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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Audiophiles: The Battles Rage On Barry Manz


A lot of work goes in to making the "perfect" sound.

I’ve always been fascinated by the audiophile community, as it strives to achieve the absolute best possible audio fidelity, and in the late ‘60s and ‘70s I read magazines like Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, and yes, Stereo Review and High Fidelity cover to cover. I marveled at the insanely-expensive equipment I couldn’t possibly afford but did everything I could within my severely restricted budget to create a system that delivered high-quality audio. I treated my (now-scorned) Shure V15 Type IV cartridge and records like they were gold, built my own speakers, and performed rudimentary testing on them. I was in pseudo-audiophile heaven.

Supporting a household and family, running a business, and assorted other responsibilities quickly ended my hopes of buying even more expensive solid-state audio equipment (rather than vacuum tube.) Then the CD appeared and seemed likely to relegate vinyl records to the annals of audio and music history. For most everyone now, the home theater system or smart phones with blue tooth speakers have replaced the “stereo system.” Yet there are still a comparatively few folks who refuse to compromise and have the wherewithal to build a system that altogether costs as much as a nice family sedan.

Of course, I still listen to music but mostly via an iPod and a set of Sony MDR headphones, so I have succumbed. And frankly, the sound can be pretty good, varying between horrible and not too bad depending on the competence of the audio engineers who made the recording, the demands of the artist, the audio codec (.mp3, .aac, etc.), and other factors well beyond my control.

Needless to say, solid-state amplifiers and the CD were not well received by the audiophile community. Solid-state amps were trashed for straying from the “warm” tube sound, and “digital sound” in general was deemed shrill and unlistenable. When audio compression and MP3 codecs transformed the music industry via the internet as a conduit (legal or otherwise), additional transgressions were added to the list.

Having long lost touch with the audiophile community, I decided to venture again into those waters to see what issues this group is now taking on, or whether they had thrown in the towel. I should have known better than to assume that audiophiles would simply give up, which they most assuredly have not, and thanks to the internet the cognoscenti have far more venues for attacking each other about virtually everything related to audio – but now in real time!

The battle rages on with even more to “discuss,” like the emergence of “HD audio” and the ability to download music files in less-compressed formats such as FLAC from various web sites, as well as the resurgence of vinyl. One thing that has not changed is what it costs to enter this rarefied realm. As this is not a high-volume consumer market, most products are hand-crafted with prices to match. It’s easily possible to spend $300 on a cartridge, $1,200 on a turntable, $50,000 on an amplifier, $25,000 or more on speakers, $9,000 on a preamplifier, $1,500 on headphones, $9,000 on an external DAC or DAC/headphone combination, and $1,200 on a music player that handles high-resolution audio files. When one publication rates its “Budget Component of the Year”, the ceiling price is $1,500. Of course, you don’t have to spend nearly this much for great sound – but you certainly can.

So while much has changed technologically since the days when I was “in tune” with the audiophile community, controversy is still the norm and high-end gear is still expensive. Except that “nice family sedan” is now a luxury car.

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Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.

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