What is an audiophile? If anybody qualifies for those silly hats with
little propellers on top, it is the audiophile. Probably the last perservering
nerds, now that computer hacking is respectable, almost mystical. Audiophiles
aren't into listening to music, playing it, dancing to it, or any of the
things you are supposed to do with it - although oddly enough they also
aren't into objective reality, hard facts, critical reasoning, or any of
the left brained activities that one would suspect people who can't dance
would be interested in.
What audiophiles do is sit around and try to tell if they can hear a difference between one brand of ridiculously overpriced cables and another, or lament how record players kick CDs (although they don't actually use the word "kick", except for Corey Greenburg, the former Enfant Terrible of Stereophile, who is actually Joe Six Pack masquerading as a junior audiophile - somebody you can almost take seriously, at least for his taste in blues - and somebody who actually does listen to music, making me conclude he is nearly - the operative word here is "nearly" - successfull in fighting off the Audiophile virus).
The reason Audiophiles are so misguided is because they don't understand that music, and hence stereos reproducing music, sound vastly different depending on the hour of the day, your mood, what you just ate, who you are with, and (zang!) your degree of involvement. The most involvement these couch potatoes usually get is when they whip out their pens to write something like "the midrange detail is somewhat occluded by a slightly recessed area in the presence region, although this can be mitigated in part by standing on your head and balancing your cat between your toes. I found the sound to be slightly sweeter when using the XYZ P-2000 cables, although I am not sure I would recommend spending $5000 on a pair of cables for a $600 pair of speakers".
What's important here, kids, is that all stereos that don't cost more than your house (or a small airplane) pretty much bite when compared to live music. Each one will do a few things "right" that this or that audiophile considers important, but at the expense of a whole buttload of other things that basically scream "This is a stereo! Not Live music!". But then again, who the Hell cares? The trick is to get involved. Stereos sound about a zillion times better when you are dancing to them, playing an instrument along, falling asleep in that zen state you get in when you are half dreaming, listening with your friends, or just plain ignoring the stereo, and listening to the music, which is what you are supposed to be doing in the first place.
Now there are two good reasons to get a good stereo. The first is because it sounds better, and the second is because it is more accurate. Let's break these down into more detail.
Sounds Better! Less Filling!
Anyway, although most of the yinyangs that write for the stereo rags have left any clues they might have once had in the attic with their old Beatles albums, they are right about a few things. One is that what sounds great in the store, or great at home for the first five minutes might really end up sounding like crap on extended listening or living with it. Another is that placement of the speakers is extremely important for the sound.
However, once they start talking about the degradation between the "bypass" outputs of a preamp and the ones that go through the tone controls, you know you are in dreamland. It seems to me that about 50% of what they say is worthwhile, and the rest is nonsense. Not that there aren't differences between these things, it's just that they don't really *make a difference* to anybody who cares more about music than impressing their audiophile friends. You want to hear differences? Switch between two CDs, even in the same genre. You'll hear a difference (unless you have a truly lousy stereo which makes everything sound the same - hint: car).
Now if a stereo has a sonic signature that annoys you, than it's bad. Whether it is imaging problems, bass boom, harsh treble, wildly unrealistic sounding violins, this is what separates the men from the boys (sorry, ladies - it's just such a great sounding phrase). A good stereo will let each album (or CD) sound different in it's own way, but all stereos normal mortals can afford will impose some sonic signature. If it's just a fingerprint you're on the right track, if it is a snowshoe sized impression on the sound, head for the hills.
Which brings me to why you'd want a good stereo, and be willing to part with the bucks to get it. It will sound good if you do it up right. Sounding good usually means that you want to listen to it, even after you've had it a while, and after you come back from the stereo store or your friend's. If you can listen to it after live music, you either really like listening to music, or you have a damn good stereo.
OK. So we buy a good stereo because it sounds good. What about accuracy? Well, if you are a recording engineer, or like to hear every detail in the music you listen to (hint: you're in a cover band, or a budding producer/engineer), than you want (need) accuracy. The best way to get that is with decent headphones. Unless you are willing to accept serious compromise, or have more money than Godzilla has bits of building stuck in his (her?) toenails, get good, efficient, headphones. Get a decent preamp with enough juice through the headphone jack to drive something decent (most CD players can't handle decent headphones, especially on peaks).
Recommendations - NAD integrated AMP, Discman, Sennheiser 560s (warning: 540s are kind of harsh and shrill), Grados if you can afford them. if you're really on a budget, get Sony MDR-CD6 cans and plug them direct into your discman (they are super efficient, so a wheenie jack out of a CD can drive them). Don't forget to take frequent breaks, and keep the volume down! It's real easy to fry your ears with headphones, and you'll regret it.
More on accuracy: It's often said that you sacrifice accuracy for a musical sound, and vice versa. Kind of like the Heisenburg uncertainty principle of audio. Audioholics will contend that with real top shelf components you get both. Well, Virginia, you probably don't want accuracy for what is on most recordings. They were either recorded with wildly aberrant monitors, peaky mikes, or mixed by people who are considered deaf by law on 39 states. Slap on the headphones if you have to hear exactly what Skeet is doing on the 4th guitar track (the one mixed way back to the left behind the slide whistle and tambourine sitting on top of the washing machine), otherwise get a stereo with reasonable accuracy that *sounds good*!
Now, you probably don't really know yourself what sounds good, that's what those stereo magazines are for. Some of them will take 30,000 measurements of things you wouldn't even learn about if you got a dual PHD in astrophysics and signal processing, and some of them will totally eschew measurements (but not obfuscation) and prattle on about things like "air" and "transparency". Don't believe any of them, but unfortunately unless you have lots of experience listening to different components, you can't trust your own ears either. The best you can do is pick how much you can spend, audition as much as you can stand at a few different shops (and maybe your friends if you are lucky), get whatever you like the most, be prepared to change some of it over the next few years, and than (most important part) never look at an audio magazine again.
Actually, the best thing you can probably do is chop your stereo budget in half, get a decent TV and laserdisk, and dream about surround sound systems (we'll get to this another day).
If you feel that you are succombing to audiophilia, quick grab some Zeppelin (recommended: Kashmir, Houses of the Holy), and crank it! If you won't listen to this kind of music you can stop reading now.
The Real Thing!
Sometimes you will encounter someone who actually does know what they are talking about. Usually they will be a real musician (or engineer), or build equipment (hint: not cables). These are people who can tell the difference between different crossover slopes in speakers, can hear when tubes are ringing, can dial a subwoofer in by ear, can sing a 1k tone by ear, and can tell what is really going on in the music. Unfortunately, they will be lumped into the audiophile category too (they might even think they are audiophiles, but they are really something else without any word to describe it, except perhaps "talented").
When you meet somebody like this, imprison them in your house and feed them whatever they want until they escape. Get all the information from them you possibly can and listen to music with them 20 hours a day. Write down what they say! Don't let other audiophiles near them as the other audiophiles may become confused and possibly form a club of which they will want you to be a member. Basically an audiophile club is like a chess club without the chess, except if you are lucky they will have decent imported beer at meetings, possibly with food.
Truly talented individuals sometimes stray into audiophile delusion and start talking about the merits of $10,000 CD transports (transports! The damn things don't even make any sound, you have to spend another $10k on a D/A, and $900 on a digital cable, to hear them, dummy!) - you can always tell the real thing, though, when they enjoy music in your car or on your cheap stereo you bought (because you took my advice and spent the rest of your money on a road bike, a powerbook, and a couple of vegi pizzas). The real thing won't even make fun of your stereo, in fact they usually won't even talk about the stereo (unless you bring it up), just the music and what they are hearing.
Bad objectivists :-(
Just as there are audiophiles who have something besides 30 years of wax between their ears, there are also scientific objectivists who are such total beetbrains that they actually lend credence to the crazy audiophile voodoo ravings by doing things even stupider than buying CDs made out of gold (and I'm not talking about the kind you get from Dean Whitter here).
There are fanatics on both sides of the fence, and some rabid objectivists don't even bother to listen to stereo equipment, unless they are conducting moronic experiments such as AB/ing cables through 2 way monitors in a 400' x 600' auditorium to prove "there is no difference between cables".
Here's a Zen audiophile koan for you: Without AB tests we can tell nothing. AB tests tell us nothing.