There's a three-block stretch along Roosevelt Way where a budding audiophile can find it all. You can blow $63 at Ruby Records on the thick Classic Records vinyl version of Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concerts; check out the great stereos of the past at Hawthorne; walk over to Definitive Audio to buy the bulk of your rig (the Mark Levinson components—ranging from four to 17 grand a piece—look particularly nice); then, if you're feeling adventurous, walk to Speakerlab and do your bass-response comparisons. The loudspeakers nearest the front door—Snells—will set you back seven grand. No worries. If you need some Pepto-Bismol to help digest all this consumerism, Bartell's is just down the street.
The world of the audiophile is filled with such jaunts, in search of ephemera most music lovers never consider. Gold-plated interconnect cables, audio racks with spiked feet, vacuum-tubed amplifiers (audiophiles, like electric guitarists, know that solid state can't compare), and isolation platforms all come into play. Turntables are favored and CDs go through an outboard digital-to-analog converter to remove some of their harshness. A setup could cost thousands or more, depending on room treatments, your taste for exotic styling, and your significant other's sensibilities.
What exactly do audiophiles hear that the rest of us can't?
Michael Fremer, one of the nation's foremost high-end audio critics (he's senior contributing editor to Stereophile, a contributing editor to Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, and senior editor of Etown online) explains it this way: "An audiophile is simply someone who appreciates lifelike sound—someone who tries to recreate the sound one hears at a live concert at home. An audiophile is an individual who gets a special buzz, a sensual overload from hearing great sound. In my experience, everyone is an audiophile. That is, not one person who has come to my basement and sat in front of my system has ever said, 'I don't hear anything special,' or 'Big deal,' or 'So?' Instead, the reaction is always visceral—always an incredible physical and mental rush as the person hears a favorite tune as if for the first time with all of the instruments clearly audible and sounding lifelike, with each one and each voice appearing in three dimensions in front of them, with the speakers seeming to disappear."
Tom King, senior salesperson at Definitive Audio, says business is improving, thanks in part to all that high-tech money coming through our city. "Our business has had increasing sales over the last five or six years. There seems to be a lot of people interested in high-end gear. There's probably a bit more interest in video—a lot of people are getting into high-end home theater, which is kind of overlapping the audio scene because a lot of the same components get used: high-end amplifiers, pre-amps with processors, CD players. But it's still very common to get a two-channel guy in here who wants to build himself a nice two-channel system. It happens all the time."
However popular, high-end audio will never be the dominant trend in music sales (save that for MP3 and digital downloading). Hand-built components are just too costly for most folks and audiophile companies lack the marketing hype of Sony and Bose. "High-end audio is still popular with a small group of aficionados, as it has always been and always will be. It will never be 'mass market,' but neither will jazz or classical music," Fremer asserts. "In fact, nothing that's good is popular in this country. No one has made money trying to sell quality to the mass audience. The mass audience prefers a large dollop of crap to a small serving of something delicious. That's why this country is so obese."
Fremer's take on the digital future of music is no less reserved. "As for MP3, the sound is crap compared to what's possible, but a generation brought up on crap will gravitate to more crap as long as it's cheap or free and they don't have to get up off their butts to go buy it," he says. "They sit like lumps and download it. I think MP3 is great, though, because after a diet of that sonic swill, a reasonable percentage of listeners, when exposed to a real audio system, will realize just how much they've been cheated and hyped, and they'll rebel and go for some quality audio."
So you're sitting at your high-tech job, staring at your tinny-sounding two-inch woofered Altec Lansing PC speakers, and wondering just how good your music could sound. Where to begin? Grab a few magazines (Stereophile is a good place to start) and familiarize yourself with some brands; remember, you're headed into a territory where Technics and Onkyo aren't exactly household names. Skim a few reviews even (they tend to be lengthy and spec-filled) and then head over to Roosevelt Way. "Audition"—an audiophile's favorite catchphrase—as many stereos as you can. Bring a CD you know backwards and forwards to test different setups and try out the most expensive equipment being offered (it'll make for a good comparison with more reasonably priced models).
Just remember: Being an audiophile is an obsession, and you may never hear music—or see your bank account—the same way again.