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Can Audiophiles Really Tell the Difference in Quality?

What’s the difference between buying an $8,250 Breitling Bentley Premier B01 Chronograph and a $4000 Fyne Audio F501SP speaker? Not much, because both have cheaper alternatives that may work comparably well. People would probably admire you for getting the watch for your collection, but give you quizzical looks and ask if you can even tell the difference between the Fyne speakers and a cheaper brand. Can audiophiles really tell the difference in quality?

Audiophiles can really tell the difference in quality as they’re more knowledgeable and know what to consider. Since sound waves are physical, it’s not conjectured to say that we all can hear them when there’s a difference in sound quality and accuracy. That allows them to judge which sounds better.

If you have ever wondered if audiophiles can detect subtle audio quality differences, then read on and get your answer right here.

Audiophile listening to Hi-Fi equipment

What Is an Audiophile?

An audiophile is someone who is a stickler for the high-fidelity reproduction of sound. He or she would like to replicate a live musical performance’s sound quality, whether in recording, production, or playback. 

In short, audiophiles prefer their music as if it was the singer, the band, or the orchestra playing it for them, instead of some vinyl spinning on a turntable; there are no distortions to worry about and no artifacts to hear.

It’s quite a lofty goal, as most people agree that it will be very challenging even with the best recording and playback equipment in use.

Read more: How To Become an Audiophile (The Ultimate Guide)

Doubting Audiophiles

In a world where streaming services such as Spotify now have more than 400 million subscribers, being an audiophile may land you in the minority.

People stream music in relatively low quality, listen to MP3s, and buy inexpensive headphones, all of which go against what audiophiles strive for.

What’s popular nowadays are the lossy and compressed music files that you can listen to at your convenience.

On the other hand, audiophiles are happy spending on high-end audio, such as: 

  • Acoustic room treatment
  • Amplifiers
  • Digital to analog converters
  • Electrostatic speakers
  • Equalization devices
  • High-end headphones
  • Horn speakers
  • Preamplifiers
  • Subwoofers
  • Turntables

For some people, however, being an audiophile means that you are pretentious and a snob. Or worse, a fraud. Music lover Jim Ambras writes that high-resolution audio doesn’t sound better than CD quality audio.

Ambras also reveals that people thought that high-res tracks sounded worse in a double-blind experiment than their MP3 counterparts. But his biggest beef is with the audiophile publications and their product reviews. Ambras observed that:

  • Publications gave out primarily positive reviews and very few or no negative evaluations.
  • When these publications made comparisons between two products, the more expensive ones were almost always better.
  • Reviewers used words that were difficult to understand. 
  • These publications were supported by the same brands they review via advertisements.

Can Audiophiles Really Hear the Difference?

However, for all the bad rap that audiophilia has gotten over the years, it begs the question: can an audiophile really hear the difference? The short answer is yes. 

But the reasons are varied.

They Listen and Learn

It’s easy to liken being an audiophile to being a world-class chef. Or a wine connoisseur. A chef knows how different flavors would collide or harmonize, understands the various cooking techniques, and has slaved away in the kitchen perfecting hundreds of dishes.

And to be better, it means that they have the right equipment for it. And the proper education, as well.

Education can be formal, where one goes to culinary school and learn tricks and tips from master chefs.

The same can be applied to audiophiles. And there’s a study that proves that while there is no formal education available to them, audiophiles do undergo informal training as much as other professions, like chefs, do.

Audiophiles learn as they go along. Your first foray into the world of audiophilia might be listening to a familiar song in your friend’s living room and realizing that there are different voices in a Queen’s songs. You can also hear them in a much clearer way than on your iPhone and headphones.

This ultimately drives your interest in audiophilia. You are soon reading articles online, buying magazines, joining internet forums, talking to hi-fi salespeople, and learning from these sources.

You may enter an audiophile community, and you can also meet up with other music lovers and talk about the sound qualities and various components’ merits.

In short, you learn how to judge music both on their technical aspects, become more familiar with the technology. And then you learn to trust your ears.

The Golden Ear vs. Learning To Be an Audiophile

The term golden ear refers to those who are said to have unique talents that allow them to hear better. Somebody with a golden ear can easily detect subtle differences in sound reproduction that most people cannot.

However, some audiophiles scoff at the idea, saying that you can learn everything you need to become an excellent audiophile.

There is even a training module from Harman International available, aiming to train you on listening properly and detecting different timbers, distortions, and other listening tasks.

Harman International is the parent company of such brands as Mark Levinson, Harman Kardon, Revel, JBL, and Infinity.

Psychoacoustics

Another line of thinking that audiophiles mention is psychoacoustics. Without getting into the technical details, psychoacoustics holds that music reaches parts of your brain that can not be heard but can be perceived.

Humans can readily detect sounds that range from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. At first, the sound gets to the part of our brain that is most sensitive to loud volumes. And then, it passes through that part of our brains that can process volume, frequency, timber, and other factors that help us determine where the sound is coming from.

But the soundwaves’ journey doesn’t end there. It reaches individual neurons, which get excited by frequencies that sound carries with it. 

Psychoacoustics is powerful in that its principles are often used to create better-sounding music.

It also explains why spectrum analyzers and meters cannot adequately quantify an audiophile’s music listening experience. 

Humans can perceive sound, as well as hear it. However, psychoacoustics cannot be heard, making it subjective as scientific. Indeed, it’s why two people would react quite differently to the same music played on the same device.

Terrible, Bad, Better: The Audiophile Version of the Law of Diminishing Returns 

Much of the criticisms that you hear about audiophiles paints them in a light that makes you think that they were fools taken for a ride.

For instance, they’d buy accessories such as Ethernet cables for a much higher price than an equally-performing product just because these are labeled audiophile grade.

Ordinary consumers wouldn’t mind paying more for better quality stuff. It’s easy to see the difference between a TV with standard definition resolution and one with ultra-high definition.

In the same manner, you are easily turned off by a scratchy speaker made by a sketchy Chinese company that’s selling it for $10, and you can appreciate one that’s using the latest audio enhancement technologies that are selling more than $1,000.

But what if you’re comparing something that’s already performing excellently and one that’s doing marginally better than the first product? Here’s where the audiophile version of the law of diminishing returns kicks in: as actual costs increases, the increase in sonic gain gets more challenging to justify.

With their knowledge and informal training and their interest in getting more accurate audio, an audiophile can hear the difference in quality between the two excellent products and decide to cough up the extra cash for the better alternative.

Conclusion

Most people cannot taste the difference between good wines and a slightly okay wine unless taught what good wine should taste, smell, and look like, and they’ve spent a lot of time drinking and enjoying the stuff.

The same thing with audiophiles, they’ve learned how to get the most accurate sound possible to enjoy music. 

We can hear it, but the rest of us don’t know what to make of these differences. Audiophiles do.