Why audiophiles are dying out

About a year ago, I blogged about the “loudness wars” in music: How the overuse of compression is killing the dynamic range of albums these days. Compression, to recap, is the technique of reducing the acoustic difference between the quietest and loudest parts of a song. In the old, old days of the 70s, most rock albums had very quiet and very loud parts — they weren’t very compressed. But beginning in the 90s, record producers began compressing the heck out of recordings, because when the quieter parts aren’t significantly quieter than the louder parts, the overall song sounds “louder”: It blasts out of the speakers with a more commanding, electric presence.

Alas, it also sounds more monotonous, and psychoacousticians have long argued that highly compressed music leads to “ear fatigue”. So the upshot is today’s music sounds less and less distinctive, with performances that have less and less nuance. It’s gotten so bad that even the music industry is getting worried that they’re ruining music. According to a great piece on this subject in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, a panel at last year’s South by Southwest music conference — entitled “Why Does Today’s Music Sound Like Shit?” — was focused almost exclusively on the problem of overcompression. The producers suggested that it’s time to start recording music with far less compression, so that the true sonic variety of a song can be re-experienced.

Fair enough. But here’s the really interesting thing: The story goes on to point out that it may simply be too late:

But even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. “CDs sound better, but no one’s buying them,” he says. “The age of the audiophile is over.”

When I read that final line, I was, I have to confesss, struck by a powerful — if snotty — thought: Thank god the age of audiophiles is over. Speaking as someone who loves music, who has actually played and recorded pop music for 20 years, and who still plays six different instruments, I think music is crucial to the human spirit.

But audiophiles? Audiophiles are jackasses. You know who I’m talking about: The guys — and they’re almost always guys — who own $54,000 stereo systems and have their entire apartments dominated by thousands of vinyl albums of rare imports that are boring beyond description but which they force you to listen to, when you make the ghastly mistake of actually visiting their sonic sanctuaries.

I think what annoys me about audiophiles — and perhaps what has begun to annoy me, ever so slightly, about the handwringing over “the loudness wars” — is that they posit a way-too-fussy, sancitmonious attitude towards how one ought to listen to pop music. Because when it comes to pop music, are ultra-high-precision sound systems really so necessary, or even desirable? After all, pop music originally came to life in the 50s and 60s on horrifically tinny AM radios. Indeed, the playback devices were so crude that producers had to mix the stuff specifically to take account for the jurassic properties of the godawful speakers. (One of main reasons Phil Spector invented the “Wall of Sound” was that it gave a relatively fat sound when played on jukebox-primitive sound systems.)

In fact, I’ve come to believe that crappy technology — lousy studios, horrible playback devices — is a boon to pop music. Because when you strip out the superhigh and superlow frequencies that send audiophiles — planted with geometric triangulation betwixt their $325,000 Acapella speakers (pictured above!) — into such supposedly quivering raptures, you’re forced to reckon with a music simpler question, which is: Is the song any good? A really terrific pop song can survive almost any acoustic mangling and still be delightful. A mediocre one can’t. A mediocre song needs a doubleplusgood sound-system to bring out its half-baked appeal; a truly excellent tune is catchy even when played on a kazoo. For years, I have listened to all of my music either via a) a pair of $25 Harmon Kardon speakers attached to my computer, or b) an MP3 player of dubious provenance, outfitted with earbuds that I buy, well, at whatever electronics store I happen to be nearest when the old ones break down, and with whatever spare change I have in my pockets — and I do not think my soul is any the worse for wear.

Granted, maybe I’d think differently if the main thing I was listening to were classic music or opera, instead of pop music. But pop music is supposed to be a disposable, gritty little lo-fi affair.

The audiophile is dead. Long live the audiophile!

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson