ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

January 1, 2003

High Fidelity -- To What?

It must have been 25 years ago that I was hanging around the bar at some hi-fi show or other, chewing the fat about hi-fi in general with a group of friends. Someone -- I can’t for the life of me remember who -- came out with the very pertinent (if somewhat philosophical) comment: "The trouble with this hi-fi game is that there’s no checkered flag!"

What he meant of course is that unlike a motor race, where the winner is the first car past the checkered flag (give or take the occasional protest), the rivalries among different hi-fi companies can never be properly resolved. Long term, the marketplace may perhaps decide the winners and losers, but that will have as much to do with marketing as quality. When judging among different hi-fi brands, ambiguity rules the roost, and there’s no absolute way of sorting out the sheep from the, err . . . other sheep.

Hi-fi is made up of a number of alternative approaches, each based on its own particular philosophy. The reproduction of music in the home is a complex and multi-dimensional task based on a number of different criteria. Trouble is, some of these criteria conflict, and they have to be traded off against one another, while others remain an abiding mystery to this day! There can therefore never be One True Path, and every enthusiast seeking personal satisfaction will have to take an active role in trying to find his or her personal true path.

Hi-fi, therefore, consists of a wide range of different churches, which is hardly surprising because something similar applies in music, not only in the enormous variety of different genres, where one man’s meat is very definitely another’s poison, but also -- more fundamentally -- in the way every person reacts in a personal, individual way. Indeed, much of the magic of music lies in the mysterious and unpredictable ways it works. Some of us react emotionally, some intellectually, and most, I suspect, experience a bit of both.

In much the same way, our hi-fi systems ought to try and satisfy all the various needs and desires of the music lover, but in practice will probably favor some approaches more than others. Defining the relevant criteria is where all the arguments and debates begin.

Many brands claim sound quality as a goal, and many reviewers devote column inches to describing it. But there’s a cogent argument that focusing on the sound is an irrelevant distraction. This proposes that the sound is merely a carrier medium for the musical messages, and that the true job of the hi-fi system is to communicate the musical message to the listeners.

That’s not to say that sound quality doesn’t have a role to play. There’s the beauty of proper instrumental tonality; the precision of stereo imagery; the accuracy of depth perspectives; the absence of colorations; the vigor of dynamic expression; and the realism of a full and wide dynamic range. All these criteria play their part in the total hi-fi experience, but arguably the most important are those primarily concerned with musical rather than sonic values, and with helping convey the intentions and musical arguments of the musicians.

...Paul Messenger

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