A psychologist’s view of the lunatic fringe

J. Zelinger

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 audiophiles.

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 otherwise lack.

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 consideration.

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 the reaction 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 self.

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

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