The agony of the audiophile

will o the wisp colour

[Josef Lebovic Gallery]

An article  highlights why it’s a bad idea to become obsessed with a hobby based on wills-o’-the-wisp. On the surface, the mishaps that befall the author cost him a great deal of anxiety and a few thousand dollars – obscured by the fact that he “takes advantage” of the situation and ‘upgrades’ his wrecked cartridge – but the biggest mistake that audiophiles make is to fall down the rabbit hole that is ‘high end’ audio in the first place. Maybe we’ve all been there: worrying that our cartridge isn’t set up properly, prompting us to carry 70lbs of hardware out to the car and drive for five hours to have a specialist lay their healing hands on it. I might have found myself somewhere on that crazy continuum at one time. Not any more.

‘High end’ audio is a particularly unhealthy obsession, I think. From my perspective, the whole thing is like the emperor’s new clothes. I don’t think of it as a cynical con; rather that the putative experts, manufacturers and customers are all prey to the same confusion, superstition, and self-defeating psychology.

I think that listening to equipment (as in ‘listening tests’), rather than listening to music, changes our perception of it: it is necessary to ‘let go’ of the equipment in order to enjoy the music. The placebo effect, both positive and negative, means that there is no consistent audible effect perceived when consciously chopping and changing audio components. Thus an audiophile whose philosophy is based entirely on his golden ears has no anchoring point, and must float forever in audiophile space. He will drift helplessly towards every passing audiophile fad, hearing “night and day” differences when, in fact, no measurable or audible change has occurred. This is how we arrive at the 70lb turntable and the £10,000 piece of wire lifted off the floor with ceramic pots that cost more than my entire system. We are talking real money.

In all other respects these audiophiles are probably sensible, grounded, intelligent individuals who would not normally fall for what passes as slick advertising or the verbiage of wannabe ‘high end’ ‘designers’. They would not normally splash multiple thousands of pounds on something made, effectively, in a garage by a hobbyist. But they do it with audio. The image of people sacrificing their real lives – houses, cars, holidays, retirement – on electronic wills-o’-the-wisp is a source of fascination to me.


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