Sometime in the mid-1990s, my father gave me his hi-end, hi-fi stereo system from the mid-1970s: a vacuum tube-powered amplifier, pair of stereo speakers in walnut cabinets, and a turntable. Heavy, bulky, and built with hardly an ounce of plastic between them, these components lacked all of the functionality we look for in consumer audio today: no 4K HDMI, no Bluetooth, no surround sound of any kind. As such features became de rigeur, my stereo migrated to the closet, piece by piece, then out the door, to make room for new, shiny black plastic boxes.
Now, a search for that same equipment turns up auctions for hundreds more than its worth ten, twenty, fifty years ago. Why does obsolete audio technology fetch such high prices, when there are appliance graveyards filled with CRT TVs and other relics of the analogue past? Blame the audiophile, a very specific kind of nerd who spends their days obsessing over frequency response curves, speaker placement, and the optimal tracking force of a stylus, immersed in magazine articles, online forums, and product reviews.
While the rest of the world contents itself with streaming MP3s and tinny computer speakers, audiophiles buy and restore old analogue stereo equipment, pair it with the latest in high-tech engineering, wire it together with connectors that cost more than your TV, and build specialized listening environments more like boutique showrooms than any run-of-the-mill man- or woman-cave. In short, they tend to orient their lives, as much possible, around the pursuit of perfect sound reproduction.
Audiophilia has trickled down, somewhat, in the renewed consumer love for vinyl records, but to compare the big box-store systems on which most people listen to LPs to the gear of the well-heeled cognoscenti is to spit upon the very name of Audio. The snobbery and endless dissatisfaction of the audiophile are nothing new, as the 1959 BBC short film above shows, addressing the question asked of audiophiles everywhere, at all times: “Do they like music? Or are they in love with equipment?”
The charming, satirical BBC portrait brings this character to life for non-audiophiles, who tend to find the audiophile’s obsessions unbearably tedious. But if appreciation for such things makes audiophiles just slightly better than ordinary listeners, so be it. Whatever the disagreements, and they are numerous, among them, all audiophiles “agree on the fundamental facts in life,” writes Lucio Cadeddu in a “Survivor’s Guide on Audiophile Behavior.”
Enjoyment of rhythmic, organized sound may be universally human, but for the audiophile, that pedestrian pleasure is secondary to “having a wide frequency response and getting a realistic virtual image, whatever that means.” Audiophilia, for all its privileged investment in equipment the average person can’t afford, can be seen as no more than an advanced form of conspicuous consumption. Or it can be seen as a life “devoted,” Cadeddu writes, “to formal perfection.”
via Ted Gioia