31 August 2013

The silliness of being an audiophile

Apologies for the drought of late; as mentioned not too long ago, I've had a lot of other stuff going on with starting my own business, and it's hard to make time for blogging about religion. I also find myself caring less and less about religion and apologetic arguments. It's played out, man. The religious side lost the science debate, the philosophy debate, and the social debate a long time ago, and it's done. Religious affiliation is shriveling and will continue to do so. Given all that, it's been hard for me to care about writing yet another post on epistemology or the theological implications of theoretical physics.



But y'know, back when I first started this blog, I had changed the name from The Apostasy to The A-Unicornist precisely because I wanted it to be more broad. So I want to tackle something completely different: being an "audiophile". It's been on my brain a bit because I recently bought a new subwoofer, and wading through subwoofer reviews from self-proclaimed experts is a daunting and exhausting process.

Years ago (like, 2001) I had some cheap Sony speakers, and I decided it was time for an upgrade. I had never been impressed with satellite speaker systems, so I had already decided that rather than buy a surround system for five or six hundred dollars, I'd buy some really nice bookshelf speakers and add to my system as I could afford it. I headed to Ultimate Electronics (remember them?), who had a really posh speaker room. I sampled tons of speakers.  After much careful listening to some of my favorite music, I decided I really liked the Boston Acoustic CR85s. They were $400 for the pair. I still have them today, and I still think they sound fantastic.

Around 2008 or so, I could finally afford a halfway decent subwoofer. So I went to Best Buy, who was just introducing the whole Magnolia Home Theater thing. Again, I sampled lots of subwoofers. The one that stood out was the Mirage Omni S8, which despite being small (8", as the name implies) it was plenty powerful and to my ears seemed more detailed than some subs that cost over a grand that I also sampled. It served me well for many years, and then it died. Repairs would have been time consuming and expensive, so I figured I'd just go ahead and upgrade.

I bought a Klipsch Sub-12, which I've also found out is discontinued – which probably explains the steal of a deal I got. I spent the afternoon today calibrating it with my Bostons, and it sounds superb. I'm very pleased with the sub, and although my setup is still only a 2.1 system it really gives me that feeling of being in a theater when I watch movies because the sound is just so full, clear and detailed.


Wading through speaker reviews, you get a lot of people who swear up and down their hearing is better than yours. Or that they can calibrate a speaker system just-so and make it sound oh-so-amazing, or that this speaker had this minute quality that this other speaker lacked.

Now, here's the thing. Certainly not all speakers are created equal. How it sounds will depend on your room, your receiver, the positioning of the speakers, and the calibration of the system. Those are all perfectly legitimate things to think about when you're setting up a home theater. But with most products, quality tends to taper off significantly at a certain point. You may be paying more for rarity, boutique-brand prestige, country of manufacture, or the materials and construction methods more than the final practical quality of the product. If you're an audiophile though, that won't stop you from perceiving your experience as exceptional.

Confirmation bias is a nasty bitch. I'm reminded of a story I heard on a guitar forum some time ago in which a guy who owned a vintage Gibson Epiphone used to tell his friends it was just a regular, modern imported Epiphone. They'd shrug it off – "Yeah, it's alright." But if he told them what it really was, they'd swear it was the most amazing instrument they'd played and heard. Mythbusters did an episode on the taste of water, in which they rigged a restaurant with menu of high-dollar "imported" bottle water. Guests smiled and swore they could taste subtle differences between the waters, but the gag is that all the bottles were filled by the Mythbusters guys with the same garden hose. The mind is very good at experiencing what it expects to experience.

Why should we expect audio equipment to be any different? Could you really tell subtle differences between phase range or crossover frequencies, if you were blindfolded? Of course audiophiles would swear they could, but it's exceedingly unlikely. Could you accurately guess how much a subwoofer costs just by listening to it? Audiophiles have their own technical vernacular too, but they're also big on subjective listening. And just as with any such subjective 'test', you can expect a lot of meaningless gobbledygook. Take this snippet from a review of $1,000 ear buds from CNET (emphasis mine):
The JH 13 Pro's resolution of fine detail is extraordinary, drums sound more realistic than I've heard from any other type of headphone. The JH 13 Pro is "fast," cymbals' shimmer and sparkle the way they do in real life, and when a drummer whacks his sticks against the drums' metal rims, the sound is more realistic. Dynamic oomph and slam are the best I've heard from an in-ear headphone.
Now, don't get me wrong; if I had bought the speakers I have now when they each first hit the market, it'd be about $1000 for a 2.1 system. That ain't cheap, but as I said, it really does sound fantastic. There's no question that there is a variance in quality, and that a $50 pair of speakers likely will not match a $400 pair. But the best way to find speakers you like isn't to listen to some nerd who thinks he has superhuman hearing, or to confuse yourself with technical specifications, or to fuss over price tags and worry that you won't be able to afford something great; it's just to listen to the speakers for yourself – preferably in your home, where you'll use them.


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