Are you just paranoid about getting the best possible sound quality when listening to music? If yes, then you might just belong to this special class of audio enthusiasts. But wait a minute, before you start thinking that you’re some kind of audio nerd, you need to first fully understand what is an audiophile all about!
Many people think that this group of music enthusiasts are picky about their choices of audio playback devices, and only go for the expensive, top of the line sound system equipment and peripherals. Well, that is actually largely true. However, there are many aspects about being an audiophile that you may not be aware of. Let us look into them!
Audiophile – High Standards?
To put it simply, any individual who has a deep passion for high-fidelity sound reproduction, is considered to be an audiophile. They usually analyze the quality at all stages of music reproduction, which includes the initial audio recording, the production process, and the playback (which is typically in a home setting).
Audiophiles are generally concerned with a sound system’s ability to produce an accurate representation of audio that is recorded in an environment with good acoustics. The general consensus among audio professionals is that this is very difficult to achieve especially at home, and even the best-regarded recording and playback systems do not have the capability.
Audiophiles uses equipment that are labelled as “High-End Audio”. They are usually sold at specialist shops and websites. High-end devices include turntables, digital-to-analog converters, equalizers, preamplifiers and amplifiers (both solid-state and vacuum tube), horn and electrostatic speakers, power conditioners, subwoofers, headphones, and acoustic room treatment.
Here are the topics that we’ll be discussing further:
- Sound sources
- Design choices
When listening to music, audiophiles uses a variety of storage mediums and formats such as phonograph records, compact discs (CDs), and also uncompressed digital audio file formats as well as the compressed ones (that uses lossless data compression) such as FLAC, Windows Media Audio 9 Lossless and Apple Lossless (ALAC).
Ever since the early 90s, compact discs have become the most common storage medium for high-quality music. However, there are still audiophiles out there, who have developed a strong preference for turntables, tonearms, and magnetic cartridges, despite the challenges of keeping records dust-free, and the difficulties of setting up for turntables.
A preamplifier typically allows several audio inputs to be selected, before it amplifies the chosen source-level signals (such as those from a CD player). The listener will then be able to fine-tune the sound using the available volume and tone parameters. Do take note that many preamplifiers designed for audiophiles, lack tone controls.
On the other hand, a power amplifier takes the “line-level” audio signal (boosted by the preamplifier) and drives the loudspeakers. There are also integrated amplifiers available, which not only provides power amplification, but also allows input switching together with volume and tone control. Both pre/power combinations and integrated amplifiers are widely used by audiophiles.
When it comes to loudspeakers, audiophiles are particularly interested in their cabinets, known as enclosures. There are a variety of loudspeaker enclosure designs to look out for, such as sealed cabinets (acoustic suspension), ported cabinets (bass-reflex), transmission line, infinite baffle, and horn loaded. The enclosure plays a vital role in a speaker’s sound reproduction quality.
Another crucial aspect is the direction and intensity of a loudspeaker’s output, called “dispersion” or “polar” response. The sound dispersion of a speaker can be controlled by employing methods such as monopolar, bipolar, dipolar, 360-degree, horn, waveguide, and line source. These terms represents the configuration and arrangement of various drivers within the enclosure.
Audiophiles make good use of accessories and fine-tuning methods, also known as “tweaks”. This is done to improve the sound of their systems. These methods include filters to “clean” the power supply, equipment racks to isolate components from floor vibrations, high-end power and audio cables, loudspeaker stands (and footers to isolate speakers from stands), and acoustic room treatments.
Headphones that are used by audiophiles can be tremendously expensive, with some costing over $10,000. But they are still relatively much cheaper than speaker systems. Using headphones eliminates the need for room treatment and they also provide better sound isolation from external noises. Newer canalphones can also be driven by the less powerful outputs used by portable music players.
Unlike vinyl records, digital audio formats do not have clicks, acoustic feedback, and rumble. Digital audio can also have a higher signal-to-noise ratio, a wider dynamic range, less total harmonic distortion, and a flatter and more extended frequency response. Despite all these differences, vinyl records are still sought-after and the debate on “analog vs. digital” sound is on-going.
Vacuum-tube amplifiers are also still in demand, despite many audio applications now favouring solid state amplifiers. Furthermore, vacuum-tube amplifiers often have higher total harmonic distortion, require rebiasing, are not as durable, generate more heat, are less powerful, and more expensive. There is also an on-going debate about the proper use of negative feedback in amplifiers.
It is not always clear cut when it comes to defining “High-End Audio” components that are used by audiophiles. Many critics over the years have claimed that the considerably high cost of equipment, produces no significant improvement in sound reproduction quality.
Most of these criticisms are usually targeted towards the so-called “tweaks” and accessories that are beyond the core source, amplification, and speaker products. Some examples of these accessories include speaker cables, component interconnects, stones, cones, CD markers, and power cables or conditioners.
Audiophile publications often state differences in quality that are not backed up by standard audio system measurements and double blind testing. They claim that these differences cannot be measured by current instrumentation, and cannot be discerned by listeners if the listening conditions are controlled. These claims however, are made without any further clarification.
Alright guys, that’s about all the information I have for today. So are you an audiophile yourself, or have friends who are? Do let me know what you think in the comments section below, and share this article if you like!