August 16, 2012

Skepticism in the Audiophile Community

audiophileNot all atheists are skeptics, and not all skeptics are atheists. I happen to be both an atheist and a skeptic, and I have found that skepticism has many advantages even outside of atheism. In this post, I want to tell you about how I ran into some skepticism in what may seem like an unlikely place to find it: the audiophile community.

Believe it or not, my interests are not limited to atheism and progressive politics. I love music (mostly metal and classic rock), have a large collection, and am fascinated with technology to enhance my listening experience. That said, I'm no audiophile.

When I hear the word "audiophile," I have two immediate thoughts. First, I wish I could afford to be one because I love music and high-end technology. Second, I think that "audiophile" refers to someone who pays way too much to achieve minor (or even non-existent) improvements in audio quality. In many ways, being an audiophile seems antithetical to skepticism.

I vividly recall buying an entry level home theater receiver about 11 years ago. I bought what I could afford at the time, and while it wasn't much, it did an adequate job until I replaced it recently. While I had read some unbiased reviews, I really didn't know much of anything about audio gear at the time. The salesman realized this and sold me features I would never use. I even fell for one of the most common ploys of all, buying more expensive cables because I believed they would sound better.

I've learned quite a bit since that time but still consider myself a novice. I now know to buy my A/V cables from Monoprice, and I am much more critical of product reviews unless I know that the reviewer is truly independent. I still make mistakes from time-to-time, but they tend to be fairly inexpensive ones.

I've been spending quite a bit of time in various audio forums online lately, and I've made a few general observations relevant to skepticism. First, it does appear to be true that most audiophiles are about as far from skeptical as one can imagine. Many are willing to spend more than I would on a new car to buy audio gear and swear they can hear a difference between various products without conducting any sort of blind tests. Most seem trapped in a never-ending cycle of upgrading components unnecessarily, pursuing a state of audio nirvana that never quite arrives. Several make outrageous claims about what they can hear that are clearly contradicted by acoustic science. Fortunately, they have a blast doing it and aren't hurting anyone (other than their finances).

Second, there are pockets of skepticism within the audiophile community, and they are sometimes treated in a similar manner by the larger community as atheists are by the larger religious community. That is, they may be viewed with suspicion, unfairly criticized at times, and accused of ruining everyone's fun. And yet, they persist in their efforts to inject a bit of science into the community. Some have advanced scientific degrees and have conducted countless blind tests. They have data, graphs, and the like. It has been neat to see them challenge some of the widely held myths with solid evidence.

Third, although the non-skeptical audiophiles maintain their conviction that they have "golden ears" in the face of science, the skeptics and non-skeptics generally manage to co-exist rather well. While forum regulars will have ongoing disagreements, they almost always manage to keep it civil. Even some of the longest running disputes (e.g., whether high-end audio cables make any perceptible difference in sound) do not typically lead to name-calling. I'm speculating here, but I think one of reasons for this is that they tend to me a far more homogenous community than ours, especially with regard to age.

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