Greetings everyone. Grab yourself a nice beverage, settle into a comfy chair, let us delve a bit into audiophile psychology.
I think this is an important topic; one that is implied in many of my posts over the years (in fact, we started 2021 with some related thoughts). Some of these psychological constructs I believe explain to a degree the ceaseless arguments we often see online especially when things go off track and disagreements appear irreconcilable between different "sides", "camps", "tribes"...
I. Hardware Audiophiles and Hi-Fi Fetishism
Let's discuss some ideas by building on writings from the past. To start, here's something interesting by J. Zelinger "Hi-Fi Fetishism: a psychologist's view of the lunatic fringe" from October 1981, published in Hi-Fi News & Record Review (I noticed that the link above can be marginal and might not work, here's a PDF of the text).
First of all, I must send kudos to Mr. Zelinger for a thought-provoking piece from the early '80s. It appears that many in the audiophile hobby diverged off into the direction of pure subjectivity, areas untethered from reality testing during that decade. He touches not just on the importance of psychoacoustics (as playing its role in perceptual adjudication of course), but into the touchy subject of the personalities of certain audiophiles.
Let's dive into this without fear and talk/think about this important topic and how it relates to us as "audiophiles" in the 21st Century.
I think Zelinger is right in dissociating the dual forms of hi-fi enthusiasm: those who have "focus of attention... on the music", and those who "focus to some characteristics of an audio component". Indeed, I've suggested over the years that there are 2 main types of hobbyists under the audiophile umbrella - "music lovers" and "hardware audiophiles", each of us owning a combination of these pursuits.
While the core desire may ostensibly point to the same kind of thing in principle (ie. the enjoyment of music/sonic playback), how we satisfy each of these pursuits will differ. Furthermore, within each type, there can be extremes. The "extreme music lover" might have literal hordes of CDs or LPs that some would consider "unhealthy" with its own obsessive-compulsive psychology (or psychopathology!). What Zelinger addresses here are the "extreme hardware audiophiles" and the love of these objects of desire.
He explains that for some individuals, instead of appreciating art (music), that source of joy has been redirected to the audio system (objects) - at its core, this is the "fetish". Indeed, when we do this, we idealize, perhaps even end up worshipping such objects. Tendencies toward "magical thinking", "fantasy" and "mystifying language" can be seen in the audiophile literature over the decades in the service of describing the adoration of audio hardware; rather than the joy in experiencing the music itself. Sometimes we even joke about this when we use the phrase "audiophile porn" to describe pictures/video that cater to the visual appeal rather than the sound that we're claiming to be desiring.
Furthermore, when we idealize something, we can end up losing touch with the concept of true value. After all, what's a few thousand dollars when we can own a beautiful piece of cable that some audiophile magazine/reviewer assures us will transport listeners to a higher joyous level of spiritual auditory rapture?
|Fascinating article on Commodity Fetishism, which one can see "Hi-Fi Fetishism" as a form of. Good amount of Freudian context there if you're interested. ;-)|
Guys and gals, I hope nobody out there is so absorbed into the hi-fi gear to the point of ending up in debt, is forced to sell off the system, or ends up depressed as discussed in Zelinger's article. I guess I would not be surprised if this does happen at the extremes. Psychological effects are powerful. Sometimes they can be conscious; for example, an editor might be aware that publishing positive comments about a product might advance the standing of the magazine or bring in ad revenue. The more insidious effects are probably subconscious, like the need to achieve satisfaction only available through the fetishistic love-object as suggested by the author to a degree where the audiophile no longer recognizes how "abnormal" this might be. When this happens, the extreme audiophile stops being able to enjoy music (the art) altogether except perversely only through an expensive $100,000 sound system (again, the object) for example.
As Alan Parsons once observed: "Audiophiles don't use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment." There's irony, and also tragedy in the truth of that statement, beautifully capturing the drama within the hearts and minds of extreme hardware audiophiles.
Like most categories in life, there are always shades of grey, so while I appreciate the use of "fetishism" as a psychological model employed by Mr. Zelinger, I trust that the truly fetishistic among us are few. I've tended just to use a more generic term "neurotic" to describe some hardware audiophiles over the years as a reflection of the continuum.
A neurosis is defined as a form of behaviour or symptom resulting from some kind of "repression" through life. Not all neuroses need be seen as negative. As a young person, maybe we've witnessed mistreatment or unfairness, such that as we grow up, we unconsciously obsessively fight for justice and truth. Perhaps one had been embarrassed or failed academically as a child such that in adulthood one becomes much more detail-oriented and compensate by striving even harder than the norm for success.
The mature adult who uses "defenses" like altruism, humor, anticipation, and conscious suppression is to be cherished even if deep down neurotic tendencies are still there but managed. The trick I think is to be self-aware and not become slaves to the tendencies nor to give up reality testing altogether and risk flirting with delusions, preferring the seductive embrace of the impossible. Speaking personally, I would fully admit to my own neurotic tendencies toward this hobby over the last few years! After all, what kind of guy does all these measurements and writes all these blog posts over years if not endowed with some neurotic "love" for the hobby as well!? ;-)
Looking back, I think what has "saved" me from going down that path towards delusional audiophilia over the decades is actually finding balance through objectivism. And speaking to this last point, I would disagree with one of Mr. Zelinger's ending conclusions (emphasis mine):
"As we would expect, rational assessment can do very little against such feelings; it is a poor weapon against the mystifications of fetishistic publicity. I might add that manufacturers who allow themselves to be exalted and aggrandized by fetishists in the same manner as their products are doing themselves a disservice. For they too are indulging in a form of narcissistic gratification and are lending yet further credibility to the lunatic fringe."
Yes, I agree with the last couple of sentences. There are self-aggrandizing, non-sensical, snake-oil companies and ridiculously narcissistic individuals who put themselves out as sages.
However, in my opinion, "rational assessments" are the only things that can combat these irrational "feelings" that lead to extremes.
Sure, perhaps there are those currently suffering from an audiophile fetish that cannot be "cured", but since I believe there are few of these individuals out there, let's not give up on rationality quite yet! I believe it's important to remind hobbyists that there are always shades of grey and we do have choices to make. Just as cult members do leave churches, or substance addicts can turn their lives around, I think it's much easier to turn the "fetishistic extreme hardware audiophile" to recognize that art is art and the audio gear we buy are just objects of science and engineering with no magical properties.
In my experience, I have seen individuals change through introspection, making realistic choices and putting down limits around which he/she shall not pass - even "fetishistic" audiophiles! Furthermore, to have more rational and objective opinions out there in audiophile-land to confront fantastical ideas will combat psychologically unhealthy memes leading to extreme trajectories. If as a body of audiophiles (and this is also a plea to the mainstream audiophile press), we do not stay rational, or worse, encourage the "lunatic fringe", then IMO we have dishonoured what it means to be seekers of true high fidelity audio.
As I have said in the past, audiophilia is but a small hobby and maybe some would consider mystical thinking among the few to be "harmless". Even if we discount the disservice this could play if such irrational thoughts were to spread into other parts of life, should we be proud of our kids growing up to be snake-oil salesmen (like the guy discussed here, or the purveyor of this stuff, or this sophomoric very expensive computer sales job)? Is it okay to put money into questionable companies instead of those that actually do good R&D? Have we not had enough of mindless praise for "technologies" like MQA with basically no value over the last few years, and the mainstream audiophile press unable to sort facts from phantasies?
Is a decline in "high end" audio not to a large extent because of a recognition by the rational that there is little value in numerous high-priced items marketed on shaky premises, typically absent of actual elevated performance? Is this then not to some extent completely anticipated, and lamentations that "the audiophile hobby is dying" actually self-inflicted grief because of delusive magazines, companies and products marketed to the few hobbyists living at the fringe?
Instead of bemoaning the loss of interest by the younger generations for "high end" products, perhaps it's cause for celebration as a sign that younger folks might be better educated, have critical thinking abilities and are simply less gullible. Or at least at some level, most people know intuitively that much of the "high end" is simply bogus, having little to do with actual sound quality that will improve their lives.
II. Psychological Sense and Nonsense
Just as Zelinger's article is interesting from a UK author, another glimpse into the hi-fi psychology in the early '80s came a year later from an American publication. Check out this October 1982 Stereo Review issue, and the article "Sense and Nonsense in High-End Hi-Fi" (p. 62-69) by Alan Lofft.
I have not heard of some of the brands/products mentioned as "legendary" in the article; I guess I'm not steeped enough in analogue gear. What's a Clément-Schlumberger? Win Labs? Bedini (is this the same company making the bizarre "Clarifier" for CDs)? Oracle audio? Coloney? Dennessen? No idea about JBL Paragon horn speakers. Other brands in the article continue to be on the tongues and minds of audiophiles these days like the Koetsu cartridge, Mark Levinson gear, Wilson Audio (interesting history described in the article), Naim, and Accuphase.
Clearly in that article in the early '80s, we already see the manifestations of an audiophile social hierarchy based on what one owns, how esoteric a design, or how unique. Price and rarity, in other words inaccessibility feature prominently in the psychology. As Lofft puts it plainly:
"In the fantasies of a high-end enthusiast, a rare speaker can assume a level of accuracy and clarity that is beyond the capacity of any current speaker technology to achieve in reality."
The same psychology these days is at play when we see questionable reviews. Is that not the mystique of the audiophile report on some US$750,000 Magico? Or when we're confronted with a write-up of US$329,000 Wilson Audio speakers by a reviewer in a cramped room? How about CH Precision's CD/SACD + DAC + power supply for about US$100,000? Are we surprised, and should we accept the claims of remarkable performance literally? The likelihood is that such reviews will always praise these "inaccessible to mere mortals" devices as the greatest since the last greatest item, projecting the performance fantasies forward. As humans with egos and competitive spirits, it's not hard to sell products on the basis of inaccessibility - a material elitism. No doubt, in some circles, $100,000 speakers are status symbols.
(As an aside, honestly, who actually thinks a standard CD will sound all that different using that CH Precision stack?! Fuggetabouit. By now, I think most of us know the limits of good ol' CD reproduction and there's no further mystical "veil" to be lifted.)
By extension, this is also the reason why less expensive gear or easily purchased products are devalued by the extreme hardware audiophile as "cheap" or "mass market". At best, maybe they'll use "mid-fi" to describe what are often very competent devices! Many such products would easily beat out esoteric, "high end" stuff with superior fidelity if truly "sound quality" is what the hobbyist cares about.
There's also the amusing anecdote in this article of the at-that-time new practice of:
"placing of special insulating mats or feet beneath amplifiers or preamps and of heavy weights on top of them to dampen vibration of the internal circuit components"
There were things like the VPI Magic Brick in the early '80s. And the tweak survives to this day with the recommendation of door stops on top of DACs as a recent example. In a similar way, other ideas and tweaks from the days of analogue have made their way into modern digital audio: wow & flutter converted to jitter worries, LPs never sound the same and apparently neither are "Bits Are Bits", vibration isolation helps DACs and computer streamers just like they did with turntables, analogue cables are susceptible to noise so we should be just as concerned with digital cables, ethernet switches need to be audiophile grade, so too computer motherboards, or even SSD drives... Folks, let's be smart about it. Not everything matters to the degree that some would want us to believe.
The one big difference between the early '80s and today is that what were described as "underground magazines" - Stereophile, The Absolute Sound for example - have become the main ones we see on magazine shelves and as online journals today. While philosophies at magazines might have evolve to some extent, issues like psychological biases are still not taken seriously, distrust of technical measurements remain, and the importance of blinded listening tests rarely, if ever, are even mentioned (if not devalued or even banned). By not considering these important points, this is obviously how subjective reviews act as a conduit for advertising. Companies don't have to run ads that violate "truth in advertising" policies if a subjective reviewer claims something about the product without evidence. Some companies then take the subjective comments as endorsement of a product's abilities even if the subjective claim is fantastical - how dare anyone challenge the reviewer's subjective "truth"? (I dare. ;-)
Lofft ends his article beautifully:
"Without this element of practicality or common sense, for most of us the World of the High End will continue to be Tweaksville, a sort of Lotus Land populated by a dreamy lunatic fringe out of touch with reality. And anyone who attempts to chart that world will find that its principal geographic features are the impenetrable Mountains of Metaphor, the treacherous Floating Islands of Fantasy, and the bottomless Sea of Subjectivity."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Those words were published almost exactly 39 years ago, and Zelinger's "Hi-Fi Fetishism" article came out 40 years ago.
These articles came out at a time before the availability of CD audio even! How much more do we know these days, can test for, can even correlate with our own listening? The article also discusses research (including those by Dr. Floyd Toole at Canada's National Research Council) with the claim that:
"If two amplifiers measure virtually the same in terms of flat frequency response and low distortion, they should sound the same. If they sound different, then the measurement techniques are ignoring some important parameters of amplifier performance. Fortunately (for measurement techniques), there is a growing body of evidence to support the thesis that when scientific experimental controls are brought to bear on listening tests, amplifiers that yield similar measurements do indeed sound identical."
Now that we're about 40 years down the road, I'd say this statement appears just as true (remember that the load has a significant impact of course). Imagine just how much progress we have made over decades with even more accurate audio reproduction technologies, improvements in measurement gear, expansion of useful test signals and techniques, and the orders of magnitude increase in computer processing power we can bring to the analyses!
III. A "Centrist" Approach to Audiophilia?
Humans are highly creative and imaginative creatures. The imagination has no laws nor limits - but this is not how the real world operates. When a product is advertised, it is the job of the advertiser to capture the consumer's imagination. Often this means biasing the message to at least suggest a new product is "better" or perhaps to the extreme even "best". But what happens if some companies take it too far and become "loose" with the facts? What happens also when we've reached beyond the point of "good enough" sound quality or even beyond the threshold of audibility (like with hi-res DACs)? At some point, untethered imagination takes takes over, and takes flight.
Whenever human psychology embraces fantasy as its primary mechanism of wish-fulfillment instead of more mature means of seeking truth with logical principles, real-world problem solving, and empirical testing, the result is of course the Sea of (Factitious) Subjectivity. Needless to say, separating fact from fiction is highly relevant these days as we look around at claims made in "fake news" and the endless supply of conspiracy theories. Sadly, some will prefer to remain within a fantasy world rather than seek real answers.
Within the audiophile hobby, we cannot sidestep an understanding of technical complexities including the underlying science and engineering principles which created these products. I know that for many audiophiles, this means doing a little bit of studying and familiarization with technical terminology and consideration of what some graphs, charts, and measurements mean. I know this could detract from "just listening", "buy and try", or "just have fun" that some pure subjectivists advocate. I hope doing some homework, gaining knowledge, and improving self-awareness can also be a kind of fun that is simply part of the audiophile hobby and elevates those who partake in this pursuit above the average audio consumer.
Before I end, I want to be clear that the intent of this post is not just to produce a litany of criticisms. Rather, I think in life it's important to face truths plainly. If the discussion items above resonate with how you have felt, or if you might feel trapped in a certain mode of audiophilia that appears to be nothing more than serial hedonic adaptation to the next greatest thing, I invite you to take a step back and ask yourself if there's a better way to think and feel. I believe that "more-subjective" audiophiles for years have been under the influence of a type of messaging that leans toward selling fantasies, and rarely leads to enduring satisfaction. If you have not done so already, I believe it's essential when assessing gear, or judging the value of a product to make sure to understand and balance subjective opinions with objective performance as well.
I remain hopeful that cycles in history come and go. I suspect we are in the midst of a shift to a more mature, balanced, "neo-objectivism" (only in as much as needed to counteract the current mainstream subjective biases) as audiophiles who embrace rationality, appreciate that subjective preferences are important but idiosyncratic, and only a part of the story. Perhaps most importantly, audiophiles might realize that much of the precepts and beliefs of the esoteric "high end" are still "lunatic fringe" ideas in the eyes of reasonable people.
Fighting the "neurotic fire" can be done with cool, clear, methodical, metaphorical "water". I don't think there's a need to get angry or have a "fight fire with fire" attitude. Expressing calm disagreement or even just showing apathy to nonsensical ideas, not necessarily the person himself (ie. no need to get into ad hominem attacks), in my experience is powerful enough to create reasonable doubt in the mind of the neurotic. This is even more powerful when there are significant numbers of audiophiles who also show doubt and express them calmly. I think this is why many subjective-only websites/video channels have shut down or tightly moderated comments over the last few years. Not necessarily because there's a loss of civility (even if they use that excuse), but that there appears to be more doubt than confidence in the subjective reviewer who desires that the readership/viewership maintain faith in his/her opinions. This is especially painful for intolerant narcissistic reviewers when their beliefs are questioned. [These ideas also relate to the "confidence game" being played at times.]
When there's enough doubt expressed, the power of advertising dollars in support of questionable products diminish, and so too the influence of reviewers who bathe in that "Sea of Subjectivity". This is simply a normal consumer feedback mechanism, just like voting with our wallets.
I suspect over time, with reasonable doubt and repeated requests for evidence by many audiophiles, fringe beliefs can actually be "ring-fenced" into smaller and smaller pockets. In doing so, magazines, writers, reviewers, and companies that tout these fantasies will retreat back to the "underground" rather than be seen as representatives of the greater audiophile hobby.
Let's be clear, as much as I appreciate objectivism, I'm not averse to subjective preferences. Unless something is just plain wrong, I'm comfortable being a "centrist" (even an "extreme centrist" as some might emphasize) - which I think is a good place to be whenever we see tendencies toward hyperpolarization in all aspects of life. It would be nice to just seek respectable pragmatism for high-fidelity audio reproduction in whatever direction technological advancements take us.
While this post and articles concern mostly with the psychology of audiophiles, make sure to also check out the Perlman article Golden Ears and Meter Readers - The Contest for Epistemic Authority in Audiophilia from 2004 in Social Studies of Science. Nice write-up and description of the objective-subjective debate from the sociological perspective.
As always, I hope you're enjoying the music. Stay rational, be honorable, dear audiophiles.
Merry Christmas. Also wishing you and yours a truly joyous New Year ahead. Chat in 2022.
|Some audio-related gear supposedly retrieved from an actual hoard. Remarkable case in the tabloids.|
As an addendum which I think fits with the discussions above, I want to quickly address the topic of people who just collect audio gear for their own sake and not for listening to music/audio. Recently, Steve Guttenberg had this topic in a video. "What is wrong with that?" Guttenberg asks, "Nothing, right?". I agree, there's nothing "wrong" with that. However, as it has been written (and I paraphrase) "All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial", applies to the various forms of neurotic preoccupations - so long as we're not talking about something illegal of course.
If a person just buys audio hardware like amps and speakers, never listens to music, then this by definition isn't really a fetish anymore since the "joy of music" is not what is being satisfied through the objects. It's basically a type of "hoarding" of material possessions. The phenomenology will be different - there might be no need to ever hook the gear up, you'll find gear in rooms and closets stacked up and untouched, such a person probably will quote others as claiming the product has sonic qualities they themselves have not heard in the first person. They might even explain the purchase as something to do with being useful "someday" in the future.
Here's a question that I think is worth asking though... If a person collects audio hardware (or even tons of albums) as their hobby, most of it never listened to, then is this person still a "hardware audiophile" hobbyist or is this more appropriately labelled something else like "audio hardware collector"? Can we be an audiophile without engaging in audio/music playback, no actual subjective experience of sound - much less appreciating the artistry in music, or even a goal of high quality reproduction?
My suspicion is actually, "No", the word "audiophile" is not an appropriate label for such a pursuit, and "collector" is more accurate. [Nothing holding us back from being both an audiophile + collector of course.]
A person who passionately collects audio-related hardware without enjoying music is presumably doing it for some kind of psychological security, perhaps characterological identification with the beloved objects. This goes back to hoarders and the need to hold on to something for potential future use which almost certainly will never arrive. Perhaps it's extreme nostalgia for something lost but never forgotten from the past. Basically, a type of obsessive-compulsive ideation and behaviour. I'll leave it to the psych academicians to contemplate whether hoarding is more or less pathological than "hi-fi fetishism". :-)