Pin It

The Sickness of the Audiophile: Behind the Obsession with Fancy Gear 

Wednesday, Mar 13 2013
Comments

On Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, My Bloody Valentine released mbv, the legendary British shoegaze band's follow-up to 1991's Loveless, and a white whale for an entire generation of tone-mangled musicians and fans. Like numerous other geeks of a certain age, I sat in front of the computer on a Saturday night, risking carpal tunnel syndrome while battling server errors and impatience. After a scant 22 years and several hours of waiting, I had the beast in my crosshairs. I jumped on the option to download the brand-new album as 24-bit, 96 kHz WAV files — the music equivalent of a high-resolution digital photograph.

The caveat of these ultra-high-quality files: a 1.5-gigabyte download. Even with broadband, the hefty file size gave me an extended period of reflection, an opportunity to think about why, when offered an album I'd anticipated for two decades, I would choose the allure of uncompressed audio over the immediate gratification of a much-smaller MP3. Oh, and what headphones would I choose for my first listen. I had a dozen pairs handy, but only one shot at that perfect first impression. That's when I knew I had to admit it: My name is Tony, and I am an addict. My addiction is the pursuit of audio fidelity, and all the gear that comes with it.

Lossless audio costs more and requires substantially more storage space. Depending on the format, it can't be conveniently played on many systems. And yet I'm always complaining that I can't get more. I'm willing to dedicate sizable chunks of disposable income to buy it, store it, and experience it ­­­—­­ #firstworldproblems, indeed. There's a reason audiophiles, even casual ones like myself, can sound like some serious douchebags.

But there's also a reason we proselytize as we buy albums for the fourth time on yet another supposedly superior (or at least less inferior) format, and it's the same reason I love My Bloody Valentine: texture. All audiophiles have had those singular moments when we recognized how truly physical sound could be. It wasn't just on or off, more or less; it was a topography of emotions. Age wears away some of the thrill of discovery, and it takes some edge off the old hearing — and being an audiophile means endlessly pursuing the vividness of that revelatory first listen.

There's a reason dealing with an audiophile can seem a lot like hanging out with a pothead. Both stoners and gear-junkies sit around a lot, staring at album covers and stringing together semi-coherent sensory impressions like, "That cymbal splash ... its resonance ... is splendiferous." Both audiophiles and potheads can quickly fill a room with hot air. The phrase "gateway drugs" applies to both afflictions.

I'm certainly guilty of chasing this dragon, of littering tabletops with paraphernalia and mulling over frequency-response graphs, but I like to tell myself I know when enough is enough. Even if you're reasonably into good sound, listening to a truly committed audiophile discuss achieving the highs (and lows and midrange) of the hobby can be utterly exhausting. Each has that artist or album that triggers the rush, and they're convinced they can eke out just one more transcendent moment with the right recording and gear. Many become so consumed with the hunt that at some point it stops being a search for what sounds better and becomes primarily about what sounds different, muddying the listening experience with A-B shootouts and nagging doubts that there's still something missing. Clearly, there is: a sense of satisfaction.

There's a running joke/sad truth placed in the signature of many posters on audiophile forums: "Welcome ... and sorry about your wallet." Once you get the taste for tightened bass impact, for a less congested midrange, and more treble extension, you begin to believe that special, acoustically isolated stands, balanced aftermarket cables, and strategic gear-genre pairings make a crucial difference. You start to lose the distinction between doing the music justice and becoming alarmingly obsessive.

After that, cycling white noise through new equipment for 300 hours before you first use it seems totally sane. Paying hundreds on eBay for a pair of vintage, Dutch-manufactured vacuum tubes is the new normal. After all, how will $500 headphones sound their best if you don't invest an additional grand or three to try the valve amplifier flavor of the month? And one day, when they finally harvest Unobtainium and wrap it in a convenient, tangle-resistant Kevlar jacket, audiophiles will stab each other in the back to get on the pre-release reservation list. Anything to reduce jitter, flutter, buzz, or whatever the negative buzzword of the day is.

In the audiophile world it's easy to fall into this trap of justifying almost anything, because you don't have a problem; you're finding a solution. Even if that new piece of gear costs 1,000 times more, it might increase the dynamics by two percent. You begin to think that anyone who wouldn't go that far is disrespecting the emotion their favorite artist committed to tape.

Of course, audiophiles will never be satisfied, because all this effort goes into setting an experience that is utterly subjective. All of us hear differently; we'll likely each have a different definition of the perfect throaty-but-controlled midrange. Ultimately, our favorite sound is the UPS truck driving up to deliver new recordings or gear to audition.

As for my initial mbv listening session, I went with the uncolored, evocative imaging of the $995 Audeze LCD2 headphones. Almost as soon as I hit play, I found myself chatting online with similarly inclined friends, sharing our experience and delving into the rich headroom and dynamics of the new recording. I may never again experience a My Bloody Valentine album for the first time, but every listen can reveal something new. When I was younger I bought more albums; now, I buy more sound. This beast, no matter how well-fed, will always be hungry.

About The Author

Tony Ware

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed