Are High-End Sound Systems Worth The Price?

Audiophiles claim that their fancy-schmancy sound systems serve up rich melodic delicacies that our crud-laden ears just don’t appreciate. Slate asked if their high-end systems were anything more than effete indulgences.

The question was posed in response to two incendiary articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times which argued that improvements in compression technology have made sound quality irrelevant. Slate answered by redefining the question:

If you want the mere gist of music; if you like music wafting in the background; if you want to carry around 1,000 songs in your pocket; if you want to hear a beat and a melody while you jog or ride on the subway–and that’s often what any of us want (even me)–then MP3s are plenty good enough. Convenience doesn’t merely trump quality; it is quality.

But there are some things that only a really good home stereo, playing well-recorded CDs or vinyl LPs, can give you: the texture of an instrument (the woodiness of a bass, the golden brass of a trumpet, the fleshy skin of a bongo); the bouquet of harmonics that waft from an orchestra (the mingling overtones, the echoes off the concert hall’s walls); the breath behind a voice; the warm percussiveness of a Steinway grand; the silky sheen of massed violins; the steely whoosh of brushes on a snare; the undistorted clarity of everything sung, blown, strummed, bowed, plucked, and smacked, all at once–in short, the sense that real musicians are playing real instruments in a real space right before you.

Rain playing on high-end systems can make you reach for an umbrella. Or as Slate extols, it is the difference “between bodega swill and Lafite-Rothschild, between a museum-shop poster and an oil painting, between watching a porn film and having sex.” The right research can uncover very acceptable systems for very reasonable rates. What do you think? Are these systems worth the price? Tell us in the comments.

In Defense of Audiophiles [Slate]
(AP Photo/Hans Punz)