In buying hi-fi, I believe that we seek an experience that reminds us of the best times we’ve had listening to music. That might be memories of a concert, or perhaps instruments we’ve played, or that we’ve heard friends play. We transport, via imagination, to a jazz-club or a stadium. We might even be reminded of great sound systems we’ve heard in the past. Every time we hear music played on real hi-fi, we fondly nod to one or more of those memories. We subconsciously seek signals from our speakers that trigger the feelings we felt when we heard great music – music that moved us.
Without an emotional response, music might as well be playing through a radio on the fridge. It seems to me that our enjoyment of music is predicated on how many ‘details’ our sound system gets ‘right.’
Here’s an analogy that I think explains how the effect works: imagine, for a moment, that you’re looking at a painting; let’s say it’s a painting of an apple. If there are enough ‘appley’ details painted/captured in the picture – true-to-life colours, the light catches on the apple and its shape and shadows – with enough details accurately recorded, in our mind’s eye, the painting looks realistic: it feels as if, if we reached in, we might physically touch the apple. Even if the form of the apple is distorted but its colour is a perfect rendering of morning sun on the bowl of fruit, and it might remind you of a pleasant morning you spent at home with sun steaming into your kitchen. It triggers an emotional response. Only a few plausibly accurate details, and a suggestion of the rest of the data, are needed for our mind to conjure a response. If enough details are represented accurately, then those blobs of apple-coloured paint uncannily remind us of reality. In our mind’s eye, we see a photo-realistic apple that we could reach in and touch. Enjoying music on a real high fidelity sound system is something like that.
Of course, in the recording process, solitary sound waves from each element of the music are captured in the studio. They are converted into an electrical wave, mixed together into music, stored, amplified and then split into oddly disparate sounds radiating from woofers, mid-range speakers and tweeters – none of them sound anything like the actual sound wave that emanates from a singer’s mouth or a piano’s soundboard. Our brain – amazing device that it is – stitches the incongruent chorus together and we recognise, “yeah, that sounds exactly like that singer,” or “that piano sounds completely real.”
At its most basic level, hi-fi systems must render just one or two elements spot-on-right and believable to a listener. It might be volume or the clarity of the speaker’s bass; or ambiance captured in the studio or an ability to distinguish exactly how and what a favourite musician is playing.
As hi-fi systems improve in both ability and cost, more-and-more instruments sound credible as, in our minds eye (ear?), we hear exactly what they are playing and their location in the sound-scape which, despite coming from just two speaker boxes, sounds three-dimensional; deep, wide and high. And the system performs on a wider variety of music. Instead of sounding exciting only when playing acoustic sets, like to jazz, or folk or chamber music, a better system as well as improving within those genres, might also present rock and orchestral music with palpable realism. A system that plays loud when it needs to, and softly when it doesn’t, with each recorded instrument clearly defined in tone entertains our imagination exactly like a live performance does. We’re not ‘listening to a song’ anymore, and we’re listening to a collection of musicians – a band – an ensemble – a performance – and we’re entertained in the same way as when we hear live music. As you invest more – more money and more living room space – that’s what great hi-fi does.
It transports you to a live performance.