Making of an audiophile: How to get started on the path to musical nirvana

A look into the importance of the tools one needs to get started on the journey of becoming an audiophile.

Nearly every human being likes music and only between three to five percent of humans seem to experience ‘musical anhedonia’, which is the inability to feel anything from music. But of the 95 to 97 percent for whom music gets them moving — or gives them ‘feels’, or the holy grail, ‘chills’ (‘frisson’) — there’s a special category called the audiophile.

For them, music — and the equipment that brings it to them, from recordings to amps to speakers — is a lifelong obsession, even a fetish.

In this series of articles, we will look at the audiophile: what gets them obsessed? What pleasures do they derive from audiophilia? And can non-audiophiles, who also love their music, get in on some of that action, and elevate their own listening experience? Finally, we will talk about the tools and music you need to get started on this journey.

The emphasis will be on getting the best sound for the price, and on fitting in with our digital-first, mobile-heavy lifestyle.

Making of an audiophile: How to get started on the path to musical nirvana

A pair of wireless bluetooth headphones. Image: Omkar P

Music is among the most direct of artistic pleasures, and has consistently been the most popular of art forms. But to describe the joy of audiophilia to those who have not experienced it—the task before this article — we need an even more universal pleasure. I think the only thing that fits is the love of food. Audiophiles may be a rare breed, but every other person knows their favorite dish or restaurant, and what makes it great.

Listening to audiophile-grade equipment for the first time is like tasting an exceptional dish. Surely, you remember that first delectable bite, the way the flavours and texture separate, and then come together, and the long, lingering finish. The few seconds of speechlessness — no, thoughtlessness — that follows. By the end of it, you know you’ve had a liminal experience, one that you’ll remember.

Now imagine that this delicious meal was actually something very familiar, something you already loved. Say, you love biryani and then discover the most exquisite biryani. That’s what the audiophile experiences. Typically, they already have music that they have loved passionately for years. Then they hear it on a pair of high-definition speakers or on great headphones. Imagine the way it feels to rediscover something you have so deeply loved. Imagine being able to hear every note more clearly and completely. Think of the sound of a tabla, the plunk of the dayan and the boom of the bayan.

Imagine hearing not just the sound clearly, but also the way the sound dies. Imagine hearing every string in the strum of a guitar, or bass that feels like a precise punch rather than a load of bricks descending on you. That’s one small part of the joy on offer.

The positioning of speakers play a vital role in how sound reaches our ears.

The positioning of speakers play a vital role in how sound reaches our ears.

The audiophile has one key edge over the connoisseur of food. While each dish has to be prepared anew and therefore will have slight variances, the audiophile has access to high-quality recordings that can tirelessly reproduce the same delight, over and over again. It is this that makes audiophilia such a garden of endless delights. Every small investment in improving your sound has infinite returns.

But there is one important way in which the audiophile loses out to the food connoisseur. The meal has only one important intermediary, the chef. The chef is the expert on ingredients, and does all the work of sourcing and combining, but once they work their magic, it can arrive pristine at the table. The audiophile must contend with a much longer chain of intermediaries, and the listener has to do the hard work of selecting from them themselves. And, at each point of this chain, there is the potential of losing something important.

What does this chain look like? First, you have the instruments and the singing voice, which have to be of high quality. Then, the initial recording has to be done as well as possible. Next, music today is hardly a matter of just recording—there is the mix, the combining of different bits of music, and adding or removing elements, as well as combining across different recordings. This mix has to be done well.

Then there is the matter of the recording media. LPs and CDs have now mostly yielded to digital media, but here there is a dizzying array of codecs and formats. Listening to the right one can make a difference.

At last, we come to the final stage, which is the delivery of this music to the human ear. This begins with DACs, or digital-to-analog convertors, that have different methods of turning digital music to analog signals that your equipment can turn into sound waves. Then there are amps, which boost the electric signal to the extent required to ‘drive’ your speakers or your headphones. This kind of boost can deliver a big difference in clarity and detail. Then you have the equipment that plays the music. If it is headphones, then the music is delivered directly to your ears. If it is speakers, then one other factor comes into play—the positioning of your speakers, and the acoustics of your room.

DACs, or digital-to-analog convertors, have different methods of turning digital music to analog signals that your equipment can turn into sound waves. Image: AudioQuest

DACs, or digital-to-analog convertors, have different methods of turning digital music to analog signals that your equipment can turn into sound waves. Image: AudioQuest

This can be both dizzying and daunting. There are two ways to look at this. The perfectionist way is to say, your audio experience is only as good as the weakest link. This thinking would drive anyone insane, trying to control every part of the process. Instead, it is better to think that every improvement along this chain makes a noticeable difference to the pleasure we derive from music.

It can be easy to forget that, at the end of the day, music is its own delight, in just the voice, instruments and lyrics; even a poor recording played on poor speakers can give great pleasure; just think of when your favourite track surprised you on the tinny speakers of an auto rickshaw, or watch the young boys and girls dancing in baaraats or navratris, heedless of the cracked loudspeakers. Better to see the task of audiophilia as taking that base pleasure, which is never fully lost, and making it something even more exquisite.

Luckily there are good intermediaries at every stage, professionals who slave tirelessly to get you the best possible experience. I love the long chain of inventors and experts who go into delivering exceptional sound, because most of them do it just for the love of it—they are rarely getting disproportionately rewarded for their good work, as most of the millions lie in just delivering satisfactory, not exceptional sound. But these wonderful people exist, and over the course of the next few articles we will learn to find some of their work. Most of the back-end is taken care of by this. If you know which recording labels pay close attention to quality, you can find the right digital files to play on your equipment.

As for what equipment is a good place to start, without breaking your bank or making big lifestyle changes to how you listen to music, that’s what I’m here for. The quickest starting point is a good pair of headphones. Remember how speakers need good acoustics and placement? Not to mention that they are bulky and take up a lot of room, and force you to change your interior décor? While speakers have their deep and intense pleasures, for someone starting out, or just looking to make their everyday music better, we have headphones, that nullify the acoustics of the room, and deliver music straight to your ears.

In the next article, we will discuss how to optimise the long chain of intermediaries, and in the one, after that, we will consider the different types of headphones, and which ones are best to get you started on your journey towards musical nirvana.

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