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Who's more passionate about the sound of music: Audiophiles or musicians?

You might think they're on the same page, the Audiophiliac ponders the question.


I get off on the sound of live and recorded music, but sometimes the sound interferes with the enjoyment of the music. For example, I wouldn't go to Carnegie Hall to see my favorite acoustic artist if the only available tickets were in the upper balconies. I say that because in the past when I've been way up there, I could barely understand the lyrics and the sound was much too reverberant. If I know the venue well, I would never buy a ticket for a seat where the sound isn't up to par. If I don't know the venue, but I can look over a seating plan I can usually make an educated guess. I know from experience if the sound is bad, even if the band is having a great night, I'm not going to be all that happy.

A Gibson guitar at a recording session.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

If I'm up close to the stage and near a speaker stack, there's a good chance the bass will be really muddy and obscure the lyrics. Or if the sound is too loud even with my best earplugs crammed in, finito -- I'm gone. Music is music, but the sound of music affects the way we experience it. Profoundly.

It's not just finicky audiophiles who obsess about sound. I know a lot of musicians who crave great-sounding instruments. Hand Eric Clapton a cheap guitar and I have no doubt he could play some nice tunes on it, but the sound would improve immensely if Clapton then played a Gibson acoustic. Same notes, very different sounds.

Musicians do care about the sound of their instruments, and a lot of players amass collections of great-sounding ones. And not just the rich ones -- a lot of guys have more than a few instruments hanging on the wall of their tiny New York apartments. It's their thing.

It's strange; as much as they care about the sound of their instruments, that doesn't automatically mean they give a hoot about the sound of their own recordings. I attended lots of sessions where the only thing some guys cared about was how loud they were in the mix, and ever so rarely did they say anything complimentary to the engineers about the sound of their instrument in that mix. Most seemed oblivious to it.

I've heard from sound mixers that even players who own great-sounding, custom-molded in-ear headphones that they use as monitors onstage will rarely try using them for listening to tunes on the tour bus or plane. They already own them, but show zero interest in listening to these headphones for pleasure. Recorded sound quality isn't on their radar.

As for audiophiles, they're audio hedonists, so for them it's all about the pleasure that comes from listening to the music they love, sounding as good as they can make it. A few musicians I've known over the years are audiophiles, and that's great, but they are a tiny minority.

Again and again I've heard the naysayers with the same observation: you don't need a great audio system or headphones to enjoy music. I never disagreed -- you can hear and enjoy music on nearly anything. Heck, I see lots of people listening to music over the wretched, teensy speakers in their phones! It can be done, and if music isn't a passion in your life, keep listening that way.

But if you love music even a little bit and haven't yet bought a decent pair of headphones and/or speakers, what are you waiting for?