Category Archives: Audiophile

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.

My slide into audiophile territory, Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts about my realization that I have become an audiophile. The prior post examined why I think of myself as an audiophile now.

What does it mean, to me, to be an audiophile?

So, I’m an audiophile now. What does that even mean? Am I just an overexcited consumer with enough disposable income to blow a lot of money on headphones? Hopefully there is more to it than that.

A lot of people, when talking about speakers or headphones, preface their comments with “I’m not an audiophile, but…” They do so out of humility, to admit their own limitations of hearing, and their own lack of experience discerning good sounding speakers from mediocre ones. What it is really about, however, is saying that you are not a snob. I used to do that, too. But I’ve given myself leeway to put myself in the audiophile camp, despite my lack of ear training and my lack of sophisticated acoustical measuring equipment. I want to take the term “audiophile” back from the snobs.

I call myself an audiophile now because I love sound. I love sound so much that I listen to music hours and hours each day. I love sound so much that I will listen to types of music I didn’t like before—EDM, hip-hop, country, standards, soundtracks—just because they sound good. I love sound so much I will spend large—but not obscene or unlimited—amounts of money on decent equipment.

My love of sound itself is a relatively new development. While I have loved music as long as I can remember, what drove that love was always the melody, the song structure, the lyrics, and the performance—all the normal things people enjoy about music. The production, on the other hand, was not important to me. In fact, over-produced recordings turned me off, because studio slickness betrayed, in my opinion, the authenticity of the music.

Now, I think differently. I admire the craft of studio engineers in a way I never appreciate before. Some recordings just sound great, and that is part of the pleasure of listening to them. Similarly, some singers have have beautiful voices, and it doesn’t matter if they are singing the same old songs (ahem, standards): the sound of their voices brings life to the music and helps make it worthwhile to listen to.

To me, being an audiophile is about appreciating the distinction between the sound and the music, and deriving pleasure from it, far more than it is about spending vast amounts of money on expensive equipment, or believing the hokum perpetrated by high-end audio equipment manufacturers and sellers.

A/B/C testing: August and Everything After, in 24-bit, 96kHz FLAC vs. 16-bit, 44.1kHz ALAC vs. 256 kbps AAC

I’m listening tonight to a “hi-res” 24-bit, 96kHz lossless version of “August and Everything After” through my good headphones, DAC, and amp tonight. I love this album. It helps that I was 15 when it came out, of course. But still, I think it is an emotionally rich artistic achievement. It surprised me when such an earnest, heartfelt record became wildly popular; only in the 1990s would that happen, I guess.

I compared this hi-res version, track by track, with two other versions I have on hand:

  1. my 16-bit, 44.1kHz ALAC rip from my original CD from 1992, and
  2. the 256kbps AAC version available through Apple Music.

Overall, all three versions sound almost identical, which is kind of what I would expect, actually, given that Apple Music’s lossy AAC encodings are of a very high quality, and that the bit rates and bit depths for CD-quality recording and iTunes AAC encodings were chosen very carefully. We are far from the world of mushy, sizzly 128kbps MP3 files now. That said, the lossless versions do sound a tiny bit better. They reveal more detail than the lossy version, notably in the snap of the bass guitar and in the attack of the snare drum. The difference is slight: you have to listen very carefully to hear it, and you need equipment sensitive enough to reproduce the sounds accurately.

The main improvement the hi-res version brings over the CD-quality rip, to my ears, is a lower noise floor. Otherwise, it sounds the same as the CD version. You gain about 1-2% in fidelity at the price of lot of extra bits on the hard drive, and, perhaps, more dollars out of your wallet. This is true even though the 24-bit version was mastered to be a little quieter than the original CD and iTunes versions. You have to turn it up a notch to match the others’ volume. Even with more amplification, the hi-res version’s noise floor is incredibly low, and everything sounds fantastic.

Overall, I would prefer to listen to all my music in lossless quality, in as high fidelity as possible. It can sound better than lossy rips, and, even if I can’t hear the difference on a particular track, why not listen to the best version available? That said, I subscribe to Apple Music, which serves AAC files, rather than Tidal, which has a lossless streaming plan, primarily for convenience. Fortunately, for me, Apple’s 256kbps AAC files are completely adequate substitutes for lossless rips. I do think, though, that if Apple offered a lossless plan at a slight up-charge, I would subscribe to it.

My slide into audiophile territory, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about my realization that I have become an audiophile.

Introduction

I have realized recently that I have slowly but surely slipped from the category of “normal person” to the category of “audiophile”. I never would call myself an audiophile before, so this is somewhat shocking to me.

I always thought that audiophiles were people who threw away thousands of dollars, unnecessarily, on audio equipment–speakers, headphones, DACs, and so on—to “hear” “something” that I could never, ever hear myself, and was probably not even there. After realizing that I spent, probably, $1,000 or more on audio equipment last year, I think I need to brand myself with the “audiophile” label. I am listening to lots of music and enjoying it immensely, but there is something clearly wrong with me. (Just kidding—I think.)

A princely four-figure sum over the course of 2017 netted me some great equipment:

  1. Apple AirPods
  2. Oppo PM3 headphones
  3. an Oppo HA-2SE DAC/headphone amp combo, and
  4. a BeoPlay M3 wireless speaker.

Even with all that great stuff at my listening desk, I am still dying to buy a HomePod (or two, even), open-back headphones from HifiMan, B&O Play headphones of some kind (did they just discontinue all their wired models?), and maybe a HifiBerry or a piece of Schiit to turn one of my old Raspberry Pis back into an AirPlay receiver.

I have no idea why this is. All I know is that the good audio equipment I have now has made all the other speakers in the house sound like garbage to me. In a way, I am glad I don’t have the money right now to buy any of this stuff. I certainly don’t need any of it, and it won’t make my life any better.

What the hell happened?

How did I slip from being a normal music listener to an audiophile or audiophile wannabe? I have a very good excuse—or, more likely, a series of somewhat poor excuses that snowballed into $1,000+ of spending on audio equipment in one year:

  1. I adore listening to music, and spend a lot of time doing so.
  2. I got, for free a couple times, better headphones than the ones I had before.
  3. I started to hear “something” that these better headphones brought out of my music that I never had heard before. The sound of the music became as important to me as the content of the music.
  4. And then, those headphones broke, and I had to get new ones. This has happened multiple times to me over the past five years, which is a bummer and encouraged me to try to buy higher quality headphones each time.

So what?

I thought it would be fun to write about all my gear from one the years, from the first crappy boombox to the amazing headphones and DAV/amp combo I am rocking these days. This is the first post in that series.