The evolution of an audiophile
For a true believer, hi-fi is the ultimate Holy Grail. There are rituals crafted around sound equipment and almost everything needs to pass strict audiometric tests. Here’s a less-than-scientific look at the audio nerd
Being an audiophile is exactly what it sounds like—serious stuff. It can be broadly defined as an interest in the high-fidelity reproduction of recorded sound, but that’s like saying vegans are opposed to the dairy industry. To be an audiophile is to embark upon a singular quest for audio perfection and make sure that the only music you embrace is through the receptacle of high-end audio, a rabbit-hole of cables, converters, speakers and spiralling costs. Like knights who are sworn to the highest ideals of sound, they joust with acoustics and equipment as the last remaining seekers of what is fast becoming a rare commodity in today’s world—an authentic listening experience.
An audiophile has an ear for each sonic attribute that makes up the whole; factors like the separation of one instrument from another or the sense of distance between them or the balancing of frequencies are what truly deem a song listenable. At their mildest, they’ll talk about crispy highs and creamy lows (I have only used these words in the context of doughnuts) and when things get extreme, they could spend a fortune to acquire 4-gauge speaker wires with solid-gold plug tips because “it sounds better” or mull endlessly over frequency-response graphs while on a Sisyphean pursuit of satisfaction. In a world where “active listening” has essentially evolved to talking loudly at live performances or taking control of the playlist at the gym, audiophiles are a rare and misunderstood breed, and their passion for hi-fidelity audio is both a gift and a curse. Here’s a closer look at the complicated life cycle of an audiophile.
The journey of an audiophile begins when they get drawn to hi-fi sound. Unlike what most critics or commoners (same thing really) believe, audiophilia is predated by a love for music. It is extremely common to stereotype an audiophile as a person to whom music doesn’t matter and even if that were true, let’s just say that at this stage it still matters. How one gets exposed to the joys of hi-fi is a matter of chance, circumstance or inheritance. It could be as gradual as realizing that the tone of the instruments sounds distinctly different on your father’s Wharfedale sound system than your friend’s prized B&O speakers, or as sudden as walking into a hi-fi audio store and hearing the low rumble of the bass on Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time. But once you’re exposed, your ears find purpose and it’s tough to ignore the clarion call of high-fidelity audio.
The studious listener
You don’t just become an audiophile, you make yourself one. There is research and training involved. Typically, it begins with reading up on high-fidelity sound, hanging out at record and equipment stores, trying to expose oneself to hi-fi environments (studios, friends with hi-fi systems, etc.) and immersing oneself in the audiophile’s glossary. You will learn that sound can be “coloured”; that it could also be “warm” or “dark”. Or that the sound of friction in your headphones is called “microphonics”. Soon, you will realize that “bright” is no longer how they described you in kindergarten—it refers instead to the degree to which reproduced sound has a hard edge to it.
Typically, audiophiles experience a shift in their relationship with music. The same songs that acquired three-dimensional properties after two beers begin to sound flat and faded and the compromised dynamics of most recorded music becomes a painful awareness that one must always carry. You start looking for music that has been “recorded right” and try and acquire the most sound hi-fi gear. Going out for live gigs is no better because the acoustics are almost always no good. An audiophile (on condition of anonymity) recalls that he started smoking so that he could take smoke breaks and escape the cacophony. He says: “The more you get drawn to hi-fi audio, anything else feels like a compromise. Like phones—to have to hear anyone over that kind of sound quality for more than a second feels downright disrespectful. Thank god for SMS.”
Equipment is expensive and if you’re going to become a serious audiophile, then you have no business being a slacker. No audiophile dreams were achieved over endless cups of teas, smokes and dreams. They were earned in sweat and capitalist credentials. You replace your “starter pack” set-up with something that costs your entire salary but you already know that for Rs 10 lakh or more you can start scraping together some serious vintage gear. Bigger house, bigger room, better speaker placement, better sound quality—before you know it you’re staring down the capitalistic barrel; but you’ve come too far and there’s no turning back now. “So I sold all my Che Guevara memorabilia on eBay and started the long haul up the corporate ladder,” says the anonymous audiophile from inside his teak-mahogany listening chamber.
The point of no return is not an exact point but that’s sort of the point. It creeps up on you and before you know it, you’re using music to test your equipment and mulling over whether to sell your car to buy the gold-plated cables that enhance listening by a critical .25% The law of expenditure says that once you spend so much money, you will hear the difference whether it exists or not and thus, this is where many audiophiles become the butt of everyone’s jokes. The reference point for this piece, the anonymous audiophile would wake up at 4.30am to “listen” because “the electricity was clean”. Looking back at the evenings he spent talking to his $10,000 directional cable, he says: “The sound of one’s conscience did ask questions every now and then. Is this worth it? Where was this going? But you know, it was always faint and never in high-fidelity.”