ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

August 1, 2005

Sound Effects and the Rise of Chi-Fi

And now for a little rant about sound effects at this year’s Le Festival Son & Image, aka the Montreal Consumer Electronics Show, held this year on the weekend of April 1. Commonly identifiable sounds such as those of the trumpet, the double bass, or the human voice are useful in evaluating the quality of a sound-reproduction system, even if you’ve not heard the particular recording before. Unidentifiable sounds such as those of synthesizers, samples, nonstandard instruments, drum machines, and quirky percussion are generally useless because you have no idea what an unidentifiable sound is supposed to sound like.

Far too many rooms at the Montreal show were playing material of the unidentifiable sort. Maybe it was the presence of the Fidelio label people, who were selling CDs containing jungle-esque synthetics, or maybe it was a desire on the part of the exhibitors to show how deep their systems could go or how "impressive" they could sound, or maybe it was a fear on their part that real music would reveal shortcomings in their equipment. In any event, it was darned annoying, particularly when trying to get through many rooms in a short time, to be confronted with material that left me none the wiser with regard to the equipment I came to hear.

Now for the revolution in audio that everyone was talking about. More rooms than ever before showcased equipment made by Asian manufacturers. Tube and solid-state amps, CD players, and speakers of a dizzying variety of configurations and prices were on display. In general, these so-called Chi-Fi products were impressive in terms of build quality, with high-grade, labor-intensive finishing and first-rate casework. Handmade workmanship that is either unavailable or astronomically priced in the West was everywhere. The Asian products were also technologically adventurous. Tube amps in every configuration, and speakers with novel driver arrangements, were de rigueur.

All of this should be more than enough to make Western manufacturers nervous. Add to that the low prices and you have some severe competition, particularly in the most lucrative, lower-price segment of the market. Sound quality, however, is still shaky, with a lack of consistency and no clear correlation between price and sound. This is unlike the Western manufacturers, which maintain clearly hierarchical product lines that have a house sound and in which price, features, build quality, and sound rise together in lock step. This lack of consistency could mean a bounty for the discerning customer willing to pick through the racks in search of bargains, but it also indicates that Chi-Fi has yet to settle down. Asian manufacturers have proven they can be great builders, but they are not yet great tasters.

Many people feel that particular sounds associated with equipment from the major audio-producing regions reflect the preferences, and perhaps the aspirations, of the natives of those regions. The American sound is said to be warm, bass-heavy, and bold. The English sound is rich and reserved. The French sound is vivid, dynamic, and energetic, while the German sound is sweet and refined.

Each of these tendencies has a dark side. Bad American gear tends to sound harsh and noisy, English sound can be boring, French sound tends toward brightness, and German sound can be flat and thin. The positive qualities of the sound I hear from the Asian offerings are subtle and lyrical, while the dark side is one of thinness and brightness.

Customers: as long as you listen as well as look, you’ll be fine. If the Asian manufacturers can do as well with sound quality as they’ve done with build quality, we will very soon have a new region producing world-class audio equipment.

...Ross Mantle

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