Elitism in Audio and Its Implications

Elitism in Audio and Its Implications

Written by Robert Heiblim

Audio and music are passions. They can be a hobby, a vocation, a lifestyle, a love, a way to live or all of these. They are very personal pursuits and as such, there really is no right or wrong in the pursuit, as long as the person is happy doing so – and even at times when they might struggle with their interests.

But when it comes to sharing our passions about audio (and music) on the internet, why is there is so much vitriol and downright meanness in so many posts, reviews and comments? In particular, why do so many think they are elite and that their view is better than the views of others?

I love audio, for itself (the gear and the technology), its results (superior sound quality and easy access to it) and ultimately, for the love of music. As a hobby, which it is for many, it can be very inclusive. There are uncountable enthusiasts who embrace it. Sharing our enthusiasm, insight and knowledge with others can add to our passion and widen the numbers of members in the club. But too often this is not the case.

I have been engaged in audio for a long time, both as a passion and as a profession. I have some industry perspective, as earlier articles in Copper have expressed. Although I have been involved in product marketing and development at the highest levels, I have also built some of my own speakers, which in my early hobbyist days were crudely built and voiced without the benefit of measuring equipment. They probably would not fare well on today’s internet stage, and I am certain these speakers would be panned, my approaches scorned and scolded by “know-betters.” But would these know-it-alls be right? I loved playing my gear and got many hours of enjoyment out of it. Was that wrong? Did I not really enjoy that music?

There are many participants in today’s online dialogues about audio and sound. Some are highly experienced as hobbyists, inventors and tinkerers, and are actual product developers and engineers. The majority of people in and around audio conduct themselves with great respect for the medium and the music. Most are generous about sharing their sonic and musical tastes even if they do not agree with one another. Almost everyone loves to offer advice, insight and views on the best ways to get the most performance and enjoyment out of their components.

But then some others decide that their views are better – and “must” be enforced. While they are few, they are odious as they poison the discussion. It becomes hard to endure the online trolls who think it is their purpose to weigh in on a discussion as if they are the ultimate arbiters of taste and technology. Of course, a lively argument about things we love is common, as in the end we all can have a good listen and perhaps a nice glass of wine. Yet the pervasiveness of online nastiness is more than common enough to have crept into the public dialogue.

We are made the butt of jokes, as what some of us show in this kind of behavior looks mean and irrational. Even the marketing genius Seth Godin has noted such audio behavior as a dysfunction and also warns against scams and ridiculous prices.  Godin writes, “If you’re into high-end stereo, it’s far easier to find strident voices in defense of $100,000 stereos than ever before…the true believers are in our faces every day. The problem is that these loud voices may be loud, but they might not be right.”

But in case you think Godin is not an audiophile, consider what he writes about listening to a great system, “…For a minute or two, the drum solo on “Monk’s Dream” is totally and completely alive. It even makes the neighbor’s dog turn his head and stare at the speakers.”

And he is not alone, with many in social media forums decrying demeaning comments, or high-minded but uninformed opinions and bashing of others. Godin’s remarks are is just one example but represent the views of many (he is a keen marketer). Do we really want to be portrayed in this way?

Audio enthusiasts may think of ourselves as in our own club, but we do want more people to join the club, or else without new “members” we might ultimately see the end of the development of new equipment and the achievement of ever better performance. While some large firms still conduct product development for high-performance audio components, they ultimately will not if there is no audience for them. Ask people from smaller companies, and they will tell you how hard and expensive it is to continue to innovate in the field. They also worry about marketing to a greying group to buy and support their efforts.

Have you been to any audio shows? Too many are too filled with grey heads, and the future will need younger people. These new entrants into high-performance audio have interest, but if they are told by some internet expert that their love of streaming, or choice of approach, or the gear they can afford is simply not good or “acceptable,” what motivation do they have to venture further? Without exposure to wonderful experiences like immersive audio and high-quality stereo systems,  today’s millennials and GenZs often think and are told that their Bluetooth speakers are “awesome” and unless they experience better how will they know?

Our audio world is composed of many groups. There are the inventors who often lead eponymous firms that realize their ideas. There are the engineers who develop products and technologies using what they have learned or dreamed of and then created to become reality. There are the marketers of corporations that work to discern the unmet needs and open opportunities that lead to innovation. There are the enthusiasts, who help drive innovation by providing valuable feedback and by purchasing products – and participating in online discussions. Added to these groups are all the people who own audio equipment (not just enthusiasts), a very large group indeed as in the US some 98% of households have something that plays music.

All of these groups have opinions and points of view. Sharing them is good and can be interesting and enlightening, but when some have an axe to grind or simply like to sneer at those they consider below them, I maintain that they are toxic, and that this is audio elitism. We should not tolerate it in the audio world, especially if we want to grow our passion and hobby. We can disagree agreeably, and in fact we must. But the kind of negativism that can manifest itself on the internet is more than upsetting; it can be counterproductive.

I ask all who love audio to think hard about this. Discourage the online trolls who make needless and mean commentary. Too many of their unkind remarks, by the way, come from those who often have no real basis to make them, backed up by no facts or technological expertise, with no product comparisons based on experience. But even and maybe especially in light of the fact that elitism in audio is present, we should always strive be kind and welcome all who love music and sound to the party.


Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

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