An audiophile is a person who has a great interest in high-fidelity sound reproduction. Some audiophiles are more interested in collecting and listening to music, while others are more interested in collecting and listening to audio components, whose “sound quality” they consider as important as the recorded musical performance, or even more important. The ratio of an audiophile’s spending on software (music) versus hardware (audio components) is a rough guide to where they stand in the audiophile spectrum.
While audiophiles would prefer to listen to music at home whose sound quality matches an original live performance, they realize achieving that goal is very rare in a typical relatively small home listening room. An additional problem is that few recordings are actually of live music — they are usually recordings of individual instruments subjectively blended together by a recording engineer.
While specialized electronic components and speakers can create “good sounding” music in a home listening room, the goal of creating the illusion of live musicians at home is very difficult to achieve with two-channel audio, and difficult with five or more channel “surround sound” audio.
An audiophile who has heard an unusually high quality recording in a high quality listening room, reproduced with high quality audio components, may spend a lifetime trying to duplicate that experience. However, few recordings are good enough to sound like live music at home, under any circumstances, so a challenge for some audiophiles is determining what sounds “best” to his (or her) ears in a room at home, while listening to his recorded music collection. This challenge, plus the audible effects that different listening room acoustics have on sound, make “sound quality” very subjective among audiophiles, except for the general agreement that what they are hearing doesn’t really sound like live musicians playing in the room.
These specialized audio components include turntables, digital-to-analog converters, equalization devices, preamplifiers and amplifiers. Both high quality solid-state and vacuum tube amplifiers are used. The quest for audio perfection can also include horn loudspeakers or electrostatic speakers, power conditioners, subwoofers and acoustic room treatment.
Audiophile values may be applied at all stages of music reproduction: the initial audio recording, the production process, and the playback, which is usually in a home setting. High-end audio refers to expensive, high-quality, or esoteric products and practices used in the reproduction of music. Electronic gear used by audiophiles can be bought at specialist shops and websites. Audiophiles can purchase special recordings made with extra attention to sound quality, some being special audiophile-oriented reissues, as well as recordings in high-resolution formats such as Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio. Many modern audiophiles also take advantage of lossless file formats such as WAV, FLAC, WMA Lossless, and Apple Lossless.
An audio system typically consists of a number of components. These include one or more source components, one or more amplification components, and (for stereo), two or more loudspeakers.
In addition, different signal cables (analog audio, speaker, digital audio etc.) can be used to link these components. There are also a variety of accessories. These include specialized equipment racks, power conditioners, devices to reduce or control vibration, peripheral devices such as record cleaners, anti-static devices, and phonograph needle cleaners, and reverberation reducing devices such as speaker pads and stands, sound absorbent foam and soundproofing.
The interaction between the loudspeakers and the room plays an important part in sound quality. Sound vibrations are reflected from walls, floor and ceiling, and are affected by the contents of the room. Room dimensions can create standing waves. There are devices for room treatment that affect sound quality. Soft materials, such as draperies and carpets, can absorb higher frequencies, whereas hard walls and floors can cause excess reverberation.
Audiophiles play music from a wide variety of sources such as phonograph records, compact discs (CDs), and digital audio file formats that are uncompressed as well as ones that are compressed using lossless data compression like FLAC, Windows Media Audio 9 Lossless and Apple Lossless. Since the early 1990s, CDs have become the most common source of high-quality music. Nevertheless, turntables, tonearms, and magnetic cartridges are still used, despite the difficulties of keeping records free from dust and the delicate set-up associated with turntables.
The 44.1 kHz sampling rate of the CD format, in theory, restricts CD information losses to above the theoretical upper-frequency limit of human hearing – 20 kHz, see Nyquist limit. Newer formats such as DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), with sampling rates of 88.2 kHz or 96 kHz or even higher, have been developed in an attempt to address this criticism.
CDs are made utilizing 16-bit technology. Some higher-definition consumer formats such as HDCD-encoded CDs contain 20-bit and even 24-bit audio streams. With more bits more dynamic range is possible; 20 bit dynamic range is theoretically 120 dB—the limit of most consumer electronic playback equipment.
In MP3 encoding, as well as with other lossy compression formats, musical information is lost in proportion to the degree of compression.
A preamplifier selects among several audio inputs, amplifies source-level signals (such as those from a turntable), and allows the listener to adjust the sound with volume and tone controls, switchable filters, etc. A power amplifier takes the “line-level” audio signal from the preamplifier and drives the loudspeakers; typically the only control on a power amplifier, if one exists at all, is a gain (level) control.
Audiophile amplifiers are available based on solid-state (semiconductor) technology, vacuum-tube (valve) technology, or hybrid technology—semiconductors and vacuum tubes.
Dedicated amplifiers are also commonly used by audiophiles to drive headphones, especially those with high impedance and/or low sensitivity, or electrostatic headphones
The cabinet of the loudspeaker is known as the enclosure. There is a wide variety of loudspeaker enclosure designs, including sealed (acoustic suspension), ported (bass-reflex), transmission line, infinite baffle, horn loaded, and aperiodic. The enclosure plays a major role in the sound of the loudspeaker.
The drivers are the actual sound-producing elements, referred to as tweeters, midranges, woofers, and subwoofers. Driver designs include dynamic, electrostatic, plasma, ribbon, planar, ionic, and servo-actuated. Drivers are made from various materials, including paper pulp, polypropylene, kevlar, aluminum, magnesium, beryllium, and vapor-deposited diamond.
The direction and intensity of the output of a loudspeaker, called dispersion or polar response, has a large effect on its sound. Various methods are employed to control the dispersion. These methods include monopolar, bipolar, dipolar, 360 degree, horn, waveguide, and line source. These terms refer to the configuration and arrangement of the various drivers in the enclosure.
The positioning of loudspeakers in the room and of the optimum listening position (referred to as the “sweet spot”) is of great importance in producing optimum sound. Loudspeaker output is influenced by interaction with room boundaries, particularly bass response, and high frequency transducers are directional, or “beaming.”
Audiophiles use a wide variety of accessories and fine-tuning techniques, otherwise known as “tweaks,” to improve the sound of their systems. These tweaks include: filters to clean the electricity; equipment racks to isolate components from floor vibrations; specialty power cables, interconnect cables (e.g., between preamplifier and power amplifier), and loudspeaker cables; loudspeaker stands (and footers to isolate them from the stands); and room treatments – to name but a few.
Room treatments consist of several types. One type is sound-absorbing materials which are placed strategically within a listening room to reduce the amplitude of early reflections, and to deal with resonance modes. Another type is called diffusion which is designed to reflect the sound in a scattered fashion. Room treatments can be expensive and difficult to optimize—as acoustics is considered to be both an art and a science.
Audiophiles may use headphones as a high quality output for their music.
Audiophile-standard headphones retail in the region of $60–$1,700, although it is possible to spend upwards of $14,000 (e.g. the Sennheiser HE-90). Headphones marketed to audiophiles are a tiny fraction of the cost of comparable speaker systems and do not require any room adjustment for music enjoyment. Running afoul of community noise regulations or even disturbing roommates can be avoided. Newer canal-phones, while as expensive as their larger counterparts, can be driven by less powerful outputs like portable devices.
Headphones are also often used by audiophiles in environments that wouldn’t accommodate a full audio system, such as the workplace or an unsuitable room at home. Some audiophiles[who?] claim that there are headphones that can surpass the quality of any entry level Hi-Fi speaker set.
Audiophiles are split into three schools of thought regarding testing. Objectivists believe that audio system measurements and double blind testing is of the greatest importance. Subjectivists believe that measured performance can not account for all discernible differences in sound quality and thus they rely on extended listening tests to form an opinion. Audiophiles in the third group choose to combine both approaches by performing objective technical tests in combination with extended subjective listening tests.
Given that each step in capturing, storing, and playing back music may degrade it, especially due to the fact that circuitry is prone to electromagnetic interference and electronic noise, many audiophiles agree that the fewer and simpler the stages, the better. Many audiophile components, for example, lack tone control circuits, since it is felt that these may degrade the audio quality while moving the sound away from the ideal.
The minimalist subjectivist assertion is that music contains elements which cannot be measured by electronic instruments, so the less one alters the original signal, the more likely it is that this unmeasurable quality is preserved. Conversely, corrections for imperfections in the equipment cannot be adjusted, nor can effects of the specific room that is in use.
Objectivists, however, want to reasonably quantify and specify the effects of input source, amplifier set-up, system power, speaker configuration, etc. on the listening experience. This desire is complementary to purely subjective preferences in quantifying the perceptible effects of different equipment set-ups.
Analog sound vs. digital sound reproduction
Audiophiles differ in opinion over the relative value and performance of digital and analog media. Pro-digital audiophiles believe that digital technology’s absence of clicks, pops, wow, flutter, acoustic feedback, and rumble make it superior to records. They also assert that digital technology has a higher signal-to-noise ratio, has a wider dynamic range, has less total harmonic distortion, and has a flatter and more extended frequency response. Pro-analog audiophiles believe that analog sound lacks the deleterious effects caused by the analog to digital conversion necessary to produce CDs and therefore analog music reproduction from records played on a properly configured turntable/tonearm setup is superior to digital music reproduction from CDs played on CD players. Additionally, pro-analog audiophiles often find the coloration of the music in analog formats to be desirable.
In the high-fidelity debate, some prefer vacuum-tube electronics over solid-state electronics, because despite inferior measured performance, some claim a warmer or more musical sound. Vacuum-tube amplifiers are often attacked as inferior because, in addition to their substantially higher total harmonic distortion, they require rebiasing, are less reliable, generate more heat, are less powerful, and are often more expensive.
Some have long believed that sound quality was degraded by large levels of negative feedback in amplifiers. Poorly-designed feedback systems can produce poor sound quality. Thus the association of feedback with poor sound quality is likely a reflection of poorly-designed power amplifiers that use feedback incorrectly. Feedback impacts the harmonic balance of the distortion spectra.