INSIDER OUTLOOK #6: Audiophile Philosophy

Roger Skoff

Back in the early 1990s, when I had just started XLO, I got a phone call from someone who introduced himself as Roy Harris, and said that he wanted to ask me a question about cables.

Not that it makes any difference — I certainly would have answered his questions anyway — but I knew that there was an American classical music composer of that name, and I was complimented to think that, If he was that Roy Harris, he had chosen me to be his source of information about cables.

In any case, I told him that I would be glad to help him in any way I could, and asked him what his question was, to which he responded by asking me what my cables sounded like.

“Nothing;” I told him, ”we just want them to pass signal and do nothing else at all.”

“No,” he said, “That’s not what I meant; what do they sound like?”

“They sound like whatever is on the recording,” I said, “as your system picks it up and delivers it from the component before the cable, to be passed on to the component after it.”

“No, that’s not what I’m asking.” he said, “What do they sound like? I like cables to be sort of ‘butterscotch”-sounding. (Note: thick, sweet, and creamy)

Are your cables butterscotch-sounding?”

“No, to the degree possible, all of our cables have no sound of their own at all. We think that cables should just pass the music as it is, and have no effect of any kind on the sound of the system; not adding, subtracting, nor changing anything in any way.”

“Oh,” he said, “well, thank you for your honesty, but I do want the kind of sound I’m looking for”, and went on to ask if I knew of any other cable brand that might better meet his needs.

For whatever it’s worth, it turned out that this wasn’t the composer Roy Harris – that one was long dead by the time of the call. The important thing, though, was not that, but the philosophy behind his question: He specifically wanted to buy cables that would make his system sound the way he wanted it to. Was that right?

There’s really no one “right“ answer to that question.

My personal belief is that a Hi-Fi system is a tool for reproducing music, not for making it. Therefore, any departure it might make from just exactly what has been recorded is wrong, and a system should, as I told him about cables, neither add nor subtract anything from the recorded sound and should, to the extent possible, change nothing about it in any way. The term “Hi-Fi”, just as an illustration, is a contraction of the original term “high fidelity”, probably coined by Avery Fisher back in the 1930s or ‘40s, to refer to sound that was, in so far as technology allowed,  “highly faithful” to the music as it had been recorded. That, in every aspect, from the original playback source, through the speakers, to the room in which it’s being played, is what I strive for in my own system and in all of the products of any company I’m involved with.

Other people – Roy Harris for one – have a quite different point of view. They think that music is for enjoyment; that the purpose of a system is to make music; and that, therefore, anything that the system can do to make music more enjoyable it should do. That’s why many systems have tone controls (the High End calls them anything from “equalizers” to “digital signal processors”, and they cost anywhere from nothing at all, when included as part of a receiver, to many thousands of dollars, when loaded with features and purchased as a separate system component, but whatever you call them they’re still just tone controls to change the sound of your music to better suit your taste.) Musical enjoyment is the primary goal of people like this and, to their minds, anything that can help to achieve it is a good thing.

The whole issue is really a matter of audio philosophy, and different people view our hobby in different ways:

Some audiophiles aren’t really what I would call audiophiles at all: They love the music, but care not at all about the process or equipment for getting it off the recording and into their ears. To them, music is like a fine meal served by a great chef: As long as the taste and the presentation are satisfying, the recipe simply doesn’t matter.

Others are both music lovers and equipment mavens. They love great sound and they love great equipment and being an audiophile gives them the enjoyment of having both.

Still others play High-End audio as a sport: They set up rules. (They decide, for example, whether to play for absolute fidelity to the original recording or for the sound that pleases them.) They take sides. (Analog or digital; tube or solid state; physical or streaming) They pick teams to follow and be fans of ( Rowland vs. Krell; horn speakers vs. cones vs. planars; McIntosh vs. Audio Research; etc.) In short, the whole hobby becomes great fun in all its aspects, and enjoying the hobby, itself, becomes as much a goal as enjoying the music.

The Hi-Fi hobby can be enjoyed in just about as many ways as there are people to enjoy it. I’ve even known people who don’t particularly like listening to music, but have gotten caught-up in the technological challenge of trying to reproduce it accurately. Whatever turns you on is just fine, and just as good for you as another way might be for somebody else.

So, to answer that first question about whether Roy Harris was right to want cables that would change the sound of his music; of course he was. But so was I in thinking he was wrong in what he wanted. And so would you be right in thinking something else.

Enjoy!