Are Audiophiles Obsessive Nuts?

The following is from the website of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Agree? Disagree? Why?

“High-end equipment is aimed at the most obsessive audiophiles, famed for worrying about small details which most people ignore or cannot even hear...

“The rise of high-end sales was influenced by the statements of subjective audio reviewers, whose nontechnical and rarely rigorous listening tests at times encouraged near-hysteria among magazine readers. A positive review in a powerful magazine such as Stereophile can trigger hundreds or even thousands of unit sales, and turn an unknown manufacturer into an instant success. A negative review can sink a small firm just as easily (and has done so)...

“Much of high-end is conducted in a gold-rush fashion, with companies advertising exotic connecting cables and acoustical treatment devices while making wild claims
about the supernatural results achieved. The result: negative comments from the professional engineering fraternity. Items have been published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, in electronic-industry journals such as EE Times, and elsewhere that attack the methods and conclusions of the audiophiles...
I feel the need to defend the honest-to-God electrical engineer. A number of the posts above imply that having a EE degree (as I do) is incompatible with having a good or trained ear, or an interest in music. This is just plain unsupportable by any means at all. First, if you look at the engineering population you'll find a pretty high percentage of musicians; probably greater than in the population at large - there's a strong correlation between math and music skills. For what it's worth, I'm also a musician and I used to work for a guy with an MSEE from MIT; he'd double-majored in performance on flute as an undergrad. I play in groups chock-full of EEs, CSs and other technical types. Anecdotal, of course, but that certainly seems to pass for sufficient evidence in most audiophile discussions!

Second, there's also a bit of "EEs just have book-learning. They can't really design anything." True, I guess, discounting your computer, all of the networking equipment, your TV, your cell phone, your microwave, the control systems in your car and about a bazillion other things that you take for granted every day. Yes, the "tweakers" have brought some good stuff to light, but most of it falls into the realm of green pens, power cords which need to be burnt-in, blue-light CD players (actually, I think that Monsieur YBA has an engineering degree, could be wrong though) and other fairy tales.

Having an EE degree doesn't automatically make somebody a good designer. An undegreed tweaker may be truly gifted. But all else being equal, I know which way I'd bet!

Let's be honest, Plasma's IEEE reference is spot on. The ensuing references to differences in sound detectable only by well-trained, golden audiophile ears is a classical manifestation of the placebo effect, pure and simple. Do I dispute that many above honestly BELIEVE that they hear differences? No, but their beliefs/reactions are no different from those of participants in clinical studies that report improvements in various symptoms occurring as a result of having taken nothing more than a sugar pill.

In the end, audio is/should be a simple and fun diversion. Unfortuately, there are many in pursuit of an agenda, the audio press chief among them, that get caught up in pretense, puffery, and outright deceit. These individuals invent terminology without offering operational definitions and they wouldn't know the scientific method if it bit them in the ass. If you doubt this, when was the last time that you read any review that used a double-blind panel when evaluating equipment?

I've read lengthy replies to precisely that criticism made by the audio press --- "Gee, we just don't have the time, money, nor inclination to use anything approaching an objective method, besides our reviewers are so "objective", we don't need no stinking scientific method, trust us." The truth is that the majority of claims that they make about the sonic superiority of this or that would never survive empirical testing.
I can't say exactly what agenda Plasmatronic is selling, but there's plenty of truth in his statements. #1 - high end audio is aimed at obsessive people. Using myself as an example, I am totally obsessed with attaining high quality home music playback. #2 - subjective oriented magazines have strongly influenced the development of high end audio. Is there any doubt about the influence of Stereophile and TAS? #3 - manufacturers do make wild claims for their products. Every other product is claimed to be "reference", "signature" or "ultimate". I suspect that Plasma draws a different conclusion from the above obeservations, but I actually agree with them a factual representation of the audiophile community. The truth be told, high-end audio is full of dubious, poorly conceived and over priced products. The subjective listening process can give undo credibility to a few of these unworthy products, however, the best testiment to the subjective method is that overtime there has been significant progress in high-end audio reproduction.
Sometimes I feel like I'm trapped in two worlds. One of total enjoyment of my music and the system I've built and the other when I don't like the sound and it's time to change something. There have been times when I absolutely loved a performance by Cassandra Wilson and actually felt punch drunk when it was over and then there are times that she doesn't inspire me half as much. One minute I'm happy with the sound like the time when I had company over and everyone really enjoyed what came out of my system (including myself) and then there are times that I'm not moved at all. I finally decided to look at myself and listening practices more than I listen to my equipment because the changes were too frequent as far as how my music sounded to me. I also noticed that whenever I figured out which piece was the culprit I already knew in the back of my mind which pieces may be suitable to take the now failing piece of equipments place in my rack(reading too many reviews..maybe?). Recently, I challenged myself to start judging "songs" as they are presented and to learn to enjoy music for musics' sake as opposed to blaming my equipment for any lack of enjoyment that I may be experiencing. Although I do believe that I hear differences in many of the pieces of equipment that I've heard and owned, I truely believe that I've reached the point of deminishing returns and that aside from new speakers and tubes for my pre amp I'm pretty much set as far as hardware goes. I'm not sure where I'm going with this but I have to learn to differentiate between enjoying music "as is" and reviewing music through electronic gear. I wonder if the reason why I haven't connected to "Kind of Blue" by Miles is because I'm more interested with what I'm not hearing through my system as opposed to what the artist is feeling and putting out there. It doesn't have the full bodied texture that todays music has; is what I first said about the album which I own in fact, because deep down I believed that one day I would get what everyone loves about this album. The ultimate question for me to answer is can I learn to enjoy my music despite my components(percieved) short comings? Should I complain about a lack of attack or decay on an instrument on a live performance even though I wasn't there to hear it live in the first place? Is the piece still enjoyable? How much should I pay to get that attack or decay to the level of my standards? Is it to the standards of the rest of the audiophile community? What if my piece doesn't make it to the "Recommended Componenets List"? So here is where I reside. However, I've made a conscience effort to analyze my listening habits more than I analyze my equipment because if I can't enjoy music after investing $15,000 (that's plenty for me) than I guess music may not be my thing after all.