Social Consciousness, Existentialism, and the Audiophile Soul

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a bit like drowning. There’s no way out. The positions I’ve staked out suddenly seem utterly indefensible, socially ruinous, and outright immoral.

Given all the need in the world, I hear myself asking, how can anyone in their right mind and righteous soul, spend the kind of money audiophiles regularly spend on such irrelevant junk?

I don’t usually get all self-reflective … okay, that’s not true … but it’s not usually about my lack of engagement with the world around me. Being an introvert, it’s usually more about me defending myself from the world at large, but I digress. Anyway, Bill Caraher’s article last week got me spinning down that familiar drain, and it’s one I’ve never really had a totally satisfying answer too. Sometimes, it does feel that spending on myself is precisely what I’ve been told (since birth) not to do. That feathering my nest is not only “somehow wrong” but pretty obviously so. That I owe far more than I give. And maybe just perhaps, more than I have — or ever will.

Take that $25,000 amplifier you’ve been drooling over and finally managed to save up for over the last five years of your miserable day job. Giving that money, to a “good” charity, might well feed five needy families for what, a year? Or maybe it could dig a well in a drought-ridden savannah and bring life-giving water to hundreds of desperate children, orphaned by war. Or maybe rebuild that one-room school in a corner of a third-world country utterly devastated by an earthquake, and breathe inspiration into the next Jonas Salk. Yes, that’s all a bit of a cheat. Don’t find these compelling? Well, use your imagination — or rather, don’t, because it’s all rather horrifying to contemplate exactly how selfish you’re being, you lazy, passive-aggressive first-world oligarchic asshole, you.

Laugh if you want, but to me … sometimes this is all a little too compelling, and it creeps up like a wave, black and inexorable, and I’m stuck with no way to outrun it.

Truth be told, not everyone will feel this kind of tug on their souls. Quite a few of you, reading this, probably got a little bit angry and started unloading a few cargo container’s worth of indignation. You worked for your toys. You deserve them.

I’ll simply grant that you’re special. So am I.

But as the waters swirl around our metaphorical feet, I have to acknowledge that you and I are … unusual. You see, most businesses fail. Some fail due to stupidity, laziness, or corruption — but most don’t. Similarly, for every hardworking nutter putting in 120 hour weeks and pulling in their entirely justified six-figure salary, there are thousands that work as hard or harder — for a tiny fraction of that. There are a lot of people out there. Yes, there are lazy a-holes out there. “Takers”, to borrow a current (if poisonous) term. But contrary what we may have heard, for each abuser, there are thousands who aren’t and wouldn’t dream of it. It’s a sad fact that most of the world’s population have not had the good fortune to be born able to take advantage of first-world benefits. Of those that have, most of them don’t get that one lucky break that launches them up the ladder to fame or fortune. And of those that do, most of them get knocked down by something completely out of their control. They’re brave. They’re good looking. They’re intelligent, clever, hard working, committed, and have great, timely ideas. And they’re still shit out of luck.

So, maybe you do deserve your good fortune. I won’t argue with that as it’d be a bit like spitting in my own face. But I do wonder if I don’t have some obligation to make sure (again, at the very least) that it isn’t my boot in the face of the one coming up the ladder behind me. And maybe, just maybe, I ought to do a bit more than simply “make room”. And no, I’m not looking down my righteous nose at you if you don’t sometimes feel that way. Quite frankly, I don’t care — this is something wrestle with, which is why I am writing about it.

Unfortunately for me, perhaps, it seems that I’m also not the guy that’s able to donate my worldly successes to the betterment of the needy. I suppose that I am not strong enough to ever pass through the eye of the needle, as it were. The whys and wherefores of my spiritual failings I’m quite sure are long and boring and cliche, but the short of it is that I have a family I want to provide for. I want to leave my kids farther ahead than my parents were able to leave me. That’s important to me and I couldn’t give two figs what you think about that. But then, if I’m being honest … I have to confess that I like being comfortable. I’ve made a whole slew of shitty decisions that I’m not happy with all so that I can stay that way — and make progress on what I believe I need to be making progress on as a parent.

These rationalizations bring my head above the rushing tide, at least for a while. But … there’s always a but. “But then,” I ask, “what about what’s left over? After I’ve satisfied my priorities, isn’t there more that I can do? Isn’t there more that I should do?” And … down I go again.

Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.

Happily for my sanity, guilt is something that ebbs and flows, even if it never leaves me entirely untouched, or for very long. For better or worse, I have now carved my own Scot-shaped space out of the world around me, and I do what I do and ends get met. And when I find my thoughts swirling around the guilt-drain, I tend to think of audio as a reward for decisions that I simply have to live with at this point. Audio, and writing about it, is what keeps me sane and (somewhat) grounded, and greases the grinding wheels, keeping them going as they travel round and round on the hamster wheel of my life. Perhaps at some point, things will change, and I’ll be free (or at least, more free) to reconsider many things — my social responsibilities among them. Whatever those are. In the meantime, I’ve been exploring charities. Who knows, maybe it’ll help.

Speaking of which, for those of you that are socially minded, there are a ton of charities out there that do good work — and even more that totally suck. There’s quite a few articles that talk about how your money get’s spent, so take a few minutes and do some homework. Not that you asked, but I vastly prefer to donate locally — local food banks or programs that live and work in my community tend to get the nod. For non-local stuff, I’m a fan of Remote Area Medical (US), and internationally, Doctors Without Borders USA and Heifer International.

Anyway, it’s something. But, still …. [sigh]. Sometimes … sometimes, I am sure I’ve just got everything exactly backwards. Of course, this usually is coincident with theological conversations about the Nature of God, the Problem of Evil, the Meaning of Life and many other thought-puzzles I find endlessly diverting. I’m very deep, you see. And those deep waters only look still.

Of course, I’m also a pompous, arrogant ass. “Know Thyself,” cried the Oracle. So, let’s call a spade a spade and move on.

No, the world is not my responsibility, and neither is the welfare and well-being of everyone in it. I’m pretty sure this is an ethical trap and a logical fallacy, but I’m too arrogant to look that up. Ahem. Anyway, while I do feel that I have no little bit of husbandry that falls within my purview, being my brother’s keeper cannot be my one and only Purpose. And if it is, well, that’s just dumb.

Here’s the poop — a martyr’s life is a tedious, stressful waste of innumerable gifts and aiming at such a life is an exercise in hubris unlike any otherwise imaginable. Such utter crockery! When I was a kid (read: until I was about 35 or so), I fervently believed that immortality was the goal of life, and that it was one’s deeds, writ in fire upon the canvas of History, that were the sole judge of one’s time on Earth. Yes, how very Joseph Campbellian of me, but whatever.

A little John Lennon (“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”) and a couple of kids later, and I suppose you could say I finally have my priorities straight. If asked, I now can recognize that life is precious in and of itself. It is, in fact, the most precious thing. Yes, Buddha,  life is pain — but that’s simply not all it is. Life is also beautiful. If all you ever do is feel for thorns, you’ll miss the rose entire. What an unutterable shame that would be.

Which brings us back to music. In many important, fundamental ways, music (and Art, more generally) is the most human thing we do. It’s not unique to us — precious little is. But art, for the sake of art, is so bizarre, and so mind-blowingly un-Darwinian, that failing to cherish it when it speaks to you is a rejection of your potential to be something more. Back to the Wheel for you — you have more lessons to learn. Look, feel free to be all red-in-tooth-and-claw if you must, but to me, that shit gets old and with a quickness.

Your ethical responsibilities, in my mind, are pretty light. “Do no harm” is a most helpful start, but it’s kind of a lame place to stop. Say, rather, “Be excellent to each other” (thank you, Bill and Ted) — that one actually takes effort and it’s amazing how much happy shit falls out of that.

This is where the sun comes out to shine on my ethical rainy day. Yes, I can do more — and I’ve resolved to do so. But I’m also required to enjoy what I can, however I may, and like everyone else, I’m entitled to drink deeply and regularly from the cup of Life. Music makes that draft much sweeter, to me. And probably to you, as well. So mote it be.

All that said, I still feel a shameful sigh that sometimes, perhaps at night, whispers softly: “do more ….”

What tangled little beasts we are.

About Scot Hull 1062 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. One way for audiophiles to work through the values issue is to give away old gear or find ways to help budding audio enthusiasts with limited resources. Yeah, maybe you can get $300 for that amp or turntable on Audiogon. But wouldn’t giving that gear to a friend in the “college-student” or “struggling young professional” zone make a bigger impact on a life and help build the future of our hobby?

    As an example, a friend’s son, who recently graduated from HS, came to me with a busted turntable and asked if I could fix it. It was a cheap, early ’90s plastic POS with speed issues so I told him to toss it. I found a nice Pioneer DD table on CraigsList for $30, put a new $45 AT95 cart on it, and gave it to him. It didn’t cost me much in dollars, time and effort. Provided the table survives his frat-house parties, this dude will be spinning vinyl for years to come.

  2. well..

    Lets look at the root cause of the worlds issues..and its not selfish audiophiles (I read a stat that said there are only 1 million of us worldwide.. no clue if that is true or no..but whatever the number… its small).

    So even if we all gave away our money allocated for hardware to some worthy cause, it wouldnt help as whatever temporary benefit it provided would be undone in a nano-second by “governments” , who are solely responsible for the worlds issues.

    I put the quotes around governments as it can be traditional country level entities or some war lord in Somalia or Dafur or even multi-national corporations that create “parallel universe” governments (big oil/big banks/big retail for example) to better themselves (or their shareholders).

    The amount of money these entities spend on kill/maiming/slaughtering…. or make from dis-enfranching/scamming individuals or groups of individuals is obviously huge

    So buy the amp cause not doing so wont save the world…but if possible do try and change the governments.

  3. Hey all,

    One way to think about this – and to complicate the matter a bit – is that something like purchasing high-end stereo equipment is not simply an act of consumerism. Part of the idea behind my original post was to suggest that stereo equipment was not just a simple product designed to perform a simple task. Stereo equipment contributes to a long-standing effort by humans to communicate experiences to one another. It is an appeal to a common reality.

    As with all efforts to communicate experiences, this is an exercise in interpretation. traditionally, western society has seen these efforts to transcend the limits of experience as a vital act that not only confirms the irreducibility of individual existence and also explores the limits of collective, social understanding of what is real. In other words, efforts to communicate reality and the generate empathy resides close to core of a range of humanistic disciplines that have come to occupy a special place within western society. (This is at the core of Apple’s somewhat cynical argument that their company is technology + the liberal arts). I might be inclined to place things like stereo equipment at a point in the continuum that continues through humanistic inquiry – history, literature, philology – to the arts.

    In this assessment, purchasing stereo equipment is no more an act of consumerism and purchasing art or books or music or even furthering one’s education in the humanities. Buying stereo equipment is patronizing an artistic inquiry into what is real. (This may also explain why scientistical measurements of equipment often do so little to tell us about how equipment sounds or feels.) We might be even able to apply recent criticism of higher education (by both the right and left), that neglecting the humanities in the name of “practical” fields of study attacks the core of western culture. When we become slaves to a functionality or direct engagement with the only practical approaches to the world around us, we become no better than those misguided (but well meaning) souls who ask what an abstract painting “is of” or only take a particular class because it will “help me get a job” or dismisses music, literature, or philosophy as self-indulgent navel gazing. When humans begin to see the world as a simple functional exchange of work for resources, we give up something that makes us human.


    • very well said. This is my every day struggle since highschool, and now, 23, I start to know or think about the problem why it’s there, where it coming from,etc. And the problem is what you just describe. We are taught to think and/or treat our self as mere objects that mostly take from the ‘things’ around us without ever caring about the outcome of our decision, on others and ourselfs. Then we find ourself at 20, 30, 40,50, 60 years old with an identity crisis. And die without knowing.
      Although money is necessary in the current times, we can still do it with grace. Music, craft making, art, sound in general, anything that requires inspiration from your creativity and emotions keeps you in an aware mental state.

  4. This is easily one of the best articles I have read on this site or any other high end site.

  5. Family is the number one priority. “Charity begins in the home” and so forth. Beyond that, my personal feeling is that we have a social responsibility to those who have not been as fortunate. Whether or not that means cutting a check, volunteering at a local charity, or whatever, I can personally vouch that it goes a long way towards assuaging any guilt feelings you might have for spending $$$ on audio gear. I would also like to point out that there is a long stream of moral thought that says there is nothing wrong with living in a manner consistent with your station in life. Going back to the New Testament, there is a passage where a woman is anointing Jesus’ feet with very expensive ointment. When Judas points out that the ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor Jesus chastises him.

    Ok, sorry to get all religious and preachy on an audiophile site. Let me bring it around to this: if we, as audiophiles want to enjoy our hobby AND do social good, then maybe an answer would be for the local audiophile clubs to bring a group of underprivileged kids to a classical concert. Lots of orchestras put on special series for young people. Particularly around the holidays. Anyway, food for thought.

  6. Well A great home Stereo system can be had be peanuts. One needs to do some homework, listen carefully and buy good used equipment on the cheap. I have older PS Audio pre-amp feeding a early Eighties Technics power amp and it sounds great for less than $400.00 Add in a $300.00 turntable, a $100 tuner, $30 for 14 gauge bulk speaker wire and maybe $60 for Audioquest interconnects and I am bit over $900.00 for the elecronics. And it sounds great. The speakers vary, sometimes a pair of Vandersteen 2c’s purchased new for $1500.00 20 years ago. No need to feel guilty at his price. Yes there are diminishing returns in Audio. I have heard systems sound a lot worse for 5 times the price.
    I also donate money locally to organizations that make a real difference in people’s lives. My favorite one is Diabetic Youth Foundation who runs a summer camps in the Sierras for Type I diabetic children. Makes a real difference in their lives.

    • In general, I agree with you — except about the used bit. That’s not always a good value — Steven Stone (admittedly, someone a bit more dedicated than most) has a nice piece, sketching out some of the reasons why. That said, inexpensive isn’t always bad — Steve Guttenberg has regular posts about great, affordable gear over on the Audiophiliac.

      But my point was that, no matter the price, some might argue that it might be better spent on your brother than on yourself. I offer that this is, perhaps, why high-end audio isn’t as pervasive as it otherwise could be. Or maybe not. Just a thought.

      • I am not sure that altruism is stifling the mainstreaming of high end audio. I think a simple family budget does that – along with the expense of a really outstanding high end system. I think when you see the demographic is usually later in life (middle age) when the house payments are under control, the 401(k) is growing and has stable contribution, and the kids are at an age where schooling costs are under control (or so out of control it no longer matters!), and someone has achieved a fair degree of material success that they would consider, say, a sports car.

        If people were “give until it hurts” altruistic – I think many luxuries, stereos amongst them, would not be as sought after.

        But what a wonderful world it would be if we were, huh?

  7. Audiophile purchases are an indulgence.

    My pet peeve is over the word “deserve” – when someone said you did X you deserve that – I usually wince. Most everyone in the audio world is blessed with the means to buy frighteningly high priced gear. But deserve? Someone who works 3 part time jobs in order to put food on the table and pay rent but nothing else … are they less deserving? Someone working back breaking labor for 80 hours a week making a pittance what a high priced patent attorney makes in an hour is making different money – but who works harder and deserves more? Who can tell?

    Honestly you can (and I see you did!) tie yourself up in knots over the whole thing.

    The fact of unequal outcomes have been with us since ancient days – the concept of tithing 10% to the Church who would then go out and perform charitable acts on the congregation’s behalf go back to thousands of years BC. Government getting into the act as well go back nearly as long. Both of these are trying to “do more” for people with less – and to salve the conscious of people who are feeling guilty about their success. My point is, we’ve been wrestling with it as long as we have had civilization – and the only answers come with the telltale signs of creeping guilt. Some people dive down the delusion rathole and claim their fellow men are a bunch of lazy so-and-so and are therefore undeserving (usually extrapolated off of one poor person who they saw do something lazy once) – a whole political movement was started by Ayn Rand over this. I started to go down that rathole, but further observations made me conclude it is someone trying to convince themselves the amount they are doing is sufficient. Most of the time, the poor are poor because they can’t command high wages – as simple as that. Life circumstances and situation, and thrown into sharp relief during the current weak economy.

    So in order to set a limit, life forces you to draw a line with shaking hands, and say “there, that’s the limit” – and then spends the rest of the time testing those limits. Sometimes in the wee hours of the night.

    But one practical strategy: Make sure you have a cushion of cash you can lay your hands on for an emergency for you and yours (a few months to a year of take home salary in case of sudden unemployment or something similar). After giving to charities, have another bucket of cash that is there in case there is a tragedy that would require extra effort for others (family, or some sort of tragedy that requires extra giving). Make sure your kids education is on track for when they hit the frighteningly high cost of college. And make sure you have enough to go on a family vacation – even a humble one – every year. I am assuming the regular cash-flow exercises of putting food on the table and various bills are scales right and paid for. At that point, I think audio purchases have the right priority. May not help with the late night guilt, but it gives you something to review in case it creeps up on you at 3AM …

  8. On the air planes they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping your child.
    Listening to music on a great system is like that for us, it is breathing deep and refreshing that part of us that empowers our ability to take on tomorrow.

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