Maslow's Hierachy

Maslow’s hierarchy of audiophile needs


I love listening to different hi-fi systems. I am intrigued by the differences – how we all go on a journey of discovery and find equipment that speaks our sound. I love it when I look at photos of different systems I’ve enjoyed over the years. It’s like fashion… each system expressed a lot about who I was and what I was feeling at that time – where I was on my hi-fi journey.

………..Oh, that was my ribbon speaker phase!

………..I regret selling THAT amp, I wonder where it is today…

………..Remember that strange guy who bought those cables off me?

………..Ah my subwoofer chapter, I never had a bass problem… my neighbours did!

It prompted the question… According to the opinions formed on my journey, how would I describe MY priorities for sound quality? How would I describe one system sounding better or worse when compared to another system? When someone asks me ‘how can I improve my sound?’, is it possible to have a framework, or a reference point of sonic virtues that I can refer to in order to answer their question?

Welcome to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Audiophile Needs!

Did you know that Maslow was a passionate audiophile? Well, I just made that up so don’t quote me on that but let’s take the model he proposed in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” and give it a twist.

As a start, we need to get the fundamentals right (level 1). The music has to sound like it’s coming from a space with width, height and depth similar to a theatre stage. You should be able to hear he high frequency elements clearly (eg. cymbals). The mid-bass must feel balanced & well integrated with the mid and high frequencies.

The lower bass must extend low enough so that you can feel it within the context of the music. Does the lower-bass sound woolly, loose, slow with lots of overhang or does it sound tight, fast, well integrated & tuneful? The song must be immediately recognisable and you should be able to easily discern between the sound of a piano and an organ for example.

Once we have the fundamentals right, the next step up in sound quality is to ensure that the system has rhythm, timing & detail (level 2). Much of a song’s musical nature is shaped by the amount of source information the system is capable of communicating and how that information is presented in the time domain. The propulsive nature of a beat, the intonation of a voice, the dynamic moments in the music which we experience as ‘emotional’… much of that has to do with how much information a system can extract and HOW a system presents the music’s rhythmic character. To present music in this way, the equipment needs to have a greater focus on design, component quality and power supply architecture.

The next step up in sound quality is the rendition of spatiality and dimensionality (level 3).

The system creates a realistic 3-dimensional sound space and positions all the individual elements (instruments, singers) accurately within that space. If a singer moves across the stage during the performance, the system locates and communicates that movement. Every instrument has its own space around it and is free to express itself without competing or clashing with the instruments around it.

You can hear the nature of the space that the performance was recorded in. The music develops a 3D shape and our body responds to it in a more engaged way. The added ability to communicate the illusion of a real space also makes the music more believable. The system must have very high levels of detail retrieval combined with great high frequency articulation, top to bottom cohesion and integration. Speaker cross-over design is paramount.

In my opinion, all high-end hi-fi components, brands and systems aspire to achieve these qualities and many are very successful. The bulk of enthusiasts and audiophiles would be very satisfied with this level of sonic reproduction and for good reason – these highly resolving systems can be absolutely thrilling. However, for those who are interested, the journey can continue.

Beyond this level, the challenge is to achieve natural tonality and timbral quality (level 4).

Up to this point, hi-fi systems can be very impressive. They can deliver earth shattering bass, incredible resolution, detail, etc. However, if you were a discerning audiophile, placed a blind fold over your eyes, listened to a real artist playing live followed by a recording of that same artist playing live through a system, you would have no problems identifying the real person and the hi-fi system.

You would know the difference because your brain knows what a real person with a real chest, throat and voice sounds like. You know that a real voice has micro-inflections, imperfections, quivers and natural inconsistencies as the air passes through the singer’s windpipe.

You can hear that a hi-fi system is presenting all the information correctly but it is missing the subtle colour shades and tones of an organic being. There’s a slight etch, a slight mechanical, electronic or processed feel to the sound.

You have no problem identifying that an acoustic guitar is playing through a speaker, but in real life you can hear its individual strings with greater intimacy, each one with its own completely different sound so as the vibrations move in and out of harmony with each other, you know exactly which string is which. You can hear the type of wood that the guitar body is made from. You can hear not only the musical information but the mood, emotion of the moment.

These qualities are very difficult to achieve and present a challenging engineering & design proposition to the creator of the equipment. This level of detail requires extreme engineering solutions, often coupled with extremely high component quality. It is common for equipment of this calibre to use custom made componentry because commercially available components that can perform at this level are simply not available. The objective at this level is for the equipment to sound as close to a real event or as close to the original recording as possible.

I call this a ‘non-hi-fi’ sound. To me, it is a compliment to the designer or curator (you) when a system is described as ‘non-hi-fi’. When considering the number of high-end audio manufacturers in existence, I feel that very few achieve this level and most of the time it is not a matter of cost. It is a matter of design choices and engineering wisdom. It is also important to mention that not all audiophiles agree with me. I have worked with plenty of people who do not appreciate the non-hi-fi sound and prefer the more traditional hi-fi presentation, especially when it comes to bass.

The final aspirational characteristic of a hi-fi system is rare in my experience. It is the realm of very few systems that I have had the pleasure of listening to around the world and in my opinion is the ultimate expression of the hobby – Transcendence (level 5).

This is when the music is so compelling, so visceral and palpable, so real… that you completely surrender to it. You accept the illusion of reality and immerse yourself in it wholeheartedly. You become aware that the artist’s intention is being communicated in a way where your natural reaction is to receive it and allow a primal response to it. When I’m having this experience, I find myself in a pure emotional space. My only rational thoughts are questions like what was the reason for that inflection, for that subtle deviation, for that cheeky moment? What inspired that lyric?

You are no longer engaged with your analytical mind, you are IN the music, part of it. You are transported, a flood of memories washes over you, or you feel humbled, or elated, or…

Since this is a state of mind, I am sure that it is not totally system dependent. I have had ‘legendary’ moments in front of my system one day but couldn’t repeat the same feeling the next day. Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, you do not have to spend a million dollars to experience transcendence. Sure, it is difficult to achieve it with rubbish equipment however it is more about the careful curation of the equipment to suit your taste and your room which gives you the greatest chance of feeling it.

I wonder what Maslow’s hi-system consisted of?