Words and photos by Rafe Arnott
Ask as many people what high fidelity means to them, you’ll probably get as many different answers. While the term culture war has recently seeped into the socially-themed lexicon, the past 30 years has seen one raging for the soul of the hobby – along with hand wringing over how the surviving faction will carry the word forward. Once the hubbub from the cabal of influential groups and voices peddling agendas has died out, it remains to be seen if anyone will care enough to pull a blade over whether burn-in is real or not.
If survival of this niche in music playback is something that even matters, set as it is, within the greater context of the music industry trying to reconcile physical vs. cloud-based media (as, ostensibly, the gear is there to play music) there needs to be alternatives to previously held mindsets of where high fidelity fits in moving forward. The world today is a radically different technological, emotional and intellectual environment for 20 and 30 year olds to navigate then it was for previous generations, and this directly translates to the way they consume and interact with music. For good or bad, this has changed forever. Since many heavily invested in the hobby (or barely invested) didn’t seem keen on contributing positivity to the conversation, perhaps a new way forward needs to be embraced: One of inclusivity. It only takes a casual appraisal of most online ‘audiophile’ forums to detect negativity in that environment. How must it appear to newcomers? Is it almost wholly unrecognizable as enjoyment, brimming not with vitality, but instead with vitriol?
Photo above: Active listening or passive? Most audiophiles wouldn't consider a bespoke rotary mixer a legitmate preamplifer. But have they ever heard one?
Yet it cannot be folly to pursue the pleasure of listening to, and immersing oneself in, music, otherwise tens of millions would all be suffering from the same delusion every day. Within that pool of humanity there as many different tribes of listeners – and the way they choose to listen – as genres of music. Unique tribal alignments fashioned specifically around distinct ways to play back one’s music. There are passive listeners, active listeners and selectors or DJs. There are those who extol the value of solid state, or embrace the virtues of valve amplification. There are analogue or digital recordings. CD, high-resolution downloads and streaming. Vinyl, cassette and reel-to-reel. There are so many ways to support artists and their work musically, and there is no wrong way to enjoy the experience of listening to music. It is an act of recorded (or live) creativity meant – at its core – to bring us together, not push us apart. It’s what made us all spend our hard-earned wages on that first LP, set of speakers or CD player.
Yet, if there is to be any meaningful growth, any substantial linkages made to the love of music and the joy inherent to playback of music, then it must start in the recognition of what it is people identify high fidelity as being. A dear friend once described some manufacturers and consumers in this hobby as viewing music as an impediment, one they wished would “…get the fuck out of the way of their gear.” It has been my experience that the pleasure predicated on putting together a sound system, like collecting records or art, lies in the level of interaction with which one chooses to engage; the more, the better. I know for me it is a means to an end, and not merely an effort to curate physical objects for their own sake. But what is it to you?
Photo above: Whether it is LPs, CDs or cloud-based streaming services, there is no wrong way to listen and enjoy music. Yet, many in the hobby focus on what sets us apart from one another, as opposed to what it is which brings us together.
In an effort to gather empirical data though real human beings who live, eat and breathe music and to whom the beauty of great sound matters (and perhaps, the provenance of how that music was recorded matters), I humbly ask the readers who have endured this article up to now, “What is High Fidelity to You?”
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