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Failing Audiophile 101

Every time that I try to improve my overall sound system, even if by a little amount, I find my presumably educated choices as either bad, or at best low-fi. Even my wonderful Grado SR60’s come in as “low-fi” in terms of fidelity. It seems that in the sound arena, I am easily impressed and impossibly overmatched.

Or am I?

I’ve been kicking around this topic in my head for a while, and I think that I finally get why I am so happy and easily fooled by sub-par sound reproduction, and that audiophiles are so underwhelmed by my choice. The whole problem lies in psycho-accoustics. Now, psycho-acoustings aren’t deadly little sounds wandering around with knives hoping to stab you when you aren’t looking. No, psycho refers to how your mind handles something and acoustics means sound. In layman’s terms, your brain has its own internal sound processor, and the behavior of that sound processor influences your interaction with sound.

But hearing is hearing, isn’t it? Nope. You can train your ear. Beginning musicians don’t know one pitch from another, but they sort it all out and get better at pitch as time goes by. (At least, one hopes so.) If you don’t believe me, take it from the audiophiles. They firmly believe that you can train your ear to hear more than you think. As your ear doesn’t have muscles, nor does it change shape, what they must be referring to is your brain’s psyco-acoustics.

The most important thing about pschyo-acoustic profiles is that we all have them. They are invisible to us as language and sight. We take them for granted because for most of us they seem granted. This profile gives our ears expectations.  Music that agrees with this profile will seems familiar and right, while music that doesn’t will be perceived of as wrong. Most of us already know this feeling and it makes sense.

Most people have untrained psycho-acoustic profiles. Their expectations of music are born of the imperfect sound systems that they grew up with. Music that sounds like these imperfect systems will sound right while those that don’t will sound wrong. Can you see where this is going? You should.

Let’s talk about Bose. “No highs, no lows, must be Bose.” That’s the saying. Audiophile hate Bose. Bose is an overhyped product that has bad sound. Yet amazingly, Bose sells well to ignorant people who don’t know that they are being ripped off. The only explanation could be because they are fooled by advertising and don’t know better. I think that they are wrong. The explanation is far simpler.

Bose is a smart company. They want to sell the most speakers possible at a price that most people who want to go “premium” will pay. First, they price their speakers in the range that the average non-audiophile are willing to pay for. This gets them a big market share that helps them to sell speakers. Secondly, they design their speakers to keep the overall sound of bad speakers while improving the dynamics. That means that the speakers sound “right” to a non-audiophile. They sound both right and better at the same time, enabling them to sell their speakers to more people. In other words, Bose makes a product that will make the average non-audiophile very happy. They get what they are used to, but better. And when people get that, they become happy customers who talk about how wonderful their sound system is.

The average non-audiophile doesn’t explore other options for a variety of reasons, but the big his against them is that they actually improve the sound, which makes sound samples sound different to non-audiophile, which translates into “not right.” So heard side-by-side, non-audiophiles opt for the familiar over the different.

People also have a trait which I call “tolerance.” That is, how far can sound be away from your ideal form? Most people have a very high tolerance. You can change their music around and they will tolerate it. It may not sound the best, but they really don’t care. Tolerance is why most people simply don’t bother with super-duper sound systems. They don’t have the incentive to go out and spend the money. The lower your tolerance, the further that you move into the audiophile category. It’s this dissatisfaction which what you have, and the promise in technology that the puzzle of electronics can be solved to make the sound better that drives an audiophile. Upgrade your wires, change your power supply, get a higher resolution recording, build your listening room. These are all things that audiophiles can do.

$20,000 worth of audio equipment may sound absurd to most people, but most people also don’t find it absurd that you spend $100-$200 per football game or pay $30,000 for your car, or even $10,000 for granite countertops. Although spending a bundle on audio may sound extreme, compared to other passions, it costs no more. The unusual part is the choice, not the money. Additionally, all that money is not usually spent in one go. Pieces are acquired as desired. Money is saved up as needed. The price tag of an audio system should be treated more as a hobby, like football. How much do you spend per season?

A third difference between audiophiles and ordinary listeners is what they are listening for. Audiophiles tend to value accuracy, while the ordinary listener tends to value experience. If you give an ordinary user a good experience, then they will feel good about their purchase. As the ordinary user has a pretty high tolerance threshold to begin with, they aren’t going to be bothered about the inaccuracies in their purchases.

In addition, accuracy has its own problems. Whose accuracy are we talking about? When the original engineers mixed the recording, did they account for the distortions of their current tech? Will improving the accuracy work against the balance that the engineers worked so hard to achieve? Were the original engineers even concerned with accuracy? Or were they concerned with other aspects of the sound? So you can see, in the upper level ranges of reproduction, the particulars of what you want shape your system more than the technical requirements of reproducing sound.

I think that in the end, I’m a user who values the experience of his music more than the accuracy of reproduction. While I appreciate quality and accuracy, I am not always in the position to maximize it. I like good speakers in my car, but my car will never sound like a symphony hall. I like good sound in my study, but I don’t have the flexibility in my study to optimize my listening space. The speaker placement is dreadful and will remain so. Most of my listening is off of mp3’s, which further limits the maximum quality that I can get. So given my practical limits these days, aside from better headphones, I am happy with my current audio setup, even if I do have Bose 301’s as my main speakers. They good enough to make me happy, which is all that I require.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2014 07:33 pm (UTC)
"Whose accuracy are we talking about? When the original engineers mixed the recording, did they account for the distortions of their current tech?"

relatedly, how do audiophiles deal with the compression wars. as you infer, engineers for labels tend to mix for the best sound on a particular equipment representing the *mode* (which is neither the mean nor median) - the most often found, sound systems. Thus, though stereo existed for more than 2 decades, 50s pop music was still mono (and even the Beatles were mono well into the 60s). They did this for the same reason bose sells: marketing a product like pop music requires targeting the largest market space available, especially given the up-front investment required in pressing, packaging, and distribution.

Today, this is made worse in that engineers are aware that earbuds, exterior noise to be blocked out, and no sound below 30k is the norm. This has created the "war of compression" where dynamic range of rock and pop music is shattered in exchange for something that sounds acceptable on an ipod at aac/mp3 compression. (the worst example of this was the horrid first mix for Rush's Vapor Trails, which they finally redid in 2013.)

As such, there is no way that audiophile equipment can actually ever match what the engineers have mixed it for, either in the past or today. Increasingly, people are finding that the aac files of classic rock hits on iTunes are badly mixed for "real" equipment, in being too treble-low and bass-heavy (to make up for the lack of bass on an ipod) and compressed to have lost any sense of dynamics at all.

So audiophiles who claim to have low tolerance actually just have a specialized tolerance: their ears are tuned to the distortions of the original mix that their equipment has given them. But as the original mixes are themselves increasingly distorted, they're actually getting a worse sound than they might have 15 years ago.

This will always be the case until all of the manufacturers of audio-playback devices are able to agree on a standard input "mix" and handle the demands of their own nature appropriately - e.g., let the ipod do the audio compression so the original mix can be what the artist intended.

Never gonna happen, of course.
Oct. 16th, 2014 07:57 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of a true story, but as I don't remember who told it, we'll call it an urban legend and be done with it.

There's this guy who's trying to get this classic, fantastic, backwoods banjo sounds. No matter what he does, not matter how much he spends on new banjos, no matter how much he spends on modifications, he just can't get that sound of that bluesy old country woman he so admires.

Eventually, the guy meets someone who knows that he's talking about. "Of course you can't sound like her. She's playing on a $20 banjo from Sears. Your banjo is too good to sound like that."
Oct. 31st, 2014 04:19 pm (UTC)
David Gilmour's always said that the 'sound' of his guitar remains in his fingers. He could walk into a music store, pick up a $300 strat off the wall, a couple of $40 pedals (1 reverb, 1 distortion), plug in to a $150 amp, and sound like 'him' for most of the songs except a handful that really do need special effects.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )