The Audiophile Fallacy

I was reading a book of Leonard Bernstein’s letters recently. (, Amazon UK) This book contains letters both to and from Bernstein and a variety of people: friends, family, and other musicians, composers and conductors. In many occasions, one of the correspondents mentions having listened to a record or a live performance on the radio. And not once did any of those people write, “Oh, I wish this sounded better…”)

Of course, when you live with a given technology, it’s hard to imagine improvements in that technology. Also, these letters are merely a selection of thousands of letters. I’d be curious to know if Bernstein ever talked about stereo recordings; a technology that was developed early in his career.

But this made me think about something: those who make music – the performers, conductors and composers – didn’t seem to be too concerned about the quality of the sound they were hearing. They knew it was an approximation, and they accepted that. I’ve written in the past about why I think music is more important than sound, but thinking about these early days of recordings and radio made me realize that the basic premise of audiophiles is a fallacy.

The Wikipedia article about “audiophile” says the following:

“A key goal of audiophiles is to capture the experience of a live musical performance in a room with good acoustics, and reproduce it at home. It is widely agreed that this is very difficult and that even the best-regarded recording and playback systems rarely, if ever, achieve it.”

I think it’s fair to say that we will most likely never be able to reproduce the sound of a live performance on a recording, regardless of how much money one spends on hi-fi equipment. And that begs the question: why bother? Sure, there are incremental improvements one can make to an audio system. A better amplifier, and especially better speakers, may improve your sound, but you’ll quickly reach the limit beyond which any improvements are so marginal as to be comparable to a placebo effect.

Yet many people fervently seek this holy grail of perfect sound. I wonder what makes them tick? Anyone spending a large amount of money on an audio system must be aware that they will never reach their goal; so why bother? Why not spend money on more music, instead of spending potentially thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars on hardware?

I think the answer is that, beyond a certain point, it’s no longer about the sound. It’s about the joy of buying new hardware, of showing it off, of comparing it with others; it’s a pissing contest.

To be fair, audiophiles are a bit like NASA; the technologies companies develop for them eventually trickle down into improvements to more affordable components. It’s fair to say that one of the most obvious examples of this is the quality of DACs (digital-analog converters) that are now available at reasonable prices, and which improve the sound of music played from computers or other digital devices with mediocre sound cards. But most audiophile hardware offers at best tiny incremental differences (not necessarily improvements) in sound.

If someone were to offer me $10,000 to buy either audio hardware or music, my choice would be obvious. I’d buy music, because that’s what all this is about.