Notes to a New Audiophile

July 4, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

Dear Newbie: Welcome to the wonderful world of hi-fi! If you’re besotted with a desire for audio gear that can make your recorded music sound better than you’ve ever heard it, you’ve come to the right place.

And at just the right time: Not only is there an unprecedented amount of sanely priced, excellent-sounding audio gear on the market; there’s this thing happening between us right here and now—the fact that you’re reading a letter I wrote especially for you. It’s a serendipitous concurrence, because when I think back to when I was a tenderfoot, I wish I’d had a mentor—or, better yet, The Me Of The Future—to prep me mentally for the big trip into Audioland.

So, in hopes of handing the decades’ worth of knowledge I’ve accrued to a new generation, I offer this incomplete list of tried-and-true suggestions— starting with:

Don’t sweat that whole “absolute sound” business. I don’t mean this pejoratively. It’s just that trying to replicate the real thing in a home environment seemed a more sensible goal when audio in general sounded nowhere near the real thing. It gave us all something to shoot for while providing a means of keeping tabs on our progress. But the ideal we seek defies absolutes. What, precisely, constitutes the real thing when so many sonic variables are at play in the performing and recording of any piece of music? It’s best, as a rule, to focus less on absolutes and more on ensuring that your next purchase connects you to the music more than the product it replaces.

This next tip may strike you as counterintuitive: Spend more than is comfortable on your next upgrade. Not too much—personal bankruptcy is no recipe for audiophile bliss—but stretch a little to get something better. Sell the superfluous exercise equipment in the basement. Use credit if you have to. We audiophiles will repeatedly, throughout our lives, beat ourselves up wondering if we spent too much for a hamburger with a frilled toothpick in it, or a pair of boutique jeans, or a gift for our spouse. But we will never feel like we spent too much for an audio component that is a constant source of joy. It can’t happen.

Speaking of money, don’t worry that you don’t have as much as the next audiophile. I say this unequivocally: Like music itself, there’s enough audio gear to experiment with over the course of two lifetimes. Sure, you’ll hunger for gear you can’t afford, but there’s excellent equipment for almost every budget, and while pricier stuff tends to be meaningfully better, often the difference isn’t as big as you’d think.

Ultimately, what drives us is our hunger for better sound. It dwells in our subconscious like the pouncing instinct of a rapacious wolf—and here, dear neophyte, is the gist of it. Regardless of our respective net worth, there are always one or two audiophile products we hunger for. No amount of money will satisfy that hunger.

This next one, too, may seem off-putting, considering the private nature of our hobby: Try to mix and mingle with other hobbyists. Attend audio shows, crash audio-society meetings, swap gear with fellow enthusiasts so you can listen to different combinations together and then yap about the sound. How the new thing enhanced the music. How it didn’t. How it made you feel. You’d be surprised what you can learn about audio and your own audio values by listening to others speak of theirs.

Keep your mind and ears open. More importantly, listen to your heart, since that’s where the real message registers. That’s how you’ll become the audio hobbyist you were meant to be. This won’t be an overnight process. It takes time to grow into our audio persona and to realize where in Audioland we fit. Analog? Streaming? Solid-state? Vintage? Electrostatic headphones? That’s the beauty of our hobby: It’s vast and layered and has a warm place for each of us where we can feel free and be ourselves.

A final piece of advice—but for this to work, you’ll need to perform a faith-based mental trick. Imagine that your own audiophile Me Of The Future, from 30 years up that road of amassed personal experience, has come to visit the you of today. Imagine that your more seasoned self grabs you comfortingly by the shoulders, tells you that everything will be okay, then delivers the overarching principle you should follow to bring you audio happiness.

Listening to your heart, what do you think you told yourself?

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