Audiophilia 101 – What Kind of (Audio) Fool Was I?

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Thoughts on Becoming an Expert Listener

[This commentary was written in 2007 or thereabouts.]

Today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making as a budding audiophile more than thirty years ago. [Make that 45+ years ago, ouch].

Heavy Vinyl, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each with a track record more dismal than the last?

Was Devo right? Is everything in audio getting worse?

Our Story Begins

One Man Dog has long been a favorite James Taylor album of mine. It didn’t catch on too well with the general public when it came out but it caught on just fine with me. I used to play it all the time. As a budding but misguided audiophile back in the early ’70s, I foolishly bought the import pressing at my local record store, The Wherehouse, assuming it would sound better and be pressed on quieter vinyl. The latter may have been true, probably was true, but the former sure wasn’t. Turns out even the average domestic original is far better sounding, but how was I to know?

Compare and Contrast? What For?

Back in those days it would never have occurred to me to buy more than one copy of a record and do a head to head comparison to see which one sounded better. I approached the subject Platonically, not scientifically: the record that should sound better would of course sound better, so what is the point of testing?

Later on in the decade a label by the name of Mobile Fidelity would come along claiming to actually make better sounding pressings than the ones the major labels put out, and — cluelessly — I bought into that nonsense too.

(To be fair, sometimes they did — Touch, Waiting for Columbus and American Beauty come to mind, but my god, Katy Lied, Year of the Cat and Sundown have to be three of the worst sounding records I’ve ever played in my life.)

[Obviously, we no longer agree with much of that except for the one MoFi record that has stood the test of time, Touch.]

The Audiophile of Today

From our point of view, today’s audiophile seems to be making the same mistakes I was making thirty years ago. The Audiophile Heavy Vinyl Remaster, the 45 RPM 2 LP pressing, the Half-Speed Limited Edition — aren’t these all just the latest audiophile fads, each burdened with an equally dismal track record?

And isn’t it every bit as true today as it was in the past that the audiophiles who buy these “special” pressings rarely seem to notice that many of them don’t actually sound any good?

The Learning Curve Is Looking Awfully Flat

Pardon my pessimism, but it seems to me the learning curve these days is looking awfully flat. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of learning going on. If such learning were actually going on, how would most of these audiophile labels still be in business?

Don’t get me wrong: some progress has been made. Reference, Chesky and Audioquest thankfully no longer burden us with their awful LPs. But is the new Blue or Fragile really any better than the average MoFi from 1979? Different yes, but better? I know one thing: I couldn’t sit through an entire side of either of them. And I love both of those albums.

Compared to the real thing, can any of these records really compete sonically? A few, I guess, but too few, and they seem to be pretty darn far between.

Easy Answers and Quick Fixes

Turns out there are no easy answers. There are no quick fixes. In audio there’s only hard work and more hard work. That’s what gives the learning curve its curvature — the more you do it, the better you can do it.

And if doing all that work is also your idea of fun, you just might get really good at it. If you actually enjoy playing fifteen copies of One Man Dog to find the few that really sound good — because hearing such wonderful music the way it was meant to be heard is a thrill you cannot deny — then you just might end up with one helluva great record collection, worlds better than one filled with audiophile pressings from any era, most especially the present.