Friday, January 06, 2012

Another strange religion: Audiophilism

People listening to music can be divided into basically two groups: one group doesn´t care about sound quality, the other group cares a lot. The latter one is colloquially known as "Audiophiles". These Audiophiles must seem extremely strange to peoples who doesn´t concern themselves with sound quality; they collect expensive media that is rumoured to contain better sound, they collect expensive components that claim to be the ultimate in sound, they collect even more expensive gadgets with the aim to make these already expensive media and components better yet. These audiophiles listen only with their heart and ears, they value the emotional experience sound gives them over everything else. Among these audiophiles are even stranger group of people: the measurment-loving doubters. They never listen with their ears or their hearts, they only listen with measuring equipment. Both audiophile groups can be accused of not listening to the music at all since the two are looking out for the emotion or the kick their experience - may it be by ear or by instruments - gives them. If you, dear reader, are part of this group don´t feel embarrassed because I actually was exaggerating and I will continue to do so. As with most things in this world something like this really isn´t deterministic but full of grey areas. Though one can have the impression of two sides of the same coin when one dwelves a little deeper into their respective realms. Because when it comes to computer audio the first group of audiophiles can be found at while the other group of audiophiles has its lair at

So, because it´s fun and because I hate the two groups of audiophiles I will treat them from now on as two sides of the same coin, as black and white if you will... yes, as opposing Teams. Team Black (subjectivists) is the group of measurment ignoring, fully ear-dependend audiophiles while Team White (objectivists) consists of members ignoring their ears and turning to measuring equipment instead. Oh, don´t be bashful boys, this is going to be fun! ;) Team Black for instance believes in strange things, things that are rumoured to improve their listening experience. They love anything that improves their expensive gadgets - and this love creates strange cravings. Some people buy things which are hard to believe even for people believing in E.T. (which I do by the way, Spielberg made many films about it, remember?). I´ll give an example: a chip that looks like a band-aid. This band-aid is plastered onto your component and it improves the sound! Easy, isn´t it? Well, if a band-aid can improve the sound of your stereo system why doesn´t anyone plaster a band-aid onto it? Reason: the company that offers this "band-aid" claims it contains an extra secret ingredient that will get rid off the magnetic field of the earth. Or something like that. And by removing the earths magnetic field your stereo will sound better. Are you already laughing? Tststs... shame on you because four chips cost roughly 300,- Euros. Basically 300,- fucking Euros for four band-aids. For all we know it could be a patch of insanely overpriced aluminum foil but with a price like that it´s unlikely that anyone will cut it up, don´t you think?

But that isn´t all, no Sir! Team Black also believes in the superiority of vinyl records (have a look at my other article), they believe in ridicilously overpriced RCA-cables to connect their stereo system, they believe that hot running, power abusing and distorting tubes are much better then more effective transistors (God forbid digital amps!) they sense jitter as the ultimate evil in digital audio and they will believe in anything as long as it is sounds plausible to them and looks good. Since they don´t concern themselves with measurments Team Black occasionally buys stuff that is horridly constructed, like the NuForce U-DAC2, a little D/A-converter that produces massive amounts of distortion and which also serves as a prime example of how electronic engineers can be utterly braindead idiots. But it looks nifty and beautiful! Distortions? Hey, it sounds so good with my super expensive headphones, it has a synergy effect and it adds some kind of glow that other things simply don´t. And doesn´t it look nifty and swell... oh, screw it!

NuForce U-DAC2 - a crappy little gadget designed by nincompoops.
Copyright by NuForce.

Team Black had no idea that this gadget produces distortions huge as the Mount Everest - but Team White measured it and found out how horrible it behaves and subsequently released this information. Team Black responded by saying: "We simply have better ears, we don´t care that it distorts because it sounds so good and distorts like tubes. Oh, and did we say that it also looks lovely?" The result was that Team Black ignored Team White for some time. The same happened when Team White found out that high end manufacturer Ayre produces a BluRay player called DX-5. It´s a beautiful looking, heavy product with a thick aluminum casing and wonderful sound. It costs $ 10.000. There´s a tiny little twist though: inside the DX-5 is nothing more than a BluRay player from Oppo for $ 500. The twentyfold increased price is - according to Ayre - justified because they exchanged many parts of the Oppo with parts of higher quality (which is true). They also completely re-designed the power supply and the output stages (also true). And while I give Ayre that they are a very small company turning out so few players compared to assembly line produced original Oppos this price still seems ridiculous. But that´s the thing with Ayre: they also produce the USB DAC QB-9 ($ 2500): even John Atkinson, editor in chief of Stereophile magazine (the bible for Team Black) and who actually seems to be a pretty reasonable and nice guy wrote that my cheap ASUS Xonar Essence ST sounds almost as good as the Ayre - yet it costs roughly $ 200.

The Ayre QB-9 (picture: copyright by Ayre)

You may already suspect what I´m trying to say: Team Black loves exclusive, expensive and awsome looking stereo components with a high price tag. The higher price tag suggests better quality and - key to success - not everyone can afford it which heightens the exclusivity of these components even more. Another thing is that when you pay as much for these things as Team Black does you actually want those gadgets to sound good which can lead to the very common placebo effect: imagined advantages in sound, simply because they want to believe them. Furthermore an exclusive Ayre USB converter simply has more charm compared to a $ 200 soundcard from a chinese computer parts manufacturer.

How can people from Team Black be spotted? Most of the time they are older, heterosexual white males with an affinity for conservative values. They love some crappy recording on vinyl from the `50s that contains a classical recording with a famous conductor from yesteryear and that - to them - will always sound better than any recent, digital recording. They also love some early recordings from rock groups that went on to heaven 40 years ago (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones... oh wait, they are still alive). These recordings remind them of the glorious times when they started to date their wife on the backseat of their car... or something like that. Oh yes, the wife, it´s important! In forums you can always spot them when they describe some improvement they made to their stereo with this sentence: "The difference was so huge that my wife came running from the kitchen, wanting to know what I did." See? Told ya, conservative, heterosexual and patriarchic guys.
While we´re at it... how can Team White members be spotted? Well, you won´t find them in the open because they mostly spend their time in their basements, writing in forums, jacking off to some cheap porn, eating loads of pizza, playing WOW and measuring the hell out of their soundchip that came with their mainboard. Because they don´t move that much they are severely overweight and since they also don´t take hygiene seriously they are greasy. Members of Team White are also younger then Team Black and they don´t have that much money - simply because they are still young and live with their parents (hence the basement). Because they are fat, greasy and have a small dick they have serious problems with self confidence. So they have to make everything work in order to boost their ego.

They do this by challenging Team Black. They say for instance: "Did you measure the chips you attached to the casing of your SACD player? Did you do a Double Blind Listening Test (DBT) to confirm what you´re hearing?" Thing with Team White is that they always sense a placebo anywhere and for them therefore a DBT is God (the measurments are Jesus). Anyway, Team Black tries to do a DBT and fails with the result so that Team White was correct from the beginning: "We knew it, the chip does nothing. You are idiots, you believe in snakeoil." The two most loved expressions of Team White are "snakeoil" and "DBT", they use it whenever a member of Team Black mentions anything connected to Audio. They do this for only one thing: they want to avoid that anyone would notice that they in secret envy Team Black for the ability to purchase expensive audio stuff. So, because they don´t have any money they often state that the equipment they own is the truth or that you won´t need anything else (or something more expensive, God forbid!). That´s why they measure the hell out of their soundchip on their mainboard or their crappy portable mp3-player. When they are not doing this they do DBTs and compare several lossy codecs at 128 kBit/s, they just want to know which one of them is the most transparent (-> doesn´t show any audible difference to the source it was made off). Naturally, LAME mp3 always comes out first simply because it´s their project (it actually is better). And now that 128 kBit/s is transparent they go on and test 96 kBit/s for transparency. Not that it matters anymore now that AAC has replaced MP3, internet connections are faster then ever and space to store it has become so cheap that it´s ridiculous. Talk about futility... but they won´t hear it. They also don´t want to hear that Double Blind Listening Tests are a start but not the ultimate solution. I will talk in a later article a bit more about this... but that much beforehand: Universities are actually turning away from DBTs, simply because they are too unreliable.

Team White - being objective (or so) - will always claim that vinyl is inferior to CD (it is), that cable sound doesn´t exist (not true), that CD players or amplifiers all sound the same (also not true) and that an expensive gadget mostly is overpriced snakeoil (true). Since they are ugly looking, don´t have any money and dwell in basements (yes, your typical nerd) they don´t value appearances and therefore are going for ugly and cheap audio solutions that measure well. To the casual listener both sides appear to be at war with each other. Just go over to and read how much Team White hates Team Black, it´s mind boggling. Respect? You won´t find it there. Several years ago hydrogenaudio actually was a place where one could learn something. Over time though they forgot that the world has turned and therefore they are standing still. They also won´t move out of their realm to make peace with Team Black whereas Team Black sometimes attempts to do so (and fails because they are ridiculed by principle). However, both sides are on the opposite sides of the coin. One side cannot live with the other but they cannot live without it either. Both sides need each other to make new discoveries, to challenge each other, to create something new. Only then we will have progress. Right now however both sides are just shades of one big religion, wars are fought over the various belief systems. And history has told us that religious wars were never successful and ultimately pointless. Just look at fundamentalists of any kind, aren´t they stupid, little people full of bigotry? Audiophilism is able to do the same, you can find fundamentalists on both sides - utterly disappointing because I always thought that in case of our hobbies we should strive to better ourselves - not destroy each other. Guys and Gals, relax!

Where do I stand? Well, it should be obvious now. Since I hate both sides I´m actually sort of in the middle. I believe in cable sound (yep, even USB), differences between amplifiers, high resolution audio, measurments, objective approaches while I don´t believe in objectivism or subjectivism as the only options available to me. I´m sitting on the side of the audiophile coin and let me tell you, this side is sharp as a razor. Both sides hate me because I won´t conform to anything they value with the result that I´m always sitting between chairs. A completely shitty situation, I used to post at hydrogenaudio as well as at computeraudiophile... but in the end it was a worthless attempt because no side would move one millimeter from their standpoint. Religion is crap!

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