Audiophiles, Sciences, and Democracy

Over the last few months, I’ve begiun to wonder why audiophiles are so angry with each other and why journalists, bloggers, and ordinary people seem to take so much pleasure in criticizing carefully engineered gear, high resolution music formats, and other typical audiophile fare.

Just over the past few weeks, for example, I have read articles claiming that Neil Young’s overhyped Pono is no better than an iPhone (echoed endlessly). I’ve read Fred Kaplan’s “courageous” public claim to being an audiophile on Slate attract some rather nasty comments (but do click through to the story about the conflict between Michael Fremer and the Amazing Randi!). I’ve seen one of my favorite tech bloggers, a man with no audiophile interests at all, chime in on the longstanding debate on whether 24 bit audio actually sounds better, and another get into some kind of crazy Twitter flame war with the Wirecutter about headphone preferences (it all worked out). I’ve even seen the fine folks at Pitchfork chime in on whether high resolution audio is worth it, and witnessed endless new fronts in the cable wars.

These are my thoughts on the issue:

Much of the recent interest in audiophiles stems from the attention garnered by Neil Young’s high-resolution, crowd-funded audio player, the Pono. The anger and bombast leveled in many of these conversations, however, stems from something deeper in American (and more broadly Western) society: our ambivalent relationship with science.

Anyone who has watched the news, listened to the oldy timey radiophone, or read the interwebs lately knows that many Americans look upon science and scientific authority with more than a jaundiced eye. People have questioned the safety of vaccinations, the existence of man-made climate change, the basis for evolution, and the universal applicability of the law of gravity.

The reasons are not complicated. Science and democracy have always had a strange relationship. On the one hand, science has served as a leveling institution in society by demonstrating how all humans function under the same set of limitations and rules. The universality of science has played no small part in our view that all people are created equal. In fact, Enlightenment reasoning undermined the authority of earlier political regimes that depended upon the idea that some folks were superior to others on the basis of their birth.

At the same time, the role of science in leveling society has come at a cost. Those who understand science have come to represent a key voice in maintaining equality in our communities. While scientists and their supporters have stopped short of being philosopher kings, knowledge and understanding of scientific truth is unevenly distributed, and those of us without the skills to understand scientific arguments have to trust scientists when they tell us that the earth is getting warmer, vaccinations are a good idea, and that we should never lick the seats in a New York City subway. So science gives us a kind equality, to some extent, but the rules within which this functions are not equally understood. It’s a fraught predicament for a society like ours in the US where everyone’s vote counts the same and most of us can run for office and participate in decision making. It is hardly surprising that the tension between our (let’s say) equal access to political power (writ large) and the uneven distribution of scientific knowledge manifests as frustration and anger in the media especially when we’re asked to make changes to our lifestyles to accommodate the newest scientific finding. To put it personally, I want people to be REALLY sure about climate change before I give up my Ford F-150.

Most of the time, those of us not steeped in the most recent scientific research have to make decisions based on a certain amount of faith in the scientific processes. In a recent series of blog posts (part 1, part 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, part 3, part 4) on expertise over at Parttime Audiophile, Scot Hull ruminated on how difficult it was to understand expertise and to identify experts among audiophiles. Hull finished his impressive series of essays with the conclusion that most audiophiles rely on aesthetic judgements to declare a product “good” or “bad.” At the same time, he concedes that there is a science to audio, and “good” and “bad” equipment does related to “good” or “bad” engineering practices. And, often times, the good or bad engineering and good or bad scientific measurements coincide with the aesthetic judgement of reviewers. This is not always the case, of course. Poorly engineered gear is rather less likely to sound good than good sounding gear is to be a paradigm of rigorous engineering.

The ambiguous reality at the intersection of measurement, engineering, and aesthetics is hardly satisfying to those of us whose very concept of society is grounded in the authority of science to help us make important social, political, and economic judgements. After all, how is it possible for us to trust science in some vitally important areas of our life and ignore it in others?

The result of this kind of ambiguity is predictable. People get angry, and on the internet this anger often quickly escalates to irrational fury. This is typically most visible among audiophiles when debating high resolution audio, the value of cables or various room correcting devices. On the one side of the conversation are those who often argue using engineering and science that high resolution audio, $2000 speaker cables, or various acoustic gewgaws do nothing to improve our sound quality and our listening experiences. On the other side of the debate, are people who insist on the greatest high resolution standard, wire their systems with cables the size of my wrists, and can understand (frankly) the latest digital room correction technologies. Both sides claim science supports their perspectives and the other side is selling unscientific snake oil.

The arguments are generally dull. And, if these arguments remained confined to audiophile forums and ended with both sides dismissing the other as fools, we might simply overlook them.

Recently, however, these arguments usually escalate to something more when the internal wrangling of audiophiles becomes public fare. Audiophiles are attacked as arrogant elitists who lord their tastes over the “common man.” It is not enough to attack their taste, however. For justice to prevail, ordinary folks must demolish the foundation of their tastes and disclose that the emperor is, indeed, naked. The goal of these attacks is to eliminate the basis for a perceived audiophile elitism and return the listening world to a kind of equality where democratic opinions can thrive. No longer will some arrogant audiophile lord the supposed superiority of his or her system over iPods, phones, or other affordable media players. Taking down some audiophile conceit is a win for democracy!

Why are audiophiles, in particular, the object of such scorn? On the one hand, I have detected some of the same anger directed against athletes who swear by gear, supplements, or training techniques of dubious scientific value. On the other hand, we don’t usually see folks arguing that their 1992 Honda Civic is every bit as good as a 2015 Ferrari FXX-K. I suspect the distain shown audiophiles, in particular, comes from three things.

First off, audiophiles are a minority and have perpetuated a steep learning curve to participate in audiophile conversations. As I have argued elsewhere, most of this the language used in the audiophile media is specialized and as a result, exclusionary. Most people do not have access to audiophile quality components: there are relatively few high-end audio stores in the U.S. and the brands associated with the hobby are unfamiliar. Our encounter with the hobby and high-resolution sound is typically through the media. In other words, for most of us, encountering high-end audio is not a first hand experience (and this includes many audiophiles!), but encountered through other folk’s descriptions of how gear sounds. Some audiophiles can compare these descriptions to their own authentic experiences, but this requires that one has heard a good bit of gear and understands the language used to describe various kinds of gear. As I have argued elsewhere, the language of the audiophile media represents formidable barrier dividing the world into into those who get it an those who don’t.

Second, the defining quality of audiophile equipment is the experience that its provides. Since in most communities, it remains challenging to find high end audiophile systems – much less listen to it over a sustained period of time – people are fundamentally unfamiliar with the experience of high performance audio. Of course, people are generally unfamiliar with the experience of high performance cars as well, but cars and other luxury commodities that offer rarified experiences have more accessible aesthetic qualities. Cars are highly visible design studies and a series of numbers (quarter-mile times, 0-60 times, skid pad figures, or even lap times) represent more accessible surrogates for automotive performance. So folks will argue over whether a Porsche or a Ferrari is a better car, but they rarely argue about the fundamental validity of the criteria used to compare them. They have different styles that might appeal to different tastes, but their performance figures can be readily compared.

Finally, audiophile stereo equipment is not only discussed in exclusionary language and difficult to access and experience (even through available surrogates) but it also tends to be expensive. Audiophile gear smacks of economic elitism and nothing disrupts the placid life of contemporary democracy like visible symbols of economic inequality.

This short column argued that some the anger present in audiophile forums derives from the uneven distribution of scientific knowledge among audiophiles. Like the anger directed at folks who who do not vaccinate, who deny climate change, who believe in so-called “evolution,” or who insist the gravity does not effect them, most people lack the training in science and engineering to challenge the scientific claims made by audiophiles and their opponents. This is profoundly undemocratic. It’s simply unfair that everyone’s opinion and methods for understanding the world are not equally valid.

Anger toward audiophiles often comes from practices used by those in the hobby to distinguish those inside the hobby from those outside the hobby. Particular language, access to the experience of high end equipment, and, of course, economic privilege likewise appear to undermine the universal experience of music.

So next time we read an irate comment on an audiophile blog or read about a scientistic A/B test that proves your favorite cable, component, or format is really no better than than listening to the neighbor’s internet radio through a closed window, take a moment to remember that most people are not arguing about sound, engineering, or technologies. They’re arguing for freedom.

3 Comments

  1. You get similar conversations around wine: It is commonly claimed that cheap and expensive wine don’t significantly vary in quality. Similar forces at work there.

    Reply

  2. Yep. But fewer appeals to science. That is, I don’t recall people arguing that a particular vintage or varietal can’t possibly taste better because SCIENCE.

    Reply

    1. It is similar to the “blind tests” = science claim that you sometimes see, in the arguments to the effect that people can’t hear a different between high-res MP3s on iPods and songs played on the Pono player therefore there is no difference.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s