Put simply, an audiophile is someone who values high-fidelity audio reproduction. The primary activity of an audiophile is, ostensibly, listening. Whether you love music or the sound of a steam locomotive passing by, an audiophile is engaged in active listening (as opposed to passive listening, or listening while doing something else like checking email). I've heard active listening paraphrased as “listening concert-style”; you’re fully engaged and focused on the performance.
While sound has objective properties that can be measured (e.g., a spectrum analyzer can measure the frequency response of a piece of equipment or measure how sound waves behave in a room), the perception of sound is subjective. However, different people often describe sound in similar ways, such as bright or dark, muddy or airy, rich or dry. Still, it's difficult to describe sound with any hope of fully communicating its quality. One of my favorite quotes about audio journalism is “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture“. I often find myself baffled by someone's description of a piece of gear only to agree with them after I've heard it for myself.
I've been in love with recorded music since I can remember. Early on, my favorite songs included La Bamba, I Think We’re Alone Now, and Point of No Return. I remember being particularly enthralled with the progressive build-up at the beginning of Urgent. Around 1992, I got a Sony Discman with my first set of headphones. It was a revelation. It meant I no longer had to negotiate with my parents for listening time on the stereo – I could just sit in my room and listen to anything I had. I've always been fascinated by the textures present in recorded music – electronic music in particular.
The secondary activity of an audiophile is the considered assembly of an audio reproduction system. The taxonomy of audio reproduction systems is too complex to cover here. Each component has a job to do and may also color the sound to one degree or another. At a minimum, you need some source of music, such as a computer, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers. The form your system takes depends on what format your music is in, your preferences, and other constraints such as available space and budget. Crack open a magazine on the subject and you’ll find a variety of systems and components, many of which command a price much higher than what you would expect to pay at your local electronics store. Some of these price points seem ludicrous, even to many self-described audiophiles. Can you listen to your favorite music on a clock radio and call yourself an audiophile? I think you can.
I made my entry into audiophilia through headphones. I later went through several iterations of home audio systems before deciding I'd spent enough money. For me, this hobby was relatively expensive. It is fun, though, to experiment with different pieces of gear. My last major purchase was a 1980s-vintage tube amplifier. It was really nice, but cats and vacuum tubes don't mix. After listening to a lot of music on many different setups, I think music sounds best on the system it was expected to be played though when it was released. Thus Motown sounds amazing through tubes, 80s pop sounds best on solid state, and the music of today sounds best through headphones.
You really don't have to spend a lot to get a significant improvement over a non-considered setup. If you already have a digital music library and are otherwise starting from scratch, there are a lot of versatile products available. Powered monitors with a built-in DAC, like the KEF X300A, are an all-in-one solution that will set you back less than $1,000. You can also spend less on quality used gear and give yourself room to experiment with different things. Vintage gear is great, but stuff from the 70s doesn't include a remote. It's harder to find good gear from the 80s when stereos became a commodity and the low end of the market boomed.
If you’re just getting into it and don't want to experiment, I recommend a budget of $3,000 to $5,000 assuming you already have a source (e.g. digital music on a computer, records and a record player). This will get you a fine set of speakers, an amplifier, cables, and a DAC or phono preamp. You can spend more, but we’re already past the point of diminishing returns. If you like to tinker or are susceptible to the temptation posed by potential upgrades, I recommend you build your system progressively. I also recommend you avoid the mainstream audiophile press and its siren song.
Alternatively, you can put together a really nice headphone-specific setup for a lot less. For a few hundred dollars, you can get a decent DAC, headphone amp, and a pair of headphones. Historically, mainstream audiophilia has concerned itself with in-room reproduction using loudspeakers. Headphones have been, at best, a niche interest within the audiophile world, but awareness is growing. Finally, you can take a DIY approach and build your own components. This can be an affordable and fun way to build a nice stereo system.
For most of us, digital music libraries are easier to build, maintain, and enjoy relative to physical formats – assuming you want to build a library at all. Digital files are portable and impervious to the degradation that afflicts physical formats like CDs and vinyl. The downside is their vulnerability to EMPs, solar flares, and hard drive failures. A digital library of sufficient size places demands on infrastructure; it’s the only reason I would consider buying a NAS with RAID storage. The cost of storage has fallen significantly since the dawn of the mp3 era making the storage of large, hi-res digital libraries practical. While redundant storage and backup strategies are important, it's not listening to music. With that in mind, let's talk about vinyl.
Somehow, listening to hi-res audio drew me to jazz. I came to enjoy Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck, in particular. I kept reading about the sound of vinyl, so I decided to try it for myself. There's something different about it compared to digital – not better or worse, just different. Like system topography, music engineered for playback on vinyl sounds best on vinyl. I was also drawn to vinyl by the prospect of finding music that was not easily found elsewhere. Looking back on what I spent on a record player and a small record collection, I wouldn't do it again, but it was fun. Handling vinyl records does heighten the ritual around listening to music and can help the listener focus on the experience.
I Wish I Knew
- Buy quality used gear. Newer isn't necessarily better, and this stuff depreciates like Beanie Babies.
- More expensive gear is not necessarily better gear.
- Try different things and learn what you like.
- CDs are a great source of high-quality audio! Rip your CDs to lossless APE or FLAC. Used CDs are a bargain.
- Don't bother with expensive speaker cables, but do get shielded line cables to block out RFI.
- Unless you have a large listening room, you don't need or want huge speakers.
- Speaker placement makes a big difference to the sound you hear.
- If you want to play records, please get a real record player and clean your records.
The Rabbit Hole
- Rip your CDs to lossless APE or FLAC
- Get a decent set of headphones
- Position your speakers correctly
- Get an outboard DAC and amplifier
- Invest in some quality home stereo gear
- Buy a record player
- Explore the world of audiophile tweaks
- Waste money on audiophile snake oil products
- Circle back around and plug some earbuds into your smartphone