Clive Thompson on the Death of Audiophilia

Before I blockquote an enticement paragraph to Clive Thompson's piss-on-the-grave rant about the death of audiophiles, I want to make one point: the "compression" spoken of by audio producers is different than the "compression" used to make digital audio file sizes smaller. The former compresses the loud and quiet parts of a song into one generally uniform volume, removing dynamic range; the latter may affect audio quality, but does not have to. I think those of us who understand the difference between these two types of compression need to bang the drum a little bit about this issue to those who don't quite grok it. There's no reason a well-produced album can't sound great on MP3 (or FLAC or Ogg or AAC etc.) if the files are encoded properly. (This distinction was the primary reason I didn't like the Rolling Stone piece that prompted Clive's screed.) Now, Clive!
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, sanctimonious 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.
Why audiophiles are dying out []
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26 Responses to Clive Thompson on the Death of Audiophilia

  1. TheRev says:

    pantsravaganza said, “Mastering engineer (often a different guy in a separate studio; the ones responsible for the loudness wars)”

    The mastering engineer is the one twisting the knobs to create the loudness, but I wouldn’t say they are responsible. The mastering engineers that I know hate it just as much as everyone else. It is the artist and, even worse, the record label executives who are responsible. Everyone wants their song to be louder than the next guys on the radio or on an ipod. I’ve heard great mixes squashed into complete crap — it’s sad.

  2. Gajarga says:

    You don’t have to have audiophile level equipment to notice this. 90% of the time I’m listening to music on my iPod and albums that have been engineered in this way are just exhausting to listen to.


    Regarding the audio reproduction hardware itself, an interesting 2-way commerce is going on. Americans buy high tech audio and video devices of all kinds, the majority of which are made in SE Asia. They leave behind large quantities of well made high quality audio gear from the ’50s – ’80s. A lot of this gear ends up on the secondary market. A BIG fraction of the best stuff, especially tube audio gear and high quality American made speakers, gets shipped to collectors in SE Asia. I do a lot of that shipping myself, making a decent profit refurbishing and selling amplifiers, preamps, tuners, turntables, speakers and parts from the great American brands of 40 years ago.
    The people who make a living selling disposable DVD players to us know the value of a Mcintosh tube amp and they’re willing to pay a LOT for them.
    I think there’s something to ponder there.

  4. icky2000 says:

    I think humans have a natural urge to avoid ambiguity and thus prefer to turn all issues into black and white debates with one side vividly opposing the other. The reality of course is that we all exist on a continuum somewhere between two extremes, the extremes rarely defining more than a handful but getting more attention than the deserve.

    Both pieces (Rolling Stone and Clive) are slightly guilty of framing the issue in ways that don’t honor the reality. There are nutjobs who will buy anything and those who swear AM radio on a mono speaker is best. I’m somewhere in the middle!

  5. absolutetrust says:


    Ha! I woke up this morning thinking that I’m going to buy a slide projector and start collecting old slides from second hand stores. Slides rule. And so do canoes. And I’m not your dad.

    There will always be people in every generation that are interested in quality rather than convenience. And they’ll seek it out and geek out on it.

  6. joemarus says:

    Amen, Joel!!! I totally agree that there is too much confusion between dynamic range compression (the volume wars) and lossy data compression. Keep spreading the word!

    I submit that some artists WANT their recordings to sound like crap. OK, maybe not like crap, but not super-clean and pristine. Even when the Beatles were recording, they would try their darnedest to mess with the sound, to use extreme EQ and compression to get the sound they wanted. Well, heck, the most common sound in rock is heavily compressed and distorted guitar!

    You can say that modern recordings are like abstract paintings. Do people complain that “Guernica” isn’t photo-realistic? (or doesn’t even use much color?) In which case, all we can hope to do is have the playback equipment reproduce whatever signals are on the the end recording (however “bad sounding” or “dynamically compressed” they are) as faithfully as possible.

  7. Rax50 says:

    I consider myself to be both a computer geek and an audiophile since about 1966. My audiophile creds peaked with a pair of Ohm F’s. (How I long for their sweet sound!) When they died and I didn’t have the $10K to purchase a suitable replacement, since I had kids by then, I mostly stopped listening and focused on computers (and how to raise decent human beings). But recently I have come to find myself listening to music more and more often and looking at the current “state of the art”.

    First off the two hobbies supplement each other quite nicely in that one provides a more mental form of satisfaction, while the other is more emotional. But, that they can also complement each other is an area I am just beginning to explore. Should be fun.

    Anyway, back to audiophiles; They come in many colors, some pompous blaggards and others true searchers for emotional arual satisfaction. I like to think that I belong to the latter group. I studied and appreciated the finer technical aspects and spent many wonderful hours listening/auditioning all the latest equipment/media/recordings as it appeared. I bought the best stuff I could afford and was very happy, but I was never satisfied.

    No audiophile ever is. As an fellow audiophile explained to me, early on, when I asked him why he keeps upgrading his equipment, “Because a better system will improve your ear”. It took me about a decade to confirm the truth of his answer.

    He was not referring to just my physical ears but to my inner ear as well. My ability to become a better physical, emtional, and spirital (strickly non-religious) soundboard for the artist’s musical statements. I know it sounds so ephemeral and all, but I found that as my equipment became better and I listened closer and broadened my musical experience – I grew. I bathed in the musical experiences. I wept, cried, tingled, warmed, laughed, danced … and sometime felt lonliness or even disgust. I would focus completely on the music and follow all the different threads and nuances.

    The live performance is the defacto standard of the aural experience. The musician(s) expressing him/her/them self(s) directly to the audience, and the more intimate the setting, well… it can bring a great deal of pleasure.

    Audiophiles want to be able to accurately reproduce that aural experience, over and over again, and want to feel the resultant emotions to the same depth each time. So I would buy new equipment and listen to my recordings and experience each anew. Finding a new and more faithful reproduction in each one, thus allowing a more emotional impact than before. After awhile though, I would start finding flaws because my “ear” had gotten better. Damn! Alas, I’d start listening less and saving my pennies for my next upgrade. Humm, the word narcotic may be coming to your mind, but it was more a passionate struggle for perfection than a need for a higher-high.

    Thank goodness I was saved by age. The last system I bought I never got tired of, my ear never got better. It served me until I found another emotional roller coaster to ride – the challenge of raising kids.

    We have a lot of music in my household. I insisted that each child learn an instrument and how to sight-read. My kids are not above listening to my old albums and CDs. Although they are not as convenient as their iPods and Zunes, they have admitted that they do sound better (but not as loud – damn earbuds!). But instilling my love of music into them was truly confirmed when one of my kids said “I wish my (generation’s) music was as good as yours was.”

    I shall die happy!

    Sorry for the shitty post. I am not a good writer. Alas.


    JOEMARKUS said:
    “In which case, all we can hope to do is have the playback equipment reproduce whatever signals are on the the end recording (however “bad sounding” or “dynamically compressed” they are) as faithfully as possible.”

    Right, right. The point isn’t to enhance the recorded sound, but to reproduce it as faithfully as is practical under the circumstances.
    The first couple of Beatles albums are said to have been mastered using Altec 605A speakers. I have a pair of them here, 1964 vintage. I think it’s indisputable that those with a decent recording will get a listener closer to the intended experience than a pair of earbuds playing a 24KBPS MP-3. If someone else prefers a pocket sized format rather than a pair of 100 LB appliance sized box speakers, cool. I have The Beatles on MP-3 as well for portable uses, but having had both experiences, I don’t kid myself that earbuds and a compressed source is ‘as good’. Compressed formats and portable players are an acceptable compromise sometimes, and I probably listen to The Beatles MP-3’s more than the CDs and vinyl because of the typical contexts of use.


    While I believe that a good home audio system provides a superior music reproduction experience, I think the days of its being the primary mechanism for music listening are over. Portable players, multichannel AV ‘home theater’ systems and even car audio systems just provide more utility for the vast majority of people. And that’s a good thing. more people listening to more music means better availability of a variety of recordings. Two channel home audio isn’t dead, but it’s permanently marginalized by other formats. I’ll keep on building amplifiers, speakers and other gear probably for the rest of my life, but I don’t expect anyone raised on digital players & Home Theater to want to do that any more than I wanted to take up my dad’s hobbies of film cameras and boating.

  10. pantsravaganza says:

    If you really want an expensive gear habit, try starting a recording studio. The extinction of audiophilia is coming from many angles, though there will always be a place for it. As aluded to in the articles, digital consumer formats are lacking–songs are overly compressed in the mastering stage to compete with other artists’ songs, and then songs are subjected to some rather lossy file compression that kills the highs and lows, and the are played back on an ipod on crappy earbuds. It’s good enough for me when I am on the subway, but it is kind of sad to see the bar being lowered industry wide.

    The other factor affecting things is the slow death of the professional recording studio. Basically this means a somewhat fixed number of “classic” records for audiophiles to listen to. The studio business is a very hard business to be in these days, absent a trust fund. Anyone with a laptop and garageband can cut a demo, but since the means of production have been delivered to the people, there isn’t enough money to support very many decent recording studios which have tuned control rooms and tracking rooms to reduce standing waves, floating floors, german tube microphones, optical compressors, tea boys, tape delays, vintage instruments in decent repair, etc.

    So the number of places that can produce a decent recording worth listening to on your expensive stuff is dwindling. I would argue that there is a class divide between audiophiles and the more populist projects that get into the expensive studios. The industry motive is to produce more of whatever just sold a bunch of records, i.e. cookie cutter. The labels can afford to use the good studios, but how many audiophiles listen to the stuff that sells? Anyone waiting for Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park on 180 gram vinyl?

    What do audiophiles listen too? Somebody said prog, which makes sense. I’d have to guess there are some classical and opera snobs out there with some sweet gear. I’ve heard that there’s a glut of classical recordings out there, so there’s little market for more of it. Mozart isn’t writing anything new and we already have numerous “definitive” recordigns of his major works.

    A lot of the good indie stuff was recorded on inexpensive equipment–take Elliot Smith’s earlier albums for example-I think that was all done on a serviceable Otari MX 5050 1/2 inch 8 track. A lot of artists do their best work on their way up, when they are still recording on budget-minded equipment.

    Hip/hop and raggeatron afficienados often spend a lot of money on audio gear for their cars, as I can attest from having my third floor apartment consumed by what’s playing in the car waiting at the nearby stoplight. That isn’t about finesse–it’s more about power and bass response. They are equally as driven to achieve sonic excellence as the prog rock listening dude with $350,000 speakers, but their goals are much different. The songs themselves are composed of scratchy samples and digital source material (midi synths), so it’s not like you need to have crisp frequency response. Usually there aren’t any acoustical instruments on the tracks. This segment of audiophiles is going to be present for a while-maybe even growing. But they aren’t the dicks who own the $350,000 speakers in the picture above.

  11. pantsravaganza says:

    Therev said “The mastering engineer is the one twisting the knobs to create the loudness, but I wouldn’t say they are responsible.”

    -You are correct–I should have worded it a bit differently. Many mastering engineers make their reputation by not indulging the clients– producers, A & R, and artists– in the proliferation of loundess. By loudness, I mean the lack of dynamic range rather than the actual decible levels. Though I think some mastering guys do make their reputation on producing the “loudest” records.

    Jeff Lipton in Boston (peerless mastering) is one guy I know of who foams at the mouth about the evils of removing all of the dynamic range from the performances. Squashing the levels to the max undoes a lot of the work of the artists and recording engineers and eliminates a lot of the details. It also makes music a lot harder to listen to for an extended period. I haven’t seen any hard studies, but a lot of engineers believe that ear fatigue results from either excess volume or a lack of dynamics (at any volume). The theory is that when your brain is processing audio, it needs a break from the steady loud stuff or it’ll get burned out and get sick of listening to music very quickly.

  12. Tommy says:

    A hook is a hook, no matter the small (the bitrate).

  13. Anonymous says:

    There’s a distinction to be made between subjective and objective audiophiles.

    Subjective audiophiles are the gullible ninnies who buy the snake oil stuff, objectivists but according to specification.

    The thrills of good bass extension (usually a product of a speaker size and power) are not subtle thrills. Hence the explosion of cheap subwoofers and home theatre in-a-box systems. Nearly every person, audiophile or not, likes good bass reproduction. And if you do, then you are an audiophile to an extent.

    There are plenty of audiophiles who stopped listening to the music and started listening to their systems. There are also plenty of people who love their record collections and love to hear them reproduced faithfully. Would you prefer to see front-flash camera-phone snaps of paintings or the paintings themselves? Be honest.

    Please tell me that good music doesn’t sound better on a good system. That good recordings don’t increase one’s enjoyment of good music. Tell me that “pop” music is just disposable candy in the face of Dark Side of the Moon or Disintegration. Tell me that eleborate, carefully constructed pop music like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless does not benefit immensely from a more powerful, accurate sound system. Hell, there are entire worlds of “pop” music (as distinct from “jazz” or “classical”) whose impact is not ephemeral, and is infinitely re-listenable because it’s good music.

    If you care about music, then you care about sound. If you’re a the musical equivalent of a faithful McDonald’s client, and satisfied with mediocre music reproduced by mediocre equipment: how lucky for you, because there’s so much out there.

  14. Comedian says:

    I don’t know if they died, or if they simply gone on to being high end home theater enthusiasts.

    Thankfully, so far as I know, there is not yet any catchy equivalent to the word “Audiophile” for home theater sound enthusiasts.

  15. nic says:

    Digital music files haven’t caused the death of Hi-Fi. CDs were also touted as being the death of quality listening.

    Frankly, the ridiculous claims of audiophiles and the ‘snake oil’ companies that prey on them have simply made it too embarrassing to admit that you own high quality audio equipment.

  16. Halloween Jack says:

    I’ve come to think that being an audiophile is the musical equivalent of having an eating disorder.

  17. pantsravaganza says:

    There are a few more distinctions one could make. There are many forms of compression and it occurs at a number of stages. Here’s some distinctions between dynamic range compression and digital audio encoding/compression: The former is used in recording and mastering stages of a project. Imagine a karaoke singer who gets too close and then too far away from the microphone while singing-it varies between distorted cookie monster vocals and distant warbling. A dynamic compressor in this situation is like having someone with very fast hand on a volume knob to turn down the level of the microphone when there are sudden spikes of input and turn up the level to prolong sustained notes and make the quieter passages louder.

    Digital audio compression is used at the very end of the recording process to reduce the file size of a finished mix more than ten fold by getting rid of unnecessary data or replacing it with a sort of digital shorthand of what was there. Dynamic range compression is primarily concerned with regulating decibel levels and the digital compression with regulating file size. Volume adjustment in the MP3 encoding context would be better described as normalization, which adjusts tracks to have the same average volume upon playback. Audio compression (in recording and mastering) is more concerned with adjusting peaks and valleys.

    Stages at which dynamic range compression is used:
    1). Musician, 2). Recording engineer (noted for their sallow pale skin), 3). Mastering engineer (often a different guy in a separate studio; the ones responsible for the loudness wars), 4). whoever converts the file to an MP3 or other digital format. Producers can jump in and strong-arm any of the above into enhancing or compromising the overall sound by overcompressing. Finally, if audio is played on the radio, it is pumped through some really expensive compressor to make all the songs the same level and to get it to fit in their radio bandwidth.

    Compression is used at every stage of the recording process. Bass players sometimes plug into one before their line signal makes it to their amp to make things sound consistent. Recording engineers route microphone signals into compressors to prevent their levels from overloading the recording medium, since there isn’t usually a volume knob on a drum set. Signals are also compressed to alter the sound or to trigger other microphones once a certain dynamic level is reached via a “sidechain.” (examples would be vocals on either David Bowie’s Hero’s or Nirvana’s In Utero)

    Compressing room microphones can alter the listener’s perception of how large the room is. Compressing a kick drum or bass guitar can affect the attack and sustain of the instrument, greatly enhancing the sound. All this is done by the recording engineer, generally with a light hand, in the “tracking” phase of recording–just focusing on getting good performances to tape or hard drive without worrying about adding a lot of effects. Recording to analog tape at “hot” levels produces tape compression, which some listeners find more appealing than digital recording. Digital clipping is all you get if you put protools into the red.

    Then there is the mixing phase where reverb, delay, other effects, and compression are added. Maybe some digital pitch correction comes into play to fix up people’s vocals if the singer sucks at staying in tune. At this phase, engineers and producers often monitor on several speaker systems. A nice expensive pair (maybe some Genelecs), a low-level pair (the discontinued Yamaha NS-10s were common), and a nasty sounding pair, often from radio shack. Tom Waits listens to mixes on his car stereo. When all of the individual tracks are mixed into a stereo 2 channel or 5.1 mix, compression is also used at this stage.

    This mix then goes off to a mastering engineer, who applies equalization and really expensive compression which can both be adjusted by frequency. So you can compress the high end a little and the low end a lot, or whatever you want. These guys are the ones whose work fuels the “loudness war”–who wants their track to be quieter than the next one in an ipod? The mastering guys are kind of sick of squashing all of the dynamic range out of recordings, but that is a whole other story. They make your loud rock track the same volume as the emo acoustic track.

  18. Simon Greenwood says:

    I’m not sure if audiophilia is the issue: audiophiles don’t listen to pop music as it doesn’t show off the dynamic range of their giant speakers in their underground listening room.
    The aim of pop music is to be heard and responded to quickly, to be, as Paul Morley once wrote, ‘right for the time and a little bit after’, so a good tune has to have a hook or two and has to stand out and be heard over the environment, whether this is a club, a car, or Glub forbid, out of a phone speaker on the back of a bus. Everything ends up loud and bright. It had to stand out on a Dansette or on the new radiograms in the 60s and 70s, on cheap stereo systems in the 80s and now on computer speakers, the previously mentioned mobile phones and a variety of other (physically) compressed digital media either streamed over networks or broadcast over radio. This is, however, how it’s always been. Go and have a look for instruments used for recording in the early part of the 20th century: there are intriguing chimera such as violins with amplifying horns attached for the purpose of recording to 78rpm acetates: loudness was needed even then.
    Audiophiles listen to silence. They can keep throwing their money at accessories that allow them to attain their ultimate goal. In the meantime, everyone else will dance to the radio.

  19. John Carr says:

    While I am not a true audiophile my self (I don’t even currently own a turntable), I think that there is some logic to the thought process moderate audiophiles, as opposed to those who just want to piss away money. Clive is totally right about pop music in general, but most of the people I know who I would class as audiophiles listen, more than anything else, to prog. Debates about quality of genre aside (because that wasn’t the issue here), I have to admit that when I listen an mp3 of The Mars Volta in my car, the range of sound is just noticeably smaller than when I listen to it on CD, which still doesn’t quite have the range of my friend’s vinyl.

    I think there is a little room for audiophilia in the world.



    “Thankfully, so far as I know, there is not yet any catchy equivalent to the word “Audiophile” for home theater sound enthusiasts”

    They’re called Videophiles, and they’re an order of magnitude more irritating than Audiophiles, because they have more speakers, pictures that move and the most stupefyingly loud/dumb stuff to play that you ever experienced. When you meet one, you’ll know.

  21. historyman68 says:

    regarding compression, it’s logarithmic (I think?) rather than additive, so it makes it sound even worse when you apply compression beyond what the engineer intended.

  22. Branfeast says:

    Hey, Pants and Ross.

    O RLY?

  23. Branfeast says:

    Just messin’

  24. hector23 says:

    man, and I just finished paying for my home starter audiophile set with B&W speakers and a sub!! Well I guess if the net tells me I am wrong than it must be true.

    Honestly though, although I too spent all of my time up to this point listening to music on crappy boom boxes and computer speakers I simply missed the dynamic range that I experienced when I used to go out to a club with a great sound system. Listening to dub with a solid sub base is practically a religious experience for me so I guess I should just be consigned to being on the wrong side of public opinion.


    Concerning the death of audiophilia, too many issues are being confused here. There are audiophiles who are not technically oriented yet buy expensive and elaborate gear to hear music the way they want to hear it.
    And why not?
    There are technically able gearheads like me who build or modify most of the equipment that they use, for the pleasure of DIY and of having exactly what they want/need at a fraction of the retail cost of new gear off the shelf.
    And why not?
    All audiophiles are aware of Upgrade Fever: the belief that the next change or next purchase will bring out what’s lacking in the music. It’s a tragic error, as often what they’re looking for isn’t there in the recording, having been lost or discarded in the looong train of mishandling from the musician to the final medium.
    One thing I firmly believe: The mass market for music has always been and will always be driven by convenience and not by quality. The entire history of audio reproduction has been a progression from heavy/bulky/hot/fragile to light/compact/efficient/durable.
    And why not?
    It’s a mistake to characterize the rise of MP3s as the death of quality audio. It’s just another option for people who prefer convenience. More options is good. It means a bigger market for music and more variety for everyone.
    I am concerned about MP3 type production values becoming the standard and reducing the available quality in all recording media however. There’s already so much great music that sounds almost unlistenable because of abuse in teh production and mastering. I’d pay double to buy the New Pronographers’s CDs with the dynamic range put back in, the treble turned down and the midbass restored. Great songs, awful recordings.
    Thompson makes one really illogical argument. He seems to be saying that quality audio gear is useless if all it’s being used for is to make mediocre music sound good, and that GREAT music will sound good on anything. Well, some of us spend 8 – 15 hours every day listening to music and want to hear something that happens not to be A+ grade a lot of the time. There’s a lot of listening pleasure in the B list artists and recordings, and far far more of them than the A+ grade stuff. If good audio gear expands the range of listenable music tenfold by making what Thompson considers ‘mediocre’ music pleasurable, isn’t that a GOOD thing?
    Now if you’ll excuse me I have about 7 arguments going on at the same time on AudioKarma’s discussion threads.
    Happy listening!!

  26. JoshuaZ says:

    I’m sorry, but I can’t take audiophiles seriously at all given how many of them buy products to help with sound that have no real basis in science and that the audiophiles can’t tell the difference with in double blind testing. See for instance and much else of what James Randi has to say about this.

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