The Audiophile’s Brain (Or, Why We Do This)

The Audiophile’s Brain (Or, Why We Do This)

Written by Alón Sagee

Most audiophiles, at one point or another, encounter a skeptic – someone who righteously opines that what we do in this hobby (like spending more on high-end gear than on our car) is ridiculous and some would say frivolous. A few times in my own journey I was asked with a smirk, “what’s the goal?” and “when does it end?” Well, thanks for asking, well-meaning friend, beloved spouse, or random contrarian… Hearing beautiful music (especially unamplified acoustic music) being played live by inspired musicians simply thrills me – offering up an experience of being emotionally moved, sometimes to tears, sometimes to quiet laughter, with maybe some scoffing or belly grunts in response to the impossible wonder that’s unfolding before us. So, for me, the ultimate goal for this avocation, even after over forty years of engagement, has not changed – which is to re-create to the best of our ability the sound of live music and to be able, at least to some degree, suspend disbelief of the aural illusion and be transported to various musical events that we were not lucky enough to present at, especially those legendary performances that occurred before we were born.

How else can we experience that? This obsession in essence allows us to build a bridge (audio gear) with an overall sound signature pleasing to our ears, and gain access to our own customized Museum of Music (LPs, CDs, etc.) with more brilliant content than we could ever explore in one lifetime. Sitting in front of a well-designed high-end system, even the most resolute skeptic, if they’re honest, will hear more clarity, tonal richness, detail and dynamics than they’ve ever heard before…but until they experience the illusion of an entire system disappearing right in front of their closed eyes, they won’t quite feel the magic of being there. To me, this system disappearing act is Level One, the true embarkation point on the audiophile’s journey. Beyond hearing the in-breath of the musicians or the metallic twang and scrape of the bassist’s fingerprints on thick strings, having the intention of the composer revealed to us through the music is probably the most elusive on our spectrum of checkpoints. In my experience, that has only been possible when our aural sense is given the floor and with eyes closed – as to not add ocular input to confuse the listening experience – we allow ourselves to be immersed while applying a good measure of suspended disbelief. This is a state of mind where we are willing to drop the inner chatter and allow our ears to give us the sensation that we’ve been transported to a different time and place. Eastern mystics will laugh, saying, “it’s all illusion, so we might as well enjoy it!” Indeed, the brain is truly remarkable…so let’s have some fun exploring: In 1897, a scientist named George Stratton published an intriguing experiment illuminating the power and adaptability of the human brain. He fashioned a set of eyeglasses that would flip the wearer’s world upside down (of course, an illusion). The participants in the experiment wore these glasses 24/7 for an extended time. What is truly amazing is that after a few days of wearing the glasses, their brains flipped the flip! The brain corrected the cognitive dissonance introduced by a physical influence (the glasses)! Here’s an experiment that shows the brain’s stunning processing power and its ability to present our world to us in ways we can understand.

Deep breath and read on: Can you raed tihs? I cdnnolt blveie tabt I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. Tihs sohws the pheonmneaI pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy. it deosn't mttare in waht oredr the Itteers in a wrod are, the only iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat Iteer be in the rhigt pclae. The set can be a taotl mses and you can sltill raed it woulhit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef. but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slplnieg was ipmorantt! You just read what seemed like a bunch of jumbled letters and made sense of an entire mixed-up paragraph. That’s your brain at work, showing off. Here’s another example. Soften your focus and stare at this moving graphic…cool, huh? Except that there is nothing moving in this image…nothing. To prove the point, just stare at any of the black center-holes for a few seconds and watch everything stop (It never actually started). Rotating illusion. Our wonderful brains create an illusion of movement that we see every time we look, even when we know it’s not real. Our brain processes incoming data in ways we’re just starting to understand. Will we get to experience the Holodeck in our lifetime? Probably. Today’s “augmented reality” technology is getting closer every year. But it’s not about tech…we can go old school on this illusion thing – like, when we get lost in a well-written book that we can’t put down…our brain lets us feel like we are there, each page evoking a myriad of moving images of our own creation as we read. Like submarines that don’t have windows, our brains use echo-location – akin to sonar – to place musicians and instruments in space. But in our culture, it seems easier to accept the illusions the eyes see, but the ears…not so much. “I’ll believe it when I see it!” is the common cry of a skeptic. Truth is, “you’ll see it when you believe it.” Suspending disbelief makes all this possible, which explains why we keep striving for an ever-improving experience of the illusion of reproduced music. We spend lots of time and mountains of cash making adjustments, trying outlandish tweaks and supplicating the Gods of Audio to get the images and soundstage aligned in a rock-solid 3-D illusion of a musical performance. We close our eyes, suspend disbelief and trust our systems and music to immerse us in aural bliss. As for the skeptics, bring them on. We are supported knowing the absolute joy a well-designed, holographic-illusion-creating audio system can bring into their lives.

That’s why we do this...and once they experience it for themselves, there’s no turning back. Their lives are changed forever. Alón Sagee is Chairman and Chief Troublemaker of the San Francisco Audiophile Society.

Alón’s writings for Copper can be found in the following issues:

And some more fun: Can you identify this place? Is it an illusion, a photograph, or a painting? Write a comment with your answer. Header image courtesy of
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