Hi, I’m Hans. I’m a youngish, married dude with no kids. In my spare time I read the news, pore over online car forums, trawl the Internet for politically incorrect memes, play and watch an unhealthy amount of soccer, and overanalyze all manner of past choices I’ve made. When I meet new people, I may talk about any of these activities, or my hometown Eagles going to the Super Bowl, or just about anything that will keep the exchange going. Hell, just to throw my fellow conversationalist for a loop, I may dig deep into my past and talk about how I used to work in a call center, an Abercrombie & Fitch, a funeral home. What I almost certainly won’t do is mention my second job: reviewing hi-fi gear for the SoundStage! Network.
In 2011, when I began writing for this site, I was excited to bring up my side hustle in casual conversation. Getting gear sent your way, being able to play with it for a few months, and actually being paid a nominal sum to write about it -- it all seemed pretty cool. Universally cool, even. But more often than not these gambits were met with quizzical looks, followed by expressions of bemusement gradually creeping across the faces of those poor souls who listened as I explained: No, I do not get to keep the gear for free. No, I don’t get paid a lot, which is why I have a day job. Yes, I meant it when I said that I recently reviewed a pair of speakers that cost more than your new car.
It’s not that my fellow millennials don’t like music. Everyone I know uses Spotify, thinks I’m joking when I tell them I use Tidal, and has the common sense to detest Apple Music. No one balks at earphones or headphones that cost a few hundred bucks -- not any more, anyway. And vinyl, for reasons that still escape me, remains a format relevant to many. But spend money on passive loudspeakers and an integrated amplifier and you’re suddenly bizarre, a foreign creature somehow unfamiliar with the ways of the world.
I get it. Guys my age would prefer to be doing CrossFit, then telling anyone who’ll listen all about it -- as well as those who won’t. Girls will head to yoga studios in their signature leggings, clutching their mats, already thinking about which après-yoga Starbucks drink they’ll treat themselves to. Even esoteric pursuits like comic books or cars can lead people to events at comic-book stores, or cars-and-coffee meetups at which those who share common interests can commiserate.
True, audiophiles have online forums, and dealer events can bring us together. But as I’m sure many readers can attest, those forums are often mixed bags of stilted courtesy, vitriol, and creative spelling and syntax, with reasoned argument an infrequent visitor. And at the dealer events I’ve attended I’ve seen little in the way of shared passion; usually, it’s a collection of well-seasoned introverts in unaccustomed close proximity to each other -- little groups of pensioners sitting in poorly lit rooms, listening to recordings from 1967.
Maybe that last bit of stereotyping is a touch harsh. But I’ve attended audio shows in three countries on two continents, and what I’ve seen there has borne out the stereotype. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with such audiophiles or how they spend their time. But for me and the seven other audiophiles of my age in the US, it’s a lonely hobby to pursue.
Part of my problem is no doubt my taste in music. To mainline hot new beats into my bloodstream, I religiously listen to the monthly Blips & Blops playlist in Tidal’s Electronic section, and complement that with a menagerie of 1990s and ’00s pop, alternative, and rap. Nothing says “I’m great fun at parties” like carrying the oeuvres of Enya and Hans Zimmer in my iPhone’s iTunes playlists. You see the problem: Even if I invited over a friend who was remotely interested in the $2000/pair speakers I’m reviewing, I’m not going to do myself or the manufacturer any favors by blasting Eiffel 65’s “Blue,” or “Jisas yu holem hand blong mi,” from Melanesian Choirs: The Blessed Islands -- Chants from “The Thin Red Line.” What would such a conversation even sound like? “Do you hear that? How the Choir of All Saints -- they’re from the Solomon Islands -- just sounds so three-dimensional?” Yeah . . . no.
Worse than being misunderstood is being merely tolerated. For the significant others of most audiophiles, including my own, I suspect that the speakers and associated gear are burdens rather than means to an end. My wife is more likely to play music or podcasts straight from her phone than through my fastidiously arranged stereo system. I also know how thrilled she’d be if the space dedicated to my system and reviewing were to be suddenly cleared and speaker-free.
Ultimately, I’m OK with being tolerated, and secure with not mentioning to others how I spend so much of my free time. For me, listening is a solitary, deeply personal endeavor. I can go days without listening to anything, but will then have a hankering to listen to a specific track, only to get sucked into an hours-long listening session. It’s not so much a luxury or indulgence as a genuine need. The trigger might be curiosity, nostalgia, stress, anger, or anything at all -- but I regularly find, at the tail end of such a session, a kind of serenity. If I didn’t have the good fortune to get lost in my own head every so often, I don’t know what I’d do with myself -- but I know I wouldn’t be as happy as I am. As with most passions, being an audiophile does not involve free will. It’s a drive that requires care and attention. But when it can be shared . . . well then, all the better.
. . . Hans Wetzel