A Dive into Hi-Fi Systems and Their Speakers
An Audiophile’s Perspective on Sound in Your Greater Boston Home
By Lewis Dalven. Lewis is one of our audio specialists who has been in the business for over 46 years and knows a thing or two!
What is a Hi-Fi System?
One way to look at a Hi-Fi system is as an apparatus whose purpose is to completely and accurately convey recorded sound from the source medium back into the listener’s room. Whether a pleasing listening experience will result falls first on the fidelity of the recording itself, and is much influenced by the acoustics of the room in which the sound is heard. The subtle qualities of the Hi-Fi components and how they are matched and set up certainly plays a role, but even the finest stereo equipment can fall short of achieving the elusive goal of "natural" sound if tested with distorted recordings or heard in a bad listening environment. Nevertheless, experience has taught us that accurate reproduction almost always comes closer to simulating natural sound than inaccurate reproduction does…particularly when judged using well-recorded source material and with the equipment set up properly in your listening room.
The Hi-Fi system consists of sources, like CD, phonograph, digital music files played from media streaming devices, broadcast or Internet radio, etc. The sources are connected to amplifying devices: the pre-amplifier, which selects from the sources and regulates volume (and tonal adjustments in some cases), and the power amplifier, which adds the final voltage and current boost to make the speakers play.
To be truly Hi-Fi, each electronic component must process the full audible frequency spectrum evenly, without adding or removing anything. Errors in this core task include frequency roll-offs at the low or high ends of the spectrum, and the addition of noise and unwanted byproducts of amplification to the music signal. These characteristics are quantified in the “frequency response” (e.g. 20-20KHz ±1dB), signal to noise ratio (e.g. S/N -90dB) and “THD” or “IMD” (e.g. ≤0.05%) specs of the component. “Noise” can be a steady background hiss or a more insidious form that modulates with the signal.
Even when carefully measured, these basic specs tell only a partial story about the quality of musical reproduction a sound component is capable of. Some components seem better able than others to convey a sense of “air”, or spatial realism, or possess more musical flow or dynamism, despite having specs that are not easily distinguishable from components that reveal less of these desirable musical traits. These are the areas where “audiophiles” focus their listening skills, and where the best manufacturers show their worth.
While there are broadly speaking few “compatibility” issues in connecting most components, there are a few areas where attention is required…mismatching a phonograph cartridge to its pre-amplifier can lead to audible hum or noise, and a power amp must play well with its speakers. Audible distortion or in worst cases overheating and system failure can result from poor choices mating speakers to amplifiers. Mixing tube and solid-state components can be terrific but sometimes can introduce a mismatch. Components must also be connected to one another with various kinds of cables, whose sonic attributes can have an effect on the end result. A truly great system results when all the synergies are in balance. This is where are over 200 years of combined staff experience can help you make the right choices!
The best way to assess the quality of a stereo playback system by ear is to use demo material of the highest quality with acoustic instruments recorded with as little studio production as possible. Classical chamber music, art song, folk, small combo acoustic jazz, or singer-songwriter performances are generally best. Live-to-2 track recordings are most useful in assessing imaging, and avoiding amplified instruments allows you to listen for subtleties in the tonal quality of performance that are distorted by amplification. If you do use music with amplified instruments out of preference for the music, that’s fine, but you are depriving yourself of your best chance to discover potential colorations introduced by the playback system. The theory is that If a system succeeds in achieving realism with acoustic material, then it will also faithfully render recordings made using commercial recording techniques. A fully transparent system is also likely to reveal more clearly the damage done by too much studio production.
It is of equal importance that the speakers under consideration be placed a proper distance apart, away from nearby room boundaries, with the listener positioned at the apex of an equilateral triangle thus created, with ears near the level of the speaker’s tweeters. Is this a practical arrangement in your home? Maybe not, but it is the basis upon which the principle of stereo sound reproduction rests. Speakers are designed to operate under these conditions, so not only does it make sense to allow them to reveal how well they succeed by observing these guidelines when demoing, but it also makes sense to observe them in your home in the greater Boston area if at all possible.
In the demo room, each speaker system to be compared must be afforded these same advantages if the demo is to be meaningful. This is not easy or convenient for the retailer to do, but it is essential, because the alternative allows the difference in speaker placement to become a significant influence on what you are hearing. Instant A/Bs, while attractive in theory, make it difficult or impossible for both pairs to have equally advantageous positions.
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Next time you are thinking of getting new speakers or anything to improve your home listening experience, come to Natural Sound and let us show you some of the best choices there are and compare them in a meaningful way. Hearing for yourself is the best way to make your audio decisions!
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