Essay - "High Fidelity vs. Musical Enjoyment" - October, 1997

By John Busenitz


If you are reading this, chances are you call yourself an "audiophile". But what does the term "audiophile" mean? Its strict definition means "lover of audio (sound)", but most audiophiles would add a bit more to their resume. We also want accurate (whether defined objectively or subjectively) audio reproduction, which is where the term "high-fidelity" originates. This stems from the fact that we want to get as sonically close to the original performance as possible.

But what does all this semantic hoopla mean to us? Absolute perfect fidelity is not possible, because the act of measuring something always changes that which we are measuring (or recording). So is this all in vain? No, because we can change the "reference" to be the original performance WHILE being measured. But this still leaves out the practical impossibility of real high fidelity, which would demand infinite bandwidth and dynamic range, and zero distortion!

So maybe we want to end up with a reproduction that sounds like the original, even if it may not be an exact copy. This involves compromises dictated by our knowledge of psychoacoustics. For example, it is generally accepted that we don't hear much above 20 kHz, if that, depending on our age. Some may disagree, but there is some frequency above which our ear/brain system does not respond. So, we don't need to reproduce anything above this frequency. Likewise, there is not much of musical value below 20 Hz, which leaves us with a bandwidth of "only" 3 decades, or 10 octaves: 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Furthermore, within this bandwidth we don't notice noise and distortion at a certain frequency below a certain loudness level, so this relaxes the requirements on our equipment even more. Performance within these boundaries are what most people mean when they refer to "accuracy". And we'll get to musical enjoyment soon!

There is another parameter that I believe affects the total fidelity of a system: spatial reproduction. This describes the location and direction of the different sound waves. The importance of spatial reproduction is illustrated by the move from mono to stereo, and the current convoluted and drawn-out switch to multichannel formats. Even if we had perfect frequency response, distortion, dynamic range, and phase with just one channel, it would be most likely inferior to two channels of lower fidelity (but still good) reproduction. It would be perfect sound but would originate from one point. The soundstage and imaging thus play a major role in total fidelity. And though we can do pretty well with frequency response, noise, distortion, and phase, we are a long way from being faithful spatially. Two channels, or even 5 or 6 Dolby Surround pan-potted channels are woefully inadequate. It has been calculated that thousands of channels would be needed to accurately reproduce the spatial information! This does not even take into account the effects of the room and the poor frequency response of a single driver. Clearly, since we are not able to convey an exact acoustic replica of the original music, we must have something that sounds similar. One system that does this is called Ambisonics. The math behind it is pretty complicated, but basically it reproduces sonic VECTORS, rather than SCALARS as in conventional stereo or surround sound. Thus, with the full blown setup of 9 channels, each channel assists in the reproduction of the sonic vectors. This brings into play an aspect of spatial reproduction that is neglected with current systems: the vertical dimension. Ambisonics is one of the very few systems with separate upper and lower channels, and reproduction cannot be called 3-dimensional without such. However, there are new DSP systems that simulate wider and more accurate soundstage with two channels via psychoacoustical principles. Examples of this are VMAx from Harman International, Spatializer, SRS, Q-Sound, and others. The shape of the ear imparts a different filter for sounds arriving in different directions, and these systems take advantage of that.

Now for musical enjoyment! Since we do not have anything close to total high fidelity, we have little other choice but enjoyment, which for audiophiles typically means a reproduction subjectively faithful to the original. This brings in factors that may not have anything to do with sound, but are perceived as sonic qualities, such as green markers, demagnetizers, and other such tweaks. Since audio reproduction is an illusion, anything that fosters the illusion is great, as long as one doesn't mind spending the money. Those of us technically educated generally believe that a lot of tweaks don't have sonic effects, because it is scientifically unlikely and hasn't been proven. So we often invest our interests in things like over-engineered products. Those people who are convinced that cables sound wildly different and Shun Mook Mpingo disks are a requirement for good sound are doing what helps the illusion of stereo best for them. My own interest tends towards simulating a more realistic soundfield than exists normally with two speakers.

The bottom line is to buy what makes you feel good. Some people get pleasure from the sound of the reproduction; sweet treble, tight bass, etc. Tubes often give a full bodied mid-range, and solid state usually has crisp highs. (I've read at least a few reviews of tube equipment that reported a thin and grainy sound in the mid-range, and solid state with sweet or rolled-off highs, so this is somewhat of a generalization, but, by and large, typical.) Others want to listen to the most accurate recreation, and hear everything; after all, the original performance might have sounded bright, or laid back, or any number of ways we associate with audio systems. Some want the most accurate reproduction based upon what they think live music sounds like. It should be noted that this may not coincide with what the original performance actually sounded like, but that is beside the point if your goal is to hear something that sounds realistic TO YOU.

I personally have wavered back and forth between many of these goals, and don't have a set purpose in high fidelity. I suspect they (my hi-fi goals) will emerge with time. As far as I am concerned, the most productive way is to do what you enjoy the most; don't spend money and time on what others say is important if you don't agree. However, have an open mind and try different things, because you may learn that you enjoy what someone else does. Just don't bankrupt yourself experimenting! Since our hearing is a function of the ear AND brain, it naturally follows that psychology has a good deal to do with it, i.e., perception of what sounds good. This is why people value components such as water-filled lighted cables that may not show a measurable (statistically quantitative) difference. These components cause the brain to think it is hearing improved sound, and so are valuable to those who "hear" these things. On the other hand, some like to transcend their personal biases and know that what they hear is physically accurate, as well as enjoyable. They find pleasure in assurance of actual objective fidelity.

If you derive a good deal of musical pleasure from your mass- market receiver and CD player and a bargain set of speakers, and don't find that expensive equipment increases this enjoyment, don't be dissuaded by those who say "expensive is better". There is no real high fidelity for total systems anyway, so spending your dough on something that doesn't increase your enjoyment is a waste of money. However, you owe yourself a listen to, for example, some higher quality speakers if you currently use the mass market compromised units, and are not totally pleased with the results. As I pointed out above, a certain amount of fidelity results from the love of music; one values the music enough that one wants to hear a reasonable replica of it. So find out what you enjoy, and go from there. However, keep in mind that if you want to communicate with fellow audiophiles on a common ground, there must be some reference or objective quantification. Nevertheless, musical enjoyment is a highly personal and subjective thing.

John Busenitz

Copyright 1997, Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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