AA. Audiophiles Anonymous.
“My name is Adam. I’m an audio addict.”
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…