Why Must Audiophiles Be So Predictable?

Mike Silverton

[October 2002.]

Shibboleth in its figurative sense encapsulates an aspect of human nature near to universal. As to origin: “In the Hebrew Bible, [Shibboleth was a] test word that the Gileadites made the Ephraimites pronounce. As Ephraimites could not say sh but only s as in ‘Sibboleth,’ this was regarded as a test of an Ephraimite; 42,000 were thus detected” (from The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, Columbia University Press, 1993). I’ve no idea what befell the consonantal-diagraphless Ephraimites. Slaughter? Mockery? Mandatory speech therapy?

My New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary expands the literal meaning to include a test word for detecting people from other districts or countries, and then we jump to the figurative: “A custom, habit, style of dressing, etc., distinguishing a particular class or group of people,” and “A long-standing formula, idea, phrase, etc., held (esp. unreflectingly) by or associated with a group, class, etc.; a catchword, a slogan, a taboo. Also, a received wisdom; a truism, a platitude.” Interesting how the definition descends from neutral (custom) to pejorative (platitude). Hang on to “unreflectingly.”

In-crowds are especially given to shibboleths. They define and identify. Consider slang. It goes in and out of fashion a tad less speedily than haute couture. Austin Powers aside, nobody’s groovy any more. Clique-wise, familiarity with the slang of the day promises inclusion and perhaps even exclusivity. Some years ago, I was standing at a shoe store window on Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two black teenagers also stopped to peruse the display. One said to the other, “Dem shoes be def.” I understood from the speaker’s tone that this was approbation but wondered how hearing impairment could have come to such a laudatory pass. Nothing of the sort. I believe def to be a corruption of death, in the topsy-turvy sense of bad meaning good (“Dem shoes be baaad!”)

As to “unreflectingly”:

In an editorial in a prominent high-end audio publication, the writer warns, two-thirds correctly, that inferior formats often triumph, citing as examples VHS over Beta, cassette over open-reel tape, and — but of course! — CD over vinyl. In the nearly 20 years the compact disc has been with us, a number beyond count of great-sounding releases ought to have convinced all but the deaf of the medium’s adequacy. Perhaps SACD and DVD-Audio are audibly better than the Red Book CD, but to agitate at this late date for the analog disc’s superiority makes one wonder.

What we have here, I suspect, is a shibboleth so long in application that it’s become a tradition: In order to qualify as a six-nines audiophile, one decries the compact disc as mass-market disaster, the noble LP’s stab in the back. “Perfect Sound Forever? Ha!” This kind of silliness does no one any good, least of all the audiophile community.