12 February, 2016

HiFi Basics II: Listen to Music, Avoid Most Things Audiophile

Overlap_2R: Illustration from Logic + Emotion.

HiFi Basics II: Listen to Music, Avoid Most Things Audiophile

In HiFi Basics I I outlined my fundamental audio inclinations and beliefs, so as you can decide whether to read this series further on. With this article I start to examine each facet of sound reproduction in detail. First articles shall concern the audiophile psychology, which are, as we all know, usually unhealthy, even pathological.

In looking for a Venn Diagram to illustrate what I am going to say, I chanced upon this article from Logic + Emotion, from which I culled the diagram. I can find part of my audio self (particularly that relating to this blog) in the article too; certainly worth a read. Now, let's say:

X = Music Lover; Y = Audiophile; Z = Good Sense (Common Sense/EQ).

It follows that most of us are NOT OK.

  After his death his younger brother Gerald was left with the daunting task of disposing of his collectionL: From the net, one man's collection of 45's. Note the playback equipment; R: My congested old man cave.

Most Music Lovers are not Audiophiles
  •  Why Music? It is surely good to be a Music Lover, even one who has gone overboard (see below) - to be able to enjoy music is one of life's greatest gifts! Even the greatest philosophers agree music is mysterious and mostly essential. To me, a true Music Lover is one who loves to discover, to re-discover and to explore music. It is usually a pleasure to meet and engage in conversation with another music lover (regardless of his preferred genre). For me, foremost a classical lover, it is a thrill to hear different aspects of the same score brought out by different musicians. For a jazz lover, hearing how a basic tune can be improvised into something unrecognizable (and then brought back) is exhilarating. Vocal lovers also indulge in different covers of the same song. The intent is the same - get even more insight into music we love and thought we knew. No two coffee beans nor teas taste the same; there lies one of life's pleasures.
  • You don't need good equipment to enjoy music This is an incontrovertible fact. Today, low-res files (MP3, AAC) and simple equipment to play them back (phones or bluetooth) are what most people ever need. Do not forget too that women love music too, but few are into audio; and most musicians think nothing of audio (and are mostly rightfully contemptuous of audiophiles).
  • Many Music Lovers are NOT Sensible Piling up is not quite collecting. Like many, I struggle to find space for my LPs and CDs. I must have at least over 20,000 discs, and a portion have never been listened to. Why should anyone want 30 versions of Bruckner 9th's even if it is his favorite music? Why several sets of complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas? Why all the Miles Davis recordings? Hogging up space also compromises other family members. I also know many people who spend too much time on setting up, copying and backing up their digital files (I say, partly because they are often free).
  • No one can know or have it all We chase to "know" everything, to have a "complete" collection, but we all fail, and in the process also spend too much time on many less than worthwhile experiences. Think how much of our music collection we would never listen to again! And why do you have ten copies for "backup"?
Most Audiophiles are not Music Lovers
  • The more the Audiophile is into the "Hi-End", the more the Following Points Apply.
  • Music as Sensation only While it is true that audiophiles enjoy some music, they are often scintillated more by the sonic sensation than by the music itself ("listen to that double bass!"). The Audiophile spends an inordinate amount of time listening to various test discs, and complains that his favorite song is never right. Only this power cord and that cable together with meticulous tweaks can bring out the full flavor? They are always fiddling and never on their own explore the vast universe of music. The better ones occasionally stop to ask what music you are playing, wanting to buy it; the worst ones insist on playing their "gold standard" everywhere they go. The worst audiophile brings one cut everywhere he goes and if the system does not get it "right" it is not worth his salt. This is what I have observed, but many will argue with that. I can agree that sensation is part of the soul, but there is more, a lot more on the spiritual side. This is a bit like sex: sex as addiction vs making love with a woman you love (and who loves you).
  • Led by the Audio Industry Well, I do agree if audio gets people to listen to (and buy) more music, it is good, but I am saddened by the fact that many audiophiles listen to performers promoted by the audio industry and never strive to discover those much better. In Hong Kong, this is particularly bad, as one after another inadequate "jazz" singers, usually young Asian girls, are showcased. Hey, in your limited time, why listen to them instead of the Jazz Greats? It is inconceivable that most audiophiles in HK play Susan Wong etc but own nothing of Billy Holiday (though some may have one or two Ella)! Hong Kong also has many companies that issue and sell "audiophile" discs mostly of low musical merit. Hong Kong and Japan also shamefully promote various digital and disc material manipulations as breakthroughs (XRCD, LPCD, HQCD, AQCD, glass CD, to name a few). Audiophiles just buy their favorite discs again and again; if you ask me, most of these "special" versions sound worse than the original blue book CD. Audiophiles also fight for discs on HP's List (many of which are of dubious musical merit, even downright bad taste), driving up prices to unrealistic levels. In HK, in quite a few audiophiles' home, I have seen nothing but "famous" recordings. This is highly unhealthy, and a sign that the host is not a real music lover. Almost all Kenneth Wilkinson recordings sound superb - why just listen to a few "famous" ones?
  • No Acquired Taste Most HK audiophiles have grown up mostly with songs by pop idols. While there is nothing wrong with that, it means they are frequently over-focused on melody, often lacking in sensitivity to the background band, non-vocal musical interactions such as jamming and improvisation, not to mention orchestral music. The catholic taste also means many rougher vocalists are not accepted: Ella yes, Billy Holiday no; no Dylan, no Tom Waits; no hard rock; you get the idea). Given that Chinese music is originally written on the pentatonic scale, complexity and dissonance are also rarely tolerated: Mozart yes, Bruckner no; violin sonata yes, large orchestra no; concertos yes, no soloists no; Bebop maybe, hard bop no; you get the idea. Aside from assimilating a few classical works, usually violin works, much less piano works, basically the HK audiophile almost never comes out of his cocoon to develop any acquired taste, and the adventurous know how often acquired taste can become a passion. I did not love Dylan nor Thelonious Monk the first time I heard them, but they are my favorites now. I did not like sashimi and wasabi the first time I tasted them, but now I eat little else when I visit Japan. On the Chinese internet, there is a popular saying (likely a summarized one or precis) attributed to Warren Buffet: "...做你沒做過的事情叫成長,做你不願意做的事情叫改變,做你不敢做的事情叫突破。..." (I translate: To do what you haven't done before is Growth; to do what you have been unwilling to do is Change; to do what you haven't dared to do is Breakthrough"). If someone can point me to the original speech in English I'd be grateful. As for Mainland Chinese audiophiles, as almost all paraphernalia related to music, indeed almost anything that has to do with culture, were destroyed during the Cultural revolution, they have a lot to catch up musically. Naturally, they follow HK, but are even more conservative in taste! Lack of musical background also means Chinese recordings and hifi gears are often a bit wayward in flavor.
  • Music Collection as Display While a disheartening number of audiophiles own and listen to mostly "audiophile" discs, a small number do buy a lot of CDs, but usually on recommendation of friends, but they don't know what is what. I know this rich audiophile who has piles of classical CDs all over the place, but he doesn't know Schubert from Schumann; he asks you to play the CD yourself, because he wouldn't know the composer or the title if you make a request. Quite a few have a lot of discs, but always insist you listen to just a few. These are not music lovers. Also, most audiophile discs have a limited life span; most don't get played ever again when the next Audiophile fave comes around. Now, when was the last time you played your Carol Kidd, Rebecca Pidgeon, Mary Black, Enya, to name a few?
  • The Mercenary Aspect Most music lovers focus on what they like, and would want something even if it has no or low resale value. Most of my classical LPs are not worth much. My favorite Rossini overtures is that by LSO/Gamba. My humble London Jubilee Holland pressing costs only a few bucks even today, but gives me as much pleasure as the many times more expensive original UK Decca that my HK friends have. But many audiophiles only buy what is on HP's list, or other "famous" LPs (Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, Rossini Sonata a Quattro (Philips), UK Decca La Fille mal Gardee etc, you get the idea) that have resale value. Everyone wants as early a pressing as possible, even with CD's. With prices going up and up, there is room for business, and more and more audiophiles buy and sell things for profit. The same is true for gears and tubes, of course. The down side is, given the Chinese penchant for investment, all too often audiophiles only buy things that they can resell (hopefully for a profit) and shun excellent but not so famous gears. When the thinking is on money, music naturally loses out.
  • You don't need to be a Music Lover to Enjoy Audio Heresy? I am convinced it is true. As mentioned in the entries above, many audiophiles are only immersed in "audiophile" discs. Percussion without rhythmic vitality, weak voiced lady "jazz" singers, watered down "jazz", you name it, all in the name of hifi. In home visits, I am often served Livingston Taylor, Radka Toneff, Eva Cassidy etc, to name a few (I won't mention the really terrible ones); for me, they are OK technically, but never fail to bore me - my mind just wanders off and wonder if they would get played outside audiophile circles or if the ladies hadn't died young.
  • Conversation with Fellow Audiophile?  Is this possible? Maybe, maybe not. Unlike conversation among music lovers, audio discussion frequently go haywire; flame wars are common; if people meet, even fights are possible! Exaggeration? Well, someone once wanted to punch me! Imagine!
  • Most Audiophiles are NOT Sensible Most audiophiles try too hard and too often to up the sensation, thereby losing their senses and succumb to propaganda. They buy too many things (I count myself in) for their own good. Those with a little more space, or a tolerant partner, buy more and more machines; those without go crazy with all manners of tweaking, cabling and line conditioning, and change equipment often. Many second-hand items are not even close to run in. I know - it took me months to run in my Tannoy Canterbury! Also, sometimes in a weakened state the audiophile would "take the plunge" and buy something really expensive, to his later regret. I wonder if there are more frustrated than happy audiophiles. No wonder a lot if audiophiles give up after a while. Once, I asked one audiophile why he was always fiddling with his gears, he said ha hated doing that but the system never sounded good to his ears! I rather think it was the opposite - the more you fiddle, the worse the sound gets.
I Say
  • Lose as much of your audiophile traits as possible.
  • Learn to Love Music This way you focus less on the deficiencies of your system and more on the positive. Go to some live concerts to hear how instruments and music should sound.
  • Be Sensible Be patient. There is no hurry to buy anything. This way you end up with less things. You will also make fewer wrong decisions, and good things will eventually come your way.
  • Strive to be OK I am not - not yet, and perhaps never will be. And that is why you should listen to me.
Postlude: What My Mother Tries to Teach Me
A few years ago my mother hung a little buddhist pendant on my storage rack. On it is a saying:

需要的不多,想要的太多;需要的才要,想要的不重要;能要的才要,不能要不該要的絕對不該要。Needs are basic but Desires know no Boundary;
Acquire only Necessities, Everything else being Unimportant;

Acquire only what you have a right to, never what you could not or should not have.

Great advice for sick audiophiles, don't you think!
Note on Coming Article: But how do we know what gears to buy and what not? This is a tough question, and my next article will treat this thorny issue.


  1. Patrakit BKKFebruary 12, 2016

    Even I'm not Chinese but almost everything you mentioned is ridiculously true, I can't stop smiling.

    Btw I'm listening to Billy Holiday.

  2. Outstanding article & one that should be posted verbatim & ad infinitum on those pretentious ultra high-end audio forums like audioexotics and whatsbest.

  3. I feel sorry for those HK audiophiles who only listen to Choi Kum's type of vocal and always bring that one CD to shops for audition! I mean her voice is smooth like matured wine, but there are so many diff types of vocals that are also very interesting!

    BTW, I finally got the Musette hooked up to both Sony BDP-5500 and Sparkler S303 in my setup!


    1. Oh, I'd LOVE to hear your thoughts on: 1)Using the Musette DAC, Sony BDP vs Sparkler as transport; 2) Using the Sparkler as transport, Sparkler vs Musette as DAC. This would strengthen or dispel some unconfirmed notions that I have; either way it would be good.

      If you are willing, a comment under my S303 review will be even more appropriate. And thanks for your frequent feedback.

    2. I would love to, but my initial impression on this DAC is that it will need significant time to run-in before I can make a fair statement. But I can say S303 standalone is an amazing CDP , score high in terms of foot tapping factor!

  4. Not sure if it is universal, but what you wrote is so true for HK audiophiles. Some of them are kinda fundamentalists.
    Anyway, enjoy music.
    Thanks for the article.

  5. Excellent, Dr. John. Very true of my experience, and of myself in some ways. I've always been generous in my acceptance of different music. Now that I'm becoming older, I'm getting the same way toward equipment. It is supposed to be fun, so enjoy it! Listen to appreciate what is good about the sound; don't always try to find what is wrong. That's a bad habit audiophiles suffer with.

    Best wishes,


  6. Absolutely fantastic, especially like the part on Acquired Taste. :)