Jul 20, 2016

My Audio Journey / The Casual "Audiophile"

Let me start by saying that I don't consider myself an audiophile and maybe this story will explain why. I feel like I've hit a wall with audio "quality" and I just wanted to share my audio story with everyone to see if anyone feels the same way or has had a similar experience.
I started my quest, shamefully so, with a pair of Studio Beats by Dre headphones. That was a snap decision, and against my nature, I didn't do any research beforehand. Obviously, I thought they were amazing compared to my Apple earbuds. My new headphones opened a new world of audio to me, and I wanted a similar experience when watching movies, so I bought a 5.1 surround sound Sony set and similarly these blew my TV speakers out of the water.

However, after some time, there was a yearning for more. I knew this was just the begging, and thus the thirst had set in.

My first set of serious headphones was the Ultrasone PRO 900s, and I loved them. Coming from the Beats, these headphones seriously changed my life. At the time I was convinced to buy an iBasso D-Zero DAC/Amp by my friends over at Head-Fi. I used that DAC/Amp for some time, but after I unplugged it, I honestly couldn't tell the difference. I assumed that this was due to my lossy files, so I went ahead and ripped a few FLACs from my CD collection and used the D-Zero with my computer. Still, I couldn't hear any difference through the DAC/Amp, so I ditched it. I eventually traded the PRO 900s in for UE Triple Fi 10s, mainly due to portability. These IEM's have a particular sound to them that I can't describe, its unique and perfect for fast rock or electronic music. Funny thing, I bought them online, and they didn't work when they arrived. I contacted the store, and they gave me a full refund and didn't ask me to ship them back, they must've known they were defective. I had a hunch so ordered a replacement cable for $35 on Amazon, and they worked! I ended up getting a $350 pair of IEMs for $35.
Next on the agenda was my surround sound system. I ended up with a Yamaha RX-A830, Klipsch RF-42 II floorstanding fronts and a matching center, a Polk PSW10 sub, and two Pyramid surrounds that came with the receiver. This setup was excellent as well, and movies came to life in a way they never have before. The only thing that was lacking was the bass. My sub was entry level. I recently replaced the Polk with a SVS SB2000 and the two can't even be compared, to say that they did the same thing would be an insult to SVS. It is multiple levels beyond.
So now I feel content. I have demoed a lot of equipment, and nothing sounds "better" to me, it's a little sad. I listen to mostly streaming music, especially because I can't hear the difference between 256kbps AAC and a lossless rip. I feel like between my stereo and my headphones I have gear that can take advantage of lossless files, but I can't hear the difference. I don't consider myself an audiophile because I know many of them would rather die than listen to lossy music, but it works for me and honestly sounds great through both of my setups. Even though I feel like I've hit a wall I recently ordered the Purpleheart TH-X00 and I can't wait for them to arrive 😄
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I first got involved in moderately high-end audio gear back in the mid 70's. Some of the gear I purchased was used and some of it was new. It impressed me, along with everyone else who heard it, and that journey continues to this day. Back around 2001, I spent $20K on new amps, speakers, preamp, subwoofers, cables, etc., and it was THE best sounding system I'd ever heard, at the time.

Faced with a divorce, that system didn't stick around for long and after the divorce, there just wasn't enough money anymore to justify spending much at all on audio gear. Slowly though, over the years, I drifted back and forth between new and used gear, never finding anything that actually 'tripped my trigger' but occasionally I learned something that I DIDN'T know about audio gear.

About one and a half years ago, I took the plunge into studio quality gear for the first time. My son is an audio engineer, so I had plenty of guidance on the subject. I've played guitar since I was 12 years old (I'm retired and in my 60's now) and I've always wanted to do some recording, just so my two sons have something audible to remember me by when I leave this world for whatever waits on the other side. All my gear now uses balanced XLR connections, which if you don't already know provides a pitch black background for audio. There is ZERO noise floor and the music literally jumps out of the speakers and into your face like a splash of very cold water on a hot day. To say that it's quiet is an understatement in the extreme and, compared to 'old school' RCA interfaces, it's like night and day.

Since all my gear is of 'pro audio' quality and everything uses XLR connections, when you cue up a track, but don't start it, and crank the volume knob to 100%, there's absolute silence coming from the speakers. Nothing, nada, zip. That also applies when I'm listening thru my AKG K712 Pro headphones, which are some of the most revealing cans I've ever listened through. Obviously, I don't leave the volume knob turned up all the way and keep it between 9:00 and 10:00 (10:30 if I REALLY want to get my neighbor's attention!). ALL the gear is so revealing that, with a few exceptions, recorded tracks by well known artists reveal issues with the engineering that have REALLY surprised me. And that, to me, is the downside of Pro Audio and listening to music through extremely revealing gear.

That didn't happen overnight, by the way. My $20K system wasn't nearly as revealing as what I have now, which only set me back around $4K. I think it's the total absence of noise being generated by the hardware that makes the music, along with all its flaws, stand out in MUCH greater detail than it ever did when I owned and listened through 'home' (conventional) audio gear.

I'm not sure I even know what the true definition of an 'audiophile' really is, but I certainly don't consider myself to be one. I've had standards over the years and have had plenty of gear to compare to other more and/or less expensive gear. In the end, I don't think price has as much to do with the end result as the INTERFACES do. For me, XLR removed any and all coloration from the signal path, and no, I did NOT spend a fortune on cables. I don't think you can buy a 'bad' XLR cable, regardless of price since the interface itself effectively eliminates line or otherwise induced noise.

What I THINK is the case is that standard/home audio gear has issues that are inherent to the design. Unbalanced cables and interfaces just make noise, where balanced XLR cables and interfaces do NOT. I didn't know that until my son explained it all to me, but that was after he let me discover it on my own. I had one of those 'jaw-dropping' moments.

To me, what GOOD audio gear provides is a clear and clean representation of what and how an artist was feeling when a track was recorded. The interaction between the musicians and their placement within the soundfield, the tonal character of the vocalist, the pluck of guitar strings or the pounding of a kickdrum ... all of it ... when faithfully recorded and engineered properly will reveal things you never heard before, with a precision and clarity that can sometimes be ... well ... jaw-dropping. All that takes is reasonably good hearing, an expectation of excellence and faith that your gear WILL reproduce what the engineer and, more importantly, the artist intended for you to hear.

That's not being an audiophile. That's just being a GOOD LISTENER.
The first upgrade (whether speakers or headphones) is always the biggest jump. Swapping my Aiwa Shelf System for a set of 5.1 Sony Speakers (Two Towers, Center, Bookshelf) and a separate receiver was mind blowing. Each upgrade since hasn't had the same effect although I do enjoy the tweaking and improvement.
I really like this post. I myself have had this sort of realization recently; just bought a set of headphones that could be considered "endgame" for about $400 (Hifiman HE-500), and while I do notice and appreciate the sonic differences to a certain degree as compared to my other headphones, it didn't blow me away like my first transition from Apple earbuds to my HD598 did. I am definitely a casual enthusiast like yourself (though I did let myself go crazy with the purchases for a bit...), and, except for the LCD 2's (someday), don't see myself ever wanting to pursue audio further than this. I guess it's a case of exponentially diminishing returns after a certain point, and honestly...I don't think an extra $1000 is worth that 5% increase in audio fidelity that so many people chase (for me). I doubt I could hear the difference anyway, haha. This got rambly real fast...
Interesting post. That line, "...I don't consider myself an audiophile..." resonates with me (it also pops up everywhere people discuss audio). By the late '80's I build a large audio system (almost all used) that for the time was very much mid-to-high-level audiophile w/large tube amps, subs, bi-amp'ed speakers, high-end turntable, etc. Yet early on, I realized my "ear," which is tuned to live music (it really IS all about love of music) completely rejected the treble-centric audio equipment so many audiophiles adored. The gear that hit my sweet spot was euphonic, non-fatiguing, w/rich midrange & upper bass, just like real music. Flash forward 30 years & the same thing is playing out in my desktop & headphone system, where I can't tolerate "accurate" (read "over-emphasized treble") sound: the resulting system is a mix of stuff that headphone wonks rave about, and some they don't regard very highly. The lessons I get from all this are: 1st, let live music be your guide, always; and 2nd, find the sound you love, then build your equipment around that, no matter what others say.
I too, think of myself as casual audiophile. I don't listen to lossless file either, I can't hear the differences between lossy and lossless. I did get some DAC/Amp to get cleaner signal, but differences in DAC is very subtle, so I don't bother to spent a fortune on that part. I also think cable don't have audible improvement, but I'm happy to spend a bit for aesthetic and other reasons. I spent most on getting a different headphones instead, the characteristic of each headphone can be very interesting to observe. :)
jeffri
I feel the same way, I think the headphones themselves make 90% of the impact. Can't wait for my Purpleheart's to arrive, it'll be the first time I have two sets of headphones at the same time!
I've always preferred the term "audio enthusiast" as my primary love is for music, the gear only gets me to my desired outcome. On a side note, I'm not a huge fan of the argument that "most people can't...." applying a generalization to singular sample (in this case one person) has little relevance. The average person cannot dunk a basketball but that doesn't mean there aren't a whole bunch of people in the NBA and college sports who can.
"Let me start by saying that I don't consider myself an audiophile and maybe this story will explain why. I feel like I've hit a wall with audio 'quality'"

Good post! I think your attitude is exactly right. This just means you're not delusional. There's no research to indicate that anybody can reliably tell the difference between 256kbps AAC and lossless audio. (And yeah, I briefly went down the hi-res audio road myself... there's nothing there)

I stay away from the "audiophile" label myself because of the negative connotations.
John-Booty
I don't really avoid the title, many of my Apple EarPod friends call me one. I don't deny that there could be something there, I'm just not ashamed to say that I can't hear it!
kartiksathappan
You won't unless you lock yourself in a soundproof room and listen critically with revealing system. The difference between Dacs and amps are very subtle too in a category. Major differences are between different kind of equipments. Like between OTL and SS amps. But those are flavours not to be said to definitely better than one another. So it's just the matter of choice.
Thanks for sharing and I just upgraded my TV sound as well. Nothing crazy just a decent 2.1 but it makes all the difference when watching movies / playing PS4. I'll go back to a 5.1 when we have a room big enough to warrant it.
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