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

Wednesday, Mar 13 2013

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


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