Hi all, long time listener, first time poster here. Apologies in advance, 1500 word essay incoming:
TL;DR: ITT I try to classify all audiophiles without mocking anyone.
I think it’s amazing how much contributors to this and other forums have advanced the state of the hobby as well as the industry “from the bleachers”, so to speak. I’ve learned a ton just by reading.
It's really great to see how much we accomplish simply by sharing information and opinions online. But it's also a bit sad that the audiophiles seem to argue and disrespect each other so much. There's something like Godwin's Law at work here, where the probability that a slur like "audiophool" or "pedant objectivist" will be used approaches 100% as a thread grows in length.
So, I have something to add to the discussion. Not about the listening equipment, but about the listeners.
Yes, unfortunately I am no engineer - I’m part of the reviled class of subhuman leeches known as marketers. A big part of my job is to study and genuinely understand what motivates people, so we can figure out why they buy the things they buy.
I have been in product (note: NOT the same as engineering) and marketing for most of my career, both in acoustics (slinging pyramid foam on eBay) and consumer audio (Bluetooth speakers & headphones), among several other things. I’ve also been an audio hobbyist since my teens, took an audio minor in college, and have spent time reading discussions on various audio-related forums all the while.
In this time, I have observed that there are fundamentally different audiophile philosophies that don't appear to be clearly understood. While there are more than a few attempts to classify audiophiles out there, none I’ve seen are completely serious, most are jokes, and most tend to confound behaviors and basic motivations.
My goal here is to propose a legitimate way to classify audiophiles - without judgment. My hope is that by doing so, we can argue less, appreciate each other more, and generally get on with discussing audio instead of thinking the other guy is some kind of idiot or lunatic.
With all that incredibly long preamble out of the way, here’s my view of how to classify audiophiles. My goal is to write each description in such a way that the people described would actually (mostly?) agree with it, and that others might start to see the point in it.
Each category is defined by the fundamental philosophy or top priority among the group. You may share behaviors of many groups, but (if I have thought this through correctly) you can’t belong to more than one group.
The Nominal Audiophile: Their most important belief is that a person should not spend more than a certain amount on audio equipment. However, they do want the best sound they can get within that budget (and usually without inconveniencing themselves in any real way.)
This actually describes most people who think about their audio purchases even a little bit… which is not everyone, but it’s some. I classify them as audiophiles, because in any given decision-making they do around audio, “sound quality” (however they understand that term) is their first priority once the budget is met. (I’ve done the research, this is true.)
They DO care about sound, just not as much as self-described audiophiles do. Most of them will start a given comment with “I’m no audiophile,” but we know the truth… they’re still technically audiophiles. The other 3 types of audiophile almost always start out as a Nominal Audiophile before they catch the bug.
The Objectivist Audiophile: Their most important belief is that exact, distortion-free reproduction of the recording is the highest and perhaps only sensible goal of audio equipment.
Objectivists trust numbers over their own ears, and especially other people’s ears. They believe that all audible phenomena are measurable in principle, and many of them believe that all relevant audible phenomena are measurable with existing equipment and psychoacoustics. Objectivists have bravely met the hard truth that even their own ears can’t be trusted, and make the most of it, satisfied in the knowledge they are actually moving ever closer to an authentic version of the true recording.
Objectivists almost always allow some room for preference (at some point, especially with regard to the in-room sound field, even the notion of “fidelity” itself becomes a bit subjective) - but they are much less willing to entertain a preference (even their own) that is for objectively lower-fidelity reproduction.
If the measurements are good and what objectivists hear is bad, the most likely explanation is that the right measurements have not yet been performed, the problem will eventually be rooted out numerically. True objectivists will not slaughter sacred cows, because they don’t care about the concept of “sacred” or even “cow” - they simply want to know whether their pound of beef weighs exactly 453.592 grams.
Objectivists often agree about equipment, because they will tend to read the same measurements, and credible measurements generally trump other opinion-drivers for objectivists. However, objectivists are often troubled by the failure (from their point of view) of other audiophiles to recognize what they see as obvious superiority / inferiority in equipment.
The Subjectivist Audiophile: Their most important belief is simply that audio equipment should sound good to the owner.
“If it sounds good, it is good”. Notably, this is also the dictum of the musician and producer. Their core belief is that they should enjoy what’s coming out of their system - that's what "good" means here, nothing more or less. If the numbers say their sound is flawed, but they like the sound, then to hell with the numbers. Even revising the audio actively and creatively (via DSP, strong tube distortion, etc) is fine within reason.
Subjectivists rarely reject measurements out of hand, and some rely heavily on them to narrow down their choices, but measurements are a means to an end, not the philosophical bedrock of their approach to audio. Subjectivists may or may not totally trust their ears over measurements, but at the end of the day, their ears run the show.
Subjectivists disagree a great deal about equipment, because de gustibus non est disputandum - there’s no accounting for taste. One man’s trash is another man’s favorite tube amp. They also vary in how much faith they place in measurements and specs, opinions of reviewers, feelings about certain types of technology, and so on. As such, what seems obvious to one will seem insane to another - that’s just how it goes.
The Romantic Audiophile: (Romantic in the sense of the romantic authors and composers, not love and marriage.) Their most important beliefs are that the experience matters most, that audio equipment should support the listening experience in any way they see fit, and that human judgment of the experience trumps all other factors.
The difference between the listening experience and good sound seems subtle, but it’s cataclysmically huge. Subjectivists might not agree about what good sound is, but few of them would argue that sufficiently advanced technology could not - in principle - quantify the differences they debate. Romantic Audiophiles feel that the experience of listening, and the impact of equipment on that experience, are fundamentally not quantifiable or reducible, nor is there much point in trying. Placebo effect, DBT ABX, LCR… these things miss the point.
To understand the Romantic Audiophile another way, try to understand this: Is the experience of looking at the Mona Lisa the same as looking at an absolutely identical reproduction of the Mona Lisa? Objectively, of course it is. We just said they’re identical, right? But if you know one is a fake and one is real… you may answer “of course it’s not the same!” One was touched by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, and one was made in a lab or something. The viewing experience is therefore nothing alike… this is Romantic Audiophilia in a nutshell.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, Romantics don’t actually tend to discount, ignore, or completely disbelieve measurements - but they also believe that a listening experience is genuinely more than the sum of its parts. They also tend to doubt that measurements capture everything they hear. For Romantics, measurements are more like the index page of a book than the whole story.
Romantics surprisingly don’t often seem to disagree much about decent equipment, but very rarely place another person’s account of a listening experience above their own. They can appreciate the experiences a wide variety of equipment can provide, without attempting to create a ranking, they are often content to simply describe. Romantics have a hard time understanding the Objectivist fixation on measurements above experience (since they value experience above all), and don't really care if their purchases make sense to anyone else. Acquiring strange new gear really is their hobby, because that's a way to create a new experience, regardless of what it "actually" sounds like.
Ultimately, I think all of these points of view are valid in their own right. There is no single correct way to enjoy listening to music. (Objectivists might have a hard time with this... I do... but remember that "lower distortion is better" is still just an opinion.)
I count myself in the Objectivist segment, maybe the Romantic segment only while at concerts… Whatever your ‘alignment’, It’s easy to see how we might end up misunderstanding each other. Although we’re all “audiophiles”, we approach the same equipment with divergent goals.
It’s as if we have whiskey, water, and gatorade drinkers all discussing “drinking” and “beverages”, but without having first understood inebriation, thirst, or exercise. Each will seem slightly insane to the others.
I should also note that this doesn’t describe every variance of opinion I’ve noticed, nor every type of audio buyer. Another big split in opinion is whether ‘apparent resemblance to a live performance’ is the most appropriate goal of fidelity or not. There are non-audiophile budget-driven buyers who simply want to hear something louder than their phone or TV. And there are conspicuous-consumption buyers who buy expensive speakers for the same reason they buy expensive cars they don’t know how to drive properly.
Anyway, I'm interested in whether these descriptions make sense to people, hopefully they are not offensive to anyone!