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 (translated from HiFi Maailma - September 2007)

(Finnish - Suomi)

What Is High Fidelity? / Robert F. Woods

Ask someone familiar with Helsinki where you can find a red hill in the city and you will almost surely get a blank stare. Then ask them where Redhill Street is and you will probably get a reasonable answer - and even directions.

Similarly, ask a native English speaking person what 'High Fidelity' is and while you won't probably get a blank stare, you will get a range of answers that will also not pertain to the word fidelity being a linguistic relative of the word faithfulness - and that high faithfulness means, in this context, being 'close to the original.'

This all comes from the term High Fidelity having become useless in describing what people are buying when they purchase sound reproduction equipment.

This has not always been the case - broad marketing of sound equipment already used live vs. recorded performances in the early 60's - e.g. Acoustic Research used the famous Fine Arts Quartet to try to show their speakers produced the original sound. Wharfedale and Dynaco also used the same technique.

But somehow the concept got lost very quickly - G.A. Briggs - one of the key people of the industry in the early days wrote already in 1960 - almost FIFTY years ago: " hi-fi is a term which has today lost any real significance as a result of misuse first on equipment with exaggerated 'top' and bass, and later to describe cheap, mass-produced outfits with 'mellow top' and no real bass at all."

Because very few really seem to be concerned with what the industry is really producing or why - the buying public enters the market with no real reference points as to what represents quality. Standards have been tried - DIN 45500, Julian Hirsch's attempts to get the Institute of High Fidelity to have standards widely used - but these days almost anything goes unless magazines themselves do independent testing.

A professional musician friend told me that he has instructed studios making recordings of his performances to deliberately use less-than-excellent speakers as monitors - in this way people with very poor equipment will be assured of getting decent results.

One should not judge this chap on this thinking as it really is a result of there having been very poor product education in the field - and musicians having very naturally a lot of subjective feelings of recording procedures as they are artists - not technicians.

It was later possible to get this musician to understand how things should be when an analogy was made with the visual world. The goal was set out of transmitting a picture of, say, Mount Denali in Alaska to someone in London via a paper photo. When the chain of reproduction was described - the quality of lens and shutter mechanism, exposure time, lighting, camera angle, choice of film, developing method and time, photo paper, etc, - it quickly became understood that if the goal was to see the same Mount Denali in London via the photo - as the Mount Denali seen by the viewer in Alaska - there was NO place for subjectivity in the reproduction process. Needless to say - with this analogy - he realized the best monitors should be used in the recording process. And that also - any speaker used in a home environment SHOULD be a monitor (read: accurate) type of speaker.

And this indeed is what High Fidelity is supposed to be involved with - transmitting the exact same sound as the original sound. All subjectivity and artistic creativeness is to be with the performance - and if so desired, with the recording process (e.g. mixing of pop tracks).

One can understand this if the situation is turned on its head - imagine that an engineer is making a recording of, say, a jazz ensemble and uses all his education and experience to collect the proper microphones with all the associated variables, position them properly, use an 'excellent' recorder, have a proper acoustic environment, etc. How is that 'perfect' recording to reach the ear of a listener in his home if the listener's equipment consists of an amplifier with a 'warm' sound - speakers that are 'punchy' or 'smooth' - etc.? A manufacturer has NO place to create equipment as if they were instruments!

All this has also created great confusion with what is now the 'Home Theater' industry. There is an idea on the market - quite predominantly - that one should distinguish between Music Equipment and Film Equipment. This has to be total nonsense because the goal of Home Theater (which can be just as easily Stereo as Five-Channeled!) is to try to create a feeling of reality of the original scene in the home. Since the sound part of the film has the best possibility of aiding the feeling of reality - it is obligatory that the sound reproduction is accurate (dialogue must be as natural as possible) - which means High Fidelity! Indeed it is more important for films than pop music because one never knows what kind of mixing of pop tracks has changed the original performance. And then too - a great portion of the film sound track is anyhow music!

So in sum - one should demand as much accuracy from any equipment used for films as for music! This concept also flows over to the idea that there are speakers that are best for jazz - those best for pop - those for classical, etc. If the idea of High Fidelity is maintained - and speakers really are 'flat' as one would think they should be - then all music, train whistles and dog barks should be equally relayed accurately - and so having different speakers for different 'types' of sounds or music is nonsense..

With High Fidelity having become a rather empty term for most of the public - there has been an attempt to create a new genre - High-End. In a recent book "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio," Robert Harley spends the first chapter defining High-End and only refers to hi-fi or high fidelity once in not even a meaningful way (to be quoted below). Instead of trying to correct and/or deepen the meaning of High Fidelity (a term which actually has intrinsic meaning) - equipment marketing people are trying to turn their back on it and just invent something new.

Harley - when he uses the term hi-fi says: "A common misperception among the hi-fi consuming public is that high-end audio means high-priced audio." He doesn't leave much to imagine why they think so because in the 2nd chapter he says that a recent survey found that the median price of high-end audio was $18,000! He also says that when budgeting for high-end one should think about 15% of their annual income!

The result of all this is that equipment manufacturers have - for the most part - ignored paying attention to actual sound quality for equipment with average incomes. The contradiction inherent in this situation is that sound quality itself is not very dependent on price - at least not to the degree indicated by the price levels discussed by Harley.

There is a rather critical aspect to this high-price - high-end phenomenon - at least from a normative sociological viewpoint: much of the pricing may be related to the story floating around Helsinki of the 2 Russians on Helsinki's Esplanade: one has just purchased a tie and his friend sees it and asks where he bought it and what did he pay - he says 'over there' for 100 - his friend says - "Idiot! - I got the same tie 'over here' for 200." High pricing is often used as a deliberate tactic to create enviable exclusivity - a technique often used with fashion, restaurants and hotels.

The photo here is of a prototype amplifier designed by Erik Edvardsen - one of the prominent designers of the last 25 years. In a personal comment to the writer he said that it was one of the best sounding amps that he has designed or heard (some 200 watts or more of real power). All can note the 'exotic' ash tray and pot cover - he said one can color-co-ordinate the leads with color spray cans of choice. The total cost of components in the picture was about 40£ - much of it for the transformer. 

Those familiar with manufacturing processes know that it is not cheap to arrange tooling for front panels, chassis, meeting safety regulations etc. - but it is important to note that the actual components for producing excellent sound is not that which would make anything very expensive. The same is true for speakers - a decent amount must be spent on quality drivers - to assure consistency and reliability - but again there is nothing to prevent pricing for people of rather average income.

The choice to create front panels with 3 cm. brushed aluminum - and piano-gloss veneers - is a purely cosmetic aspect - and if one chooses to use their personal resources there, it surely is fine - but this aspect should never be confused with any necessities to use financial muscle to create true High Fidelity. It would be advantageous to everyone if there was good sounding equipment at all reasonable levels of pricing. Maybe then the general public would have higher requirements for ALL the sound we meet. We would be instantly complaining when we sat on a 65 million Airbus and still haven't the foggiest idea of what the captain is telling us on the intercom. The writer recently tried to listen to a grand performance of Beethoven's Ninth in the open market square in Ljubljana - chorus and musicians from all over the globe - and had to leave after some minutes because the usual PA reinforced sound was absolutely vile.

It should not be ignored that good sound can be enjoyed by basically everyone - Golden Ears are not necessary. The writer has always found that anyone interested in investing even just half an hour of hearing quality sound will be impressed by it - and wish to be able to hear more. That only very expensive equipment - mostly resulting from exotic cosmetic characteristics or artificial pricing - forces these people off the market and away from a new interest is somewhat of a pity.

In sum - open discussion and more education as to what constitutes good sound reproduction with a wider audience can only be a good thing as it would expand quality choices for everyone - nothing is really gained by creating a market exclusively for a supposed elite.

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