An audiophile (literally, "one who loves sound") is one who is concerned with achieving high-quality results in the recording and playback of music. Audiophile values may be applied at all stages of the chain: the initial audio recording, the production process, and the playback (usually in a home setting). The adjective "high-end" is commonly applied to audiophile vendors, products, and practices.

There is great skepticism outside the audiophile community surrounding whether these practices and products have the claimed effects on the listening experience, and there are often accusations of self-delusion. People on both sides of the debate concede that, since many audiophiles are laymen, they are vulnerable to exploitation by fanciful claims made by unethical vendors.


Core values

Perhaps the clearest and most widely-accepted statement of audiophile values is due to Harry Pearson, longtime editor of The Absolute Sound: "We believe that the sound of music, unamplified, occurring in a real space is a philosophic absolute against which we may judge the performance of devices designed to reproduce music." Audiophiles widely share the belief that even the world's best music reproduction equipment currently falls far short of this absolute.

Even given agreement on the goal, opinions vary widely among designers and listeners on how best to achieve it. If there is one shared design principle, it is minimalism; given that capturing, storing, and playing back music inevitably degrades it, the fewer and simpler the stages, the better. For example, audiophile gear almost universally lacks tone controls, since it is felt that these can only degrade the audio quality while moving the sound away from the "absolute".

Audiophiles agree that the room in which the playback system works is of great importance to the quality of sound. There are a wide variety of room-treatment products available to address this issue, and extreme audiophiles are known to use purpose-built listening rooms.

Consumer practices

Audiophiles regularly listen to music sourced from CDs, LPs, and FM radio. At the current time, CD is the most common source of high-quality music, and thus the CD player will serve as the primary source component. However, there is a large and active community of music lovers who still buy and use LPs; turntables and cartridges are among the most exotic and lavish high-end audio products.

Despite the current trend in favor of MP3 and other compressed audio formats, Audiophiles are generally not in favor of listening to compressed music, including AAC and MP3 as it is even less perfect than the already digitally encoded audio is. Audiophiles who own a digital audio player will attempt to encode their music at high bit rates, or even use lossless compression algorithms, such as WMA Lossless, Apple Lossless, or FLAC.

Most audiophile systems separate the functions of the pre-amplifier (which selects among audio signals and has a volume control) and the power amplifier (which simply takes a line-level audio signal and drives the speakers). Some audiophiles use, rather than a stereo power amplifier, two monaural amps, one per channel, in "monoblock" configuration. Some go further and use multiple amplifiers per speaker to drive the woofer, midrange, tweeter, and so on. However, there are those who claim advantages in the use of "integrated amplifiers" that combine these functions in a single box, arguing on the basis of an appeal to minimalism.

Audiophile amplifiers are available based on solid state (semiconductor), vacuum tube, and hybrid technology. The amount of power required is moot. Very low power single-ended triode tube amplifiers are often claimed to provide superb sound when paired with appropriately sensitive speakers. On the other hand, there are others who use solid-state amplifiers rated at over 1000 watts RMS per channel.

Audiophile speakers exhibit a wide variety of technologies, and range in size from tiny to room-filling. The availability of high priced, exotic designs is most extreme in the speaker category. It is perfectly possible to invest over a hundred thousand dollars (USD) in a pair of high-end speakers.

There are a wide variety of accessories deployed by audiophiles in the hope of improving sonic performance. Most common are premium interconnection cables used for electrical power, line-level, speaker, and digital-signal applications. Other accessories include power filters, equipment stands, and room treatments.

Professional practices

Audiophiles tend to hold commercial music recording practices in low regard. Particularly in the pop-music domain, most recordings are based on the heavy use of multitrack technology, the studio dominated by a huge mixing board with as many as 80 channels, each channel operating in the digital domain and subject to a wide variety of tonal and "effects" processing. Audiophiles argue that this complex signal chain degrades the quality of the signal and lessens the spontaneity and integrity of the musical performance.

There are those who agree, both among professional musicians and audio engineers. Currently-active recording artists who apply audiophile recording principles include Neil Young, the Cowboy Junkies, and the White Stripes.

Techniques applied by recording engineers who are audiophiles include the use of exotic high-end microphones, the use of a smaller rather than greater number of microphones, tube-driven rather than solid-state electronics, and the minimum amount of processing in the production chain.

Current trends

In terms of revenue, the high-end electronics business is dominated by home theater rather than pure music applications. Virtually every significant vendor in the space has a full line of home theater products.

There is active interest in the audiophile community in newer higher-bandwidth digital recording formats such as Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. These formats encode music at data rates such as 96 kHz per channel (compared to 44.1 kHz on CD) and thus are referred to as "high-resolution" audio formats. The industry has failed to converge on a single format, and thus the availability of music recordings is limited, and consumer uptake to date has been slow.


The skeptics' case

Key points often made in criticism of audiophiles include:

  • There are reports of Double-blind tests which fail to support audiophile claims that they can easily perceive significant differences between very similar musical components.[1] (
  • Listening tests are notoriously unreliable; for instance, Edison showed that entire theater audiences were unable to distinguish between the sound of an orchestra or a playback by his recording system, which today would be regarded as ludicrously poor in quality. Similarly, early CDs and CD players were accepted as having fantastically great sound quality; those exact same systems today are regarded as fatally flawed, while analog systems from that period have not similarly fallen in public assessment of quality.
  • Similarly, repeatability is poor for evaluation of components between various listeners, or even the same listener under different circumstances; this contrasts with the superficially similarly esoteric oenophile world, where repeatability of blind tests is surprisingly good.
  • Measured audio distortion is immensely higher in electromechanical devices such as speakers than in purely electronic components such as CD players and amplifiers, making it hard to believe that subtle differences in the latter can have an appreciable effect on music quality.
  • Similarly, acoustic behavior of the listening room, and the interaction between speakers and the room acoustics, is immensely more variable than variation between electronic components; in an electromechanical system such as a speaker, such interaction is reflected in the interaction between speakers and the amplifiers which drive them, so that the entire difference in sound quality between amplifiers is often postulated as merely either the ability to control the behavior of "difficult" speakers well, or else just a lucky combination of speaker, amplifier, and room which works well together.
  • Minute differences in loudness have been demonstrated to be perceived as differences in sound quality rather than loudness, with the slightly louder system sounding better; so that tremendous care must be taken in matching sound level, using sensitive sound pressure meters, when comparing systems if the results are to have any validity at all; this is usually not done.
  • Audiophiles often totally disdain all attempts to categorize differences in sound using instrumental measurements, despite the work of such combination audiophile-engineers as Bob Carver, who have repeatedly shown that by tailoring the transfer function of any system with a relatively simple sound-shaping network, they can make it sound indistinguishable from any other system, as requested.[2] ([3] (
  • Audiophiles often prefer the use of vacuum tube rather than more modern solid state electronics, despite their substantially-higher measured total harmonic distortion. When this is pointed out, they often claim that the distortion is "warmer" or "more musical" than that of a transistor amplifier.
  • Audiophiles regularly make strong claims for the superior quality of music reproduction from (vinyl) records on a turntable, compared to modern digital alternatives, which, among other things, are free from "click and pop" problems and background noise.
  • Audiophile equipment designers can obsess over seemingly irrelevant details; for instance, the almost universal requirement to reproduce frequencies higher than 20 kilohertz, even though some kinds of equipment will not reproduce anything higher than 15 or 16 kilohertz (for example, FM radio and vinyl records).
  • Some audiophile practices seem driven by fashion, such the late-Eighties vogue for marking the edges of CDs with a green felt marker, or the practice of suspending cables above the floor on small racks. Skeptics argue that the laws of physics are not subject to fashion.
  • The prices of audiophile products can seem remarkably high, even if one believes in the benefit conferred. It is quite possible to spend over a hundred thousand dollars for speakers, and tens of thousands for amplifiers and CD players, or hundreds of dollars for a power cable.
  • Vendors of audiophile products regularly make fanciful and frankly unscientific claims for the results produced. At one point a company called Tice Audio sold what appeared to be an ordinary clock radio which, it was claimed, would improve the quality of a playback system if plugged into the same electrical circuit, by causing some mystical change in "electron energy". Vendors such as Shun Mook market a variety of disks and clamps which, when attached to audio components, are claimed to improve sonic performance.
  • In particular, vendors of audio cables have been prone to claims, and to pricing, which strain credulity. There have been audio cables which are filled with water, which glow in the dark, and which come with a separate AC cord which must be plugged in to power the workings of the cable.
  • Some audiophile claims, while superficially based on accepted physical principles, apply them to circumstances where they are not relevant; for instance the skin effect which relates the efficiency of cables to the frequency transmitted is often referenced with regard to audio frequencies, where it is not significant.
  • Many (not all) of the most outspoken audiophile insiders, including reviewers, columnists and pundits lack engineering training and objective credentials. This gives rise to a credibility problem and most will fully admit a lack of understanding as to the technical merits of what they are analyzing, but nevertheless praise a product's innovation and performance.

Audiophile rejoinders to the skeptics

The arguments brought forward by audiophiles in response to their critics include:

  • There are problems in applying double-blind methods to comparison of audio devices; audiophiles assert that a relaxing environment and sufficient time, measured in days or weeks, is necessary for the discriminating ear to do its work; further, that the introduction of the switching apparatus, involving as it does either another metal connection at the switch or another level of electronic processing with solid state switches, obscures the differences between the two signal sources being tested.
  • While tubed electronics are less linear than solid state at high signal levels, they are claimed to be significantly more so at lower (sub-one-watt) levels; and it is argued that most musical signals spend most time at these levels. Paraphrased, "The first watt is the most important."
  • Total harmonic distortion has been proved by scientific testing to correlate only poorly with perceived sound quality; the type of distortion is very significant. For instance, distortion by even harmonics has been shown to be less objectionable than by odd harmonics.
  • In general, proponents of "high-tech" solutions (such as the earliest CDs) dismiss complaints of audiophiles on the grounds of the new systems' ideal behavior, rather than real world behavior using real world components. Often this is followed by the introduction of newer, improved components which are sold as lacking the problems of the prior generation, which had been described as "audibly perfect" at the time. For instance:
    • In defense of their preference for analogue over digital formats, audiophiles point out that the process of converting a bit-stream to an analogue waveform requires heavy filtering to remove spurious high-frequency information, and that it should be expected that such filtering should involve some signal degradation and a large amount of phase shift in the passband. They point out that commonly used consumer grade digital to analog converters (DACs) exhibit very poor linearity at low levels. Both problems, at first dismissed, were then addressed by such solutions as digital filtering, oversampling, and use of 20 or more bit DACs. The introduction of the new higher-bandwidth "high-resolution" music formats was a tacit admission of the reality of this issue. Musician Neil Young, for example, was a harsh critic of the sound of the original CD format, but has approved of the sound of the Super Audio CD (SACD) with its greater "safety margin" between its ideal behavior and the requirements set by the limits of human hearing.
    • Audiophiles were insistent on the sound degradation introduced by large levels of negative feedback in amplifiers, long before the universal acceptance of the fact that, while this technique was indeed beneficial to amplifier stability and test results using steady-state waveforms, it was inherently problematic for constantly changing waveforms as in real music, and resulted in amplifiers that tested well and sounded bad.
    • Audiophiles were insistent on the improvement in sound quality they heard with higher quality capacitors (such as tantalum) in place of or bypassing large electrolytics or paper capacitors in the signal path, long before the universal acceptance of the fact that such capacitors, involving as they do significant inductance due to their spiral-wound construction, do interfere with passage of the highest audio frequencies.
  • Audiophiles were experimenting with improved power supplies for CD players in order to block them as a path for the mechanical section of the CD drive and the digital section around the DAC to affect the audio section. In particularly, the concern that voltage fluctuations in the power supply from the load of the motor would affect the internal digital clock of the digital section, and that such digital clock "jitter" would cause audible distortion was explored by audiophiles long before it was found to be valid by manufacturers.
  • Although clearly audible levels of very objectionable distortion were demonstrated early in the digital audio era by simply running a signal source through an analog to digital converter and the result through a digital to analog converter, and electronically subtracting that result from the source, this demonstration was ignored by the digital audio proponents, much as the inability to demonstrate differences by double blind testing was ignored by the audiophile camp.
  • Audiophiles were experimenting with room acoustics long before component manufacturers began to consider them a factor.
  • Audiophiles noted the differences in response speed between various speaker drivers used in a single speaker system, and began experimenting with fewer drivers, stepped speaker boxes, and so on.
  • Many vendors or retailers offer free trials, or money-back guarantees if their products are unsatisfactory, and they remain in business.
  • Despite a lack of formal education, experienced "listeners" can be relied upon for objective advice on how equipment sounds, and whether its worth the price.

Having said all this, many audiophiles freely admit that their pastime does contain a measure of cultish behavior and in particular that there is charlatanry among some vendors.

Unfortunately, the gulf between purist audiophiles and purist engineers continues. Audio magazine, one of the few which combined in depth listening reviews with in depth technical analysis of measurements, has ceased publication.

See also

External links

  • Audiogon ( An Audiophile on-line marketplace and discussion forum.
  • Audio Asylum ( A web site where "inmates" discuss all that is high-end.
  • The Audio Circuit ( - Information on and user reviews of loudspeakers, headphones, amplifiers, and playback equipment
  • Stereophile ( The largest and most widely read magazine of Audiophiles, includes on-line reviews and articles.
  • StereoTimes ( and Audiophilia ( These are on line Audiophile publications that review audiophile equipment and have articles of general interest to Audiophiles.
  • Head-Fi ( Short for Head Fidelity, Head-Fi is an online discussion forum for high fidelity products with an emphasis on headphones and portable audio.
  • The Absolute Sound ( The oldest and perhaps most prestigious of high-end publications.
  • The Audio Circles ( Like Head-Fi and Audio Asylum, Audio Circle is another hi-fi discussion forum.
  • Subjectivism in Audio ( by Douglas Self, a technically detailed essay from the "skeptic" viewpoint
  • Criticism of audio magazines and, indirectly, industry ( A controversial criticism of audio reviewers and publications.
  • ( Another on-line publication for audiophiles.

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