Hifi Audio

What it's like listening to hifi speakers

I saw a famous YouTuber crying his eyes out in a thumbnail.

I clicked.

Linus, pictured above, is notorious for calling out manufacturers’ marketing claims. In this video, he tests a pair of $4,500 headphones that claim to recreate music so intensely that they make you involuntarily cry.

He, of course, roasted them.


11 minutes into the video...

He started crying.

I was intrigued. Are you telling me that, with the aid of clever engineering, speakers can tickle your brain into a state of catharsis—on command—just like that? How did I not know this was a thing?

Sounds like a catch-free way of giving yourself dopamine hits throughout the day. Like eating your favorite snack with no repercussions. Over and over again.

So, the next day, I visited my local hifi stores. My plan: to hear if the best speakers could hijack my brain and send me to euphoria. I also wanted to hear my favorite songs sound 10x better. What would that be like?

The first speaker setup I listened to was priced at $160,000. It's pictured below. It was engineered by university researchers to maximize control over sound reproduction with razor-sharp precision. Every note is like snapping an elastic band at you.

It was fascinating to hear music sound so controlled. Think of a race car with high-end calipers that can stop on a dime. That’s what these do. This is not something you'd hear in nature.

That was the first time I realized there are ways of reproducing music that I’d never heard before.


However, the speakers were fatiguing for the same reason that made them so impressive: it felt like someone was shooting music into my ear drums.

So I turned it off.

Next up was this $38K pair of speakers:

They sounded good. More of everything you'd want—more dynamics, more bass, more immersion. But they didn’t sound $38K good.

And they certainly didn’t make me cry.

After four hours of listening to this stuff, I began to realize that hifi is an engineers’ pursuit of one-upping each other for greater sonic clarity, scale, dynamics, and bass. And the reason Linus the YouTuber cried was actually due to his song choice (it was emotional—about seeing your daughter grow up).

Before leaving the store, though, I asked to listen to one more system: the Audiovector R6 Arreté. I had seen it among the best-reviewed speakers. The store owner obliged, asked me to sit in a particular location, and did something he hadn’t done before: stayed in the room to watch me. Specifically, to watch my feet.

He hit play and we listened to a test track.





Whereas the other speakers sounded like my ears were being hit with sound, this speaker sounded like it filled the room with a river of sound, and that I was standing in the middle of the stream.

Meaning, the music was no longer being played at my ears, rather it was flowing through my ears.

What the heck was going on? How was this being achieved?

Was this the equivalent of those $4,500 headphones that made Linus cry?

I asked the store owner to crank the volume up.

I noticed that, unlike with the other speakers, instead of the music sounding like it was playing louder, it became increasingly absorbing as it wrapped around my shoulders and hugged me. When playing a live concert track while closing my eyes, it got hard to tell that I wasn’t actually at a concert.

But it was so much better than a concert. It was like being perfectly centered in a stadium’s acoustic sweet spot—while music engulfs you completely.

I now realized why the store owner was watching my feet: because I couldn’t stop tapping. It was impossible not to when your brain is being hijacked by your favorite song suddenly sounding 10x better than you’ve ever heard it before.

You would not believe what The Batman score sounded like.


This wasn’t the “more of everything” I described earlier—more dynamics, more bass, and so on. This speaker transcended to a different level of audio. Think of it like this: Imagine only eating rice and beans for 40 years then suddenly being handed a Twix caramel chocolate bar. The Twix isn’t merely more of what you’ve already experienced—more starchiness and more chew. No, it’s a different experience altogether involving sugar-induced insulin and dopamine release.

That's what this was.

It reminded me of those Magic Eye puzzles where a hidden holographic dimension emerges when you have the right view:

Or perhaps it’s more like True Level from Rick and Morty: something you never knew existed and you'll never shake once you’ve felt it.

So it was that afternoon that I discovered there’s a subculture of brilliant acoustic engineers devising ways to provide non-stop dopamine hits in the form of euphoric audio. In the comfort of your own home.

This guide's goal is to give you a taste of that experience—and to show you how to buy your own speaker setup. After demo’ing dozens of systems from $850 to $250K, I’ve discovered which setups trigger sonic bliss for me.

Many of them are returnable with 30-day return periods. So if you can afford a test, why not try it and return it if I'm wrong? It might just make every day a bit better.

This guide will cover:

Before we get into all that, come gander at folks listening to hifi for the first time:

What does hifi actually sound like?

I bet you’re curious what hifi speakers sound like. Well, you're in luck. The next page features audio samples that exaggerate the differences between hifi and everyday speakers.

Ready to listen?

This guide has three pages:

Who's Julian Shapiro?

I spend thousands of hours deconstructing how things work. I compile my insights into free handbooks like the one you're reading. Over a million people read them annually. Insights that don't make it in are shared on Twitter.

Outside of writing, I invest in startups through my seed fund and Seed Checks. Previously, I coded the world's most popular web animation engine, Velocity.js, and I founded Demand Curve, the largest educator in startup marketing. More here.

Next page — What Hifi Sounds Like

Listen to audio clips demonstrating hifi sound.