Audiophiles are sound geeks. They strive to extract the most realistic, true and glittering audio quality from the hardware and music they have available to them. The hardware is esoteric, crafted with precision and possibly more expensive than anything you will seek to purchase in your lifetime outside of a new vehicle. Given this, it stands to reason that audiophiles are perhaps by far one of the most wealthy and obsessive classes of geeks to be found.
You might say that the first audiophile was Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, precursor to today’s highly versatile turntables. At the time of their invention, record players were simply acoustic devices. Basically, the vibrations of the needle, as it passed over the groves of the wax cylinder or record, were amplified by a large cone, which recorded sound, although at that time the recording was not very true to life. The problem was that the acoustic nature of the recording and playback of the sound did not a give a full range of frequencies, resulting in the tinny high-pitched recordings you commonly hear in the documentaries of Ken Burns.
During the 1920s, radios used electronic receivers and loudspeakers to deliver the sound to listeners, while phonographs remained largely acoustic. It wasn’t until the phonograph became electric, in a move to consolidate the turntable with the radio, that the move to high fidelity and the birth of the audiophile got under way. High fidelity, apart from being a great novel by Nick Hornby and the best film vehicle for John Cusack since “Say Anything,” is a term used to describe how true the audio quality is to “real life,” both in terms of the recording and the playback. In fact, the abbreviation “hi-fi” became the term used for record players in the early 1950s. Over time, changes in recording techniques and playback medium allowed for the delivery of a greater range of frequencies, providing a much fuller, richer sound for music lovers.
In the late 1950s audiophiles, classical music fans often began to demand more from their systems. Around this time the stereophonic record was created which prompted a new wave in playback technology. The stereo had replaced the hi-fi and the audiophile’s day had come.
A young entrepreneur by the name of Hugh Hefner began to connect the hip, jazz-listening swinger lifestyle to high-quality audio equipment through reviews in his magazine for single men, Playboy. No swinging, lady-magnet pad could be complete without a stereo system that could blow the panties off of the nymphet you’ve invited over for cocktails. Audiophiles began to demand more realism from their sound and sound engineers were happy to oblige, even going as far as conducting double-blind tests, usually reserved for testing medications, for amplifiers and loudspeakers.
Today the audiophile market is still doing a good business. Companies, often European, are more than happy to engineer and fine-tune equipment with names like the ELAC 310.2 JET Loudspeaker or the Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference II Interconnect. Audiophiles, like most other geeks, have an impenetrable language all their own.
There is, however, a dilemma in the audiophile community. As the quality of audio has gotten better and better, some have come to feel that the changes in audio equipment only offer minute improvements to sound quality when compared to the high prices. For instance, a $1,500 power chord available for said equipment. The argument is that audiophiles, unable to perceive the change in audio quality, are easily duped into buying extravagant equipment. Nevertheless, audiophiles endure and continue to affect culture by helping to keep the non-dance vinyl market strong and forcing improvement of sound quality within the compact disc and digital formats.
In the end though, it is not necessary to be an audiophile in order to get a good sound from your system. There are some basic tips. Buy your components separately. Drop a little extra for a good receiver and amplifier if you want great clean sound. Buy some quality loudspeakers, but only pay as much as you can. Buy records. It is absolutely true that vinyl offers a greater range of frequencies than compact discs and thus the “warmer” sound.
In the end, it might be about what you can afford that counts, but I’m more inclined to believe that it’s about what you’re listening to. Let’s face it, Ashlee Simpson will never sound good, no matter how many thousands of dollars worth of stereo equipment you buy.