Audiophiles are, by definition, people who love the concept of high fidelity sound reproduction. As someone who self-identifies as an audiophile, I can tell you that there’s more to it than that. I think if you don’t know very much more about audiophiles than the fact they exist, one thing you might pick up on is that there’s a lot of snake oil out there. This is true, and also fascinating.
I’d like to write about some of the things I’ve found recently in my forays into the online audiophile communities. Things are more different and interesting now than the other times I’ve dabbled in this hobby in the past. I get the itch to upgrade my gear every few years, and I recently had an episode, which prompted me to write this article. I hope to write a couple of them about various topics of interest to me. This is the introduction.
Consumerism as a hobby
At least some audiophiles describe what they do as a hobby. That description feels a bit generous to me. Going back to the definition of audiophile as someone who loves high fidelity sound reproduction, the hobby then must be either building equipment to faithfully reproduce sound, or enjoying said reproduction from equipment built by someone else. The audiophiles who actually build equipment are in the extreme minority. It requires a huge amount of technical knowledge, skill, and money to do that. The vast majority of audiophiles just listen to music.
Is listening to music a hobby? Sure, I suppose it is. But that’s not what people discuss on audiophile forums. Audiophilia is all about the gear. Gear with ever increasing price and ever more esoteric utility. It’s about buying the gear, owning the gear, and bragging about the gear. Is that a hobby?
Audiophilia is not alone in this phenomenon. Think watches, shoes, hot sauces, and other luxuries. The “hobby” for these luxury goods is about collecting. It’s not wearing the watch or drinking the whiskey. Audiophilia is the same, but different. It’s collecting, but in a different way.
Most audiophiles have one or more setups that morph over time as they upgrade parts of it. They don’t collect 12 different DACs (although some do, I’m sure). They’ll have one, maybe two for different types of music. The collection aspect is there, but it’s for the whole chain from source to speaker. The real hobby aspect here is keeping up with the available products, looking for new offerings, and allowing yourself to be tempted by the new shiny thing that happened and slotting it into your existing system. Car tuning culture might work in a similar way.
It is consumerism done as a hobby. And that means there’s money to be made. Let us discuss the ways an audiophile can spend their money.
Anatomy of an audiophile system
The two most important parts of an audio chain are the beginning and the end. The source and the speakers. I’m going to write about some specific topics for those components later. In this section, I’ll briefly describe the components that audiophiles put in between them.
Most people just listen to music with these two parts. You plug headphones into your phone and listen to Spotify. Done. Audiophiles care deeply about these components, sure, but they will typically buy separate components to do very specific things along the chain. One thing that all these components have in common is that for audiophiles, they enhance the sound. Whether or not they actually do (or should) is another matter.
Take my example of a phone playing Spotify. The source is really a data file. Then there’s a DAC (digital-analog converter) in your phone that sends an analog signal through the headphone cable. So as audiophiles, we could buy a separate higher quality DAC to improve sound quality.
There are a few different DAC technologies to choose from. There are chips which do it all, and there are more complex implementations such as multibit and R-2R resistor ladders. I’m not expert enough to talk about the benefits and drawbacks of these different foundations. It’s enough to know that they are different from one another in ways that some people prefer to the others.
There are more optional components if you have physical space to stretch out. You can buy something called a “pre-amplifier” which serves double duty as input selector and volume control. A real pre-amplifier takes a very weak signal like from a microphone or instrument and amplifies it to “line level.” This is still a weak signal, but it is a voltage level that power amplifiers expect as input so the sound coming out your speakers is sufficiently loud. Audiophile pre-amplifiers do not do any amplification, just input switching and volume knob.
There is actually one type of real pre-amplifier that audiophiles buy, and that is the phono pre-amplifier for vinyl records. They amplify the pitiful signal coming from the magnet/coil apparatus in the cartridge, as well as perform some EQ adjustment per the RIAA standard. Some audiophile pre-amplifiers have a phono input, but most do not. Audiophiles tend to buy them separately.
Power amplifiers take a line-level analog signal and boost it to very high levels. They have ratings given in maximum sustained watts of power per channel. A normal rating these days is around 100 watts per channel. This is very loud on most speakers, and there are many reasons to never even approach that level of output. Of course, you can get more or less powerful amplifiers as well.
More important than the available power in an amplifier is its architecture, referred to as its “class.” You will commonly find class A, AB, and D amplifiers. This isn’t in order of quality, just the order in which they were invented. As such, there is a class C amplifier as well, but I’ve never seen one and don’t know what it is. Each class has its own benefits and drawbacks, which are way beyond the scope of this article. The important thing is that there is a difference, and therefore lots of room for preference and market segmentation.
Often, DACs will have headphone amplifiers built in. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re an afterthought. Either way, you can buy standalone units which are entirely analog and provide slightly more than line level power to drive headphones. These also have ratings in watts per channel, but in contrast to the power amplifiers, 2 watts here is considered very powerful. Most headphone amps will feed about 1 watt or even less. You can buy ridiculously powerful ones that provide 10 or more watts, but there’s almost no headpone out there (or human ear for that matter) that can handle that much power.
Here be oily snakes. Audiophile power conditioners are power strips with an optional isolation transformer that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. The rationale is that you need clean power to make the music sound good, since the entire signal path is electrical power until it hits your speakers. Plausible, but in reality basically bunk. A good quality surge protector is all you really need.
On roughly the same level of placebo as power conditioners are the cables that some audiophiles buy. Be they power cables or “interconnects” (a word that is not “cable” because they are more sophisticated than mere “cables”), there is essentially no upper limit on price for these things.
The expensive cable phenomenon is not limited to analog cables as one might expect, where interference changes the signal. Less common but no less present are digital audiophile cables for mediums like USB, HDMI, TOSLINK, AES, or coaxial SPDIF.
In no particular order, here’s a list off the top of my head of audiophile products that surround and support the major components described above:
- Speaker stands
- Speaker feet
- USB cleaners
- Cable stands
That’s about all I want to talk about for the introduction. I felt it was necessary to introduce some of these concepts before I can write about the really interesting stuff. There’s bizarre and varied headphone and speaker technology. There’s the language of audiophile product reviews. There’s the history of measurements of audiophile equipment and some exciting new developments there in the last couple years. There are specific manufacturers of interest to me for reasons good and ridiculous. I’ll write about these things until I inevitably become bored and move on to something else.