Audio: Is It One Hobby Or Many?
As I remember it, Hi-Fi, came about from a combination of three things: a love of music; disappointment with how little recorded or broadcast music actually sounded like "the real thing"; and hope that it could be made better.
Rumor has it that the term "hi-fi" (actually a contraction of the term "high fidelity") was invented by hi-fi pioneer Avery Fisher (yeah, the same one the concert hall in New York's Lincoln Center was named after until it became David Geffen Hall in 2015).
Fisher was, first before anything else, a music lover. Born in 1906, he was an accomplished amateur violinist well before he started (circa 1930) working on audio design and acoustics in an effort "to make a radio that would sound like he was listening to a live orchestra – that would achieve high fidelity to the original sound." To work toward that, he first formed the Philharmonic Radio Company((1937) and then went on, in 1945, to form Fisher Radio Company one of the very first companies to market products specifically designed for high quality, realistic, sound.
Another company, founded by and named for H.H. Scott – another innovator and genuine hi-fi pioneer – joined the high performance audio field in 1947, followed by McIntosh Laboratory (1949), and, by the 1950s, so did such other respected firms as Harman-Kardon, Bozak, James B. Lansing (now simply "JBL"), and many, many more.
By the mid 1950s, high fidelity sound was becoming an important enthusiast industry. Then, when the movies added stereophonic sound (first general release in House of Wax, 1953) and the very first stereo phonograph record (Audio Fidelity Records' Dukes of Dixieland Vol. II) became available in 1957, along with a "45/45" phono cartridge to play it, (a ceramic model made by Electro-Voice), hi-fi (now mostly known as "stereo") went on to become a national craze. From there, like the telephone, it became, first, a bit of necessary technology no home could be without and finally, for the general public if not the audiophile community, proof of the old saying that "Familiarity breeds contempt", as people either came to accept it as just another utility or were lured away – at least until recently – by more seductive technologies like TV, computer gaming, the internet, and others.
Even now, though, there still remains a substantial audiophile community. The problem is that it's difficult to tell how substantial it is, because it's difficult to tell just exactly what an audiophile is.
Were those early guys, like Fisher, Scott, Bozak, Lansing, and all the rest, audiophiles back in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, when they first became interested in higher fidelity to the music even though there was no equipment (other than what they built for themselves) for them to listen to and get excited about? What about those people, later on, who became fans of all the great new gear that had come on the market but cared less about the music? Were they audiophiles or something else? What about those happy souls who simply delight in spending the time, money, and effort to try to put together the perfect system, knowing full well that it's impossible, and still having more fun from the continuing quest than they could ever expect from its eventual outcome? Are they audiophiles? Gearheads? Music lovers? Or simply suffering OCD?
Some years ago, Anthony Cordesman ("AHC"), writing in the absolute sound, said that hi-fi seemed more like a sport than a hobby: On the one hand, I can certainly understand what he meant by that: Hi-fi most certainly does have competitive "teams": Analog lovers vs. digital fans; tube-lovers vs. lovers of solid-state; horn speaker lovers; lovers of panel or electrostatic speakers, and believers in or of just about anything that can be done to or said about hi-fi, and who will band together with others of like mind to bring "the good fight" to those who may have another idea of the path to perfection. It's also got fans, and referees or umpires (the reviewers for all of the various publications, and even the fans, themselves, when the discussion turns to who or what or which is better or worse or what works or doesn't, and to what degree.)
Audiophillia, though, at least from what I've seen, is far more than that, and seems to be not so much a single hobby or sport or pastime, or whatever you might want to call it, but a whole constellation of things that audiophiles do and the kinds of people who do them.
There are the guys like the Fishers and Bozaks of yore – the John Curl and Jeff Rowland and Tony DiChiro and Bascom King and Hugh Nguyens of today -- who have the skill and talent to actually make the stuff that others find such joy in listening to. And there are the guys who buy and listen to and enjoy it. And the professional reviewers and the semi-pros and the outright amateurs who, for whatever reason, derive their audiophile satisfaction from writing about what they've heard and advising others to either buy it or to quickly run as far away from it as they can.
There are those whose big turn-on is the opportunity to be an armchair expert, either at home, talking hi-fi with your pals while listening to the same bit of music over and over again while moving one speaker or the other a quarter-inch at a time to get the image "just so", or on the internet, learnedly opining, to the cheers and jeers of others, on what hi-fi is or ought to be.
There are even the guys who just go to hi-fi shows and collect literature and never actually buy a system at all – or at least not a system of the sort that they love to look at, listen to, drool over, and read and argue with their cronies about. And the new, mostly younger kind of audiophiles who, perhaps because it's still possible to get a state-of-the-art system of that kind for not too many thousands of dollars, seem not to care for speakers at all, but who – calling it "personal audio" have gotten into headphones and their associated electronics and created a new, very active section of the market that many in the industry (like me) think may be the source of the next generation of mainstream audiophiles.
Our hobby seems to have fragmented into a whole broad range of sub-hobbies, each having to do with music in one way or another, but all approaching it from a different direction. Good. The more people we have in our fold; the more different thoughts and approaches they bring with them; and the broader range of musical and equipment preferences they embrace; the better chance our hobby will have, not only to continue, but to actually enjoy a resurgence.
I, in the meantime, am going to put a disc on the system, then lean back, close my eyes and...
Enjoy the music.