I like to think of myself as a bit of an audiophile. I’ve spent time and money creating a collection of headphones and some basic sound equipment. I wanted to write about how it all started, how my tastes and habits in music evolved, and where I stand now in terms of audiophilia.
Music in my formative years
My parents had a huge hand in molding my love for music because they are huge fans of music themselves. My parents always start their day listening to Indian classical and semi-classical music. They have quite the knowledge about the different artists and styles of Indian classical music, and my father always took the time to explain to me how particular ragas were best listened to at particular times of the day, for example.
My father has a cassette tape collection that took him years to collect (although he’s since moved on to sharing audio clippings on WhatsApp on a daily basis). I also learned Indian Classical singing for a couple of years and was always a part of the singing groups for events in school, so I’ve been around music ever since my childhood.
With that background in mind, I feel like my most memorable musical memories were formed in my teenage years when I had the means and the opportunity to really listen to music for long periods of time. Music inflames temperament, as Jim Morrison once said. It has the power to shift your mood around if you let yourself be swayed by it. Towards the end of high school and then through junior college and undergrad, my musical interests took shape.
College, earphones, and the internet
In the years after high school, I had a lot more time and opportunity to listen to music- I got my first mobile phone, and the ability to listen to music on the go. At this point, the goal was just to keep myself entertained as I was commuting- to and from college, or tuition classes, or wherever else I was going. I was usually walking or taking the train and needed something to pass the time.
As I started to listen to more and more music that wasn’t just whatever was on the TV or the radio, I began developing my musical tastes. I remember getting hooked on 60s era rock after I saw the news about The Doors getting the Grammy lifetime achievement award back in 2007. I think VH1 had some special programming for that occasion and played a bunch of their music. A few years prior, that would have been the end of it- I’d have to wait for the next episode to listen to the music on TV again. But I didn’t have to wait anymore, because I had the internet.
The ability to listen to and download music from the internet, and the ability to take it with me and listen to it whenever I wanted, was the genesis of my core musical tastes. Prior to having an internet connection and a mobile phone, I would have had to wait for the song to be played on the telly, or would have had to buy a CD. But now I had an internet connection, and the ability to search for artists similar to The Doors (shout out to last FM). Thus began my first “musical phase”- classic rock. I had plenty of musical phases after that- I remember I had a “Surf Rock” phase, a Shoegaze phase, and an alternative rock phase among others.
They say that you tend to find your favorite music when you’re a teenager. The increased accessibility to music that the internet provided, combined with the fact that it was made available to me in my late teens, formed the foundation of my music listening habits today.
Grad School and analytical music listening
Grad school is when the true audiophile in me began to take shape. As a part of my graduate assistantship, I was assigned to be a grader of an undergraduate level course called “Intro to digital audio”. It went into the basics of digital audio, from the science behind it to recording, playing, and editing audio files. One of the tasks I was assigned was grading the assignments of 50 or so students, which were always audio files of some sort. Listening to 50 audio files of the same recording, edited as per the requirements of an assignment was a form of aural torture the likes of which I hadn’t been through before, but it paid the rent. What happened as a result of this, however, was that I began to develop an ear for analyzing what I was listening to.
I received a pair of headphones from the professor I was working with- a pair of Sony MDR V150s. I didn’t have a pair of headphones before this, other than a dirt cheap gaming headset that I only had for the attached microphone. I mainly listened to music on in-ear style headphones. They were just meant to be tools to get the music from my phone and into my ear. I didn’t really care about sound quality back then, I was a broke student, and I just wanted something durable, portable, and I could buy for less than five hundred rupees.
I remember the first time I listened to music on the V150s. The song was the same, the source was the same, but it felt like there was an added dimension to the whole experience. A level of clarity I hadn’t had before, just by moving up from cheap in-ear headphones to over-the-ear ones. The V150s aren’t high-end headphones by any means, but the difference in sound quality was palpable.
After this realization, I began reading up on digital audio. Different file formats, different types of headphones and other audio gear. I began understanding about soundstage, imaging, and sound signatures that color the listening experience. I read forum posts, I watched youtube videos, and I even read articles about the various terms audiophiles used, like imaging, soundstage, and more scientific terms like frequency response. I started to learn about how you could modify headphones by swapping the earpads or modifying the sound-making components themselves. Analytical headphones, “fun” headphones, and high-end amplifiers to drive them- I read about it all, and I wanted it all.
I was still a broke student, though, and my only leap in terms of audio grat was getting a pair of Superlux HD668Bs because they were the best in the “under $50” category for both music and gaming. I still use those at work every day.
Professional life and more professional audio gear
As I got a job and started my professional career, I finally had the means to fulfill some of my audiophile dreams. Not all of them, of course- there is no end to how high you can go in terms of audio gear. You just have to figure out what your “end game” is- at what point you feel like the money you’ve invested into your hobby is worth the returns, which diminish the higher you go.
I had already started to run into those diminishing returns when I bought my first “audiophile” gear that wasn’t just a pair of headphones. At some point, I picked up a DAC (digital to analog converter) and amplifier combination to see if it would be an improvement over my laptop’s inbuilt sound card. I got a good deal on it on a black Friday lightning sale, and I was really excited to expand my horizons once more. As I set it up and played song after song, however, it was clear that the difference in sound quality was meager at best. The difference was even smaller when I built my own PC. Either I’m at the end of my analytical ability, or there really isn’t that much of a perceptible difference in sound quality.
The bigger difference was when I bought my third pair of headphones- the Phillips Fidelio X2s. The change was more of a lateral one for me honestly, the Superlux had more of treble emphasis and I wanted a warmer sound signature and more comfort, while also maintaining the soundstage (the ability to visualize where the sounds are coming from in a physical space, instead of it sounding like it’s right next to your ears, or inside your head.)
Another change I made was going from downloading music to streaming it using subscription services- internet connectivity is even better now, and I don’t need to spend the time downloading and organizing my music which is an added convenience. It also helps me discover more music, something I’m always trying to do.
What is all of this about?
My music listening habits didn’t just change linearly- I didn’t completely discard portability over sound quality, for example. I still listen to music on in-ear headphones on bus rides to and from work. It’s just that I’ve incorporated more music listening time into my life in general. Times where all I do is just sit down, put on some music, and listen to it without doing anything else.
I still plan on continuing on the path of upgrading the equipment I do have, though. Why? It all goes back to the first time I heard music on better equipment than what I already had. The experience of listening to a song you have heard hundreds of times before, and hearing something new in it that had gone completely unnoticed. The experience of hearing something you have heard before, the same aural painting, but in different colors, or under a different light. Hearing music happen around you as if you’re listening to a live rendition- being able to place where the drums are, where the guitar is, where the vocals are coming from, what sound effects the producer of the song has put into the mix…
Different seasons. Different perspectives. Looking at things in a different light. Looking back at things as you get older, and gaining new lessons from them. It’s all an allegory for life, really.