No, I haven’t gone mad. Yes, this is still a blog about hifi. Let me explain…
I was on the way to a dinner the other night in town, and I happened to walk past a restaurant with live music. I knew it was live music from the moment I heard it. Even though it was in the middle of the city, and there were cars and people and noise everywhere, and even though I could only hear it through reflected sound since the band was somewhere deep inside the restaurant and I was I was standing across the street and slightly down the road (and nowhere near line of sight), I knew at the first instance that it was a live band.
Fast foward to some time later. I’m in my living room. On my couch, listening to some similar music through my expensive speakers, tube amp and a Michell Gyrodec turntable that cost me a kidney. I close my eyes, and no matter what I do, I just know that it’s a hifi system. In fact, I realise that never in my life have I heard music through speakers that has fooled me into believing it was real.
Now, let me add at this point that while I’m no professional stereo reviewer, I’ve heard my fair share of high end gear. Aside from the gear of my own and that of my friends’, I’ve been at trade shows and various demo nights and listened to everything from $50k speakers to $60k amplifiers to cables that cost more than my entire system. A former client of mine had a $150k system which included some flagship Wilson Audio speakers and a turntable with a cartridge that had more exotic materials than the space shuttle.
Yet, never in my life have I walked past a room with music playing and mistaken it for live music. This made me realise something quite disturbing. High end audio sounds crap!
One would think that when audio gets even to the astronomical level, it would approach perfection. But this is simply not the case. The next time you get a chance to listen to a “good system”, take a note of what it sounds like. Listen to the sound that comes from it and ask yourself, “Does that sound real? Does that actually sound like a real piano coming from a wall? Does that guitar actually sound like it’s 10 feet from your chair?”. Chances are, it does not. It may sound similar, but it doesn’t even compare with live music.
High end followers go to extraordinary lengths to make their systems “more realistic”. They spend exhorbitant amounts of money on gear, they change their floors into carpet, they line their walls with curtains and they use rulers to ensure that their speakers are absolutely the same distance from the wall. Yet, I catch a small glimpse of music, partly amplified by cheap mobile PA equipment, reflected numerous times off walls, around corners, across a busy city road and barely finding its way into my ears…and the difference is so obvious.
Hi-fi stands for high fidelity. The purpose of hi-fi is to reproduce sound as accurately as possible. And naturally the best hi-fi would be something that is accurate. Something that sounds like the real thing. A high end system should be able to fool you into thinking that what you’re hearing isn’t actually recorded.
But this simply doesn’t happen yet.
Most men who walk into a hifi store ask for speakers with a lot of power and bass. Audiophiles may laugh at this, but essentially they are the same. Audiophiles want gear with low (amplitude) distortion, low noise, and low capacitance in cables. But they seem to forget that these things probably don’t matter all that much, since figures are hardly a sign of true quality. The sound I heard from that restaurant was distorted and noisy beyond any reasonable factor, yet it sounded real.
In the process of improving on test results and obtaining more bragging rights, we’ve forgotten the purpose of high fidelity.
These days I have a chuckle to myself everytime I hear of someone describing sounds as “warm”. In the process of trying to produce undistorted treble (IMHO the most difficult thing to achieve in a system), we’ve grown accustomed to manufacturers simply giving up and dulling the high end, inventing the term “warm” to cover for their inadequacies. I do believe that “harshness” exists: in the form of distorted treble. But “warmth” has simply become an excuse for the inability to produce accurate high range.
Next time you’re at a gig, take note of the snare drum and high hat. Close your eyes and ask yourself: “if that was a loudspeaker, would I say it was warm?”. The answer is almost certainly, “no”. Real life never sounds “warm”, because it is accurate. Some may even say that it’s “harsh” or “bright”. But if real life sounds like that, how is warmth a good thing?
High end audio is commercial, and business is based on delivering what we desire. If what we desire can be manipulated by the very people who fulfill them, then unfortunately, the results will be crap.