Audiophile: The Day the Music Died?

It was about 10 years ago.

We were setting up the Shure M44-7 cartridge I had sourced from a used hi-fi shop on the Technics 1200 MKV I had scrimped and saved months for. My friend Bobby C became serious, “pretty soon you won’t be hearing the music at all, you’ll be critically listening.”

We both laughed, and took a long pull on our beers as he continued to mount the M44-7 by eyeballing it and adjusting the alignment so it was angled in about five or six degrees – more parallel to the groove. “That’s the way you want it,” Bobby C said after tightening the second headshell screw. “For tracking.”

The original set up.

I knew very little about the mysteries of making music play back from records at the time – despite growing up in a home all about listening to LPs. I had been noodling around the Internet and been dipping into a few online forums to find more about the 1200 and in the process been exposed to the wholly new concept of listening to music not to enjoy it, but to analyze it. Apparently this was what audiophiles did. A process that sounded about as fun as going to a movie and reading a book through it.

Bobby C proceeded to drop the needle on Stomu Yamashta’s Go Too and we revelled in the dreamy synth soundscape that bleeds into prog-rock, jazz-funk and space fusion. It sounded amazing through the $20 Pyle-Pro PP444 phono preamp I’d picked up at Tom Lee Music the day before.

I was getting into vinyl, I was on a budget and all I knew was that I wanted a Technics 1200 – everything else was secondary. The PP444 was plugged into a pair of small JBL (or similar, I can't remember) active monitors – bought on Bobby C’s recommendation – and the whole setup fit on a small Ikea desk I had pushed against the living room wall of my apartment in East Vancouver. We played a Tomita LP next, it might have been Clair de Lune or Kosmos, I don’t remember which, but I do remember kicking back and sighing contentedly as we relaxed to the music.

I was able to listen to my small, but growing LP collection and I was hooked once again on vinyl after growing up in the aforementioned house where my father’s 2,000-plus record collection had dominated the living room for most of my formative years.

The reason I mention all this is because I keep reading lately about what it means to be an audiophile, or consider yourself an audiophile or the constant new worry among audiophiles; how do we get young people to be audiophiles?

Honestly, I don’t think young people want to be audiophiles. They just want to listen to their music the way they want to. Most of the listening these days is streaming digital (Spotify – not audiophile approved), but vinyl seems to be a close second with the young people I know or come across at record stores. Sorry CDs, I don’t know anyone under 40 buying you, but that seems more generational than anything to do with convenience. And listening to music your own way and not caring is almost the opposite of what many audiophiles are down with. Many seem to want to be told exactly how they should be listening to music, what they should be listening for and what they should be listening to it on.

Tubes and 97.5 dB speakers.

I don’t think someone loves listening to music and then decides to become an audiophile. It’s too great a leap. I certainly didn’t, nor did anyone else I know who considers themselves one. They just organically became one over time. It took me about 25 years to develop into someone who wants to ‘see’ as deeply into a recording as I like to think I’m able. I didn’t just suddenly have a deep knowledge base of what equipment sounds better when connected to each other (according to me). That was an experiential journey spread over a decade of pursuing my own personal holy grail of sound: my alter to worship music at. It was cultivated over time like a taste for Scotch, fine wines or cigars. You don’t just decide you like Islay single malt, you have to try it in comparison to a Speyside. Same goes for solid-state mono blocs and big three-ways or flea-watt tube amps and high-efficiency single-driver loudspeakers. You have to hear them to know whether they’re your cuppa.

I still don’t know if what I have currently is what I would consider my final system, (there’s that drive to ‘see’ further coming into play) but it sure makes me happy to hear the music I love through it.

The current state.

I’m a fan of the credo that the best system is the one you’ve got – enjoy it and stop worrying if it’s set up how it’s supposed to be. It’s set up how you made it. Experiment, make mistakes, you’ll learn a lot more doing things yourself than you ever will on an online forum. Speaking of which, if you’ve ever spent time on one that discusses this hobby, you have probably gathered that audiophiles can be broken down into two categories; those who are nice, helpful and actually enjoy listening to music and those who are the complete opposite of that. There’s not many other hobbies I can think of where opinions generate so much anger and ill will. YMMV.

Let’s circle back to the beginning of all this though and talk about the loving music vs. loving the gear you play it on. That Technics 1200 I bought? I loved the music it made more than the deck itself. Why? Because when I heard a Rega ‘table in comparison I couldn’t deny that I enjoyed the sound of music through Rega more: It was a means to an ends for me. Same thing when I got into digital audio and started comparing DACs. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think many in this hobby actually like their gear more than their music. Whatever floats your boat, but I’m not sure the gear alone is going to attract young people, or people of any age for that matter to this hobby… but music? That’s different, because it speaks to people regardless of whether it’s being played back on a $100,000 hi-fi or a grocery store PA.

Remember, every audiophile started life as a regular person like me, or you, who just loved hearing music played back – they didn’t transform, caterpillar-like, overnight into someone obsessed with the recorded event. Perhaps it’s time for more of us to remember how much we used to enjoy listening to music. Or, as my good friend Bobby C said, “pretty soon you won’t be hearing the music at all, you’ll be critically listening.” And if that’s all we’re doing, I wonder how long this hobby actually has?

Itsaboutthemusic's picture

Hi Rafe,
I’ve been reading and enjoying your wrtings since you took over from Michael, and I’ve got to say this one is my favorite so far. Gets to the heart of the matter. I’ve become a shallow pocketed audiophile since discovering music in the mid 60's when a 4” transistor radio and the Beatles were my personal heaven.

Even though I’m much more serious about my gear now, 50 years later, its the music that still drives the feeling.
I tinker, fiddle, adjust, and change out gear constantly, but all in the pursuit of putting on that perfect album for the moment, dimming the lights, sitting back, and just ....... enjoying.......

You nailed it. Thanks.

Rafe Arnott's picture
By such honest, heartfelt feedback. Thanks so much.
jeffhenning's picture

The better the music sounds the happier I am. And I don't listen to music that doesn't make my feel good regardless of how well it was recorded.

As a guy that's also a musician and audio engineer, I do seek perfection in my audio system even though that's unattainable. I'm very happy that some of the best audio products are no longer priced in the stratosphere. Unfortunately, speakers don't tend to fall in that category.

Not surprisingly, the best speaker drivers still tend to be very pricey and making a great cabinet certainly isn't cheap.

That being said, I'm very pleased with my bedroom system which is comprised of KEF LSX's and cheap Boston Acoustics subs. After buying stands, sub platforms, cables, etc, the system cost a hair less than $2,500.

It doesn't sound as good as my main system, but it sounds good enough that I certainly enjoy listening to it.

Perfection? No. Fun? Yes.

Ironically, my wireless system has a ton of wires!

Apricale's picture

I’ve got a Technics 1210. Or maybe it’s not a 1210, it’s a 12-something, that I have not listened to in 30 years. When I bought it (around 1975) it was regarded as a really good turntable, but not as good as a Linn. A Good belt-drive would always trump direct drive (and the Linn factory was a mile from where I lived in Glasgow). DD wasn’t musical (how things have changed).

Even then, I thought “what’s the point of paying a fortune for the best stereo, when you pay £2 for an album which will pick up dust and clicks from day 1”. And if you are going to seriously listen to a record, you need to be able to filter out all the dust, all the scratches...

There was a survey around a year ago which said that around 50% of records were never played. For many (not all) an album is simply a personal statement rather than a way to listen to music. Recorded music has always contained that element. And often a comparatively primitive recording will make the best sound system seem irrelevant; the tail shouldn’t wag the dog. Does anyone remember that for 20 years “Kind of Blue” was issued at the wrong speed. No, because it was great music.

So my point is that while we do need to care about the sound quality, the music needs to take precedence. Shakespeare printed on better paper is nicer, but only up to a point.

mrubey's picture

I think Guttenbergs definition of an audiophile is accurate.
"Someone who listens to music as a primary activity".....rather than as an environmental enhancement.

Robin Landseadel's picture

"Remember, every audiophile started life as a regular person like me, or you, who just loved hearing music played back – they didn’t transform, caterpillar-like, overnight into someone obsessed with the recorded event."

I suspect I'm not a regular person like you. I'm pretty sure I was drawn to the gear from the start. I remember, some 50 years ago [or more] being fascinated by the mechanisms that reproduce music, the way the spiral groove reflected light, with rainbow patterns vibrating on the black plastic as it rotated. Jackie Gleason LPs, Sinatra, & Ella, Nat "King" Cole being played on the "affordable" gear of the early 1960's. One of my father's record spinners was a steel-needled acoustic with a 33 + 1/3 setting, playing out of a horn that was built into the box. Playmates had "children's phonographs" that included faceted mirrors that would display animations cast off from the record label. In 1970 I was assembling record players out of otherwise broken electronics laying around the house, cast-offs from my elder stepbrothers. When I was 17, bought a system consisting of Acoustic Research-3 speakers, AR amp and AR turntable, topped off with a Shure 91 cartridge. That was 1973.

I started working in record stores very soon thereafter and perhaps for far too long after that. So I was working at Tower Berkeley as CDs first arrived. When they showed up I thought they were the work of the devil. I was working at Berkeley's "The Musical Offering" when LPs first gave up the ghost, working at Borders Books & Music as the "Record Industry" went down [along with Borders, who over-invested in CDs]. In between I tried my hand at engineering recordings, following the usual audiophile creed of acoustic music, minimally miked in an acoustically interesting setting. In the process I came to the realization that microphones are the biggest determiner of sound character, and the results will always sound different from the original event. Not just my recordings, but the recordings of the engineers I also worked with.

Back when I was working at "Wherehouse Records", recording artists could make their paydays with album sales, these days they depend on touring. Back in Led Zep's heyday LPs were the best we could come up, now there's modes of recording and playback superior to what LPs are capable of, but that doesn't erase the rainbow patterns reflected off spinning grooves or the uncanny sense of presence---You want uncanny presence? Try an acoustic disc played though an acoustic player. However, I've heard too many of the flaws baked into the LP formula, the dynamic restriction, the limitations at frequency extremes, off-center LPs, $2 used LPs that apparently were played on my father's record player.

. . . “pretty soon you won’t be hearing the music at all, you’ll be critically listening.” . . .

And I suppose that's what the experience of recording music did to me. The "Critical Listening" aspect magnifies a person's Audiophilus Nervosa but for a cause. "Is that a dimmer switch? Do I need a better A/C filter? Are these microphones going to work? Where's the "Sweet Spot?" and so one. As one expects to be paid, these issues are more consequential. While all recording engineers have to hear the music, it's the more musically inclined recording engineers who become Producers. With the nature of modern recording gear, electronic knowledge is nowhere near as important as musical knowledge. You move around microphones 'til you get what you want, set levels to allow 10db of headroom, encode with 24 bits and while monitoring, follow the score, leave flags or start up a new file, take notes. That's for an "Audiophile" recording, mind you. Making something everyone will listen to will take a lot more work.

The kids are alright. Streaming music isn't for me---yet. But I'm getting there. I hear advantages with digital record/play that are musically meaningful, none more so than pitch. Not only in the "Kind of Blue" sense of playing in a non-standard pitch [funny how Early Music concerns about pitch peaked as the Compact Disc first appeared] but in all that wow & flutter, not to mention off-center pressings. And the sound quality of a smartphone or DAP playing back through a big audio system or good headphones/IEM's is better than most of what I was hearing during analog's Glory Days.

"if that’s all we’re doing, I wonder how long this hobby actually has?"

I'm gonna guess that all depends on what one's meaning of "this hobby" is.

stevew's picture

I still buy CDs because they are cheaper than the download price on Tidal or Qobuz. Stupid, because there is no plastic, paper or cardboard (i.e. environmental waste) with a download. I then rip (in 16-bit FLAC) to my Auralic streamer, copy the rip to a second external drive (for backup) and then store the physical CD in a slim case in a closet.

I would prefer to buy a FLAC download, but my wallet talks. Downloads should not cost more than physical media. As far as 'hi-res' (above CD-quality) costing even more, don't get me started. That's a different scam.

Unfortunately, everyone on the Internet has their own opinion, this is mine. Long live physical CDs as they are cheaper than the couple of services that even bother to provide FLAC level sound quality files.

barfle's picture

I recall the old question of whether an audiophile bought equipment to make his music sound good or bought music to make his equipment sound good.

I’m sure there are plenty in the latter camp, and I admit I occasionally do buy a demo track because reviews say it shows off dynamics, shows off bass, shows off yadda yadda yadda. But, of course, it’s my system, just like your system is yours. Sure, it’s fun to impress friends and neighbors, but the main person I’m trying to impress is me.

kBear's picture

Nice essay Mr. Arnott. Enjoyed the piece (and comments all around).

Music or equipment ?
um … Rather it is the music *and* the equipment (not necessarily in that order).

It's "which is the guitar and which is the ARP synthesizer" ( … "oh ... *now* I can hear both") and stuff like that.

Long story short: I know this to be true as we just inherited and restored some vintage near-audiophile speakers (and some appropriate new attention to connectors and connections and placement and … ) and now that we've gotten things dialed back in, I find I'm listening again to old and new for the music
(and it's a gas gas gas)

Again nice work all around