An audiophile is a person who loves and appreciates good sound, from music to movie soundtracks, and all the elements it comprises. Notably, an audiophile usually puts a good deal of effort into creating good sound, no matter how many devices may take.
To become an audiophile, train your ear by listening to a range of sounds on different equipment to appreciate how different audio settings affect the experience. Also, learn the vocabulary so that you can differentiate complexities in the sound, and invest in the right equipment.
Read on to learn more about what it takes to become an audiophile. This guide will explain common audio-related concepts and make suggestions about first purchases for a beginner sound aficionado.
Understand What an Audiophile Is
An audiophile is more than just someone who loves music. Being an audiophile means being an expert in music and sound, which requires some effort and experience.
Most audiophiles spend a significant amount of time learning about music and audio quality, not just listening. When they do listen to music, they do so intentionally, with good equipment and good acoustics.
An audiophile may prefer analog or digital music; they may choose a thumping bass or a delicate treble sound. Regardless, it’s not about what you listen to or even what equipment you have, so much as it is about how you listen.
When you’ve learned to listen to music with “audiophile ears,” you will be able to notice the differences between high-fidelity and low-fidelity sound and be able to pick up on all the complexities of a piece of music.
Train Your Ear to Recognize High-Fidelity Sound
Training your ear to recognize high-fidelity sound requires exposure to a range of sound qualities. Start noticing the acoustics or audio quality of live or recorded musical performances, and note how they differ from each other.
This will help you develop a frame of reference for future listening.
As you’re experimenting with different sounds, instead of listening to a standard MP3, try listening to music recorded in a lossless format like FLAC or WAV.
The difference between these formats is that lossless file formats contain raw data, whereas MP3s–also known as lossy files–are compressed versions of the original files. Some data is lost in the compression, thus altering the sound of the initial recording.
In addition to listening to more raw sounds, you can train your ear by listening to albums on vinyl. This not only provides a unique audio experience but also allows you to listen to an entire album in context.
Different means of recording and playing music pick up other qualities of the original music. Becoming an audiophile means learning the differences between these qualities and deciding for yourself which you want to hear more of.
You can then purchase the appropriate equipment for your preferences.
Learn the Audiophile Vocabulary
Learning the lingo of the audiophile world takes time, but like in the world of wine, you can become quite adept at differentiating various flavors–or sounds, in this case–by learning the terms used to describe different qualities.
We wrote a dictionary with most audio terms, The Complete Glossary of Audiophile Terminology.
Here are a few common audiophile terms and their definitions to get you started:
- Airy: with space, openness
- Bloat: a lack of clarity or definition
- Bright: with boosted treble sounds
- Coloration: the effect of a device on sound quality
- Dark: mellow, warm, rich
- Forward: with intensity
- Glassy: very bright
- Lush: with a rich tone
- Muddy: unclear
- Neutral: without coloration
- Smooth: no high-frequency peaks
- Timbre: the overall tone of a note or the distinctive sound of an instrument
- Warmth: bumped mid-bass, clear midrange, full sound, clear
If you’d like to learn more audiophile vocabulary, we suggest The Music Tech Dictionary to help you start learning various terms.
Get To Know Your Equipment
Experiment with different settings on your audio devices to see what works. Does boosting the bass make the tone richer? Can you increase the clarity of a sound by turning up the brightness?
Testing different settings will push your equipment to its limits and teach you how to make sense of the different sound qualities you’re hearing.
Experimenting with your equipment will also help teach you what truly makes a difference in the world of audio equipment and what doesn’t.
Beginners may be tempted to buy new products marketed for audiophiles, but understanding how your equipment works and knowing its optimal performance levels is a better way to start. As you gain experience, then you can upgrade.
Here are a few ways to make the most out of your existing equipment with little to no extra investment:
- Replace the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that came with your equipment with an external one. This can eliminate a lot of jitter or skipping that happens with an incomplete data transfer.
- Arrange your speakers so that each one is just as close to your main listening spot. They should also be the same distance from the wall behind them and rested on a level and stable surface.
- Move your subwoofer so that it’s on the same wall as the main speakers, and try adjusting the level to see how well you can blend the sound.
- If you’re using vinyl, isolate your turntable to avoid picking up any vibrations from appliances or other interfering objects.
Read more: 13 Best Ways To Improve Your Hi-Fi Sound
Once you’ve become comfortable with your equipment and know more about sound, then you can consider investing in new equipment.
New equipment can expose you to new sounds and be part of your experimentation process, but you’ll appreciate it more if you have a foundational understanding of how recorded sound works first.
Find the Right Equipment for High-Fidelity Sound
There are many ways to listen to music, from analog to digital. Each comes with its own upsides and downsides.
Turntables and Vinyl
A good turntable can give you a warm, rich sound from your vinyl. But to achieve this and to avoid damage to your records, you’ll need to invest in a quality machine.
Related article: Are Records Better Than Digital Audio? Here Are the Facts
Look for these qualities when choosing your first turntable:
- A solid, heavy platter without any wobble or inconsistencies in speed
- A good tonearm, made from materials that don’t resonate that well support the phono cartridge
- A high-quality phono cartridge that doesn’t wear the record and picks up the intricacies of the grooves
And avoid these qualities:
- A tonearm made from injection-molded plastic
- Inconsistent speed, which produces a warbling sound
- A large, cheap stylus tip, which wears down your records
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable is an upgrade to Pro-Ject’s best-selling turntable and offers a carbon fiber tonearm and a motor mount that isolates its vibrational energy.
It also comes with aluminum feet that keep outside vibrations from being registered, leading to a clear sound without warbles.
For more on the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable, see the following video review:
Amplifiers and Receivers
A good amplifier or receiver is a must for a home sound system. Basically, an amplifier transforms low voltage signals into more powerful signals, which allows you to boost your sound, even sound coming in from multiple inputs.
Amplifiers can be divided into three categories: preamps, power amps, and integrated amplifiers.
Preamplifiers, or preamps, take in information from multiple inputs and allow you to select the desired level of gain. They work together with power amps, or power amplifiers, which power the increase in signal strength.
Integrated amplifiers are simply standalone amplifiers that perform both roles.
Receivers are a kind of amplifier with a radio input. They allow sound to be transmitted to them over the air rather than through cables and are common in home theaters. This method saves space and gives direct access to radio channels, a big selling point when it was first introduced to the market in the 1960s.
The Cambridge Audio CXA81 Stereo Two-Channel Amplifier is an integrated amplifier with a toroidal transformer, minimizing noise that could result in distortion.
With minimal coloration, this integrated amplifier maximizes the potential of your digital audio files.
Related article: Do Hi-Fi Amplifiers Sound Different?
The main feature to consider when buying speakers is whether the size is the right fit for the space. And, you’ll want to decide whether you want a dual speaker setup or surround sound.
Typically, surround sound is best for a home theater, where dual speakers will work well when listening to music collections.
Notice what kinds of surfaces you have in your room and place the speakers away from any objects that might reverberate sound. A hard bookcase, for example, will distort audio by causing soundwaves to bounce off in different directions, whereas soft drapes will absorb soundwaves.
There are many different kinds of speakers to choose from, listed below.
- Floor speakers provide left and right sound, offering a realistic experience. They can stand on either side of your television or audio center to provide stereo sound.
- Bookshelf speakers are great starter speakers and do well in small spaces. They can be placed on stands for added quality and can be added to your speaker setup to add sound to the back of the room.
- Subwoofers deliver a strong bass, made even stronger when placed in the corner of a room.
- Center-channel speakers are placed below your TV or another sound source, amplifying mid-range frequencies like dialogue over high or low frequencies like sound effects.
- Surround speakers create an immersive experience by creating the feeling of sound coming from every direction, great for video gaming and movie-watching.
Once you know which kind of speakers you’re looking for, you can start comparing specifications to choose the best one.
Speakers vary in frequency response, impedance, sensitivity, and power handling.
Frequency response refers to the frequency range that a speaker can reproduce. Can the speaker play the low bass as well as the high notes with clarity and richness? If so, the speaker has a large frequency response range. This is measured in Hertz.
Impedance is measured in ohms and describes the amount of resistance an amplifier will encounter when that speaker is plugged in. The average amount is 8 ohms. Any new speakers must match the rest in the speaker set in impedance.
Sensitivity is measured in decibels per watt and refers to the volume a speaker can deliver with a certain amount of power. A higher sensitivity means that the speaker can achieve high volumes at low power. Low sensitivity would be about 88 decibels per watt, whereas high sensitivity is more like 100.
Power handling is measured in watts and refers to the maximum sound signal that a speaker can get through its input without undergoing damage.
You should look for speakers with a power handling capacity that matches your amplifier or receiver’s maximum output.
Good headphones create a soundstage that positions each sound as if they were spatially organized, which you can picture if you listen with headphones in and your eyes closed. This helps you better differentiate between sounds, increasing your ability to recognize different instruments when they come in.
Good headphones reproduce sound in great detail, from the tightness of the sound’s attack to the fullness of its decay. They also shouldn’t edit the music and should instead add as little color to the sound as possible.
Over-the-ear headphones tend to have the best performance in reproducing sound because they have the biggest drivers.
But note that many over-the-ear headphones sold for recreational use are equipped with bass-boosters and other sound modifiers that take away from neutrality.
Watch out for Bluetooth headphones, which tend to produce worse audio quality due to their system for digital-to-analog conversion. Noise-canceling headphones can also provide bad quality because the sound goes through an extra layer of processing.
Over-the-ear headphones can be open-backed or close-backed, depending on whether the drivers have a cover on the outside. Open-backed headphones leak sound into the room, allow air to circulate around the driver, and eliminate echoes. These designs have the best soundstage.
Close-backed headphones tend to produce bass impact because the sound is more enclosed and has a less coherent soundstage. But they do have the advantage of cutting out environmental sounds, which can help you focus if you need to listen outside of a quiet room.
The GRADO SR80x is a pair of affordable open-back headphones made for the beginner audiophile. They have large, 44mm drivers yet are lightweight.
The old-school design of Grado SR80x really is old school, as the first pair was created back in 1991. But that doesn’t mean that these headphones are outdated; they are still a great option to aspiring audiophiles wanting a really good listening experience.
Hi-Fi Music for Audiophiles
Becoming an audiophile is about appreciating music, and another critical step to becoming an audiophile is learning to recognize and appreciate what will sound best in a high-fidelity setup.
Basically, the more complex the music is, the more there is to be gained from giving that sound a wide, rich soundstage.
There are a lot of tracks that will sound better than others using an audiophile setup, but remember that an audiophile usually wants to hear their favorite music in the exact same way it was originally recorded.
Hi-end audio equipment won’t make a song sound better than the original recording and can’t make a compressed audio file sound like a lossless file would.
So you can’t just listen to any audio source if you want to experience the benefits of your new hi-end audio equipment and hear the music as it was supposed to sound.
In that case, you will need to get your music in a lossless format, like streaming it from a streaming service that offers really high-quality audio files.
Here are the best ways to play music in high quality:
- Streaming Lossless (Tidal offers lossless streaming, for example)
- Downloading Hi-Res audio files (Check out 29 Places Where You Can Download Hi-Fi Audio for Free)
If you want some examples of music to test your system with and to train your ears with, something like these tracks could be a good choice:
Remember that YouTube isn’t a good source when listening to high-quality audio as the videos get compressed as they are uploaded to the platform.
Notice the song’s rich complexity and the way the sounds seem to blend from different corners of the room. With a wide range of low-frequency to high-frequency sounds and an intricate harmony, songs like this really offer the opportunity to appreciate music on another level.
See more high-fidelity music recommendations below:
What these clips have in common is they are each a tapestry of sounds waiting to be placed on a wide soundstage.
The way the combination of sounds is blended matters, and good equipment can maintain the original recording’s truth so accurately that it sounds as if you were in the room where the song was being performed, able to place every instrument.
Some music is intentionally produced at a low fidelity and will sound about the same on any equipment. Notice the simplicity of this low-fidelity music clip:
Movies for Audiophiles
For the audiophile, a home theater has limitless potential. With the right equipment, you can truly create a stereo sound system that spatially positions characters and action sequences in the mind’s eye.
Each of the following movies makes for a great test run on high-fidelity equipment due to the film’s creative use of audio.
- The Dark Knight won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing due to its impressive audio track.
- Gravity offers immersive sound experiences, conveying the feeling of space through minimal, soft, vibrating sound.
- Star Trek: Into Darkness was worked on by sound designer Ben Burtt, who created the sound of the movie to make sense in three-dimensional space.
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World won Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing at the 76th Academy Awards. The movie creates an immersive maritime environment, with the sound captured in great detail.
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen captures intense sounds like explosions and robot transformations with detail and precision.
- Wall-E is unique in that it has minimal dialogue but an important and well-designed audio track.
- Mad Max: Fury Road makes use of powerful sound systems with its impressive engine roaring, drumming, and fast action sequences.
- Inception has won many awards for its sound, including Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing at the Academy Awards, Best Sound at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Best Sound Effect at the Motion Picture Sound Editors.
To become an audiophile, you need to invest in your time spent listening to music intentionally and experimenting with sound.
Test the limits of your equipment and invest in better equipment if necessary.
The goal should be to be able to appreciate and enjoy high-fidelity sounds to their fullest.