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The Audiophile Forums – A Maddening Obsession!

04-12-2014 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 72

I first became aware of the audiophile forums about ten years ago; at the time, I was working on site at Delta Air Lines in their Corporate Communications department. As a contractor representing R.R. Donnelley, I was required to spend long days there, essentially at their total beck and call. Because of the seriously complicated personal circumstances of my editor at Delta, I was afforded a significant amount of free time to keep myself entertained while the convoluted editorial process of the various magazines took place. Translation: I spent exorbitant amounts of time surfing the web, especially reading the various audio forums, most significantly Audio Asylum. I'd just bought a used pair of Magneplanar MMGs, and I really became fascinated with the daily goings on and personal experiences of the multitude of personalities who populated the site. Many of them had undertaken the various modifications to their MMGs that were in circulation at the time, and there was a wealth of information to folks like myself that were really interested in getting improved performance from their speakers. Although I complained religiously about the Delta assignment (it lasted almost ten years), in hindsight, It was a great experience, and I'd jump at the chance to do it again, though I'd probably try and make better use of all that available free time. 

I eventually performed the "Peter Gunn" crossover mods to the MMGs, which gave them greatly improved bass performance, increased dynamic range and significantly better treble response. All aspects of their performance were enhanced by the mods, and their sensitivity surprisingly improved from the mid-eighties to around 90dB SPL, which really allowed them to sing with my Emotiva XPA-2 amp. I couldn't have been happier with the results, and I felt a real sense of community with the various individuals at AA who obviously shared my passion for great sound. The exchange of information wasn't always pretty, but at the very least, there was a great deal of sometimes highly charged emotion and spirited debate among the participants. It made for an entertaining and often informative read.

With time, I found myself branching out from the planar boards, especially when I got a new turntable and then later became involved with computer-based audio; I was pretty amazed by how much useful information I could access from sources recommended by the usual at AA. And when you're waiting countless hours for an airline's editorial staff or legal department, agonizing over placement of a few commas or the possible ramifications of potentially sensitive material—well, let's just say that time tends to really fly when you're deeply invested in the goings-on of a bunch of online loonies!

A couple of years ago, I started noticing what seemed like a really fundamental shift—especially at AA—the usually mostly genteel rapport among the participants was seeming to become more frequently antagonistic. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and I was really beginning to notice some pretty contemptuous exchanges between some of the regular contributors, especially at the planar board. Over the period of a few months or so the bad conduct basically escalated to a seemingly all-out war—lots of name calling and accusations of trolling. The contagion of craziness seemed to spread to some of the other boards as well, with lots of pretty uncomfortable threads ultimately devolving into near chaos. The end result, for me, at least—I've basically stopped posting on any of the boards. While not entirely to my personal liking, rarely a night has gone by over the last several years that I haven't spent at least an hour or so pouring over and occasionally engaging the activity on either the planar or computer audio boards. 

A recent WTF moment...

I'm pretty thick-skinned; I've learned over the years—especially on the journalistic side—you'd better have your facts straight, or you'll probably get called out over some bit of seeming minutia. A reader at a previous publication wanted to have me removed from the staff because he didn't agree with the slant my review of a recent live Tori Amos video had taken—I obviously wasn't a "true believer" and had no business critiquing the works of a goddess. It's clear that I didn't heap nearly enough praise on what I thought was a pretty lackluster performance. But the experience did help me learn to take criticism in stride and to stand my ground—especially when I felt strongly about something. Here in the age of computer audio, where there's a great deal of discovery underway, and the facts are perhaps less well-understood (or at least, not quite written in stone), perhaps makes for an entirely different set of circumstances. If I visit any of the computer audio forums, it's to hopefully gain knowledge about a particular process, or DAC or other associated piece of equipment.

I recently had a very negative experience on one of the boards—I'd purchased a tweak item that had been getting some really good press, and unfortunately experienced problems with it right out of the gate. I'd been reading a really lengthy thread dealing with that same piece of hardware recently, and one of the personalities that offered commentary was none other than the circuit designer for that item. Hoping to gain a little insight into the nature of my problem, I decided to totally go out on a limb, and opened a new thread where I basically explained my situation and the problem I was experiencing. I listed the associated equipment in my system and called for the designer's assistance in hopefully helping me to understand what perhaps I was or wasn't doing, or if he was familiar with any potential conflicts with any of my particular equipment. In no time at a all he responded, but soon after, the thread was more or less hijacked, and turned into a round-robin of merriment between a handful of participants. They had no interest in my problem other than to call into question the seriousness of my addiction to this hobby and to point out the woeful inadequacies of my system. Out of about thirty responses to my initial thread, one or two seemed genuinely interested in some level of helpfulness while the majority seemed bent on mischief. The designer and I continued our discussion via email and later on Facebook, and he was genuinely helpful, but the forum thread died with no additional input after several days.

The part that really bugs me about the entire experience is the seeming lack of tolerance shown by the majority of the participants for anyone whose system didn't quite reach into megabuck status – the overall sensation of audio snobbery that just won't allow for even the remotest possibility that a five-thousand dollar system can offer anything approaching true listening satisfaction. My handful of wasted attempts to try and salvage the thread and redirect it back into something constructive were quickly rebuffed by those who would prefer to seemingly celebrate the woefulness of my predicament. 

This is a time of great flux in the audio world, and whereas for me it's lead to unquestionable improvement in my increased enjoyment of music, there are so many unknowns out there at the present. PCM or DSD—I don't care—but I do believe that when properly implemented, each system can offer outstanding sound. I know that DSD is the current format of choice by the higher end, but maybe it's a tad too early to make pronouncements of definitive superiority. Hell, I was just reading about PS Audio's new DAC that converts PCM-to-DSD—sounds great to me, although currently out of my price range at around $6000 USD. But the undercurrent of their product description that really got my attention is something that I've been preaching for the last couple of years—and that's that music from PCM sources such as CDs may not be the devil after all, contrary to what the guardians of the high end would have us believe. To quote their website, "billions of CDs and high-resolution downloads worldwide will gain new life and be saved from obsolescence." Using their new PCM-to-DSD DAC you'll be able to extract all the musical details that are currently buried within the CDs—now if only we can get some trickle down technology for those of us with less princely budgets. The bottom line for me, though, is that there are folks out there who believe that PCM-based sound has some intrinsic merit—it just perhaps needs some reprocessing and refinement.

I'm not asking for a paradigm shift in human nature here with regard to the audio forums; it's pretty clear that at least fifty percent of the current participants on most of the boards are either A-class Trolls or are not there to promote anything resembling a positive dialogue. I'm just asking for a little tolerance, that's all. Don't scream at the newbies, and if you don't have anything useful to add, then don't add anything. Not everyone who enjoys this hobby is a one-percenter, and if anything other than mid-fi audio and iPods are to survive at all, we need to get more of the ninety-nine percent involved. And audio snobbery on the forums will not improve our chances of converting the masses.