John Mahoney’s article about a meeting with famed audiophile Michael Fremer is wonderfully written. In fact, it’s the most effective pro-audiophile piece I’ve seen in years. He went in skeptical and emerged a believer, even after hearing the telltale hiss of dead technology.
That it’s a well-crafted piece is what makes it so sad to read: his hypothesis is that even if normal people can’t appreciate what makes ultra-expensive gear special, audiophiles can. This is a myth, and to honor it like this is to sell it.
His tests, of course, were entirely subjective. Mahoney’s conclusions emerge with an unremarkable discovery–that a 256kbs MP3 played on an iPod doesn’t sound as good as a well-kept vinyl record on high-end gear. It moves on in steps, however, toward serious discussion of the differences between varieties of thousand-dollar power cable and Flatland-like descriptions of the amazing aural world of the audiophile.
I’ve met Fremer, just once. He’s a a nice chap who sincerely believes in the technology, unlike some of the people who sell it. But Mahoney’s journey from skepticism to poesy shouldn’t surprise you, because it’s how music store salesmen have been “turning” skeptics since the beginning of time: establish a difference between shit and sugar, and then say “But if you pay more, you get more sugar. Are you sure you can’t hear it?”
The hard part in making sense of this is in challenging what we understand to be reasonable. When you think you hear a difference but haven’t done the work to rule out bad mastering or other variables, how can you be sure? And when you don’t even notice the hiss anymore, how do you trust your own frail senses with so much money?
There’s only one way to rationalize it all: golden ears. Mahoney is not afraid to couch that epiphany in the requisite vaguely scientific terminology:
Audiophiles are basically synesthesiacs. They “see” music in three-dimensional visual space. You close your eyes in Fremer’s chair, and you can perceive a detailed 3D matrix of sound, with each element occupying its own special space in the air. It’s crazy and I’ve never experienced anything like it.
But John, was it danceable?
The problem isn’t that expensive gear doesn’t sound better than rubbish. The problem is the claim that you can go from “98.6 to 99.1 percent by swapping out a $2,600 AC power cable for a $4,000 one.”
There is not a law of diminishing returns here: there is merely the law of whether you can hear it or not. Tests under controlled conditions would justify these claims, but no-one ever agrees to do them.
Such recalcitrance is fine, but it’s an admission that audiophiles have supernatural powers.
And that is why it’s O.K. to shoot them.
Why We Need Audiophiles [Gizmodo]