2006-05-31 06:29:31 UTC
A psychologist's view of the lunatic fringe
Many of us are becoming increasingly aware of those audiophiles who
show an extraordinary preoccupation with hi-fi equipment for its own
sake. Contributors to as well as readers of HFN/RR have expressed
irritation with this so-called lunatic fringe, which has been
repeatedly criticized for being out of touch with reality.
The symptoms of this preoccupation are well known: an inclination to
attach enormous significance to audio equipment's capacity to induce
sonic pleasure and an inordinate emphasis on the sensuality of the
reproduced sound, with a consequent tendency to relegate the music
itself to a secondary position. We can also recognize in this
obsessional interest a need to amplify very small differences between
audio components out of all proportion to their true value. These
audiophiles are prone to convert such differences into preferences, and
institute them as rigid ideals.
It is easy enough to dismiss the lunatic fringe. but it is more
important to try to understand it. With this purpose in mind I wish to
undertake a brief analysis of the psychology of this group of
I know that some readers may feel uneasy with psychology intruding upon
the sphere of musical reproduction, but perhaps they can reassure
themselves with the thought that psychological knowledge has been
partly responsible for bringing some 'sanity' into the controlled
subjective assessment of hi-fi equipment. What is more, techniques
evolved in the psychological laboratory have been useful in solving a
variety of psychoacoustical problems. However, while these applications
have been primarily directed at the perception of reproduced music and
speech, I am proposing now that we focus our attention on some aspects
of the personality of this special group of audiophiles.
Naturally this kind of investigation will require a different approach
and I expect some readers will find the topic under discussion
unfamiliar. But I have made every effort to draw upon our common
experiences of musical reproduction in arguing my case.
Some of you will wonder how I have collected my data, but discretion
requires that I say little. I can tell you that I have had discussions
with members of this group and have also observed auditioning sessions
with some of these people. In addition, I have examined the linguistic
content of their magazines.
For most of us, listening to a chosen disc would involve placing the
record on a turntable and making the audio equipment operational.
Thereafter we are free to listen - our focus of attention is on the
music. Our attention may drawn away from the music by the reproduction
of an unexpected pressing defect, which may prove irritating
temporarily; but we accommodate to this nuisance and re-establish the
original focus of attention.
Another sort of non-musical sound may prove more disturbing. For
instance, our attention may be drawn away from the music by a loud hum
issuing from the loudspeakers. Perhaps this is due to an electrical
fault in one of our components, and as it is more difficult to tolerate
this kind of disturbance, the faulty component may have to be repaired
in order to restore our musical pleasure.
In quite a different situation we may actually choose to weaken our
attention to the music and shift the focus to some characteristics of
an audio component. I am thinking of the situation in which one would
audition a selection of loudspeakers with the aim of making a purchase,
when some models may produce disturbing colorations or other
undesirable sounds. At times such as these, listening to the music,
while still the main justification of our activity, is relegated to a
subordinate position. The audible characteristics of the equipment are
the matter at hand, and it is these that we judge. We search for
differences and try to establish preferences.
I am citing these examples in order to underline the common basis of
all listeners' responses to musical reproduction. We should recognize
that the relationship between our listening to music and our listening
to the characteristic sound of audio equipment is not a constant one.
It can shift if the circumstances demand it, but it is clear that
members of the lunatic fringe have shifted an unusually large
proportion of their attention over to the audio equipment.
This shift is not a temporary one. It is long-term. For this group of
audiophiles hi-fi equipment does not merely serve the purpose of
listening through, rather it has also become something to listen to. We
can say that members of this group have relegated the music itself to a
position of lesser prominence. This view is further justified on the
basis of additional evidence: the lunatic fringe insist that their
access to musical pleasure is dependent on the special characteristics
of the audio equipment that they own or aspire to own. It is as if the
real aim of musical reproduction, to listen to an account of a musical
composition, is displaced. It is displaced onto an object (the audio
equipment) which becomes at least as important a source of pleasure for
the listener. I will refer to this phenomenon as hi-fi fetishism.
I feel fully justified in employing a term which derives its meaning
from an extreme form of sexual behaviour; but I am sure you need to be
convinced of the applicability of this nomenclature. Typically, a
fetishist is someone who has endowed an inanimate object (eg a piece of
underclothing, a high-heeled shoe) with sexual significance. He or she
requires the presence of this fetish in order to become sexually
aroused, and this is the case regardless of whether a human subject is
present. Sexual pleasure is entirely dependent on the fetish.
This form of sexual behaviour, while no doubt extreme, is really a
gross amplification of normal responses. We are all capable of
investing an inanimate object with sexual significance, but what has
happened for the fetishist is that the usual source of sexual pleasure,
another human being, is replaced by an object which itself becomes the
source of pleasure.
In the case of the hi-fi fetishist the true object of his pleasure. the
music, has been displaced. Or to put it another way, this pleasure has
become dependent upon the particular characteristics of the audio
equipment. This is not to suggest that the hi-fi fetishist likes music
less, it is simply that a shift of attention has placed the emotional
and perceptual priority firmly on the audio equipment. This accounts
for the equipment's transformation into a fetish.
We observed that the sexual fetishist endows an inanimate object with
powers not normally assigned to it. Thus without any alteration in its
real nature that object is aggrandized and exalted. It has magical
powers assigned to it which resonate on a level of fantasy in the mind
of the fetishist. I think it is possible to explain the hi-fi
fetishist's attitude of over-estimation and over-valuation by recourse
to the same process of idealization. Look at it this way. A piece of
music we love will have the power to move us whether we hear it
reproduced via a music-centre or a high quality system; this is the
power of art. Indeed, many of us may describe this encounter with the
music as magical. But what happens in the case of the hi-fi fetishist
who has shifted the psychological priority from the music to the
reproducing equipment? Musical pleasure (as with sexual pleasure)
becomes dependent on the magical properties of the fetish, the audio
equipment. But audio components do not possess any magical properties
- they are under the control of the laws of physics.
Like the sexual fetishist, the hi-fi fetishist cannot fully bend to the
demands of reality for the simple reason that his relationship to the
fetish is active on a level of fantasy. Of course, the hi-fi fetishist
is not completely out of touch with reality, otherwise he would need to
deny the existence of the laws of physics. Therefore, in order to
'accommodate' his magical thinking to reality he modifies it so that
he can still enjoy the pleasure afforded to him by his hi-fi system. We
see these modifications appearing in the hi-fi press in the form of
mystification. This reconstituted form of magical thinking is
transparent to all those who are not under its power, but for those who
are, it is very convincing.
The form that this mystifying language takes is quite evocative, which
it must be in order to maintain the imaginary intensity of the fetish
under review. The characteristics of this language are well known: they
are ambiguous. motoric, sensual. Here are four examples. Notice the way
the audio equipment is assigned a fetishistic value: it can excite and
arouse emotion, or fail to do so.
Pay attention to the implied sensuality and physicality. No doubt you
will recognize the tendency toward over-estimation. Finally, try to
bear in mind that the fetishist can no longer sustain a normal
relationship to music but needs audio equipment of a certain kind to
allow him access to musical pleasure. (I have retained the anonymity of
the following selected samples, but they are representative of some of
the popular British hi-fi press. Brand names have been edited out.)
But given the right amp and speakers, the speed and dynamics of xyz
mean that a whole gamut of musical emotions can be reproduced.
Speed... is very difficult to put into words. The speed of a system
has an effect on the overall perspective with which it is perceived and
the level of excitement it can generate...
The transformation of sound when switching to the xyz was
mind-blowing. The improvements in bass tightness and detail, imagery
and general low-level detail resolution was of such a magnitude as to
make confirmatory A-B listening tests redundant and pointless.... [With
this pickup arm] more emotion in vocals and in musical expression was
obvious, and it became far easier to get into the music.
My conclusion after listening was that xyz was more capable of
conveying intangible things like the degree of commitment displayed by
musicians in a performance...
At this stage I think we can claim to have a better understanding of
the hi-fi fetishist's special relationship to his audio equipment. Yet
we need to go a little deeper than this to appreciate fully the
psychological importance of the fetish.
Let us turn to the sphere of sexual fetishism again in order to get our
bearings. As we have observed, the fetishist has difficulty in
functioning in a normal sexual manner; his natural responses have been
distorted. He cannot establish a sexual relationship with another
person unless it is mediated by the fetish, and sexual arousal is
dependent on the fetish. This indicates, and clinical studies confirm
this, that the fetishist feels sexually inadequate in the presence of a
human subject. Being under his control, the fetish does not pose this
threat to its owner, and thus allows to him the potency he would
Before I begin building the bridge between this feature of sexual
fetishism and hi-fi fetishism I must cite a few more familiar examples,
otherwise what I have to say may meet with strong opposition. I am sure
we are familiar with a particular remark that reviewers sometimes make
at the conclusion of their test reports. Having assessed an excellent
audio component which is outside their own financial reach, they say
that they are sorry to see it go. While the professional reviewer is
fully aware of the component's virtues he does not feel compelled to
purchase it - because reality, financial reality, is a major
As we would expect, financial realities are not handled with such
objectivity by members of the lunatic fringe. Should a very expensive
'better' component come onto the market they will somehow find the
means to acquire it. For example, upon the appearance of a new and very
expensive audiophile product a fetishist remarked: 'If it is better
I'll have to buy it'. This continual search for perfection, or
'up-grading' as it is sometimes called, can lead to financial
disaster. Under severe pressure from debts many a member of the lunatic
fringe has been forced to sell his highly prized system.
From our observations of the lamenting reviewer we can predict thereaction of the hi-fi fetishist to separation from his audio equipment.
Of course, in the latter case the stakes are higher; consequently, the
sense of loss is far greater. He describes his feelings as depression,
a sense of emptiness, depletion, etc. Do not be surprized by the depth
of his feelings. Have we not observed that the fetishist maintains his
relationship to the equipment on a level of fantasy? We should,
therefore, expect the same fantasy relationship to operate in his
separation from the fetish.
One more bit of evidence would be in order before I present my final
interpretation. We all know how hi-fi fetishists defend their choice of
components tenaciously. For example, writing in the hi-fi press a
'reviewer' may aggrandise and exalt a piece of audio equipment. He
insinuates that his fetish is 'better' or 'best', assuming its
superiority and implicitly demeaning any competing products. What is
also evident here is a wish to be envied for the possession of an
idealized object. One can even discern a sense of triumph (see the
letters of Mr. Ted Meyer, HFN/RR April 1980). However, I have observed
that when a fetishist discovers that someone else's equipment is
superior, his reaction is akin to narcissistic injury.
We are now in a much better position to understand the psychological
significance of the hi-fi fetish. I would like to suggest that the
fetishist treats the fetish as an extension of himself. To be more
accurate, we should say that the fetish is a representation of his
ideal self. Does the fetish not give him the powers he would like to
have? Does it not lend him the authority he needs? Surely his
passionate claims for sonic superiority and audio perfectionism confirm
this; as do his establishment of rigid ideals. Indeed, he tenaciously
defends his choice of equipment because he measures his ego against
this ideal. Thus the hi-fi equipment acts as a mirror to the ideal
No doubt you are still wondering why it is that among audiophiles only
some become fetishists, while the majority remain mere enthusiasts.
Here generalizations about psychological dispositions become more
difficult, but perhaps one can go a little way toward a solution by
examining the effects of fetishistic publicity in the hi-fi press. As I
see it, this publicity - in the form of reviews and test reports as
well as paid advertising - is partly responsible for leading young
people into the lunatic fringe. Study shows that this publicity begins
by working on one's natural appetite for pleasure. But the pleasure it
appeals to is the pleasure of ownership. While musical pleasure is held
to be the ultimate aim, this kind of publicity really glorifies the
pleasure of having a certain audio component. It proposes to offer us
something better, something better than we have now, and this way it
works on our insecurity or doubt and sets up an insidious form of envy.
As we would expect, rational assessment can do very little against such
feelings; it is a poor weapon against the mystifications of fetishistic
publicity. I might add that manufacturers who allow themselves to be
exalted and aggrandized by fetishists in the same manner as their
products are doing themselves a disservice. For they too are indulging
in a form of narcissistic gratification and are lending yet further
credibility to the lunatic fringe.
From Hi-Fi News and Record Review, October 1981