“Buy the second-cheapest.”
That was the advice once given to me by an audio technician during a conversation about wiring up sound systems. He’d happily dealt with cabling for anything from home sound systems to concert halls, and his rationale remained the same throughout: the cheapest stuff is sometimes garbage due to attempting to win the race to the bottom, but whatever’s sitting above that is usually fine for most tasks - and especially home use.
This sagely advice never failed me, although it resulted in odd clashes of minds. Once, while visiting a well-known high-street electronics retailer, I was after a simple dual-phono-to-minijack adapter, and was directed by an eager sales assistant-cum-toddler to one that cost 50 quid. I enquired as to whether this presumably magical component came with a sound-system thrown in for free, and the snarky staff member turned practically apoplectic with rage when I asked about a cheaper alternative.
“But that doesn’t have gold connectors, and wasn’t massaged into existence by unicorns being serenaded by elves singing the greatest hits of Enya,” he probably said, before huffing off in a huff, pausing only briefly to huffily slam a marginally cheaper connector down on the counter.
I didn’t buy that one either.
Cables as expensive as cars
Since then, I’ve immersed myself deeply in the world of gadgets, largely through writing about them, partly by actually using them, and surprisingly regularly by being utterly bewildered by them - or at least by the way people seem to ignore the basics of reality and take leave of their senses when it comes to certain kit. Things get tribal when it comes to brands - Apple and Microsoft; Apple and Google; Apple and, well, anything that’s not Apple - but nothing is crazier than venturing into the world of the audiophile.
These are people that would grab the aforementioned sales assistant by the scruff of the neck, wrench him away from his beloved Teletubbies, and demand to know why he was offering an adapter that cost a mere £50. Clearly, he should only be selling kit rolled in diamonds and truffles, making your ears orgasm with every single emitted note.
And if you think that sounds absurd, it is; but if there’s one thing the audio industry is increasingly fantastic at, it’s the absurd. You get speaker cable akin to a garden hose, and insanely expensive cable ‘risers’, presumably designed to stop electrons being attacked by your carpet.
The briefest of Google searches while writing this article unearthed a three-metre phono lead priced similarly to a typical hatchback. And even at the saner end of the spectrum, you find Sony’s new Walkman, which costs a grand and claims to upscale music, or the PonoMusic shop, with super high-resolution audio files that also have super high-end pricing compared to downloads available elsewhere.
Sounds like snake oil
Most of this stuff feels like audio homeopathy - blind devotion combined with confirmation bias forcing you to believe that the music coming out of your speakers must sound amazing if you’ve just blown TWENTY-TWO GRAND on a couple of leads.
The thing that grates - as someone who loves listening to and making music - is that people into all this stuff have passion, but it could be redirected to fight battles that are genuinely damaging music.
We live in a world of terrible earbuds, sporadic availability, low-quality streaming formats and awful mastering - a loudness war that seeks to grab radio listeners but in doing so strips nuance, subtlety and even many of the sounds from every recording. No overpriced cables, triangular music players, upscaling Sony kit, or audio files with specs far beyond the limit of human hearing will ever fix these things.
Then again, that’s just another set of demands the vast majority of people don’t care about, isn’t it? Oh no. I’m an audiophile too, just one with different concerns about music. But pass me that expensive cable catalogue and I will still set fire to it.
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