Like with everything published on this site, this represents my opinion. I have tried to rely on logic and facts when I can, but in the end, this is my opinion and it make change over time.
In a former life the world of audiophile craziness was at my fingertips. When I went to grad school and in my down time I worked at an audio store with lots of nice stuff. Over the years I realized just how crazy the audiophiles really were. One day, while working behind the counter late in the day on snow plagued February, a salesman came in. He was marketing wooden knobs for high end amplifiers. The theory was that these wooden knobs did not conduct electricity and therefore were less likely to distort the signal in the amp. Mind you, the signal or current does not pass through the knob, just near it (or near it as is possible for a wide in a box 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep). I was mystified. Then he told me how much they were. I dutifully reported this to my boss and he gave me a quick humph. I was promptly informed to tell the quack to hit the road. I was courteous, but I told him to hit the road. I did some research and to this day I cannot figure out how this wooden knob, which to me looked like a nicely finished piece of a dowel, made a difference.
This all led me to a discussion with the Gem of the IKC, Nick Shabazz. He is a sound engineer and knows his way around all sorts of gear. He too scoffed at the silliness of audiophiles. But as I listened to the conversation I realized that it struck perilously close to home. It led me to this question--are us steel junkies the audiophiles of the knife world?
We live in a world of insane steels. LC 200N is my current favorite as it is something of a combination of 154CM and H1, which is like the Tumbler—a combination of a tank and a Lamborghini. These two things should not possibly fit together, but they do. The fact that we have a hard, tough, waterproof steel that isn’t insanely expensive is a really great thing. But honestly, how much do any of us push our current, non-LC 200N steels to the limit? The same thing can be said for ZDP-189 and Maxamet or 3V. How often does the average knife user or even more selective the average knife knut push any given super steel to the limits? Not often. The specs are there, but are they there to comfort us, to sell more knives, or because we actually need that extra capacity?
Some of this really does echo audiophilia, the mental disorder of being an audiophile. My favorite debate within the audiophile community (or is that colony, as is leper colony, another group composed and defined by the fact that all of its members have an illness) is over ABX testing. Think of this as taste testing for your ears. You hear set up A, then set up B, and they the variable set up X. You should, if the audiophile equipment makes a difference, hear the difference and be able to repeat the fact that you can hear the difference.
In my store we had a number of set ups like this, video, audio, and the two integrated together in a home theater. First, we’d play our reference set up with Mangepan speakers and McIntosh components (we ran basic cables between components and speakers, only the optical out was more than a few pennies). Then, we’d play the same set up using the same source material but this time with an amp that had the wooden knob (we never did this, the wooden knob guy got the boot, this is just an example). Then we’d play the same thing again, but randomly select between the two set ups. ABX testing has been validated across every field of human endeavor capable of being quantified for decades. Double blind ABX is even more reliable.
And yet, 99% of the time, the audiophile “upgrade” made ZERO difference. The fat speaker cables that looked like fire hoses made no difference. The sound isolating component spikes made no difference. The electrically inert platters on record players (like those carved out of arcylic) made no difference. This is why we scrapped high end cables in the testing set up.
But if you ask an audiophile they have reasons why ABX testing, just for their particular hobby, has some flaws. They’d tell you: yes, yes, of course you should do comparative testing for medication effectiveness, but don’t dare do so for my beloved amp. The gist of the argument is this: in the first instance, listening to music doesn’t work in ABX testing because too many things change from set up A to set up B, even if everything is identical except for the particular item being tested. Variance in manufacturing makes comparison impossible even with identical items and music or video is too complex to compare. They will concede, because data and logic require them to, that ABX testing will work for simple tones or image, but they counter with the fact that their source material is too lovely and complex to compare to a simple tone. It is, frankly, mental gymnastics, except this is the kind of mental gymnastics where you flip on the balance beam and figuratively rack yourself.
But we see this all the time in steel comparisons. Tough steels seem particularly susceptible to this. Folks do destruction tests on 3V compared to INFI, bending $500 knives in vises until the break or driving them through cinder blocks. What are we proving here? This sort of testing makes no senses to me at all because, with enough time or enough resources, you can break anything. Pete’s testing is vastly more helpful and accurate and his testing gets me to this point—will anyone actually notice the difference between a steel that cuts rope 98 times versus one that cuts rope 104 times? The difference, for example, between Buck’s superlative 420HC and Sypderco’s VG10 is 8 cuts (67 to 75). Is that a difference worth fussing about especially because 420HC and VG10 both fair well in corrosion resistance and toughness? Go back and look at the videos that came out around the time VG10 was ascendant and you will realize steel junkies aren’t much more reasonable than audiophiles.
Those of us obsessed with steel eventually pass through the fever dream and come out the other side with a nuanced position—get the best steel you can for the money, but realize that the top half of steels will serve you well for most of your needs. Sure I chased an INFI-bladed Busse for more than a half a decade, but I realize this was a White Whale for me, not a crucial and much needed steel upgrade. I could probably manage the rest of my life quite well without an INFI knife.
The other critical blind spot steel junkies have for super steels is really obvious—you have to sharpen them. When I interviewed the Greatest Living Knife Maker, Michael Walker, he commented on his favorite steels and they were damascus and AEB-L. He noted that AEB-L is a dream to sharpen. And for a knife maker, who has to, by definition, sharpen steel, this matters. But for collectors seeking ever more exotic ferrous (and non-ferrous) metals using a knife is the last thing they intend to do with their blades and as such sharpening is even further from their minds. But it is unquestionably stupid to insist on a steel for every knife you buy that is too hard for you to sharpen, unless you buy knives for the same reason Ash carries a Poke-ball. Collect away but remember your being irrational and wasting money, just like the audiophile that insists on wooden volume knobs.
We steel junkies need to acknowledge that we are a bit silly in our pursuit of ever greater steels. LC 200N is a steel I can recommend for any use, for any knife, and for any person. It is the first such steel. If you need hardness ZDP-189, Maxamet, and the M390 family are great. If you need toughness 3V, INFI, and Vanadis Extra are plenty. But most people do fine with S35VN regardless of the application. The IKC and steel junkies in particular shouldn’t delude ourselves. We are the audiophiles of the knife world. And steel doesn’t matter as much as steel junkies think it does, and this is coming from a steel junkie.