This past May, while in Munich, Germany, to attend High End 2015, I was a guest at a manufacturer-sponsored dinner where I was seated next to Stereophile writer Michael Fremer. We talked about a number of subjects, including, unsurprisingly, his love for analog sound. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you know that Fremer is an LP-and-turntable guy. Throughout our very civil and enjoyable conversation, there were many points we agreed on, and a few we did not. However, one thing Fremer said stood out from the rest: He can’t enjoy digital recordings; it takes analog sound to relax him and get him into the music. That’s a paraphrase, but it captures his gist. I believe this to be his honest opinion, and have no reason to believe he’s shilling for the analog-equipment manufacturers. I trust him on this.
In response, I told Fremer that I can enjoy music, well, more or less anywhere. I listen in my car, through my iPhone connected to earbuds, even through a Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder Bluetooth speaker. Of course, my home audio system, installed in my custom-designed dedicated listening room, sounds way better than any of those, and I get a lot of pleasure from that system. But when I truly love the music, my brain can readily adapt to the sound of whatever source is playing it. In short, I find it easy to listen through the gear to the music, even if the quality of reproduction isn’t top shelf.
Does that mean, when compared with Michael Fremer, that I lose my audiophile street cred?
Fremer is not going to change my mind. I’m not going to change his. That’s OK -- ultimately, each of us can buy what he wants and listen any way he wants.
The fly plops into the ointment when one audiophile says to another, “My system” -- or amp, or speakers, or whatever -- “is better than yours.” That audiophile is not merely stating his preference for his own gear, but presenting that preference as an absolute value judgment. And them’s fightin’ words. This constantly plays out on the Internet forums, hence the need for moderators on these sites. Having a preference for something and declaring it the best are two vastly different things.
Reviewers should compare and contrast products, and when one seems to be obviously better, we should say so. But any mature reviewer also knows that two components can sound different without one being obviously “better” than the other. Grown-ups can walk and chew gum at the same time. So can reviewers.
The only thing that really matters to you, the consumer, is that you buy what you want. You shouldn’t be influenced by someone telling you that you can truly enjoy your tunes only if you listen to analog, or hi-rez, or with DSP correction for bass response, and on and on. Audio is not a life-or-death endeavor. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to like two speakers, and then buy the one that looks cooler to you. Or comes from a designer whom you connect with on some level. Or whatever.
Audiophiles are quick to let their insecurities dictate buying decisions: you must have an expensive amp because you have expensive speakers; if you really cared about the music, you’d know that you need to raise your cables off the floor; the sound can't be good with those glass windows behind your speakers; etc. There are so many tactics out there designed to influence the buying decisions of audiophiles -- and of all consumers -- that cutting through the hype can require a chainsaw.
My advice? Buy what you want. Don’t look back. Enjoy the thing because . . . well, because you enjoy it.
Last example: I’ve subscribed to Tidal for months now, and love the streaming service. While at High End, I asked a number of audiophiles what they think of it. Almost all of them gave me what, after a few days, began to sound like politically correct boilerplate: “I use it only for discovering new music, and I love it for that, but when I find something I like, I always buy the CD.” As if listening to a 16-bit/44.1kHz stream is somehow beneath them.
Me? If I’m listening to new music on Tidal and really like it, I just keep listening. I still buy music that Tidal hasn’t licensed, and if there’s something in hi-rez that I really like I’ll buy that, too. But since the arrival of Tidal, my purchases of recordings have plummeted. Does that lose me audiophile street cred? I couldn’t care less.
When it comes to high-end audio and your enjoyment of music, you shouldn’t care either. Enjoy what you want however you want to enjoy it, and don’t worry about how others do it. Just don’t say your system is “better” than mine. Then we might have a problem.
. . . Jeff Fritz