Audiophilia nervosa & upgradentitis
On a cozy evening you are listening to some music, or watching a film on television. Suddenly it hits you: you are not listening to the music anymore, can’t keep up with the plot in the movie, but are only focused on the characteristics of your audio setup (and especially it’s flaws). Do you recognize this phenomenon? Then you might suffer from audiophilia nervosa. If that’s not enough, you immediately feel the urge to upgrade your system. Then you might also be the victim of upgradentits.
“Audiophilia nervosa” is a condition almost every audiophile at a certain point gets confronted with, because in the hobby of the audiophile the main goal is to create the best possible conditions to reproduce music, by all means necessary: toe-in the loudspeaker that extra milimeter, put another plug on a power cable, couple or decouple yet another component, after this alteration better again listen to that one “test” song (by now you really had it with this song, but hey, it’s got “audiophile” quality), maybe buy that expensive loudspeaker that got raving reviews in the “trade press”, to afterwards come to the conclusion the loudspeaker was not the issue, but the amplifier was (“how the hell will I be able to explain this financial blunder to my wife, let alone persuade her into buying myself a new amplifier”). Do these things sound familiar? Then by all means: read on!
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Before we further explain the concept audiophilia nervosa, first we should take a closer look at the psychopathology of OCD, because the similarities with audiophilia nervosa are striking.
The obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), also referred to as obsessive-compulsive behavior is a psychological condition that is categorized in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as an anxiety disorder, formely known as compulsive neurosis. In the DSM-5 (latest edition) the disorder is categorized into a separate chapter about obsessive-compulsive and associated disorders.
Not all OCD patient experience anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety can be a consequence, and not the cause of compulsive behavior or a compulsive thought. OCD has many forms, but the most frequently occuring characteristic is an obsessive urge to perform certain actions, called rituals. The OCD patient performs these actions (compulsions) as a reaction to obsessive thoughts (obsessions). For other people these actions seem unnecessary, but for the patient these actions are are of a vital importance and have to be executed according to a certain pattern, to avoid negative consequence.
Most OCD patients are aware that their behavior is not rational, but still they keep performing these obsessive actions to prevent anxiety and tension. Other patients don’t realize their behavior is exceptional or irrational, although for the outside world it is. They can’t be persuaded otherwise. In that case their OCD is related to a personality disorder and has a different name, OCPS or in full: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and is not to be mistaken with OCD. There is also a third group that acts compulsive. In their case the pathology is limited to compulsive thoughts only. In this last group rituals (compulsive behaviour) could eventually start developing, in order to neutralize their compulsive thoughts.
The term obsessive is frequently used to express someone’s focused or perfectionist way of doing a task. This is not always a sign of OCD. This is only the case when the obsessive or compulsive behavior is apparent in such a way that it interferes with a normal way of living. It is also important to distinguish OCD from other types of anxiety, tension or stress, like for instance the stress that occurs in every day life.
OCD and the link with audiophilia nervosa
People that suffer from OCD have an “obsessive urge to perform certain rituals”. This obsession “interferes with a normal way of living” and “some patients do not experience their behavior as irrational although other people will see it in this way”. If you translate this into audiophile terms, it suddenly seems very logical that upgradentits strikes, because very obsessively the disturbing factor in the audio setup has to be eliminated, and by all means a new component – a better one than the already far above average former component – has to be bought. In the past I’ve met audiophiles who were in debt mediation or were divorced from their wife because of such a fringe. When this is the case, the audiophile hobby interferes with a normal way of living, right? A divorce caused by audiophilia can be laughed off with the aid of the WAF (Wife Acceptance Facor, or in plain English: the extent to which your wife tolerates your hifi toys). Unfortunately, this also corresponds with OCD: “the patient doens’t realize his behavior is exceptional or irrational, although for the outside world it is”. And further: “He loses himself in details, while these details to the outside world seem unnecessary” (the wife, the non-audiophile friends,…). When a WAF is commonly accepted within audio circles, it certainly is not in the real world, but only an excuse for not having to cure the disease, further feeding it with new impulses of upgradentitis in search of a holy grail that unfortunately will never be found.
Audiophilia nervosa fed by the high end market
Audio companies respond to the illness of the audiophile in a persuasive manner. Each time they promise more openness, more clarity, a higher transparancy, better resolution, an even more black background, more stability, microdetail improvements, a better timing, a larger stereo image and so on. In most cases these components will indeed do what they promise, but that doens’t always justify the prize that needs to be paid for it. And in some cases these expensive components don’t live up to the expectations at all, are just appealing to the eye of the beholder: a beautiful new front plate on the basic model can then be sold as “exclusive” or “special edition” and justify a prize tag of a couple of thousands of dollars more.
The really good quality high end components that cost tens of thousands of dollars are only available for the lucky few. This prize might seem the right amount to pay for such quality but it is by far the price of production. Most components cost less than one tenth in production than what the consumer pays for it. For instance a high end audio cable that costs a thousand dollar in your high end store, costs about hunderd bucks to make. Before a product gets to the consumer many people got rich from it, for instance the distributor who has his part of the profit and the audio dealer who gets at least fifty percent. A lot of audio manufacturers work in third world countries or countries with low wages and “Made in the U.S.A.” sometimes just means “Made by cheap labour Mormons”. Apart from that, the consumer not only pays for the product itself, but also for the costs of production: the costs of the production factory, the wages of all personnel, all marketing and advertisement costs, and so on. That’s not different from any other branche, right? No, indeed it isn’t, apart from the fact that in the audio trade press objectivity and neutrality is hard to find these days and there is no objective standard in validating components.
Let me explain myself: most of the review sites on the internet will only write a positive review when the concerned manufacturer sponsors the website, let the reviewer have the product under evaluation for free or at a reduced price, and invests in affiliate marketing. So reviews are for sale. An audio manufacturer with the most investors and the biggest budget, seems to produce the best equipment, although this is far from the objective truth. But the average audiophile who reads such reviews, gets a wrong idea about a component, hurries to the high end dealer for yet another new toy (or searches his newly found treasure on the second hand market), but will be deceived, which gives even more reason for audiophilia nervosa to strike and yet another belch of upgradentitis is bound to occur.
Furthermore, a lot of audio components have their own typical sound, the so-called “house sound”, or they hype a certain aspect of the sound. As a true pursuer of the ultimate sound, the goal should be to reproduce the source in the best possible manner. But this cannot be achieved with components that colour or hype the sound.
For a layman it’s not evident to handle a frame of reference in comparing different components in a certain setup, and even less evident – without the reference of the accoustic instrument – to derive how music is supposed to sound. Some audiophiles claim they want to reproduce the source in the best possible way, while actually all they want is coloration, warmth or cozyness, but not a neutral and accurate representation of the source.
In regards of upgradentitis, a new and more expensive component at first seems like an upgrade or an improvement of the sound, certainly if you believe the “trade press” with their raving reviews, the promising words of the manufacturer, who makes wild claims and uses esoteric technologies, or the improved design and so on. In some cases these so-called “upgrades” just sound different, color different, but are therefore not always capable of a more accurate presentation of the source. Without a frame of reference or objective values, you don’t know what is better. Better than what? Better than the coloration your previous component gave you? And what about the other components in your audio chain? Furthermore, let’s not forget about the power of the mind: an object for which you paid a lot of money and which is claimed to be superior must sound better, right?
Audiophilia Nervosa struck me too in the past. When a certain component got labeled as “the weakest link”, it got upgraded to a better one. Luckily I receive good medical treatment from my audio doctor for this illness, and luckily I only do these upgrades when funds are available. I can imagine that someone with a more impulsive spending nature, could get in trouble when upgradentitis strikes. Regarding my WAF, this is set pretty high. My wife is a professional musician and she likes a good sound, although she only listens to the performance, while the quality of the music installation has no importance to her. She believes the upgrades in my system are unnecessary and luxuary. In her opinion, my setup already exeeds the standard, without the need for any kind of upgrade. My non-audiophile friends share this opinion. My system costs more than a tenfold of theirs, and they don’t understand that I can spend that amount of money on the reproduction of music. I can’t blame them. Audiophilia Nervosa is a strange infliction, unfortunately linked with OCD and when not aware of the proces, it could have serious concequences.
On the bright side
Let’s stay positive – I don’t want to offend anybody here or label audio lovers as “sick individuals”. This hobby is so much more than a desease for some, and most audiophiles will not end up poor, or see a psychiatrist on a weekly bases regarding the purchase of an expensive power amp. When the funds are available, why not get yourself your dream system? It is a bliss to listen to your favorite music on a decent audio setup.
Luckily most audiophiles know why they ended up in this hobby: because of the music and the artists they love. That is why my audio setup will always come second. The most important thing to me will always be the music itself and the performance of the musicians. My installation is only a medium to produce this music in the best possible way. Because of my passion for music, I attend concerts regularily. In my opinion this is the only real reference: musicians and instruments in an accoustic live situation, and not it’s reproduction on any kind of audio setup.
Therefore – concerning all audiophiles – let me finish with a last word of advice: enjoy the setup you have. It far exeeds the expectation of any average person. When you enjoy this setup, just forget about it. Get outside. Go to a concert hall near you and enjoy a live performance. Start enjoying the essence of this hobby again: music! Otherwise you won’t remember what a real instrument sounds like, and the audio industry could fool you with just about everything 🙂