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KIH #17 – Audiophiles Anonymous

  • AA. Audiophiles Anonymous.

    “My name is Adam. I’m an audio addict.”
    “Welcome, Adam.”…

    As I’d put it in a recent review for my site: Humans are terrifically adaptive. We get used to things very quickly. It’s why itinerant Indian sadhus may not stay in any one place longer than three days. After that, attachments set in. If you are trying to free yourself of attachments, staying fresh and insecure facing the unknown daily is key. With reviewing, our senses are keenest in the transition window of change. Whatever contrast there is captures the difference. But our internal barometer resets rapidly. The exciting new becomes the new dull normal. Soon it’s the familiar old. That’s why renewed contrast—taking the settled-in newcomer (did it really settle in or was it just us?) out again—is mandatory. Does it reconfirm initial impressions or not? This adaptability of ours is at the heart of the compulsive buying/selling cycle of audiophile addiction. It consigns responsibility for the thrill to new hardware. We don’t know how to approach our hifi in a fresh new way each time we sit down to keep the original thrill alive. That mental/psychic preparation which puts the onus on the listener is rarely talked about. It’s the cure to audiophilia.

    This topic would seem to merit (ex)pounding upon just a little bit more.

    It’s very common to hear folks share how they, when young and poor, had magical musical encounters with crappy car stereos and lousy FM fading in and out. And how that they’re older now, with discretionary income to sink into designer fi and hi-rez files, the magic seems to have evaporated or become short-lived and intermittent. Which seems perverse only if we don’t look closer.


    Not having a personal discipline to approach our hifi in a prepared state of expectant vulnerability like going to a concert is key. It’s why our ability to be touched by playback diminishes over time. The contrast ratio of improvement which produced the high when the new component first showed up has faded. We need a fresh hit. That’s really not about any specific hardware. It’s just about being new. When confronted by the new, our senses are more alert.

    Think of going on vacation to a place you’ve never been. Driving the rental car to the remote B&B, your eyes register every detail on the unknown road. You’re keen not to get lost and find the place before dark. Two days later when you’ve absorbed the lay of the land, your perception of the same scenery has already dulled. You know the main coordinates of where everything is. That knowing interferes with the freshness of perception. Brushing up against the familiar puts us on auto pilot.

    Ditto hifi. Having spent money and expecting a fair return factors too. The harder we had to work/save up for a purchase and the longer we had to wait for its arrival factors, too. We’ve built up more emotional investment. To burn through it before our tank hits empty again will take longer. But make no mistake, hitting empty is in the cards. It’s just a matter of when.


    Not that we need specific evidence. We all know this game. But since I had some recent evidence on hand, here is 6moons reader Thomas.

    “Hi, it has been many years that I’ve read your reviews and I thank you for all the work you have put in over all this time. You are an absolute reference for hifi. I am writing because I live on an island where there are no hifi stores and where it is difficult to get components to evaluate. I’d like to know what you think of my system and what you would recommend to improve it. My system is composed of the Ayon Audio CD3sx which I also use as pre; a Burmester 956Mk2 amp; and Raidho C1.1 speakers all wired with Cableless Cruiser. The system sounds very good and every day gets better. The CD player has only 80 hours on it and the more I use it, the better it sounds.”

    “What I can do to improve without losing the good already accomplished? Replace the Burmester amplifier with an Ayon? I particularly like the sound of Ayon. It is very open and lively. Or better, add a dedicated preamplifier first? The one in the CD3 is good but a Polaris 3 is something out of this world although so is the price. Maybe I could buy a smaller Ayon model? I’ve only tried the Polaris and don’t know if the smaller model is worth it. The Raidho speakers sound really good but they are difficult to drive and I don’t know if a tube amp will get the best of them. So if I were to upgrade the speakers, would you recommend staying with Raidho and maybe go with the C2.1 or D2; or to try something else? I’ve heard good things about Ayon speakers. They should be easy to drive but I’ve never had the occasion to listen to them. I’ve listen to Ayon with the Martin Logan Montis and they sounded very good. I thank you in advance for your consideration.”


    Channeling Doctor Ruth, I wrote back: “You’re a very sick man, Thomas. I say this as a fellow addict. You’ve only got 80 hours on your CD player and already you worry about the next upgrade. You love your speakers yet are ready to change them for another brand. And like all addicts, you haven’t diagnosed your condition. Before you can improve anything, you must determine what is wrong. No diagnosis, no cure. I appreciate that your island location limits you but given that you describe your system as sounding very good and getting better every day, it seems you’ve done very well for yourself. Don’t you think that perhaps you should take a break from your upgrade addiction and just enjoy things as they are?”

    “Of course telling an addict to stop is impossible. I understand that. I simply couldn’t begin to assist you. Things aren’t as you imagine them to be. Simply listing gear which you own doesn’t tell anyone else what it will sound like in your room. If you had very specific items you didn’t like; and very specific qualities you meant to keep; and some understanding what component was causing what… then you’d have the beginnings of a game plan. Personally I think a much better plan for now would be to live with your system as is for a few months to half a year to really get to know it before you even contemplate any changes.”

    To which Thomas replied: “Thank you Srajan, for your reply to my letter. You are definitely right!”

    Admitting that and being able to live it are two different things. If you enjoy chasing after the ‘perfect’ hifi and can afford the endless buy’n’sell cycle involved, enjoy. If you’d rather be a salaried finder to stop the unpaid gig of perennially dissatisfied seeker, you must do something fundamentally different. What exactly that will be is personal. Certain pointers should simply be universal. Here comes Doctor Ruth again with her home-baked truisms. Oy.


    Don’t, after a frustrating long day at the office, approach your hifi with a do-me attitude that has you groggy and half asleep. What are you bringing to the encounter? Nothing much. Do you really expect that a stack of inanimate gear can make you magically feel good if you don’t feel good already? Would you go to a concert like that?

    Let’s call it out for what it is. Hitting ‘play’ on the domestic stereo is just too bloody easy. Unlike the concert ticket, it doesn’t cost us – no ticket fee, no planning, no getting dressed up, no struggling with downtown traffic, no parking, no finding baby sitters or making other arrangements. Pressing ‘play’ has us utterly uninvested. Our hifi purchases are long past. They no longer jerk us into the necessary state of wakefulness which ups the stakes for a meaningful musical encounter. We must jerk ourselves into the necessary wakefulness. Perhaps a session on the exercise bike or Pilates mat is really called for first? A cold shower? A leisurely walk through the neighborhood? Or perhaps abstinence to make the heart grow fonder?

    Another don’t is being too casual about our music selection. If we want music to be more than noise fill and a sound track in the backs of our busy minds, we must exercise sensitivity to our mood. Just as we wouldn’t eat when not hungry just because the clock says we should (or pay the price if we do), so we must be careful and in the moment about what we put on our music menu. Sometimes junk food is the ticket. Sometimes all we’re good for is a light meal of soup and salad. The full-blown 5-course meal is likely the exception. When our attention wanes, we should stop regardless.

    If we listen without proper mental and emotional preparation, we undermine our own receptiveness. We dull our senses. We grow a thicker skin. We feel less and less. We become automatons. With it, we turn into perfect and perfectly mindless consumers who can be sold anything with the promise that it’ll brighten up our dull lives. Going on automatic kills the spontaneous art of co-creating a fully satisfying experience that becomes a magical musical encounter.


    Half the trick is knowing and being disciplined about when not to do it. If we want music listening to be special, we must treat it as such. We must make it special. Surely the act of turning on the hifi isn’t special in and of itself. That’s just about firing up soulless machines.

    If we can’t contribute our part to add life to the equation, we’re better off abstaining. The magic is not in the hardware. It’s between our ears. It’s about ability, readiness and desire. Those things fluctuate. It takes discipline to be properly responsive to our actual state and avoid bad habits. And isn’t addiction fundamentally about bad habits and our inability to step out?

    If we hope to have our hifi play on our heart strings, we must insure that those heart strings are in proper working order; that they’re healthy and free to be played, damper pedal removed. If we want our mind tickled, it can’t be occupied by something else. We have to be fully on. It’s related, fundamentally, to enjoying good health and taking full responsibility for it with diet, exercise, meditation and the lot. Hifi discourse centers on hardware. As long as that’s where we focus our attention, we’re completely lost. There’s no musical satisfaction to be found in hardware. There’s just resistors, coils, caps, chips, cables and transformers. Inanimate stuff.

    We are the instruments upon which our hardware must play. If we’re badly out of tune, cracked, dirty, dusty and in generally poor working form, no amount of money spent on the hardware will add up to any magic. Now we’re looking in all the wrong places. Beyond that, I’m afraid that our Doctor Ruth isn’t qualified to get more specific. That’s because I too am an audio addict…


    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. I’d suggest that greater active involvement with the listening process sits behind vinyl’s enduring appeal. Very easy to sit their with iPad and fire up digital tunes without getting one’s bum off the couch – convenience that can quickly morph into laziness for the less mindful listener. And, as you say, that laziness *can* lead to dissatisfaction and the (mis)perceived need for a fresh hit of hardware.

    2. ”Don’t, after a frustrating long day at the office, approach your hifi with a do-me attitude that has you groggy and half asleep. What are you bringing to the encounter? Nothing much. Do you really expect that a stack of inanimate gear can make you magically feel good if you don’t feel good already? Would you go to a concert like that?”

      Words of wisdom. I have learned to never listed to my gear when I’m tired, stressed, frustrated, preoccupied, annoyed, etc

      Sure fire way to disappointment and ultimately upgraditis maximus.

    3. Ok, but hypothetically, what should the guy with the Ayon/Raido etc. system do? If he were to spend a bit of coin on one item, what ought he purchase?

    4. Sorry, John, this is one of the very rare instances when I do not agree.

      I find it most conductive to enjoying (and, really, absorbing) music when I can be totally lazy and comfortable. I dim the light, lay on the couch with a pillow behind my back and only use my remote to set and switch between tracks on my Oppo player (via an attached hard drive). I have thousands of tracks to choose from without getting up. I become completely immersed and oblivious to any external distractions. Only then I can fully appreciate my music and the high quality of sound. 🙂

      • Right! And I’m pleased for you that it works out this way. However, the greater tactility of putting a record on and turning it over at half time might provide others with some much needed engagement in the listening process. This might not be the case with you or I, but could you entertain its validity with those who find themselves paralyzed by the choice of 10000+ tunes, each available from the slightest of touch screen interaction.

        You or I might find ourselves more receptive to music’s therapeutic powers when the lights go down and we can really zone in on what we wanna listen to. Others might find listener engagement more easily when interesting with a physical product.

    5. Surely one of the best HiFi opinion pierces I’ve read. I’ve often said that our end of it is half (actually a lot more!) the equation, and that our psychology is a largely ignored aspect of our pastime. A clock radio oand LSD is enough to convince.

    6. There’s an easy fix really 🙂

      “When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion. To him it has all the graces of novelty; we enter into the surprise and admiration which it naturally excites in him, but which it is no longer capable of exciting in us; we consider all the ideas which it presents rather in the light in which they appear to him, than in that in which they appear to ourselves, and we are amused by sympathy with his amusement which thus enlivens our own.”

      Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759, btw 🙂 )

      Unfortunately, hifi is way too often a solitary hobby

    7. BD: Well put. That’s key.

      Rob D: Nothing wrong with turning down the lights and entering the zone. In fact, that’s *exactly* what I’m talking about. You’re making things special. You’re preparing your space and yourself to have a meaningful meet with muse music. Whatever that preparation might be for a person… it’s important to do it.

      My best listening hardly ever has much to do with the hardware. It’s mostly about my own state of reciptivity. Chancing across a new piece of music that just really goes under my skin can happen over my desktop system or be a background drizzle in a restaurant. If it speaks to me; if I’m in the right place… then the magic happens. The rest is extra. But without it, the extra alone won’t do it. It’ll sound fine but there won’t be that hoped-for response in my body and mind.

      Of course it’s best when the sound is really terrific *and* one’s own state. Then we’re on BD’s LSD with a truly stunning hifi…

    8. I’m totally with Rob D. on this one.
      I usually have it even better: I’ve installed Spicefly Sugarcube on my Logitech Media Server (squeezebox addict here) and let it play a random, but logical mix. This soothes my jangled nerves from a hard day at work, while at the same time getting me in a receptive state of mind for “the good stuff”. When it passes by it’ll catch my attention, and with a couple of clicks I can queue the entire album and really submerge myself in the quality and the music that fits my taste at that particular moment.

      • That’s how I play it on the digital side too. The Antipodes server runs LMS/SBS and clicking through ‘random album mix’ usually gets me somewhere agreeable within a few refreshes.

    9. Alex – I’m with you on that. After 15 years on the 2-channel roundabout and many more systems than that, I’ve finally settled…on a AVR and five LS50’s! Precisely because it better for the rest of my guests when we typically sit in a circle on the floor.

      And funnily enough one of my favourite hifi related quotes is from Adam Smith, for the addict worth repeating every night before bed:

      ““The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another….Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.”

    10. TN ARGS: Actually, I wouldn’t discount burn-in entirely. If you compare A to B when B is fresh out of the box; and then a month later… and the difference has increased… then it’s fair to cite break-in. And yes, it relies on memory which is notoriously unreliable because we adjust so well. The only way to eliminate that is to have two of the same component, leave one unused and run the other in properly to track changes. Of course, how many of us do that?

      The other way can be to use multiple listeners. Especially a significant other with no emotional investment in hifi can be useful when they volunteer unprompted reactions.

      • “If you compare A to B when B is fresh out of the box; and then a month later… and the difference has increased… then it’s fair to cite break-in.”
        That doesn’t seem consistent with the first paragraph of your article:
        “With reviewing, our senses are keenest in the transition window of change. ”

        I do like your idea of having two examples of the same component, burn one in, then do DBT. Better measure them before burn-in to be sure of identical measurements, too.

    11. That’s why I qualified it by saying that “yes, it relies on memory which is notoriously unreliable because we adjust so well”. -:)

      Still, if you were disappointed by a lack of difference at first but hear a more pronounced one a month later, you might trust yourself enough to say that *something* has changed for the better even if you can’t be specific about it. Of course for that you have to hold on to A. And isn’t it the case that many upgrades are financed by selling off something else?

    12. Thanks for the article Srajan… But I think the bane of every audiophiles existence is “upgraditis” and I think the desire to “improve ones system” has less to do with musical enjoyment or lack thereof and more to do with Madison Avenue’s and our brain chemistry.

      Every time we buy something like a DAC or an AMP or Headphones…. the build up, the acquisition and finally handling it and using it for the first time is literally a drug for our brains… It is as close to an opiate high as our neural chemistry can offer on its own. What is is more powerful is that every time we do this, the experience gets coded into our brains twice (as opposed to once like the experience of parking my car at work this morning). It gets coded as an emotional experience and as an experiential event. So the draw is that much more powerful next time and it takes on the form of an addiction…. Look at your average magazine rack and you’ll see all the different forms this addiction takes…. Stereophile, Photography, PCMag, iOS, classic cars, Euro cars, RC Cars, scrapbooking (wha?), outdoor equipment, shoes, athletic equipment, watches, guns, knives etc…

      I recognize that I’ve been gamed by the system so my own way of combating it is by tricking my brain and creating an obsession around purchasing the music itself. I still slip every know and then (I bought a premium DAC six months ago ) but seeking out $5 to $15 CD’s versus $2K dacs and amps…. is easier to sustain.

      Reading the liner notes, taking it for a spin in my transport, then going through my ritual of ripping it to WAV for playback and FLAC for backup….. and adding to my JRiver library. Admiring the albums avatar is just as powerful as handling WBT plugs on a cable. Its just a strain of the same disease, but each time I fall off the wagon I spend an hour listening to a new ALBUM…. and each time I listen to a new album I appreciate how good my amp/ dac/ speakers/ headphones are…. for that hour, each of my components feels brand new because they are presenting this new exciting artist with their new exciting message.

      I think this falls in line with Darko’s talk about the rituals and interactive nature of LP’s. But add in a dose of “New” and you can keep upgraditis in remission for a good long while. Anyway that’s my two cents…. its been working for me.

    13. B-DUB:

      Excellent point. Shift the obsession with the new to the music. $15,- for a new CD or file version is a lot more doable. And $9.99 for a streaming subscription to preview new stuff even if at lower resolution is a good way to eliminate disappointment; or to know to only purchase specific tracks of a specific album.

    14. Srajan, lovely thinking and writing. I am married to a hoarder who is addicted to that burst of love inspired by the new thing. Fortunately, she used to like CDs, so I have a big music library to wallow in. I will practice not being attached to the space which disappears as she fills it up. Thanks again for your work (and you too, Darko). I give great weight to your reviews. I am jumping off the upgrade merry-go-round (after just a few more pieces!)

    15. Thanks for your Graciousness Srajan.

      I also apparently have a “habit” bordering on “addiction” of leaving long winded know-it-all comments at the end of threads. Sheesh I come off as a prick sometimes.

      New music is a good way to keep the ol’ sound system feeling fresh though. I spun discs by Elvis Costello, Billie Holiday, New Order, Lorde, and The Ramones this week for the first time and my system feels as lovely and engaging as ever.


    PS Audio DirectStream review (Part 2 – Around The World)

    Peachtree Nova 125SE integrated amplifier & DAC review