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So, What Does Real Hi-Fi Do, Anyway?

A nice hi-fi system at Steve Bennett Hi-Fi Geelong

In buying hi-fi, we seek an experience that reminds us of the best times we’ve had listening to music. Be that memories of a concert, or perhaps instruments we played ourselves, or we’ve heard friends play. We transport, via imagination, to a night-club or a stadium. We might even remind ourselves 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 same feelings we felt when we heard great music – music that moved us.

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/recorded in the picture – the apple’s colours, the light catches on the apple and its shape and shadows – with enough details, accurately recorded, we can imagine that the painting looks so realistic that, if we could reach in, we could physically touch the apple. Or, perhaps, the form of the apple might be 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.  We only need a few plausibly accurate details and a suggestion of the rest of the data for our mind to conjure a response. If there are enough details 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. Real high fidelity sound is something like that.

At its most basic level, there are just one or two elements that sound spot-on-right and believable to the listener. Perhaps it’s the volume and bass impact; or, perhaps it’s the presentation of ambiance and an ability to distinguish exactly how and what a favourite musician is playing. But, unless there’s something that affects you when you’re listening to music, then it 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 seems to get ‘right.’

Of course, the sounds that a recording engineer ‘captures,’ are converted into an electrical wave, amplified and then split between oddly disparate sounds radiating from woofers, midranges and tweeters: they sound nothing like the actual sound wave that emanates from a singer’s mouth or a piano’s soundboard. It’s our brain that stitches the chorus of incongruent sounds together and recognises that “yeah, that sounds exactly like that singer,” or “that piano sounds completely real.”

As hi-fi systems ‘improve’ in both ability and cost, their sound becomes more-and-more credible when performing a wider variety of music. Instead of sounding exciting only when playing acoustic sets, like to jazz, or folk or chamber music, as well as sounding better in those genres, a better system 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 (some of them, you might not have noticed before) entertains our imagination exactly as a live band might. We’re not ‘listening to a song’ anymore, and we’re listening to a collection of musicians – a band – a performance – and we’re entertained in the same way as when we hear live music. As you invest more – money and living room space, that’s what great hi-fi does.

It transports you to a live performance.

 

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Harry Pearson 1937 – 2014

Harry Pearson Tribute

I am sad to read that the founding editor of The Abso!ute Sound magazine, Harry Pearson, has passed away at age 77. In his revolutionary journal-cum-magazine, ‘HP’ quite literally ‘wrote the book’ on how the experience of owning and listening to the best high fidelity equipment should be reported – a tradition that continues amongst the best audio critics to this day.
For me, HP’s writing in the 1980s was the first to describe the experience of listening to these pieces of good quality hi-fi so articulately that I actually felt as if I, myself, had also heard the products that he was describing. In benchmarking unamplified live music – or “the absolute sound” – HP would base his reviews on how the sound of his famous reference system, resulting from the component in question, brought him closer (or farther away, as was sometimes the case) to a credible three-dimensional performance; occurring vicariously right before my listening chair. A hi-fi component’s ability to conjure music and the musicians’ performance became, quite rightly, the benchmarks against which product performance would be judged rather than ‘bass’, ‘midrange’ and ‘treble’. New phrases frequently adapted words like sound-staging, transparency, liquidity, and ideas like yin and yang, and musical notations like ppps and fffs into a connoisseurs’ language to describe the auditory experience.
I can never, after all these years reading The Abso!ute Sound and similar texts, separate the experience that I expect from listening to good hi-fi from what Harry Pearson has led me to expect… a lifetime of entertainment. Thank you for everything HP. You will be missed.
Ken Bennett

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Internet Chew-Through: How Much Internet Will You Use to Stream Music?

How Much Internet Do I Use To Stream Music kb/s GB/Hr

More and more people realize that the majority of their listening and new music discovery is now streamed over the internet. Others are afraid of streamed services because they worry that they’ll use up their entire internet plan streaming music.

Well, here’s how the maths works out to check how much ‘internet’ we’re actually using when we listen to streamed music: and, I’m happy – relieved, even – to report that it’s not very much at all!
What we need to find out is how much music we hear per gigabyte of internet download. To work it out, the first thing to understand is that internet broadcast services stream, at different rates, in data known as kilobits-per-second or ‘kb/s’ (examples follow) and that we purchase internet download from service providers in Gigabytes or ‘GB’s per month.

I’ve used hours to make things easy.

For every kb/s, we take 1kilobit per second x 60seconds x 60minutes = 3600kilobits per hour. To convert that to ‘kilobytes’ we divide that figure by 8 (8 bits in a byte) to get 450kilobytes per hour. To convert that to ‘gigabytes’ we divide that further by 1,000,000 (1mil. bytes in a gigabyte). So 1kb/s = 0.00045GB/h.
So we simply multiply 0.00045GB/h by the kb/s rate of each internet streaming service. In these examples I have also worked out how many hours of music we get from just every gigabyte of data:
Spotify Premium Subscriber Service
320kb/s = 0.144GB/h or >7Hrs/1GB data
3RRR Internet Radio
128kb/s = 0.0576GB/h or <17Hrs/1GB data
ABC Internet Radio
96kb/s = 0.0432GB/h or <23Hrs/1GB data
3AW Internet Radio
32kb/s = 0.0144GB/h or <69Hrs/1GB data

So, if you run out of internet data, it’s more likely to be your Catch-Up TV than how hard you’ve been hitting the internet radio. Cut loose! With literally thousands of streamed services, we can listen to music from anywhere in the world in excellent quality and with impunity…..

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‘Do not – not – adjust your set’: a 1970s guide to respectable picture quality from your new TV…

Your new TV is factory-set to ‘buy me’ mode when you get it home and tune it in. Thankfully our set-up method – drawn from the dawn of colour television – will see your new TV deliver its best possible picture quality.

Newsreaders make good test material because they’re usually filmed wearing dark clothes with the best studio cameras and lighting.

1. Turn OFF all of the ‘auto’ or ‘smart’ settings for colour, contrast, brightness and sharpness. We have to take things back to 1976!
2. To begin, we want to develop the image’s shadows and highlights – all the grey scale from white to light greys and dark greys to black. Contrast and brightness are, for a picture, like treble and bass controls for sound. They govern overall tone. To set them, we start with a black-and-white image.Turn the colour setting as low as it goes.
3. Contrast adjusts the ‘white level’. You’ll notice that the factory settings show a lot of ‘pure white’ on the screen. Adjust the contrast setting (usually down) so that the screen’s only pure white glints are catch lights in eyes and twinkles on chrome – everything else should be a shade of grey. In setting that correctly, you should now see the full scale of light grey tones.
4. Brightness adjusts the ‘black level’. Fabric folds and pinstripes in jackets make good test subjects. Adjust the brightness control (usually up) so that details in shadows become visible. When the brightness is too high, the picture takes on a ‘milky’ look. Another way to achieve a good result is to turn down the brightness until the ‘milky look’ fades. You should see all the shades of dark grey.
5. Contrast and brightness affect each other, so double-check your contrast setting in case brightness settings have changed it and, if it does needs changing, double-check the brightness.
6. Next, we want to achieve the highest colour setting from your television without causing the blurriness you see when colours ‘bleed’ into one another. Using the skin of your own hand as a guide, increase the colour until the on screen skin-tone begins to look realistic. If the colour is too high, skin tones will take on a glowing orange or pink look.
And that’s it! That’s how we adjusted TVs in the ‘70s & ‘80s. There are a few more features in your new TV to bring it into the new millennium!
7. ‘Sharpness’ is a crude edge enhancer. Your television can increase sharpness by outlining all the elements of your image with thin black and white lines. You can see it clearly on text – it looks like ghosting. Turn the sharpness setting down until no ‘outline’ or ‘ghost’ is visible – usually close to the minimum setting.
8. If your television has a colour temperature control, adjust it so that the image colour looks sharp – and doesn’t fuzz or bleed – usually cool or natural.
9. If your TV has a ‘Tint’ control, you can adjust the cursor a few steps to the right or left until you achieve a picture with the least amount of colour in it. Red and green tints neutralise each other when the tint is perfect so when the colour slightly drops, you have usually achieved a natural tint level. Simply adjust the colour up a notch or 2 until it looks bright and clear again.

We’re looking for an image that looks like a photograph. It has a perception of depth and believable natural colour. It should be comfortable and relaxing to watch – and look a good deal better than the TV you originally unpacked…

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RX-AS710: a ‘stereo amplifier’ for our times….

This article was originally written for Yamaha’s now defunct RX-V577… The advice still holds true so I’ve updated it to suit their new models.

2015’s market-wide obsession with digital music formats all but renders ‘traditional’ hi-fi amplifiers obsolete. No longer just for CDs and records: to be really useful in 2015, a hi-fi system must connect phones, computers and iPods, NAS drives and digital or streamed radio and internet services to your speakers… And then it needs to have connections for your TV and disc player – and a turntable, if you use one.

It is possible, but we have to think outside the box. Stay with me… It’s taken some 2015 thinking to bundle all of today’s solutions into a convenient, easy-to-use package. And the heart of that package – and it’s an obscure suggestion to today’s analogue obsessed audiophile – is, in fact, a ‘surround sound’ or AV receiver! We’ll use an $1199 Yamaha RX-AS710 as an example.

Music is recorded in stereo so it makes sense that it should sound best played back in its native format. 2-speaker stereo! And, whilst not their intended use, AV receivers can sound extraordinary playing digital music in stereo. They have 1 major advantage over stereo designs and that is that they have built into them, a Digital-to-Analogue-Converter (or DAC). At the heart of an RX-AS710 is a 24bit/192kHz DAC – like you might find in a $500 CD player – that can be fed signals from any device with a digital output: HDMI, optical Toslink, coaxial SPDIF or USB, Ethernet or wi-fi. A digital signal has no ‘sound quality’ – it’s a computer file – and it’s not until data from that file enters a DAC that transforms into audio. Every digital source produces the same proficient – and surprisingly good – sound quality because it’s being generated by the same surprisingly good 24bit DAC. Of course, low bit-rate streams don’t sound quite as good as high bitrate streams – but, still, they all sound very good. That’s the number one reason we recommend an AV receiver. It’s why we categorize our AV receivers as ‘digital source components’.

And, for the audiophile on a budget, there are more advantages for stereo listening: 7.1 AV receivers take advantage of speakers’ bi-wire terminals and use 4 internal amplifiers to independently drive tweeters and woofers resulting in more dynamic, more present sound and higher volume capacity with lower distortion from your speakers. And, if your speakers or room aren’t acoustically perfect, a sophisticated microphone system calibrates the sound fed into your speakers to eliminate any unattractive sonic signatures or colourations. Yamaha calls it YPAO and the benefits are obvious. When you switch YPAO on, you can hear more even tone, more fine detail, each instrument is reproduced with mo0re of its own sonic character – and when you switch YPAO off with the ‘pure direct’ button, the sound is reduced to the capabilities of those speakers in that room. In our demo room, the sound is ‘thinner’ and the bass is uneven and boomy.

Besides amplifier technologies, the Yamaha RX-AS710 (and higher model AV receivers) have built-in wi-fi, an AM/FM radio, an internet radio, soundbar-style connectivity (to take advantage of Bravia, Viera or Anynet ‘link’ technologies), they also have a DLNA media player that browses and plays music from any computer on your network anywhere in your home, they connect directly to Spotify and Pandora music servers for improved sound quality, they have a USB connection so they work just like a dock but they source Apple audio as a digital signal to bypass the ordinary iPod electronics. They operate from an easy-to-use app on your phone or tablet, or with your regular or a TV remote – whichever is most convenient for the user at the time.

Maybe best of all, unlike a conventional analogue system – an RX-AS710 doesn’t require an expensive CD player to play CDs – HDMI out of any make of BluRay player sounds just fine played through a 24bit/192kHz DAC – so you might have more money to spend on an even better receiver (with an even better DAC) or better speakers.

Sub $2,000 ‘traditional stereo’ components simply can’t keep up when they’re compared side-by-side with an AV receiver…

Post $2,000? There are more choices available. But I’ll save that for another post.

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Good Sound Matters…

To put it simply: good sound matters. You only buy a new hi-fi or home theatre system every 10-20 years. So, as an appliance, hi-fi is really too important to be left to chance and catalogues: whatever you buy is going to play music or television to you for a very long time.

Steve Bennett Hi-Fi applies decades of experience to our purchasing decisions and then only selects products that we know will deliver you engaging sound and picture year after year. Choosing the right equipment will save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. But in order to save money and make good choices we debunk myths and clear the hype. When you take away it’s gimmicks, some products simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. How many televisions have you seen that play internet video, make telephone calls and show 3D movies only to have unrealistic colour or a ‘cartoon-like’ picture quality? And we can’t remember how many surround sound ‘amplifiers’ that have been offered to us that don’t have very good quality amplifiers in them at all. All in all, decades of experience are right at the heart of getting you lasting satisfaction and value for your money from your new home entertainment system.

A realistic approach to selling hi-fi sees Steve Bennett Hi-Fi act more as system designer than a salesperson. We don’t pay sales commissions to our staff. We ask you questions – about your home, your style, your music and your good and bad experiences with hi-fi and then we recommend a suite of products in answer to your requirement rather than our sales targets.

Your new sound-system should fit your needs, your lifestyle, your décor and your budget perfectly. After 35 years in business – it’s really not that hard.