hoping it would fail. After all the hype, I have lost any respect for Neil Young and all the others on his video promoting this product. Those pop “artists” must think that there fans are really stupid. I would boycott all of them and have nothing to do with any them ever again. Passing on lies and misinformation is totally unacceptable. They would sell their fans shit on a stick, if they could get away with it. Anyone that tells you that they can hear frequencies above & beyond CD audio quality, is just fooling themselves. Frank Zappa was right all those years ago when he named his 1968 release, “were only in it for the money”.

    Ricky D
    Planet Earth

    • Yeah, thankfully we have Amazon and Apple to sell us only the frequencies we need with mp3’s. After all, what more do we need with our iPhones and bluetooth speakers?

  18. Thanks for the good news about PONO, I was hoping it would fail. After all the hype, I have lost any respect for Neil Young and all the others on his video promoting this product. Those pop “artists” must think that there fans are really stupid. I would boycott all of them and have nothing to do with any them ever again. Passing on lies and misinformation is totally unacceptable. They would sell their fans shit on a stick, if they could get away with it. Anyone that tells you that they can hear frequencies above & beyond CD audio quality, is just fooling themselves. Frank Zappa was right all those years ago when he named his 1968 release, “were only in it for the money”.

    Ricky D
    Planet Earth

    • Yeah, thankfully we have Amazon and Apple to sell us only the frequencies we need with mp3’s. After all, what more do we need with our iPhones and bluetooth speakers?

  19. Thanks for the good news about Pono, I was hoping it would fail. After all the hype, I have lost any respect for Neil Young and all the others on his video promoting this product. Those pop “artists” must think that their fans are really stupid. I would boycott all of them and have nothing to do with any of them ever again. Passing on lies and misinformation is totally unacceptable. They would sell their fans shit on a stick, if they could get away with it. Anyone that tells you that they can hear frequencies above & beyond CD audio quality, is just fooling themselves. Frank Zappa was right all those years ago when he named his 1968 release, “were only in it for the money”.

  20. Thanks for the good news about Pono, I was hoping it would fail. After all the hype, I have lost any respect for Neil Young and all the others on his video promoting this product. Those pop “artists” must think that their fans are really stupid. I would boycott all of them and have nothing to do with any of them ever again. Passing on lies and misinformation is totally unacceptable. They would sell their fans shit on a stick, if they could get away with it. Anyone that tells you that they can hear frequencies above & beyond CD audio quality, is just fooling themselves. Frank Zappa was right all those years ago when he named his 1968 release, “were only in it for the money”.

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