Audiophiles in the age of 'good-enough' sound

A recent NPR article questions the existence of the audiophile pursuit.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

The Momentum amplifier by Dan D'Agostino Dan D'Agostino

Linton Weeks' March 5 National Public Radio article, "Whatever Happened To The Audiophile?" questioned the pursuit of better sound. It was one of too many articles written by an outsider who had no idea of what he was talking about, but that didn't stop Weeks from making his case for the demise of audiophilia. Weeks spoke to the usual suspects--professors, industry spokespeople, and even an audio journalist or two--but the tone of the article was skewed. It presented audiophiles as oddities, people desperately clinging to their hi-fis, while everyone else is happily listening to music over the free earbuds that came with their iPods.

Weeks dug up numbers to support his case, saying, "Cue up the statistics: In 1998, The New York Times estimated that high-end audio sales totaled approximately $500 million a year. In 2010, the CEA says, sales were around $200 million." Gee, do you think the economy's massive downturn might have something to do with high-end audio's sales slump?

That said, high-end audio was never in the mainstream. Even in the glory days in the 1980s, high-end audio was a fringe pursuit. Sure, some of that can be tagged to the fact that high-end audio can be expensive, but buying used gear can dramatically lower the cost of entry. Mass-market products are designed to be disposable; my last Samsung Blu-ray player conked out after just two years, and most people dump their cell phones in a year or two. High-end audio gear is designed for the long haul, so 20- or 30-year-old gear can still sound great.

Funny, I haven't read any articles examining the motives of people buying Ferraris, Lamborghinis, or any cars that sell for upwards of ten times the price of your average Toyota or Ford. No, those lucky folks are envied and admired for their good taste. Exotic cars are rarely used for daily drives; they're bought as playthings or trophies, and have no practical value. High-end audio can be enjoyed by its owners on a daily basis.

I've been an audiophile for a long time, and I know firsthand the hobby has never really reached its full potential with music lovers. Most people are satisfied with good-enough sound. This blog's underlying goal is to, day by day, make some of you curious about better sound. There's much better than Bose or Sony sound to be had, and it doesn't have to break the bank.

I regularly write about affordable hi-fi, and with headphones you can get true high-end sound for well under $1,000 (for theheadphones and a dedicated headphone amplifier). That $1,000 investment works out to cost something like 24 cents a day if you get 10 years of use out of the gear.

A high-end audio system, all by itself, doesn't make the owner an audiophile; anyone who at times listens to music without doing something else (driving, reading, talking, working, exercising, etc.) is an audiophile. In my opinion, listening, really listening to what the musicians worked so hard to achieve is what makes you an audiophile. If you do that, you could be an audiophile after all.