Audiophiles are Sound Lovers is a bumper sticker an audiophile once gave to me, saying, “It’s literally true!”
Reproduced sound is their métier, its quality their obsession. An exact replication of an actual live performance by means of technology — a virtual performance — is their goal, an elusive one, probably an impossible one. Still, audiophiles relentlessly pursue it, with a passion that intrigues an observer of human behavior like me.
Audiophiles are sensitive, to the point of being touchy, I learned. It wasn’t easy to find many willing to speak with me. I’m grateful that five San Diegans agreed to invite me into their “listening rooms” and to “demo” their equipment. Even so, three of them requested pseudonyms, citing security reasons. But I also suspect they were a little leery of what I might write about them. Many audiophiles are only too aware of the ease with which some latter-day Flanders or Swann could ridicule them and the lengths to which they go to avoid hum, rumble, hiss, and other destroyers of the audio illusion. An audiophile north of the city — too far north for my readership, I decided — wrote me a testy e-mail in response to my initial inquiry about a possible interview: “Please don’t make us sound like a lunatic fringe. I am an astronomer trained at CalTech working as an Earth remote sensing scientist at a federally funded R&D center in LA. But I am also a serious audiophile.”
The British parodists predate the outlays of serious money — sometimes second-mortgage–sized — for which high-end has become infamous. So their old song doesn’t go into that. But the subject probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many an audiophile’s scornful coworker or neighbor, content with a set of mid-fi speakers from Bose (my own innocent choice). An audiophile in El Cajon — an accountant who wants to be known as John Smythe — wrote me in an e-mail before we met: “[This hobby] is not about money.” Consider these comparisons, he urged. “If someone spends $50,000 for a sports car or $100,000 for a boat, people don’t blink an eye. If someone spends $20,000 for a stereo system, people look at that person as if he were from another planet.”
Granted, “Some people spend incredible sums. Every audiophile knows someone who has dropped megabucks into a system that sounds horrible. These big spenders are pseudo-audiophiles, in it for the status and the prestige.”
The subject line of Smythe’s e-mail said “Audiophilia,” so I, too, began using the word in our correspondence. “Perhaps I should mention that audiophilia is a term that is unofficial,” he wrote me in response, “and is used as a form of dark humor. Audiophilia is a disease. Not only do the sufferers hear differences between speaker cables, but they care about the difference enough to invest time and money in it. Normal people can hear the difference, but it does not affect them and they take no action other than to say, ‘That’s nice.’ ”
“Do normal people sit in the dark and listen to music for hours on end?” he asked. “Most people don’t think so. People believe that wine lovers have an educated palate and can identify obscure vintages by taste. If you tell people that hearing, like taste, is a sense that can be made more acute over time by training, most people will think you are a nut.”
And yet he does see the extremism of it himself at times. When I asked him if he knew a certain San Diego audiophile I was trying to track down, he replied, “The name does not sound familiar. However, there are over 100 people on our audio-society mailing list and I usually know members only by their first names. Also, quite a few audiophiles do not belong to our organization (closet audiophiles — people who are sick like the rest of us, but they won’t admit it).”
The audio society to which he referred is the Music and Audio Guild of San Diego. All of those to whom I would be speaking are members. Less than a decade old, a reincarnation of its defunct predecessor, the San Diego Audio Society, it meets monthly at one of only two high-end audio retail stores in all of San Diego today: Stereo Unlimited, on Sports Arena Boulevard, owned by Bruce Heimberg.
“San Diego is not a sophisticated audio city,” Heimberg told me. “People move here for sun and fun. If they’re serious about audio, they’re serious in another house in another location. Thirty percent of our business is outside the county. We actually travel the country.” Not that there are vast numbers of high-end stores in other cities, except, predictably, New York and L.A. Heimberg gets phone calls from people who live where there isn’t a high-end store for hundreds of miles around. People come to San Diego specifically to see him or his competition, Steve Nielsen’s Stereo Design, on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, not far from Chicky Breier’s. But “competition” really isn’t the right word, according to Heimberg. “I’m not competing for the one person who goes there instead of here. It’s the ten people who don’t even know that high-end exists and who never got a chance to listen.”
It would be a mistake, however, to see audiophiles as all of a piece. Take a look at audioasylum.com, one of the most influential and highly trafficked high-end audio sites on the web (and it happens to be based here in San Diego). You’ll realize at once that several controversies are raging. The most fundamental is between the objectivists and the subjectivists. The objectivists, known pejoratively as meter readers, go by the numbers, proof for the eye: they measure differences. The subjective people merely listen for them.
No matter what sort you meet, however, he (and it will invariably be a he) will want to tell you of the different types of audiophiles that exist, if not in nature, then at least in theory.