The Quest for Acoustic Perfection
What is music? It is more than just sounds, more than just the sum of its rhythms, melodies and harmonies. Music not only acts on our ears, it also stimulates our minds, our bodies and our souls. Music can intensify our emotions, influence our identities and take us back in time. Or in the words of the famous quotation, “Music speaks what cannot be expressed.”
Audiophiles, from the Latin “audire”, to hear, and the Greek “philos”, one who loves, are like the custodians of the Holy Grail among passionate music lovers. These “lovers of hearing” have dedicated themselves to the quest for the ultimate listening experience, and therefore to the perfection of music reproduction. They are waging war against what they see as the increasing devaluation of music throughout the world. They abhor the abysmal quality of endless canned music in shops and restaurants, which they consider to be a violation of music as a cultural asset. They want to rediscover the passion of music and to find goodness and purity in sound. “If you’ve never cried when listening to music,” one audiophile explained, “you will never understand what high-end is.” Or as expressed by an anonymous quotation: “Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.”
Silky trebles, tight basses
The audiophile movement began approximately thirty years ago. Audio perfectionists who were dissatisfied with the sound of their hi-fi systems spent their time meticulously soldering wires and fiddling with every possible component in their search for the optimum sound. Today, the high-end movement includes over a million music lovers. Audiophiles meet at their own fairs and exhibitions to talk about “tight” basses and “silky” trebles, and to discuss depth of sound, standing waves or interfering frequencies; manufacturers provide the sound perfectionists with more and more highly developed, luxuriously finished high-end audio equipment, often for the price of a small car, and offer them exotic accessories such as power purifiers, thick gold-plated cables or an 8,000 watt generator that allows them to generate interference-free electricity in their own homes. Specialist magazines test audiophile power sockets – which, at several hundred euros each, are admittedly somewhat more expensive than the five euro versions from the DIY shop – to determine their influence on sound reproduction.
The Holy Grail for every audiophile is the absolutely original reproduction of the music as it was played in the studio, which means that such things as treble or bass controls are frowned upon. An essential role is played by the microphones, as these are the first link in the recording chain and are therefore decisive for the quality of the sound reproduction. Headphones also have to meet very special demands in the audiophile world. With headphones, the sound acts directly on the auditory canal and not, as in the case of natural listening, on the whole head. What is more, as the ear lobes are “deactivated”, the natural spatial listening effect can only be achieved by highly sophisticated technical means. It was with the ambitious aim of producing no less than the best headphones in the world that Sennheiser’s experts began the development of their “Orpheus”. They finally presented their electrostatic headphones with a tube pre-amplifier in 1991 – and surpassed all expectations. Dynamic headphones also undergo constant improvement and refinement, resulting in such models as the HD 650, with its luxurious and exceptionally natural sound reproduction.
Passion and perfection
When people are driven by passion, they tend to go to extremes. Some audiophiles have been known to set the bass exponential horns into concrete in the walls of their living room when building their house and then to arrange all the rooms around their high-end system. Others knock down walls or redesign entire rooms in their efforts to achieve optimum acoustics. Such sound perfectionists are often the subject of ridicule. In a world in which a 300,000 euro supercar is considered as a socially recognized status symbol, the owner of a 200,000 euro high-end audio system is still seen as a rather strange eccentric. But genuine audiophiles couldn’t care less. For them, the perfect reproduction of music is often both a science and a religion. The Objectivists among them demand measurable evidence of the benefit of innovations and additional equipment, while the Subjectivists rely solely on their sense of hearing, regardless of whether an improvement in the sound can be demonstrated on paper or not. Audiophiles hear things that normal listeners don’t even notice – and will perhaps never notice – like a painting on which an art expert can instantly interpret a wealth of details that the average observer will have failed to recognize. Therefore, many people will simply stand in amazement (or simply shake their heads) when confronted with such mystical, audiophile paraphernalia: golden sound bowls placed around the room that vibrate to provide a voice with more depth; or “room animators” that rearrange the air molecules in such a way that they decisively improve the spatial sound. Passion for music and the dream of perfect sound reproduction allow audiophiles to venture into sound dimensions that will forever remain closed to the average listener…