Loving and Hating In Audio’s High-End

I seem to be on something of a philosophical tear lately, and no, I’m not apologizing. I actually have been working on other stuff (like a review of a very expensive DAC and another on a rather affordable turntable), but between jags of actual writing, I think and ponder. Yes, I’m a ponderer. That’s me. Think it might be all that time spent in grad school? Hmm. If so, I’m sure my philosophy profs are sooo proud.

Today’s screed is a psychology-inspired PSA. You’re welcome, in advance.

There’s this phenomena called “cognitive dissonance” that I supposedly learned about in Psych 101. In my defense, that was a very distracting class. Anyway, the idea is this — your mind, when forced to hold two competing and contradictory ideas, will attempt to reconcile them by completely hosing you subconsciously. Thanks, mind!

The way it works is exceedingly complicated and not a little insidious, and it’s important to note that this process is entirely subconscious — the “victim” (aka, “you”) has little awareness and less control over the effect. Fun, right? I know! Cool!

Here’s an example: take two sets of pledges attempting to get into a fraternity. Haze the living crap out of one group and give the other one a free pass. When interviewed after initiation, the hazed pledges will score higher, to a man, on tests that measure how completely awesome it is to be a brother. It’s as if the effort had to be worth it — so it was!

The phenomena is relatively durable, too. Take two groups of buyers. Make one pay more — a lot more. That group, even when faced with evidence that everyone else in the entire world paid less, will continue to be the most outspoken in their love for that product. Interesting, no?

Here’s another permutation. Take a single group. The task happens to be non-trivially expensive along some parameter (time, money, effort, &c), and give each participant two options. For one of those options, add marketing literature and testimonials supporting the choice and make it more expensive than the other. That’s important. Here’s the fun bit — when told that the two things were actually the same thing, the buyers that chose the expensive things will still claim there are differences.

Neat, eh? I wonder if that has any relevance to purchases in audio’s high-end. Hmm ….

How you interpret this has everything to do with your philosophical leanings, I’m sure, but I’m not really making a statement (not here, anyway) about the Great Cable Debate or any other of your pet audiophile flame-wars. All I’m saying is that intransigence in the face of countervailing evidence seems a foregone conclusion. Thanks, mind!

We’re not quite done. While the haves certainly don’t have a lot of firm psychological ground to stand on, they’re not usually the ones tossing the stones, are they? Nope!

Interestingly, there is a far more common form of cognitive dissonance. Again, the basic idea is that when there is a mismatch between expectation and reality, the mind goes bananas; the greater the disconnect between the two, the harder the mind will attempt to bring the two back together.

Enter the fox. As the story goes, one day, a fox that spied a cluster of delicious, ripe grapes hanging from a vine. Desperate to get them to eat them all up, the fox goes about all manner of shenanigans. Failing all attempts, the fox finally gives up. But before he does, he decides that they were probably not worth getting anyway. I’m sure you’ve all heard this story, but the “sour grape” paradigm seems to fit the audiophile stone-throwers pretty much to a “T”, if you ask me. It’s not enough that the products they’re desperate to have are out of reach, they must also suck.

Again, I’m not accusing any particular person, group or argument of any major — or specific — offense. All I’m doing is showing off my classical education. Admittedly, that education was full of holes so big you could drive a pickup truck full of drunken yahoos through them, and I freely admit that Psych 101 class was filled with about 300 other students (mostly women, which pretty much explains my presence entirely), so I might not have glommed on to as many nuances as might be necessary to fully appreciate the fullness of the scope of application here, but I think I have the basic shape of things.

Moral of the story — when treading the dark waters Internet, remember that biases aren’t always straightforward, obvious, or even directly tied to something “subjective”. In fact, many of the folks you may find yourself reading, arguing with — or targeted by — are probably not even aware of the baggage their subconscious has loaded them down with. So, should you come across someone hating (or loving!) on someone or something, beyond all sense or reason, you should do what any logical, responsible, and reasonable person should: pop the corn and settle in for the show — just don’t forget to bring your own “grain of salt”.


  1. I am waiting for the high end audio community to explain to me how I can take a $400 USB DAC hook it up to my laptop and rival the sound of my FMJ multiple DACs regulated power supply CD player. It would appear the laptop would break all the rules for achieving nirvana in listening to music. I had the same experience with my universal DVD (NOT player) but changer. The audiophile myths to what makes superior sound in my mind have been shattered. In the past before the myths were shattered my pride of ownership and my own ability to translate the belief that said piece of equipment with it’s beautiful faceplate and massive over engineering is somehow delivering more sonic bliss then I otherwise would have experience brought me great joy. I love this hobby and look forward to CAF every year but in my mind the audiophile belief and myth system has taken a hit in credibility. I would not give up one piece of equipment. It’s just that it is time now to just listen to the music and hop off the merry go round.

  2. “So, should you come across someone hating (or loving!) on someone or something, beyond all sense or reason, you should do what any logical, responsible, and reasonable person should: pop the corn and settle in for the show — just don’t forget to bring your own “grain of salt”.”

    There’s a hidden fallacy here, though: that the first-person or “witness” POV always assumes that they are the “logical, responsible, and reasonable person …” in the equation – and yet, how is it that one arrives at this conclusion about one’s own fitness for judgement except through the filters of one’s own baggage?

    The assumption that one is fit to render judgement upon others (or at all) is an illusion based in a sort-of conceit – let’s call it “reflexive heliocentricity” … or the “I” that assumes it is the center of the universe.

    “Value” itself is an odd abstraction. What’s a $100 bill worth?

    Or better yet – three questions on the same object:

    What does a cup of coffee cost to make?
    What does a cup of coffee cost the consumer at Starbucks?
    What is a cup of coffee worth?

    The context of the experience is fundamentally influential on the perception of the event, especially when it comes to aesthetic reception.

    What does a painting cost to make?
    What does one of Picasso’s paintings cost the consumer?
    What is Picasso’s painting worth?

    To reduce everything to the mere material of materialism seems to be an attempt to commoditize the un-commoditazable, to touch the intangible, to “eff” the ineffable.

    My father, an extraordinary philosopher from the practical (vs. theoretical) world made the definition of “value” clear to me long ago: “It” is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

    The market determines this on its own, and this is especially true when it comes to aesthetics and luxury toys. After all – what makes a Breguet more valuable than a Timex except for the fact that someone wants it and is willing to spend their money on it?

    Of course you can always argue about “scarcity” and that is fair, but that is also true of High End Audio … this is hardly Sony or Bose territory, where you can play with notions of commodity over millions of units produced. High End manufacturers aren’t just selling their products to drive industry and commerce … they are feeding their families (and helping to feed their employees’ families) on a small scale where overhead, especially in the “dry months” of summer, increases the per-unit cost of manufacture by substantial amounts.

    As usual, the bigger picture is far more complicated than the broadness of philosophy can account for without a healthy dose of exceptions and caveats. And with so many exceptions and caveats, what’s the point of philosophizing to begin with?

  3. Excellent read as always brother. But, as we often do, I may clash a bit with you on the following statement (we always see eye-to-eye people – but Scot and I often dig deeper into stuff like this):

    “All I’m saying is that intransigence in the face of countervailing evidence seems a foregone conclusion. Thanks, mind!”

    I believe, given that both our conscious and unconscious minds are being moved by the music we play – and that music is, in many ways, mystical, that no evidence always leads to any conclusions! It’s part of what Harry Pearson used to call “TWD” – “Twinkle Dust Factor” in the pages of The Absolute Sound, to, in part, describe the musical performance of a truly magnificent Hi-fi system! Some of this shit is just plain magic…

    Which is at the very heart of my love for fine Hi-fi – it’s ability to translate the emotive power of music through you by getting out of it’s own way. Transcendance through music and electronics. It’s a wonderful thing.

  4. I wonder how angry Michael Fremer & co would be if they were no longer told the prices of what they were auditioning until after the review was written. Cognitive dissonance is inextricably linked to knowing a price (value). If we now also consider that retail markup typically varies from 3x to 8x the actual cost to manufacture, we see how ridiculous it is that price is even part of the equation, yet it establishes quite linearly the rating that products receive in magazines. So yes, prices should remain unknown until the review is published.

    • That would be interesting. Would flatten the hierarchy for sure — and undercut a lot of the highest-of-the-high.

  5. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on audio equipment, learn how to sing. If not, buy a 5 string banjo and remove 4 strings, if not, tap the oatmeal box and pretend you’re a great Brazilian percussionist. If you still can’t become musical, ask why not. If you can’t find an answer to that, start out by listening to music for one harp, also music for one piano, one cello, one guitar, keep it simple. Don’t read audio reviews, no matter how entertaining they are or how bored you are. Contemplate what it might be like to be a Broccoli Plant or what if you internalized a different ‘package’ of information after exiting the womb.

  6. I quite liked the article… It touches both sides …. those who tend to buy expensive components claiming that there is a difference … and those who cannot afford to buy claiming it really does not make any difference. From my experience… where I have used simple cassete player (those you use to record conversation) to play music (because I could not afford to buy anything better yet loved music) … to owning Akai… Marantz… Pioneer … Cambridge Audio… Harman Kardon … now I am using MBL. I have had chance to bring in many other brands in my own place and perform audition. I learned something quite interesting lesson while going through this ordeal of changing components .. interconnects etc: “It takes away the true enjoyment of listening to music”

    Yes … that the truth. Every-time you play something and trying to critically think .. whether the guitar was little edgy or the voice is little dull .. it take lot of mental pressure. You end up changing things or end up listening to music without actually listening !

    So.. for me now its about enjoying the music… Now I can actually lie down and play though Airplay via Onkyo (!) in my bedroom 5.1 setup and simply enjoy whats being played. I could not even think about it even few months back…. When I want to do serious listing .. I would go back to my listening room and fire up my MBL setup. Sometime… I even use Airplay via Apple TV connected with my DAC to play music for convenience … but this was unthinkable even few months back since I would be busy figuring out where the differences are if I played though my CD transport. What was happening is I was getting fatigued and tired.

    So… Please enjoy music rather than spending time in comparing … . its not the price .. its not the brand… its about enjoying the music…. as long as its there …. be happy.

  7. Very few people, upon buying an expensive piece of equipment, will admit that they can’t hear a difference in sound or that their system now sounds worse. What fascinates me is the unwillingness of reviewers to admit that there is a point beyond which trying to make distinctions in sound is pointless. And while the $50,000 turntable might sound *different* than the $20,000 turntable, who is to say that it is *better*? But, almost invariably, the $50,000 turntable is reviewed as being superior. One wonders if audio reviewers have ever heard of diminishing returns or confirmation bias. Manufacturers need people to buy new stuff though and audiophile magazines wouldn’t exist without equipment to review so the merry go-round keeps turning.

    I still use a McIntosh MA-230 most of the time because it’s the amplifier I grew up with and it makes music sound the way it is supposed to sound, at least to my ears. My ideal sound might be completely different than your ideal sound. It’s certainly not an objective standard. I do find it hard to believe that sound reproduction is better than it was, say, twenty years ago, if you’re working from vinyl sources. I’ve listened to a lot of different set-ups and the differences are minimal. I’ll happily look at buying older equipment that has been made “obsolete” by whatever audio manufacturers are currently pushing. The one exception is digital audio which has absolutely changed for the better and continues to evolve.

    • Come now, if it costs more it sounds better…we all know that. The law of diminishing returns isn’t applicable in high end audio..

    • Thanks — and edited out the obligatory f-bomb. Thanks for the catch (and complaint).

  8. Amen to that. I just wonder how many people that read this really understand what you were actually saying? Hmmmm…. Something else to ponder upon.

  9. Is all this unaffordable to most people equipment labeled high end just a matter of sour grapes or are the products really not all that much better than alternatives? At least two factors can contribute to a rational comparison. The first requires some knowledge of how products are made, trends in industry, what are reasonable markups for establishing retail price, what are advances in technology and how are higher prices for them justified, in effect an cold analysis of what a product is worth. Throw into the mix how much of the product cost is based on technology and how much is based on packaging. Do I really want or need a speaker cabinet that’s polished to the mirror finish of a Rolls Royce? How much is that worth to me? Is packaging being substituted for real technology as a matter of marketing (try to find any used equipment anywhere that doesn’t have mars, scratches, or other blemish defects.)

    The second is how does the equipment stack up not against its competition but against a defined objective goal which BTW has never changed. If that goal is hearing live music from a recording, many audiophiles close their eyes and imagine they’re at alive performance. Next time you’re at a live performance close your eyes and ask yourself if you can imagine being at home in front of your stereo system hearing the same thing. If the answer is no, then what are those $40,000 speakers and $10,000 mono block amplifiers really worth?

    A few final thoughts. I defy anyone to walk into a room blindfolded where a hi fi set is playing and guess what amplifier, speaker, etc. they are listing to. The variables in recordings, room acoustics, and the mind boggling number of permutations precludes that. Pick up reviews of equipment by the currently popular audiophile magazines that are 10, 20 years old and you will read just about the same words telling you how great they are as you’ll get in the latest issue. Best in the world. Today they won’t get a second look because they’re old technology. Or are they?

    • One of the reasons I burned out in 1996 w/ high end audio & the high endvmagazines! Same sentiments about the monthly latest greatest gear, so-called advancing the state of the art! I started feeling like a sucker & as if the joke is on me!!!?? Had to get off that crazy merry-go-round!

    • The entire high end audiophile culture is a farce. Its built on the foundation of egoism and largesse. Anyone with too much money, too little brains and a sense of self, derived from owning “things” is the poster child. Everyone knows this guy. He’s the guy who attempts to make everyone else feel inferior through a display of material imagery. “He who dies with the most toys wins”, is his mantra. Truth be told-he who dies with the most toys…..is DEAD.

      I recently decided to build a reasonably priced system comprised of the LEAST expensive, mostly used, “higher end” components. After assembling the entire system (2 amps, pre, Blu Ray, DAC, speakers and cables) for less than 4500 and listening to it for days on end, i began to succumb to Audiophile disease. Initially i thought it sounded fantastic, the best ive ever heard in my home, but within week or so, my MIND began to warp. The illusion that what I had just put together just wasnt good enough began to appear.

      I began to think of the next “upgrade”. The mind would not stop. “Ive got to do something to make it sound BETTER.” Then one night, i had a few friends over. Just average dudes who LOVE music, but dont know jack about audio equipment. I put one guys favorite songs on, played it as loud as it would go without distortion, put him in the listeners seat and watched and waited for his response.

      As the music played, the look on his face told the story. He went into some kind of trance and a neat little smirk appeared which turned into a shit eating grin. This was accompanied by laughter. He sat stone still, totally enthralled and when it was over, as i went to change the disc, he says “WOW! You’ve ruined me for music”.

      You dont need to spend a fortune on this stuff. Your system is NOT who you are. Dont fall into the trap. The Bible has plenty to say about the insidious nature of Pride….

      The point is

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