The Clueless Audiophile

Demystifying the 2-channel and head-fi audiophile world for the clueless among us

An Audiophile’s musings on the subjectivity of hi-fi

If I see the phrase “Jazz at the Pawnshop” one more time on the HDTracks search engine I will probably gouge out my eyes with a dull scalpel. It’s not that I don’t like the actual music presented on said album, but more that it seems a little flogged by our pursuit of “Hi-Res Downloads.”

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Here’s my question:  is an audiophile more likely to purchase album these days if it offers a hi-res format? My answer is complicated, but boils down to this: If one has even heard of HDTracks or similar download services then the selection bias has already been in place: Of course we think we need the hi-res format that is at least $10 to $15 more than a “normal res” format one would find on iTunes.

This brushes a critical question that we must all ask ourselves at some point: Can I tell the difference between a Redbook download and a hi-res download?

My answer is: Not really. If I was blinded, perhaps I’d choose the hi-res file maybe 60% of the time, which as far as I’m concerned is statistically insignificant. I’d want to see some major power in numbers on people picking hi-res over Redbook before declaring that it is definitively better.

News flash–This type of study has not been done to my knowledge. I think we’d all know if there was some sort of good data out there, because the gurus would have latched on to that by now.

What does this represent for us? For me, it really boils down to whether or not I’m willing to pay the difference between Redbook and hi-res. I’ve come to my own subjective decision that if it is one of my favorite albums and I listen to it frequently, then I’ll shell out the extra cash. Whether or not I can hear the difference is up for debate. All I can say is that with hi-res downloads and great hi-fi equipment, I’m hearing a superb positive difference over what I was used to hearing years ago.  Lately, I’ve really been into female vocal pop like Lorde and Tove Lo, as well as some old standards like Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and “Aja.” Knowing the whole album note by note and hearing it in a great recording does allows me to enjoy it even more than when I first heard it.

Through the years, i’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in various avocations such as playing acoustic guitar and drinking/brewing beer, as well as high fidelity audio.  These avocations hold a commonality with high fidelity audio in that it’s almost impossible to describe subjective perceptions in quality; so, i’ve become accustomed to participating in a world in which the subjective perspective is sometimes the only way in which to communicate. Describing what one hears or tastes can frequently become a bit of a stretch. This is particularly relevant when it comes to attempts to put on paper the different shades and flavors that we all can experience. What one person experiences with Red Spruce and Mahogany in an old Martin may be described as “woody” or “dry” or “fundamental.” It turns out that these phrases have absolutely no basis in actual commonality from person to person. What I might taste as “banana ester” in a great farmhouse saison may be just flowery words that have been put in my head by reading others’ opinion of that experience.

Of course, there are larger generalizations on which a majority of individuals can agree.  But there are just as many that break out the pitchforks and double blinded studies when the opinions are voiced.  I strive for delivery of useful information with minimal extraneous nonsense.

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The same goes for describing music, and more importantly for our purposes, hi-fi equipment.  When I read online perspectives trying to describe vacuum tube equipment as “warm” or “lush,” or digital recordings as cold and calculating, I tend to roll my proverbial eyes. To be perfectly honest, I think that some of this stuff is nonsense. I liken it to a desperate sommelier, attempting to validate his or her own existence. There is a place for differing and various perspectives when it comes to describing hi-fi audio equipment, no doubt. But if one has to have the meanings of adjectives described to them in order to understand from whence they’re coming, what’s the point? Listen for yourself and make up your own mind.

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4 Comments

  1. I think this is a terrific piece, unfortunately I write about music and hi-fi equipment! But as I often say in my columns: I hate classifying wonderful art forms like music but some of us got to do it to try andshow people what’s out there

    • matthewpartrick

      It’s a dichotomy wrapped in an enigma! 🙂 I don’t know how to convey honesty, because it’s tough with subjective phrases. Either way I’m glad you bothered to take a look and thanks for reading!

  2. Menno

    The thing that everybody simply seems to ignore is that sound does not come from higher resolutions (I am talking about at least redbook here, the difference between redbook resolution and lower like MP3 can clearly be heard) but from better mastering. Different resolutions can ONLY be compared if the music is mastered at various resolutions, at the same machine, at the same time. Even if the different resolutions are done one after another small variables can and will change the sound.
    I have a few cd’s that I KNOW were mastered at the same time as the SACD version of the album. I think I have a decent sound setup at home (Marantz KI Pearl SACD, Sovereign Director pre, Bryston power, Seas Nextel ls, all Nordost cables), and I cannot hear the difference between the redbook cd and the SACD. My daugher of 14 with unspoiled ears (she hates earplug headphones with a passion) was unable to detect which version was playing too.

    Ergo: listen to what version of an album sounds best. For older recordings this usually means hunting for the earliest released versions of cd’s, for new recordings this usually means to just suffer the loudness crap we apparently all need to listen to, no matter what type of music.

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