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.