Jerry Del Colliano and I had a discussion recently about the difference between those people who really love music and those people who really love audio gear. Yes, for many audiophiles, music and gear are two great tastes that taste great together, but can one exist without the other? The real world is full of people who love music and don't seem to care much about the quality of the gear through which they listen to it. But, within our enthusiast universe, can the reverse be true: can you have passion for audio gear without having an equal passion for the music it plays back to you? Is focusing solely on the quality of music reproduction from a technical and analytical viewpoint a classic case of failing to see the forest for the trees?
The official dictionary definition of audiophile is "a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction." There's nothing in that definition that mandates a love of music, but it does beg a couple of questions. If not for the desire to hear great-sounding music, what specifically excites you about high-fidelity sound reproduction, and how was that enthusiasm born? What started you on the journey in the first place if it wasn't hearing some piece of music that you love in a way that you never knew it could sound?
Don't worry, movie lovers, we haven't forgotten about you. Around here, we tend to use the word theaterphile to describe people who are passionate about both the video and audio reproduction of movies, but we also acknowledge that many self-described audiophiles have an even stronger passion for great multichannel movie sound than they do for music. Even though Jerry and I's initial conversation centered around music, the heart of the issue applies to any source material. A wordier but more encompassing version of the question could be, do you need to have a passion for the source material (whatever it may be) to be a true audiophile, or can it just be about the gear itself and how it reproduces that source?
We aren't the first to ask this question, and we won't be the last. Still, it's always interesting and entertaining to see the variety of opinions that the topic generates, even amongst our own writing staff. I posed the question to our wonderful group of audio reviewers, and here's what they had to say:
"No, you don't need to love music to be an audiophile. Some people are into it more because they appreciate the art and technology of audio gear. In the same way, airplanes have always been a passion of mine, enough that I flew from Los Angeles to Dayton, Ohio, just to visit the National Museum of the USAF, yet I don't especially enjoy flying and have never wanted to become a pilot."
Jerry Del Colliano
"You have to love music enough to want to invest in audio equipment; otherwise, you'd spend your extra money on other luxury goods. I don't think you have to be a true music enthusiast to be an audiophile, however. For many in the hobby, the gear is the draw more than the music. They love the technology. They love the community. They love the "audio jewelry," including the industrial design, the metal work, the lights, the mono blocks on the floor, and so on.
How many people do we know who listen to music that sounds good on their system, as opposed to making their system sound good for the music they like? I wrote about this in my article "The Jimi Hendrix Standard," (link) which basically says that, if your system can't play Jimi, well...it sucks. Yet how many demo rooms at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest play scholcky, crap-tastic music because they think it sounds good?"
"No, unfortunately. Some people like sound, not music per se, and some people just want shiny trophies to serve as monuments to their success that also happen to make sound (think Vlad Putin and his Daniel Hertz system in the background during his humble breakfast meeting photo-op). And anyone, I mean anyone, who can listen to one whole side of Jazz at the Pawnshop (link) without feeling queasy can't be considered a music lover."
"I think it's imperative that you love music in order to be an audiophile. It's an integrated experience; and, unless you're simply doing it for the science of it (yawn), then a love of music is half of the experience."
"Technically, my answer would be no. One does not have to love music to be an audiophile. I see an audiophile as someone who loves the pursuit of better-quality music and/or sound reproduction through the use of equipment or gear. But I do feel that the audiophile who chooses to only pursue better sound, without a love for music, is missing out on the richest experiences of the journey. After all, if not to be able to better enjoy music, why would anyone pursue better sound reproduction? The ultimate joy for me is when I can get the most out of my favorite music through the pursuit of better-quality gear."
"No, but loving music would make it a lot more enjoyable. However, some people simply enjoy and appreciate good, accurate equipment."
Terry Jay London
"In my personal definition of what an audiophile would be, it's someone who loves the emotion and beauty in music and wants to experience this by putting together a system that allows an illusion of real music in their listening room. In other words, you use the stereo gear to get to the music. However, I know many individuals who consider themselves audiophiles who use the music to listen to their components. Any music they play becomes a tool to evaluate their latest purchase in the endless quest for the holy grail of the absolute sound, compared to some idealized image. Another aspect, at least in my experience, is that for many male high-end audiophile types their system is their audio jewel or bling to show off to other audiophiles, based on cost and what is the latest and greatest new gear, regardless if the overall performance of their system has decreased!"
"I don't believe you have to love music, but you need to at least appreciate music to be an audiophile. Music does not have to consume your life or even be an everyday part of your life. But when you do get the chance to enjoy music, it should be the best sounding, within reason, that it can be. We all know that a little research and careful selection will yield superior results without necessarily requiring that you spend more money.
I would also agree with Jerry that many people, myself included, appreciate the design, appearance, and build quality of higher-end equipment. I have often asked myself why, and it's hard to really say, other than the fact that I just appreciate quality equipment that had some thought put into its design. I suppose it's similar to performance vehicles: many car manufacturers make them, but the cars are rarely used to their limits. We don't have to be racecar drivers to appreciate the product, but we will enjoy some of the added performance."
You've heard what our writers have to say. What do you think? Is your passion for this hobby driven more by your love of the source material or the gear, or are the two simply inseparable in your opinion? Let us know in the Comments section below.