With its extended range, a hi-fi sound system produces music of almost hallucinatory realism. There is nothing ghostly about its effects, however. Enthusiasts are remaking America's living rooms und revitalizing America's record business. This is mainly the work of a large body of "audiophiles," or mild-mannered lovers of well-reproduced music, spear-headed by a small, ardent band of hobbyists, known as "bugs" or "knob twirlers," who are among the most dedicated fanatics ever produced in this country,
For reasons yet to be elucidated, the audiophiles, who outnumber the bugs 50 to 1, tend to be professional people, doctors especially but also lawyers and journalists. However, since music transcends all age and economic levels they also include cab drivers, cops and short-order cooks. Audiophiles often start off with a rig costing no more than $140 and then, as their aural sophistication improves, gradually refine their systems with another couple of hundred dollars' worth of equipment. This they often play rather loudly to achieve full tonal range, which seldom endears them to neighbors, and they display a marked inclination to talk long and with great conviction about the merits of various components. Otherwise they are fairly well-balanced citizens. While a sound system is as essential to them as a heating or lighting system, they seldom lose sight of the fact that high fidelity is a means to an end: the enjoyment of music.
Sound for sound's sake
THE bug, on the other hand, does not necessarily like music at all but is simply interested in the reproduction of dazzling sound for its own sake-the more difficult to reproduce the better. He is especially fond of the voice of Yma Sumac, an Ecuadorian singer who has an uncannily great range, and of such tintinnabulating instruments as the harpsichord and the glockenspiel. He will play an entire 12-inch record through simply for the sake of one well-recorded cymbal crash at the end; sometimes he plays only the cymbal crash, over and over. He loves the highest frequency sounds, which even many music lovers find too piercing for comfort. In fact, due to the bug's influence, high fidelity is still sometimes mistaken for fidelity to the sound frequencies that are so high as to be inaudible to most adults over 35. (As humans age, their hearing loses its sensitivity-some babies and dogs can hear 20,000 c.p.s., while most adults barely hear 15,000.) A bug with a costly hi-fi system, capable of reproducing 20,000.cycle tones that are inaudible to himself, often jokingly justifies his extravagance on the ground that while he does not hear everything his dog can.
A bug's home is usually littered with an assemblage of amplifiers, surface-noise suppressors, record compensators, speakers (one St. Paul addict has 32 in his dining room) and trailing wires. Often none of this is producing any sound at all at the moment because the owner is rebuilding it, a chronic condition with bugs. In the most acute stage his system may also include an oscilloscope, which is an engineering device that looks like a small TV screen and is calibrated for the visual observation of sound frequencies. The bug with one of these often plays no music at all, but simply entertains himself by playing test records and joyfully watching the highs and lows register visually and soundlessly on the scope.
Happily, some bugs who start out with only an interest in pure sound itself find their interests expanding to the point where they actually begin to like music, and are gradually lured into buying records for the music on them instead of for their percussion effects. This happens so often that High Fidelity is about to inaugurate a new department addressed especially to musically ignorant bugs, which will advise them on what's good in such obscure fields as Brahms, Beethoven and Bach.