My slide into audiophile territory, Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about my realization that I have become an audiophile. The prior post examined what it means to me to be an audiophile.

It’s about spending money, right?

Calling yourself an audiophile is a little like calling yourself a rube and not realizing it. That’s because being an audiophile is a hobby marked far more by spending large amounts of money on speakers (I include headphones here, of course)—speakers that sound only a tiny bit better than much less expensive speakers, than on anything else. At worst, it’s conspicuous consumption wrapped in a superiority complex, or an obsession that has gotten embarrassingly expensive. At best, however, it’s about finding new ways to enjoy the music you love, enjoying that music an awful lot with the equipment you have, while keeping a level head about your budget and equipment’s price-to-performance ratio.

I, of course, include myself in the latter camp. I’ve spent a good amount of money on headphones at this point, but I am mostly interested in extracting as much value out of them—as many listening hours and as much enjoyment as possible—rather than on what the next better set of headphones will be.

But why spend a lot more money on a tiny improvement in sound quality?

I care an awful lot about music. I’ve found, quite accidentally, that there is more detail to be heard in the recordings I love, provided I have better speakers or headphones to listen to them with.

I never thought I was missing anything when I listened to everything through $10 Sony earbuds that I would have to replace every three months or so. When I got my first pair of over-ear headphones, though, it opened a new world for me. I heard details in the music I had never noticed before. The soundstage sounded wider. Instruments sounded more distinct, realistic, and separate from each other than I had ever heard before. Drumbeats had a more visceral impact, due to headphone drivers being much larger than those I was used to. On a more basic level, the over-ear headphones had better isolation than the earbuds did, blocking out outside noise, allowing me hear my music even better. Listening to music, something I loved already, became more fun and more exciting than ever before.

Those first over-ear headphones, which I credit for opening my eyes to the benefits of higher-end gear, were nothing special. They were a SteelSeries 7H gaming headset, which I received for free in exchange for writing a review. At the time, it was a $130 headset; today they are being sold for $21, proving that you don’t have to spend outrageous amounts of money to get better audio quality. I’m not saying they are the best headphone ever. Compared to Apple and Sony earbuds, though, they sound fantastic. I never would have realized it, if I hadn’t picked them up.

The headphones I’m wearing right now cost a lot more than those SteelSeries cans, and they reveal details in the music that the SteelSeries cannot. They are objectively better. But the much cheaper headphones are still just fine, and sound way better than whatever free pack-ins you got with your smartphone. I enjoyed them and would probably still be using them to this day if they had not broken. (Headphone durability is a separate issue from sound quality, and can be worth spending more money on.)

The jump from $10 headphones to $130 headphones was definitely worth it to me. Each jump up in price I have made since then was worth it, too. (I didn’t get all my headphones for free!) If I hadn’t tried headphones better than the ones I was used to, I never would have known that better sound was even possible.

What about the law of diminishing marginal returns?

After a certain dollar amount, each additional dollar spent on audio equipment buys you less and less of an improvement in quality. This is the law of diminishing marginal returns, and it’s a very real thing.

Audiophiles can spend stupid amounts of money on headphones and speakers. (To me, the “stupid” threshold is over $400; it may be way higher or way lower to you.) Some headphones cost well over a thousand dollars. Still other models, designed, I think, for for people with more money than sense, retail for three thousand dollars or more. Some speakers cost tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, some people spend hundreds or thousands on receivers, amps, DACs, and whatever other signal processing they want to use to drive their headphones or speakers. The audiophile hobby can get extremely expensive, if you have the money and are never satisfied with what you have. It doesn’t have to be, though.

In my opinion, you have to stop spending money on audio equipment at some point. If you are never satisfied with what you have, the problem may be something other than not having spent enough to buy decent hardware. You can still be an audiophile without buying new equipment all the time or going broke (or merely being ripped off) on over-expensive gear. It’s about the love of the game—the love of music and the gear it plays on—not the love of spending or the fear of missing out on an even better thing.