Whatever happened to the Audiophile?
Laid-back in an easy chair, soaking in Rachmaninoff, Al Jarreau, or the Queen, enveloped by the very best, top-of-the-line stereo equipment one could afford, the audiophile was a symbol of the Golden Age of Audiophonics, a time when certain people worshiped at the altar of expensive high-fidelity, two-channel stereo equipment. They were knights errant on an eternal quest for audio perfection — the exact replication of an original performance.
Here is the way a well known newspaper described a Holy Grail system in 1980: "There is a greater transparency of orchestral textures, giving each instrument an almost tactile presence." The theological debates pitted vacuum-tube amplification advocates against those preferring solid state, or transistorized, amplification. The sacred texts were magazines such as Stereo Review and High Fidelity. Stereo stores were the holy shrines.
Then came the barbaric revolution. The boombox, the Walkman, and other hand-held devices made music more portable. Digital sound enabled listeners to store scads of compressed, easy-to-download music files — first on computers, then on miniature devices and cell phones. Quality in recordings was sacrificed for speed and convenience. Loudness became more important than clarity. The richness and warmth of a recording was replaced by tinniness and splash.
The soundscape has changed
Sound quality is rarely brought up in music conversations these days, and for many listeners high-fidelity is a non-issue, especially given that people often listen to music in noisy environments, while doing something else, like eating while driving or chatting on a phone while walking. The experience of listening to music these days is not unlike personal computing: it's a 24/7 multilocation proposition. People are taking their music with them, and as a whole, the world has changed so that there are simply fewer and fewer old school proponents of sitting down and listening to music.
While the sales of high-end devices that deliver high-quality sound may have decreased, the sales of low-end devices that deliver better and better audio quality is on the upswing. Some media consumers who in the past would have been known as audiophiles have turned their passions to other delivery systems, including huge flat-panel TVs, home theaters, and multiroom audio-visual contraptions.
The mass-market selects and the audiophiles perfect. Vinyl playback was first a mass market success, and audiophiles set about perfecting it and still do. CD was next, and audiophiles and high-end audio companies spent the last several decades perfecting disc-based audio technology. This will always be so.
The way we experience music has exploded with this past decade's proliferation of the MP3 file. The optimistic upshot is that the online/download digital world is, in fact, the biggest opportunity for audiophiles so far. And, as audiophiles push companies to perfect how good music can sound via the Internet, the second Golden Age of Audiophonics might be dawning.
It started out a bit rough with compressed MP3 files that sounded barely OK. But the mass market has now clearly accepted online music. And we'll see these formats push to higher resolution as bandwidth allows. There is also a vast underground online community of high-resolution file traders who demand better and better transfer technology for all types of music.
Since we are no longer locked to a physical format like LP or CD, there is far more flexibility in introducing higher resolution audio formats in an online world. So the potential for audiophiles is greater than ever before to have a format aimed at them that coincides with the mass market.
Surrounded by sound
As the home theater boom truly began to explode over a decade ago, audiophiles dove into it relatively willingly, as we also appreciate the benefits of watching a great picture on a great screen or TV. But it all ties back to enhancing our inherent passion for great sound.
Great sound these days may be found by hooking up high-definition TVs to surround-sound systems. Also known as 5.1 systems, the six-speaker configuration is made up of left and right front speakers; a center channel, mostly for dialogue; left and right rear channels and a subwoofer - the 1 in the equation - for the low-end of the audio spectrum.
Such conglomerations mirror the 360 degrees of audio that we deal with in everyday life, and they serve to enhance the overall audio-visual experience. Think of the excitement of feeling like you're in the middle of a roaring stadium crowd while watching football in high-def. Or hearing a car literally drive across the sound stage and into the distance behind you to correspond exactly with what you see that car doing onscreen.
Surround sound makes you feel like you are there, and that's one major way the audiophile world intersects with video. When the A and the V are working in tandem, it's an amazing experience.