More than any hobby I know of, hi-fi is dominated by ‘fetishism’ for the hardware. £10000 audiophile cables are the most obvious and extreme manifestation of it, and hilarious to ‘civilians’, but I would guess that the majority of audiophiles are susceptible to this vice to a greater or lesser extent. The question is, why?
One reason, I would guess, is the direct association that we perceive between the hardware and the rather marvellous thing that is music. In our minds, our systems transport us to concert halls and recording studios, providing spectacularly fine experiences which are, perhaps, as good as driving a fast car or eating the finest food. Maybe we even think our systems are musical instruments. On that basis, why wouldn’t it be worth spending a few extra quid on the best hardware?
Well, the answer, I would say, is that the hardware is merely a means to an end. It is not the music, nor is it a musical instrument. The hardware merely needs to be adequate, like kitchen equipment only needs to be adequate to the task of preparing a fine meal. What possible difference can it make whether the knives cost £30 or £3000? Above a certain level of quality the dinner guests cannot possibly perceive a difference. Even the most ardent gastronaut would never dream of spending £3000 on a kitchen knife. (It seems like a ridiculous analogy, but… £10,000 cables… at least it takes some skill and knowledge to design and make a kitchen knife that works).
I suspect that most audiophiles must know, deep down, that the differences between adequate amplifiers are tiny. Ditto DACs. And surely – please! – they must know that cables are just cables. So why are so many audiophiles prepared to spend £3000 on such mundane items as amplifiers, DACs or, unbelievably, pieces of wire? Surely it’s obvious that the raw cost of building adequate versions of these items is much, much lower than that? An AV amplifier can be massive, powerful, bristling with I/O, well-constructed, well-specified and have a wealth of features including exemplary DACs, yet costs closer to £300 than £3000. On that basis a flea-powered audiophile amp should cost about £30. Clearly, in the audiophile’s mind the hardware takes on a mythical significance that is detached from reality.
In my world, several thousand pounds of disposable income represents untold mornings scraping frost off the car when I’d rather be in bed, traffic jams, meetings, desk-bound lunches, hard technical work, being in places I’d rather not be, yet more traffic jams, and so on. It represents time away from home, away from the family. Or time when I could be climbing mountains, or in the pub, or listening to music. The idea that I would sacrifice a significant chunk of the time I have left on this earth to buy a cable is utterly, utterly ridiculous!
Maybe this affliction is unavoidable for most audiophiles. Something of an ‘elephant in the room’ could be that if they never actually get to hear an “adequate” audio system, then they can never know when to stop churning the equipment. I don’t mean there’s a conspiracy between manufacturers to keep the punters shelling out by deliberately manufacturing defective systems, but more that audiophiles are like those deer in Eastern Europe that still won’t cross the boundaries of electric fences that were removed several generations ago. As I have mentioned before, I think the hobby of audio is stuck in its own groundhog day and people would rather spend vast sums of money (= the best times of their remaining lives) on imaginary gains at the very margins of fundamentally-flawed systems than to try a radical departure from what they know. However, as a direct result of this, even if they do see the light the available commercial options are limited.
Let me tell you of my experience of “adequate” audio. My system is built on a shoestring but is nevertheless very large and powerful. It is not a conventional audiophile system, but uses active DSP-based crossovers with correction based on measurements of the drivers. With this system there is no aspect of the sound with any obvious room for improvement. Needless to say, with a string quartet, solo piano or girl-and-guitar it is superb (not that I listen to those types of music much). However, the true test of any system is the big symphony as this brings out problems with intermodulation and colouration that just don’t show up with solo performers and small ensembles. I happen to like that sort of music so it is important for me that the system can cope with it. Please note that I am not suggesting that some systems are better suited to certain types of music than others per se. I think the truth is that many systems are capable of giving a plausible (but not necessarily accurate) rendition of a string quartet or small jazz ensemble, but that as the complexity of recordings increases, systems fall by the wayside until only the best (i.e. “adequate”) can cope. With a complex recording the reproduction does have to be accurate as the listener has too many diverse cues to go on, and the large amount of information will collapse into a tangled mess if there’s significant distortion.
With my “adequate” system, if I play the most complex, huge recordings possible (and I would cite this piece as an example), there are no deficiencies crying out for mysterious magic from a £10,000 amplifier or the indefinable warmth that only a £100,000 turntable can give. Basically I have before me a large space that stretches beyond the walls of the room, a symphony orchestra that is just ‘there’ – no need to analyse it – in perfect clarity, and a massive pipe organ that physically shakes the room. I play the piece loud, and it’s thrilling. The final crescendo is so powerful that it is literally overwhelming – I’d swear it even has a visual element to it. But as the thunderous sound dies away, my ears aren’t ringing, just as they wouldn’t after a real symphony concert. I have just had the unmistakable experience of sitting through a huge symphonic performance from the best seat in the house (or even better). It’s physical not just auditory.
Or I can hear the best possible performances by The Who in the studio (the band right in front of me), or Jimi Hendrix. Or Neil Young – no need for Pono.
The point is that through my adequate system I am experiencing ‘the real thing’. Why would I need to change it? There is nothing about it that seems wrong. Why would it occur to me that a different amplifier (or selection of amplifiers) could make it sound significantly better? And as for cables, well the idea is just preposterous. I think that only when the system is more-or-less correct like this can we rationalise the potential for improvements vs. cost.
I can easily see that by going conventional then all bets would be off. Take away the visceral but clean bass and replace it with the contortions of a ported speaker, or simply ditch the bass altogether, and suddenly we are in the realms of unnatural sound: loss of acoustic cues, loss of detail, unpleasant, ear-tormenting timbre at higher volumes. Go passive and lose the effortlessness of directly-connected independent amps, lose the cone damping, lose the steadfast accuracy of DSP crossovers, lose the driver correction, lose the ability to play at realistic volumes. Yes, I too would be casting around, searching for a miraculous silver bullet.
But even just talking like this we are already in the realms of hardware fetishism: breaking the sound down into technical gobbledygook that has nothing to do with music. If our equipment is already at a certain minimum standard and we can identify anything in the sound that is reminiscent of these non-musical terms then the battle is already lost; the basic topology is wrong and the most expensive amplifier, DAC or cable in the world isn’t going to make more than 0.01% difference to the sound. On the other hand, if there is nothing wrong with the sound now then what degree of improvement could we expect by substituting different DACs, amps and cables that all measure only slightly differently from what’s there already?