High End Audio Sounds Crap!


High End Speakers

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.

Why?

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.

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  1. #1 by Jonathan Derda on December 24, 2010 - 1:13 am

    Well put. One time I was fooled my reproduced sound. It was a CEDIA expo in Indianapolois where the Colts play. I swear i heard a live jazz trio and after seeking out the source of the sound I ran into a large MBL system. It wasn’t until I was standing right in front of it that i realized it wasn’t real.

  2. #2 by Ralph Clark on May 10, 2011 - 9:05 am

    While there is certainly a lot of snake oil circulating round audiophile circles I think you’re being too harsh.

    Is it possible that you have made the most elementary of errors? Of course recorded music is never going to sound real on playback – if it was recorded in a studio. But live recordings – which capture the sound field of the stage as modified by the whole auditorium, could be another matter entirely.

    Maybe the goal of hi-fi isn’t simply accuracy per se but the pleasure that undistorted representation of fine detail adds to the listening experience. If it’s not 100% accurate but sounds absolutely great, who cares?

    Personally I prefer listening to studio recordings. And I prefer warmth to brightness. You can’t beat them old valve amps for sheer musicality IMHO.

  3. #3 by dan_mason on May 12, 2011 - 7:17 am

    Ralph,
    I really like your point of view because it’s matches mine. If it sounds good, it sounds good! Measuring distortion, SNR or any figure is no indication of how you much you will enjoy a performance.

    Unfortunately there is generally little difference in the quality of recording, and subsequently its realism, between a live and studio recording. In fact studio recordings tend to be much easier to make “realistic” due to the engineers having broader control of the environment (as well as the options of having multiple takes, etc.).

    In any case, I have an extensive collection of both live and studio recordings in almost all genres of music, on CD, SACD and vinyl and there tends to be little to separate them in terms of quality or realism.

    I don’t think I’m being harsh at all. You would be surprised at how many of these supposed “high end” companies try to rip off unsuspecting customers. The range of nonsense out there is extensive. It’s unforutnate that men tend to be susceptible to “measurebation”. I’m just hoping that I can help a few of these guys see the real picture.

  4. #4 by Mark Ab on July 6, 2011 - 12:06 am

    Wow, this has taken me 45 years to find someone with the same view as mine!!! I have a ‘home made’ system that is essentially made from a pair of Yamaha P2200 amps with Yamaha graphic equalizers, JBL front speakers and EV PA rear speakers. The sound is as good as anything I’ve heard including the top end expensive systems. Thankyou so much for this article. I can now go forward with my system in the belief that I followed my true ears and not the rest…

  5. #5 by Suz on November 28, 2011 - 11:08 pm

    Lots of high end kits does sound awful. Men with beards sit round and listen to dreadful jazz or worse hifi label ‘world’ music. Good tests for hifi naturalness are spoken words and ambient recordings of just stuff going on.

    You’re never going to get the same acoustics in your own living room as a live gig with people in I wouldn’t have thought. The SPLs will also be radically different, as is the distance you are from the speakers.

    Your fundamental mistake is expecting a valve amp to sound like transistors which are used in live gigs. Valves always sound warm. Chuck it and get a transistor amp :)

  6. #6 by Chris on December 31, 2011 - 5:00 pm

    All you’re really hearing is the “sound” of uncompressed dynamics – that is not the entirety of the character of live music, but it is the most difficult for Hi Fi to reproduce. So your ear targets the one thing it isn’t really getting – not only because Hi Fi has a difficult time matching the uncompressed dynamic flare of a snare or high hat (or firecracker, etc), but also because almost 100% of recordings are produced with dynamic compression – so even if your system were capable of reproducing the effortless dynamic swings, you wouldn’t have recordings that provided them to you. WHICH – by the way – is why live music played through a PA system can still tend to sound live, so long as they aren’t using any or much dynamic compression. Mystery solved.

  7. #7 by dave on January 1, 2012 - 1:45 pm

    i have one word for the author of this post, sorry, two words

    naim audio

    it will cost two kidneys and a liver

  8. #8 by Jake on January 11, 2012 - 12:19 am

    There’s a lot to be said for using quality PA and/or studio equipment in the home. I can guarantee you this will sound much more like a ‘live’ presentation than expensive hi-fi.
    High powered solid state amplifiers, big mid bass horn cabinets and large sub bins when playing (and this is the key) quality recordings, sounds VERY life like.
    Of course you will all no doubt scoff at this suggestion, but please do yourselves a favor and put any prejudices aside until you’ve actually listened to this sort of set up. It CAN sound very, very good.

  9. #9 by Haig on March 14, 2012 - 4:58 am

    One thing also to keep in mind, is that we all do not hear the same. People differ, ear conditions between people differ, some have bad ear hygiene habits etc. . Audio is a highly subjective thing and as stated before it is a personal take on what an individual thinks sounds good and likes. It is for this reason you will find that peoples’ tastes in audio equipment change over time…because their ears change too. Depending on figures and specs then becomes secondary and is upto an experienced friendly audio consultant to help make suggestions on items to acheive an audio goal for a customer. Great article.

  10. #10 by Craig on April 4, 2012 - 7:13 am

    Why dont you guys just invest in a full live PA system, and then run your (live) music through it.
    You’d then have to think about the acoustics…maybe stand outside the door to get the same effect your describing?

    You’d want the raw recorded digital output of a live gig before its sent to an audio engineer. Most live stuff heard on CDs is recorded, and then mixed to sound good, and then every inch of available dynamics is squeezed into the mastering to attain a high volume.

    Hope that helps

  11. #11 by daviddsailor on May 13, 2012 - 2:28 am

    “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.” I would like to say “that there but for the grace of God go I”, but I can’t. Add to the above that I even purchased a cheap laser pointer from the local flea market to aim the speakers identically. I continue to add tweeks to my already Hi-End system even though I could have brought an exotic car with the proceeds. And no, it doesn’t quite sound like the real thing – yet.

  12. #12 by Robot on August 8, 2012 - 6:05 pm

    music in whatever form, be it live, a one man band, a big gig (which once amplified is essentially the same as a crap hi-fi), a club (which will be all bass led,..but still sounds great for the environment!) or an acoustic session, as long as it gives you pleasure it doesn’t matter!

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