What’s your audiophile tribe?

Audio Tribe: Valve vs Digital

What’s your audiophile tribe?

There is no ‘absolute truth’ in audio, just perspective. The appreciation of sound quality is a purely subjective experience, meaning it is based on personal beliefs, tastes and opinions that are open to personal interpretation, not facts.

This is one of the things I love about audio. It’s a pursuit filled with different perspectives and philosophies operating in a world of virtually endless musical possibilities. No matter how many years I have been involved, every day offers the potential for new musical experiences.

Nevertheless, audiophiles can get quite opinionated which is fine with me. Opinions drive conversations & debate. Passion is the lifeblood of a hobby and I’d much rather people expressing and sharing their experiences with others and arguing the merits of different equipment choices rather than no one talking about it at all.

Sometimes opinions can get so strong that opposing groups form around certain ideas and can become quite argumentative, tribal, even dogmatic. Sometimes, we wear our allegiances like a badge of honour. Recently, a client introduced himself to me with the statement “Hi George, I’m John and I’m a valve guy”. After establishing his position, he then asked the dreaded question: “Do you prefer tube or solid-state amps?”

How many times have you been asked THAT question by fellow audio enthusiasts?

I started to explain to him that in my experience, I have found that factors such as the circuit design, topology, component and build quality play much more of a role in the sound quality of an amplifier rather than the use of valves or solid state devices in the gain stages. As a result, I have experienced both valve and solid-state amplifiers that sound wonderful and actually have a lot of sonic similarities. I have also heard plenty of poor sounding valve and solid-state amplifiers, some of them simply unlistenable.

As I was talking to him, I became aware that he was distracted, looking away and impatiently looking at his watch as if he was agitated. I stopped talking and immediately he fired another question, “what’s your favourite valve?”

He wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! I may as well have been talking about the price of fish in Rwanda. He just wanted to express his views and see if I was sympathetic to them. He just wanted to know if I was ‘a valve guy’.

As with most things in life, it’s probably a good idea to not take things too seriously. I actually love the tapestry of flavours and colours that the audio hobby offers us and I have come to appreciate the extreme opinions out there and the colourful characters who propagate them.

Have you experienced some ‘tribalism’?

Looking back over the years, I’ve certainly met my fair share of interesting people with ‘absolutist’ viewpoints.

There’s the DIY tribe who build their own audio gear. Respect! Some of these guys achieve a wonderful sound. In fact, virtually all the great brands that we know and love today started as a DIY project in someone’s garage. I have spent lots of time with these characters and had some interesting experiences. I have been to homes where the whole audio system was a nest of wires on breadboards and the floor was covered with tools and wire clippings. Sit on this seat here but please don’t touch that wire there because it’s live and you may die.

There’s the Lowther & wide-bander tribe who believe the definition of sacrilege is to have a crossover and more than one driver per channel. For them, point source is heaven. There’s the purist tape machine tribe who often have the most amazing music collections and the electrostatic speaker tribe who will tell you that if it’s not electrified, it’s just too slow.

I once visited a member of the horn tribe in the US who had buried his 12m long bass horns in the back yard so that each horn mouth which measured 2m across, could appear through holes cut into his listening room wall. To access his compression drivers, you had to open a ‘bunker’ in his back yard and climb down some stairs into a ‘Horn Access room’. His 2W amplifier created some serious seismic disturbances.

There’s the Linn tribe who will not touch a turntable unless it has the letters LP12 on it and enjoy feuding with the Naim tribe who can prove that a 6-pack has nothing to do with going to the gym. There’s the vintage tribe who build systems around 1960’s Western Electric, Altec, JBL & other legendary cinema equipment. Some members of this tribe hire out a big room at the Munich Show every year just to display their wares and it is one of the most popular rooms.

There’s the modern solid-state super-power amp ‘give me headroom any day’ tribe and the purist transformer volume pot tribe who believe that audio bliss lies in stripping away all that is not absolutely necessary. There’s the high-powered tube amp tribe who also run a power station in their back yard to feed the audio system and cause the neighbourhood’s lights to dim with every bass note.

There’s the flea powered SET tribe who believe that the answer to the universe’s mysteries can be found in that first watt of power and the omni-directional ‘I can sit anywhere in the room’ tribe. Have you ever met anyone that belongs to the ‘if you’ve spent more than $10 on an amp you’re a fool’ tribe?

One of my favourites is the ‘unless it’s a Wilson speaker, it will not do’ tribe. And what about the ‘unless it’s on vinyl, it’s not happening’ tribe? Know any of those? Let’s not forget about the flat-earthers of the 1970’s who are still kicking about!

What a wonderful kaleidoscope of different views audio presents us with!
Do you have a philosophical tribe that you subscribe to?

What’s your tribe? Come on… be honest.

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