The Audiophile Ecosystem

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The Audiophile Ecosystem

To a non-audiophile, the passion for good sound can seem like a remarkably solitary endeavor. That civilian walks past our listening room and glances knowingly at the single chair facing the loudspeakers. Even if we’ve made the expansive gesture of replacing that chair with a sofa, the audiophile-in-charge is likely to insist that all present take a turn in the “sweet spot.” This is an experience that is, quite often, optimized for one, and the sound-conscious music-lover frequently finds himself alone in his sacred space at the end of a long day—and not necessarily unhappy about it.

That is, I think, not because we’re anti-social loners but because we understand our connections to a wide and diverse universe of like-minded individuals with different roles to play in the hobby we share. A vibrant Audiophile Ecosystem has developed over the past 50 years and continues to evolve, as it must.

There’s no better place to observe these interconnected constituencies in action than at a national or international audio show. The “audio show” itself is an Ecosystem component—a dedicated staff typically works year-round to assure that these events are successes. At shows in Chicago, Denver, Munich, Tokyo, and elsewhere, you’ll see manufacturers and dealers huddling over coffee in the hotel lobby, discussing business. Rank-and-file enthusiasts chat up the designers they admire, and judge for themselves whether something new is a trend or a fad. Not only are music-producing systems on demonstration in dozens of optimistically configured hotel rooms, but there are also raw drivers, stepped attenuators, and USB interface cards on display in the common areas, piquing the interest of both established companies and the DIY crowd. In those marketplace spaces you’ll also find specialty record dealers selling vinyl, silver discs, and reel-to-reel tapes. Highly regarded recording professionals can be spotted, and there are free concerts by musicians who have cultivated a fan base among audiophiles.

Outside of the context of audio shows, these various stakeholders, of course, continue to interact. Researchers with expertise in psychoacoustics (Dr. Floyd Toole and his disciples, for example) provide insights to both manufacturers and recording engineers. Technological developments outside the immediate realm of audio can rapidly achieve relevance in commercial products—the graphene in your Magico’s woofers or the long-grain copper conductors in your AudioQuest cables. The venerable used-equipment bazaar Audiogon (remember the small, cheaply printed booklets that would arrive by snail-mail every couple of weeks in the old days?) connects restless early adopters with more patient aficionados looking for a bargain. Acoustic Sounds and HDtracks sell not only physical media but also downloads for those building a library of high-resolution files. And the ascendant HD streaming services—Tidal, Primephonic, Qobuz, and others—are monitored by increasing numbers of critical listeners, especially younger ones.

At the center of this Ecosystem—the reason it exists, really—is the consumer. Audiophiles are an astoundingly diverse group, in terms of their interests and obsessions (sometimes the same thing), and there are numerous ways to subcategorize this vital society of end-users. Yes, we can definitely be broken down vis-à-vis our feelings regarding digital: Though I maintain a respectable analog playback system, I doubt I listen to more than a few dozen records a year while Jonathan Valin made it clear in a TAS editorial back in Issue 272 how much use he has for computer audio. But there are other ways of grouping us. Some audio buffs, handy with a table saw and soldering gun, are building their own speaker enclosures and installing in them the same ScanSpeak drivers as the Big Boys, hoping to achieve at least some of the magic that the pros do. There are guys scoping out garage sales for old Marantz preamps to refurbish. Others are making more-than-capable recordings of their church choir or community orchestra. And there are dozens of local audio societies around the country where enthusiasts gather to expand their horizons regarding equipment and music in a cordial and respectful setting.

You’ll notice that there are two constituencies on the diagram that haven’t been mentioned yet. First are the Internet-based forums, agglomerations of audiophiles so varied in their experience and style of expression that it barely makes sense to lump them all together. Some represent a portion of an online journal’s subscriber base, while others provide the de facto editorial direction for the website. Some are moderated with a firm hand, with bad behavior promptly censured and repeat offenders banned. With others, it’s the Wild West, with little attempt to keep the discourse civil. Self-important zealots, often anonymous, attack not just the ideas but the intelligence, motivations, and honesty of anyone they disagree with.

The other group is the audiophile press—both the traditional print magazines that, like us, also have an online presence and those publications that are strictly electronic. You know what we do. We borrow audio gear to live with and evaluate; we interview industry luminaries, write record reviews, and otherwise try to keep you up to speed with considered coverage of developments in the Ecosystem. We value good writing, honest journalism, and sign our real names to our work. Our job is to inform, entertain, and sometimes provide guidance for sophisticated hobbyists contemplating a purchase. Recently, a small number of online warriors have challenged the integrity of the traditional periodicals, insisting that writers and magazines—the ones that they don’t agree with—are acquiescent pawns in the hands of malignant corporate interests. Attempts to provide balanced commentary on complex and controversial issues—be it expensive speaker cables, out-there room treatments, or a technology such as MQA—are met with conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks. These partisans are suspicious of the very idea of an Ecosystem.

“We are not on the same team,” one of these combatants told me, darkly, in the course of a recent online exchange. He is wrong. There’s room in our tent for different musical tastes, for commerce and for science, for purely subjective assessment of equipment and for measurements. There’s room for mathematically driven research and for “snake oil” empiricism. There’s even room for error, for both hobbyists and industry professionals to make mistakes and learn from them. One thing you will definitely glean from attending a trade show or a local audio society meeting is that we surely are all on the same team. It’s obvious from the shared sense of purpose and joy that we recognize when we pass in a dim hotel hallway or gab about the pros and cons of bi-wiring in some stranger’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. We are thoroughly interdependent, and should treat each other accordingly.

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