Commentary

The dollars and sense of being an audiophile

Pursuit of better sound is often just an excuse to upgrade to more expensive and shinier toys

As much as I enjoy listening to music, I've never thought of myself as an audiophile until someone recently accused me of being one - a little unfairly, I thought, even though I was stuffing a pair of $500 headphones into my bag.

The term has always been a problematic one for me, conjuring up an image of a snobbish music know-it-all surrounded by imposing, mismatched equipment made by European-sounding brands with prices that total up to more than I can possibly imagine.

It's not unreasonable to want to experience music in the best way possible. But having dipped my toes into the audiophile space for more than a year now, as a reviewer of a wide range of music gear for this publication, I've noticed that it's not always purely about sound.

The growth of streaming services like Deezer and Tidal have made it so much easier to access high-resolution music anywhere as long as there's an Internet connection, letting people like me who have grown up listening to compressed MP3 files realise just how much better music can sound.

Even Spotify is jumping in on the action, with some users of the popular music-streaming service reportedly receiving prompts for a new Spotify Hi-Fi subscription, which promises uncompressed, lossless, CD-quality playback.

And finding ways to access this music is part of the fun.

Some users of the popular music-streaming service, Spotify, have reportedly received prompts for a new Hi-Fi subscription, which promises uncompressed, lossless, CD-quality playback.
Some users of the popular music-streaming service, Spotify, have reportedly received prompts for a new Hi-Fi subscription, which promises uncompressed, lossless, CD-quality playback. PHOTO: REUTERS

Here's a secret audiophiles know deep down inside but may not admit: chasing after "better sound" is often really just an excuse to upgrade to ever-more-expensive and shinier toys.

For them, it is as much about the joy of upgrading equipment, be it headphones, amplifiers or more esoteric gear like external digital-to-analog converters, as it is about the music.

For those of us afflicted with GAS - or Gear Acquisition Syndrome - our audio equipment is not merely a means to an end, but something that gives us joy when we look at it on our desks.

And equipment does make a world of difference to the listening experience. People can tell the difference between rubbish sound and great sound. It's the minute differences between great sound, however, that's a bit harder to spot.

For instance, the jump in sound quality between the earbuds that come with your mobile phone and a solid pair of headphones is readily picked up by most consumers. The jump between thousand-dollar headphones, however, are less discernible to the majority.

I must confess that when I took so-called audiophiles tests online, I often wasn't able to readily pick out the differences between a compressed file and a lossless, CD-quality one if they were songs that I was unfamiliar with.

But, with a year of audio-gear reviewing under my belt, I realised that it is a two-way street - the more exposed I am to the language and the quirks of the audiophile hobby, the more I am beginning to notice details that previously slipped past me.

When I acquired the vocabulary to talk critically about sound quality, I found myself listening differently from before and being able to pick up on differences I thought I couldn't before.

So perhaps that makes me the audiophile I never considered myself to be. All I'm thankful for is that I am still happy with my relatively inexpensive - by audiophile standards - equipment.

Until the next bout of GAS hits me, of course.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'The dollars and sense of being an audiophile'. Print Edition | Subscribe