We need a new word

When I first heard the word “audiophile,” I loved it. It sounded fresh and dignified. I related to it instantly. An audiophile! I loved the whole idea of it, the focus on music, on sound. That was me! I’d found myself! And people like me. Other audiophiles, who lived all over the world. To paraphrase Tom Petty, it was like a first flash of freedom.

I also, as perhaps befits an audiophile, loved the sound of the word. Au-di-o-phile. It rolled down the tongue then leaped off on a fresh blanket of air. It had the ring of perfect sense to it. Who wouldn’t want to hear their favorite music in the highest fidelity possible, undefiled?

Okay, I was naãve. My exuberance was met with widespread indifference. Turned out pretty much everyone, including my clique of best friends who were music freaks like me, couldn’t be bothered to do what I considered a no-brainer and upgrade to systems that made their favorite music sound better! Hello? But it didn’t matter. I was happy as a clam.

My passage into audiophilia happened in the 1980s. It was a great time. The hobby was bustling like a sweaty Thai bazaar. Innovative, landmark, inexpensive products made by iconic brands like NAD, Sugden, Totem, Audiolab, and Revolver popped up at perfect times to keep a buzz going. Say what you will about CDs and their arrival, the new format mixed things up. Suddenly, we had a new source to play with, and it came from the future.

Of course, there were growing pains for many of us. We got so hung up on trying to replicate the real thing and hear every detail from our systems that we almost forgot about the music. Dark Side of the Moon‘s Alan Parsons said so much: “Audiophiles don’t use their equipment to listen to music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment.”

In the process, we developed a psychological condition debilitating enough that it was given a Latin-flavored name: audiophilia nervosa.

Okay, so it didn’t make it into the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In fact, it was a joke—but it was no joke. I personally knew audiophiles who, at their wit’s end from being unable to enjoy the sound of their hi-fis no matter how much detail they got them to reveal, jumped ship in order to preserve their love of music. I almost became an audiophile casualty myself, but I pulled through in a moment of rock-bottom clarity. I discovered that not everything was as it seemed.

I figured out that I didn’t need the real thing or gobs of steely sparks to the face. I just needed to remember that there is a sound I want to hear. There is sound I want to hear less of, and different types of sound I want to hear more of. It’s a philosophical template that keeps me on the straight and narrow.

As far as I know, in no hobby but ours is the idea of aiming for perfection—for the “real thing”—so central to the journey. There are other off-putting things, at least in the stereotype: That it’s necessary to be endowed with special skills. That only a privileged few can afford it. It was all too much for the average music lover, who couldn’t understand why it was so important for a stereo to reproduce as clearly as possible the rustle of sheet music between movements.

It’s there, in the gulf between us and the rest of the world, that I started to sour on the word “audiophile.” The very thing I loved so much about it in the beginning—that it made me feel part of something bigger than me—now felt too confining. Too many people who might otherwise be curious about what we’re doing can’t see past the clichés. I get the sense that they themselves are afraid of becoming a cliché.

Lately, in the present-day, in this climate that’s pitting us more than ever against each other, I’ve started to think the time might be right for our hobby to put its best foot forward, to make an effort to ingratiate itself with everyone who loves music.

A funny thing—weird, awkwardly so, not funny–ha-ha—happened to me recently. I was listening to my vinyl rig downstairs with my son when, for the first time, he started talking about sound in parcels, as audiophiles do: “There’s no bass,” he pointed out. “Did you hear the keyboard in the back?” “You can really hear its skin vibrating.” It almost seemed he was trying to impress me. I’m sure my face lit up, and like a proud papa, I said, “You sound like an audiophile!”

At which point my son turned to face me and, with pity-tinged concern, said, “But dad, that doesn’t mean I want to be an audiophile.” It fell out of his mouth with a thud.

“No, of course not,” I said, averting my gaze. Then, the coup de grâce: “That stuff is more for people your age.”

“Wrong,” my inner audiophile shouted, in defense of great sound. “It’s for everyone.” Ironically, I didn’t say it out loud.

The truth is that, whatever word we choose, I will always be an audiophile, sworn to the divine trinity of audio gear, sound reproduction, and music. I feel like an audiophile.

But words aren’t benign. They elicit emotions and opinions. They bring baggage and have consequences. If calling ourselves audiophiles means that average music lovers want nothing to do with us, then maybe we should stop doing it. Maybe we can find a new word, or maybe we can get by without a word: We’re just people who really like music and enjoy listening to it in the highest fidelity, on the best equipment we can afford.

Two days after that exchange with my son, I stopped him in the hallway of our house and said, “Hey, not asking as an audiophile. Want to listen to Talking Heads in great sound?”

You should have seen his smile. It was spontaneous and toothy and so full of potential it made me feel 100 pounds lighter

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