Fidelity Angst

On the audiophile’s hopeless search for perfect sound

The end of April saw a brief flurry of news articles on a mysterious new audio format called the Ionic Original, created by T Bone Burnett, the former Bob Dylan guitarist who rose to fame as the producer of contemporary Americana masterworks such as Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s Raising Sand and the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The reports tended to lean heavily on Burnett’s description in the press release, as it was far from clear what he was actually describing:

An Ionic Original is the pinnacle of recorded sound. It is archival quality. It is future-proof. It is one of one. Not only is an Ionic Original the equivalent of a painting, it is a painting. It is lacquer painted onto an aluminum disc, with a spiral etched into it by music. This painting, however, has the additional quality of containing that music, which can be heard by putting a stylus into the spiral and spinning it.

In an interview with music production magazine Mix, Burnett clarified that the new format would be a modified “acetate” (also known as a “lacquer” or “dubplate”). These are the fragile, one-of-a-kind discs that artists and mastering engineers listen to in the vinyl production process. Using a recording lathe, engineers cut the master signal into a blank disc in real time, producing an original artifact of the utmost fidelity. In contrast, the vinyl records consumers play are stamped copies of a copy of a copy of a copy of the acetate. “Artists have always lamented that the vinyl copies of their records don’t sound as good as the acetates,” Burnett told reporter Clive Young. “I’ve heard that hundreds of times.” But acetates are exceedingly delicate. Playing one only a few times wears away at the surface, degrading the sound. Burnett’s company, NeoFidelity, developed a new lacquer coating “something like 90 atoms thick,” to create what might be the ultimate analog format — a needle-wear resistant, CD-silent acetate said to exceed the warmth and liveliness of vinyl.

The audiophile obsesses and frets over an erotics of art

Like Neil Young’s now-deceased PonoPlayer, the Ionic Original might be uncharitably characterized as a hi-fi medium created by and for high-wealth, old white dudes. Case in point: NeoFidelity’s first commercial offering, a rerecording of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” recently sold at auction for $1.7 million. Like music NFTs and the $2 million Wu-Tang one-off purchased by “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, Ionic Originals are meant to restore a sense of scarcity and value in a musical economy of digital abundance. But more than anything — and as the company’s name suggests — the format is the newest response to an anxiety as old as the music recording industry itself: fidelity angst.

Like his would-be customers, Burnett is an audiophile, that is, “a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity (‘hi-fi’) sound reproduction.” The fidelity referred to here is a tertiary meaning of the word: “the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.” This hardly sounds like a worthy object of enthusiasm, or anxiety. However, hints of the stakes of audiophilia can be found in fidelity’s primary meaning, of faithfulness to other people or to an ideal, not to mention its secondary meaning of sexual faithfulness. When audiophiles invest in 180-gram vinyl or a better digital-to-analog converter, they invest in faithfulness to people, and sensory intentions, further up the signal chain. Musical reproduction involves more than the capture of vibrations in one space and their recreation in another, more than the transmission of a message from point A to B. This is why the value of a song is not exhausted when we think we’ve interpreted its meaning. The audiophile answers Susan Sontag’s call to put sense over semiotics. To paraphrase Sontag, in place of hermeneutics, the audiophile obsesses and frets over an erotics of art. 

Yes, that sounds a bit creepy, especially given American audiophilia’s documented historical association with wealthy, white patriarchy: The hi-fi system’s place of pride in the postwar bachelor pad or man cave, with its wet bar and mood lighting. The sonic dominance of shared domestic space through its male-coded technology (in contrast to television, often culturally positioned as a low-brow medium for kids and soap-opera watching housewives). The sexist ads in hi-fi magazines. The historical exclusion of women and people of color from engineering roles in the hallowed halls of music production. Today, audiophilia can seem retrograde and even a bit pathetic. Spending $150 on a turntable to spin vinyl is cool again, but spending $17,000 exudes a certain Martin Shkreli energy. By the late aughts, even an obvious audiophile like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood knew to distance himself from “those 30-something men who lurk in hi-fi shops, discussing signal purity and oxygen-free cables and FLACs,” merely admitting he “was very nearly one of them.”

Nevertheless, I will submit there is a certain nobility to the pursuit of “the absolute sound” — or at least an ethics worthy of our deeper consideration. As Tim Anderson points out, the postwar swinging bachelor stereotype tended to erase the earnestness of many audiophiles: their desire for cultural uplift, their “quest for ‘presence.’” Whatever one thinks of lossless audio files and oxygen-free cables, their owners clearly place a high value on listening — on resonating with the communications of others — an interest such men are usually criticized for lacking. When an audiophile of any gender pursues fidelity, they express a desire for affective, sensory intercourse between creators and listeners, a communication beyond signification. Buzzwords like “detail,” “openness,” “flat response,” “immediacy” “warmth,” and “transparency” promote the promise that better technology will better facilitate this sensory exchange. Just as the goal of desire is to extinguish itself, audiophilia’s object is a kind of intimacy and immediacy that can be achieved only when one purchases a technology sophisticated enough to disappear itself, allowing creators and listeners to comingle in its transparency. 

Sadly, this is precisely where the angst comes in, as this magic connection is one that technology both promotes and frustrates at once. In any form of intercourse, erotics and mechanics are mutually dependent, yet they can also be at odds with one another. In order to achieve transparency, audiophiles fixate on the technology itself. Even at its best, this can be an expensive diversion from the music — a hobbyist space for research and experimentation. Audiophile listening is a complex assemblage. It’s not just the many modular components that must be chosen — amplifiers, turntables, tuners, converters, speakers. It’s also the (in)compatibility of these components — power, impedance, digital codecs, and so on. One must also consider speaker placement and the acoustics of the room one listens in, not to mention all of the accessories and connective tissue.

Fidelity angst is an anxiety as old as the music recording industry itself

As hi-fi journalist Patrick Dillon has written, “A three-decade obsession with sound has convinced me that the natural state of an audiophile is not, as we are promised, the relaxed contemplative state of auditory bliss, but the slightly anxious ambivalence of uncertainty…. You will live with a persistent sense that all is not quite well, that you could do better, and that your system is always in need of something.” What if a top-notch system is being held back by a cheap power supply or speaker cables? How would you know without trying a more expensive one? It’s easy to see why the snake oil flows so copiously in this space.

However, audiophiles are not alone in their restless discomfort. Indeed, fidelity angst is an engine that drives all manners of digital innovation. Each year, consumers purchase devices with faster processors, higher pixel counts, larger screens, lighter and thinner enclosures, more comfortable keyboards, VR, speech-to-text, and voice activation. Each innovation promises a more ideal form of connection via an improved interface with our senses — an interface so good that we will finally forget that it is there. As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin write, in our earnest quest for presence, we end up multiplying our media technologies in the hopes of disappearing them. 

Nevertheless, with each advance, “the slightly anxious ambivalence of uncertainty” persists or increases. This is, in part, because the multiplication of technologies generates uncertainty through its own complexity. Take for example the proliferation of surround sound formats and technologies in the streaming era. “Easy-to-use” soundbars and wireless speaker systems promise “a true cinematic experience” for viewers at home, yet they tend to prompt the question, Am I getting the true experience? If Dolby Atmos is such a giant advance in cinematic experience, you’d think we’d know if we were hearing it. But that’s the crux of fidelity angst: if we take the promise of media immersion with the seriousness that technology companies encourage, we can’t help but break the spell by wondering if this is really it. The promise of immersion is thus self-negating. 

We end up multiplying our media technologies in the hopes of disappearing them

When they try out a new cable or component, is the audiophile really listening to the music anymore? Or are they now listening to something else — the difference between their listening and their auditory memory? Or the imagined possibility of a difference between the two? At some point, the erotics of music crossfade into something more onanistic. At its worst, communication equipment becomes a fetish, as when Jodi Dean describes the communicative capitalism of the internet, which, instead of facilitating democracy, becomes its substitute. Counters for likes and retweets are not unlike the specifications sheet for a new amplifier, with its figures for frequency response, total harmonic distortion, and signal-to-noise ratio. Both are metrics of success in communication. Both can generate a certain kind of pleasure in a user trained to appreciate them. And both can quickly take precedence over the communication they ostensibly represent and facilitate. 

In their anxious fixation on sound quality, audiophiles can resemble members of Adorno’s “cult of the master violins,” fetishists who obsess over the sound of a Stradivarius, “forgetting in the process to listen to the composition and the execution.” Thus, “the moments of sensual pleasure in the idea, the voice, the instrument are made into fetishes and torn away from any functions which could give them meaning.”

Lest we think that fidelity angst is merely a conspiracy of the culture industry, we should note that music producers feel it too — and probably more acutely. Musicians, producers, and engineers fret over whether their creations will “translate” to all the different kinds of speakers, soundbars, smart speakers, headphones, earbuds, and car radios that people might be listening on. This becomes particularly tricky when it comes to the electronic bass sounds that predominate in genres such as hip hop, which contain frequencies that are completely inaudible on many small and/or cheap speakers. For this reason, professional studios usually supplement their big, high-priced audio monitors with cheaper speakers and even jam boxes. If you can make a mix sound good on these, the reasoning goes, it should translate well in the real world.

Smaller and semi-professional studios have the additional problem of lacking the top-dollar acoustics and monitoring systems of elite facilities. In this scenario, fidelity angst becomes existential: It’s hard enough to compete against better-known studios, but even harder if you can’t hear your material as well as the competition. This issue has prompted one of the weirdest recent manifestations of virtual reality: mix room virtualization software. Using headphones, producers can now mix their own music through a sonic simulation of famed studios such as Ocean Way and Abbey Road. The simulation of Grammy winner Chris Lord-Alge’s Mix LA studio contains — along with its elite acoustics and giant speakers — a virtual boombox you can use to check your mix’s translation to the real world. “Now, you can hear what I hear,” Lord-Alge promises. Perhaps you can hear what Lord-Alge hears (although this would require, among other things, that your ears happen to be the same shape as his). What is certain is that you will wonder whether you are really hearing what he hears.

In short, fidelity angst fuels the capitalist engine of two audio industries. On the home audio side, consumers wonder whether they are hearing what the producer heard in the studio. On the pro audio side, producers wonder the same. Home and pro audio manufacturers promise to solve the problem with new gear, but every new piece of technology adds greater complexity to the uncertainty of fidelity.

Emoji respond to the impossibility of truly knowing the other through text, becoming the texture of that impossibility

The mysteries, fetishes, and rituals of audiophilia are in some ways unique, but they also hold lessons about the everyday impasses of other communication technologies. They exemplify what media theorist David Cecchetto, building on the work of John Durham Peters, calls “incommunication”: the process by which the impossibility of true communication creates the aesthetic and affective experiences of communication as we know it. Emoji respond to the impossibility of truly knowing the other’s affect through text; in so doing, they become the new texture of that impossibility. Twitter channels citizens’ anger over their political voicelessness, only to drown the vast majority of voices in its overall cacophony. As Peters writes, paraphrasing Franz Kafka, “Those who build new media to eliminate the spectral element between people only create more ample breeding grounds for the ghosts.”  

Cecchetto holds that the latest specter haunting communicative capitalism is data itself. We live and listen, he writes, “in the afterlife of data,” no longer believing in the communicative precision that the digital promised us, but continuing to live as though we do: “Nobody knows what a ’97 percent match’ in the context of a dating app really means — and no reasonable person would take that ranking as indicating that a successful coupling is a foregone conclusion — but the number has a certain allure nonetheless.” Fidelity angst, indeed. 

Perhaps the Millennial and Gen Z embrace of lo-fi and retro technologies indicates a more critical stance on digital incommunication. Whether it’s the resurgence of cassettes and cheap record players or the “treble culture” of kids rocking beats on tinny smartphone speakers in public spaces, one senses an awareness that fidelity and immersion have more to do with intention, attention, and community than lossless files and spatial audio. Which is not to say that the next advance in headphone technology will fail with the kids or that old dudes will stop trying to reanimate their vestigial teenage souls with fetishes like the Ionic Original. Instead, like a lathe moving back and forth to cut a spiral groove, we will continue to oscillate between believing and disbelieving the promises of technology, leaving behind an everchanging history of communication. 

Mack Hagood is the Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies at Miami University, Ohio. He has published work on subjects such as tinnitus, the use of noise-canceling headphones in air travel, the noise of fans in NFL football stadiums, indie rock in Taiwan, and the ontology of Foley and digital film sound. His book Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control is about “orphic media,” apps and devices used to create a comfortable sense of space through sound. He is the producer and host of Phantom Power, a podcast about sound and sound art.