is an individual for whom the sonic accuracy
greatly enhances the experience of listening to music. As such, they do pursue superior sound quality within the limits of their budget and space, primarily through the acquisition of audiophile quality equipment. This pursuit is a hobby
and may become consuming, much as other pastimes.
Like many hobbyists, audiophiles hold strong opinions. There are three basic divisions: analog versus digital, tube versus solid state, and tweaks.
Analog supporters promote the superiority of the long playing record or LP over the compact disk, or CD. They concede that CD's are more convenient than LP's. arguing that convenience and resistance to scratches are the real reason behind the mediums popularity. Their criticisms center around the mechanisms by which sound is digitized, arguing that the conventions of a Phillips Red Book CD lead to significant, if subtle data losses that are preserved on vinyl.
In my view they have a real point, though many audiophiles are adamant about vinyl to the point of absurdity. CDs have lower acoustic noise than LPs, which are particularly sensitive to even the tiniest bit of dust and dirt. That's a real advantage. But when played on very good equipment, LPs may produce a sound with a three dimensional quality that CDs lack. Audiophiles refer to this quality as imaging. Imaging is the ability of a recording and audio system to place sounds in space. Excellent imaging can greatly enhance the listening process. However, this advantage is probably moot to nonexistent when listening through most mass marketed equipment. Speakers designed for time coherence are a minimal requirement for good imaging.
Their have been several attempts to address these shortcomings. The earliest was the High Definition Compact Disk where an improved system of Analog to Digital Conversion,and it produced some sonic gains. However, limited software availability and the modest improvement have probably put that system on the back shelf. Two more recent and more systems have been produced, SACD and DVD-A. Both take advantage of improved data storage available on DVD disks. SACD has the advantages of compatible disks and the lack of watermarking. In fact, my SACD machine does a wonderful job, when the recording itself is good enough to take advantage of the difference. DVD-A disks may be watermarked, a digital technology imposed by the recording industry in order to reduce software piracy. The industry claims watermarks are inaudible, many audiophiles beg to disagree. Having not compared the disks, I have no opinion at this time.
In addition, upsampling has been adopted by some manufacturers as a means of improving the sound of existing Red Book CD's. The idea is to cancel errors by repeating and comparing the digital stream. The technique produces modest gains in comparison to SACD and DVD-A but does not require new software.
Audiophiles heatedly debate the superiority of solid state and tube amplifiers. Tube proponents argue that tubes handle waves better than transistors for technical reasons, and when they do distort the overtone series produced is less offensive. The fact that tubes can be changed, encourages hobbyists to experiment. While I share SilentElkofYesterday's strong preference for solid state equipment, I have heard some really wonderful tube amplifiers.
Tweaks are small changes made in order to enhance the performance of an existing music reproduction system. Common tweaks include power conditioning, experimenting with cables and speaker wires and changing tubes. One amplifier, the Mesa Baron allows the user to change rectification and tube use modes.
People tweak primarily because they enjoy tweaking. Some interesting theoretical work on cables has appeared arguing the differing ways electrons pass through conductors may produce wave form distortion. However, your system had better be damned good before you hear that difference! Power conditioning may offer real benefits, particularly to those with poor house wiring. The benefits will vary from place to place. By smoothing the power wave form and maintaining a constant voltage power conditioners allow equipment to perform at its peak. However, the effect will be less pronounced when problems are not present. Tiptoes and quality speaker stands may produce greater rigidity. As sound is vibration, any speaker stabilization will improve accuracy, again by allowing the speaker to perform unimpeded.
However, some tweaks are just plain silly. Shun Mook Mpingo Disks are little wooden disks that when placed on equipment, are purported to improve the sound by some, apparently psychic, means. Despite real support among some audiophiles, tweaks may simply represent the placebo effect in action.
However, I disagree strongly with SilentElkof Yesterday's argument about that audiophiles prefer complex systems. Far more common is the drive toward simplicity. This drive is behind common preferences for single-end triode amplification. SET amps use a single tube to amplify the signal, sacrificing power output for sound purity. Two-way speakers are very common in the audiophile world, including some very expensive speakers like the ProAc Response 2.5, which reproduces the full range with one 1" tweeter and a single 7" woofer. Many amplification systems contain no tone controls at all for that reason. In my system, the tone controls are bypassed.
The underlying argument behind the drive to simplicity is that anything put in the signal path is a potential distortion source. Unless handled with great care-- and often expense-- these sonic additions will hurt more than help. This principle is generally accepted among audiophiles, and represents one argument used by those who prefer single-ended triode amplifiers. Frankly, the the point where complexity's advantages outweigh its disadvantages is debatable. The bottom line is sound quality, itself a subjective property. I purchased a system that produced as accurate and clean sound as I could afford, and spent a lot of time shopping and comparing before I spent. Audiophiles spend a lot of time shopping.
In case anyone is interested, I have owned over the years amplification components by Lafayette (high school), Nikko, Soundcraftsman, Dynaco and Adcom. Speakers included Windsor model 200, Bose 901 series II, MIcroAcoustic FRM-1a (world's most fragile tweeters), Bozak Symphony and Kevek ES-8.
My current system consists of: A McIntosh 6500 Integrated Amplifier, Paradigm Reference Studio 100 speakers, Sony DVP-9000ES SACD/CD/DVD player, Rotel RT-1080 tuner. and a very old Thorens TD-160c turntable with a Shure V-15MRx cartridge. Yeah, it rocks.