The Hobbyist and Audiophile in 2010.

‭ ‭Anyone reading my blog, and certainly anyone willing to form an opinion about its contents, is likely to be an audio hobbyist; in colloqial terms, an “audiophile.” Audiophiles are a heterogeneous, but distinct group of people, very different from the average purchaser of sound equipment.  Average audio consumers think about equipment typically without much enthusiasm, and only when it is necessary to make an informed purchase. Contrast this with the audiophile, who is frequently engaged in thinking about, discussing, auditioning and comparing equipment. The audiophile gets considerable pleasure from speculating at length about the theoretical and practical aspects of gear, even gear that he or she has little desire or ability to actually buy.‭Today’s audio marketplace has bifurcated in its behavior. There are the audiophiles, and the loose affiliation of small, entrepreneurial manufacturers, DIY and hobbyist builders, sales and editorial channels related to them.  In contrast to these engaged constituents, there are the substantial majority of mainstream audio consumers who are motivated to purchase equipment only as a means to enjoy music or, to some extent, as a de rigueur acquisition in the fashion of their social peer group, whatever this may be. With few exceptions, this much larger market segment almost completely ignores audiophile concerns in favor of traditional consumer electronics marketing pitches via traditional promotional channels. This is not to say that good sound is not important, perhaps very important, to mass-market manufacturers and customers. But, this aspect of the product, if it discussed , is understated and forgivingly assessed in comparison to the lengthy and involved treatment that would be given by their audiophile counterparts. Where they meet, the two worlds have little to say to each other, aside from the occassional half-hearted attempt by a mass market brand to woo some audiophile customers, and aside from well-meaning but universally ill-conceived attempts by audiophiles to evangelize their beliefs to a wider audience.  Between these two distinct segments of the market, there is little commerce and few sources of mutual education.  Likewise, there are very few products that , on their own, would nurture a non-audiophile to develop a self-motivated, gradual and progressive interest in better sound. Consumer brands seek to promote loyalty and upsell, not graduation.  Thus, while the ranks of the mass-market audio consumer base are, more or less, continuously filled, the audiophile world depends on specific evangelistic encounters with potential converts to maintain and expand membership.  This has proven, in my observation, less than sufficiently effective.
‭The post-purchase behavior of the two groups is markedly different, also. The general consumer is almost always satisfied with their purchase, provided it performs as expected, is easy to use and is reliable. There is no thought of replacement until a major technological shift requires this. On the contrary, general consumers go to some lengths to maximize the lifespan of their equipment, and mimimize the need to consider new purchases. These consumers are highly influenced by a brand’s reputation for reliability and will pay more at the time of purchase in an attempt to future-proof the gear via upgrade contracts and even predictive technical features. This is very different from the post-purchase behavior of the audiophile, who very likely feels that the purchase itself was a compromise substitution made in the shadow of extremely expensive, beyond-boutique, star models. Thus, the audiophile tends to vacillate, between pride and satisfaction at one moment, compulsive, neurotic dissatisfaction at another. It only takes a few words from a friend, or a sentence in a magazine review, to flip an audiophile between unquestioning love and insecure doubt. or vica versa. ‭For some reason, the psychology of the audiophile seems to have much in common with that of the political activist. The most committed audiophiles are techno-chauvanists, who tend toward polarization, evangelism and extremism. They attach themselves to well-defined groups and gurus, and reject evidence and learning from for all other sources, no matter how firmly established, expert or well-reasoned. Alternative viewpoints are marginalized with great hostility. The audio world seems to them to be viewed as a battleground in  war of ideas that rises to matters of good and evil, as represented by competing sound reproduction technologies, test and characterization methods, even the basic materials used to build the equipment. Little of the conversation involves technological advancement, invention and the evolution of the field, at least in ways that might introduce real change and insight to the landscape. Improvement, as it is usually spoken of, is a matter of using more or different combinations of various well-established methods. Again, as with politics, any failures are seen as arising from incomplete, impure application of principles and methods, but never as an indictment, or even an indication of minor weaknesses, of the belief system itself. ‭This makes it very easy to influence one group or another by appealing to simplistic paradigms, while at the same time making it difficult to evolve the business towards a truly progressive agenda. Likewise, it makes the thoughtful education of audiophiles by industry professionals difficult and rarely successful. (Most pros have totally abandoned this endeavor in online venues.) Facts or theories which suggest something different from advertised claims and prevailing beliefs are instantly contradicted using questionable information from questionable sources, undermined with speculative epistemological arguments, or, most profoundly, countered by torrents of sincere and elaborate subjective testimonial. Each of these attacks can, of course, be countered. The problem is in their quantity and persistence, and in the fiercely held and well-rehearsed dogma central to many in audiophile circles. It is common for experts on the internet to refer to this phenomenon as playing, “Internet Whack-A-Mole,” where the expert becomes exhausted simply replying to pot-shots, and never really engages in meaningful dialog on the subject. It is important to remember that most audiophiles have no motivation to question the status quo. Doing so might risk reducing their enjoyment, the value of their psychological and monetary investment, even their income. Adopting new positions might well alienate an individual from their audio-social peers. Finally, it is important to remember that humans are notoriously defensive about not only their belief systems, but also their primary sense data. Being told one might be “hearing wrong” will yield automatic rejection from any but the most unusually mature, secure and introspective psyche.
‭This is not to say the audiophile beliefs are all wrong. There is truth imbedded in the prevailing audiophile wisdom; some truth which is in concert with scientific knowledge and some truth which challenges the same to improve.  Science has much to teach audio lovers in their ostensible quest, and audio lovers have much to teach science in the interesting fields of perception and cognition.  ‭As I have stated in a recent interview, I believe that audiophiles will find their core hopes best realized by guiding and rewarding, not rejecting and dismissing, those industry and academic resources with the means and ability to truely improve the audio experience. To do this, audiophiles must paint themselves back out of the corner of alienation from progress, and begin to internalize the motivations and economics of the larger marketplace. Audiophiles can and should become the champions of better sound and better products for everyone. But, in order for these things to happen, audiophiles must first allow their assumptions to be deeply questioned, and must support dialog with experts from outside their self-contained communities. This does not mean lower audiophile standards, for there is an essential difference between standards and dogma. Failing to do this will only hasten the marginalization and potential demise of the hobby that is, tragically, well underway. ‭Soon, I will try to tackle the ontogeny and epistemology of audiophilia, touching on the philosophical underpinnings of music reproduction and how it’s accuracy can be assessed.  I will also address topical issues like “capacitors” and “double blind tests,” “speaker refurbishing techniques and misperceptions,” “the relationship between audiophilia and electric guitars,” and, hopefully, many other topics that occur to me. ‭-k
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Comments

  • Philosophil  On September 15, 2013 at 6:06 am

    You raise some great points here, particularly about the ways in which audiophiles tend to become entrenched within a certain position or theoretical system. It does mirror certain kinds of political and religious attitudes, which sometimes makes it difficult to get people engage in any serious, critical reflection. Anyone who does raise questions that might challenge prevailing beliefs is often ignored, likely in the hopes that they will be discouraged from raising those types of topics or, better yet, just go away.

    Thanks for this.
    Philosophil.

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