TECHNICAL TALK: How Much Fidelity is Enough? by Julian Hirsch (Sept. 1995)

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That question reminds me of the story about Abraham Lincoln, who responded to comments about the length of his legs by pointing out that they were just long enough to reach the ground. Presumably any one’s music system should be good enough to satisfy his personal taste in sound. After all, home music reproduction at its best is a long way from perfect. For me, the original sound is the reference to which any reproduced sound ultimately must be compared. A perfect re production, by my standards, would be one that could not be distinguished from the live performance.

Paradoxically, although I cannot conceive of orchestral music being reproduced in one’s home so faithfully as to be indistinguishable from the original performance, I can imagine a situation in which a reproduction might be “better” than the original. A high-quality recording in which musical gaffes, extraneous sounds (coughing and so forth), or other audible problems have been removed by editing or some form of digital surgery that leaves the program intact might well be viewed as an improvement on literal accuracy, although I imagine some purists would protest any modification of the original. In general, however, we are pretty much limited to hearing the sounds that have been captured by the recording microphones, as they have been recorded and edited, and as they have been further modified in the playback process.

As most of you know, the result of playing almost any recorded program in your home, while it can be highly satisfying and enjoyable, is very different from anything that might have been heard during the original performance. When was the last time you closed your eyes while listening to a high-quality music recording through any audio system and could not tell whether it was live or recorded? It is probably with the spoken word and chamber music that we can come closest to achieving truly “perfect” reproduction in the home (assuming reasonably good playback equipment and source recordings), simply because their normal acoustic environment and dynamic range are closest to those that are typically encountered at home.

In spite of these limitations, there is a never-ending parade of audio components that are claimed (or at least implied) to bring the concert-hall experience into your home. All of which brings us to the question, how close to perfection can your home music system be? How “perfect” should it be?

In all human activities, there is a finite limit to the achievable approach to perfection. In the case of audio, mechanical disc recording and playback (and analog tape recording, not markedly superior to disc in its sound quality) thrived for al most a century before being made obsolete by digital recording technology, which has been with us for a couple of decades now. Most of the current emphasis in music recording and reproduction technology for the consumer market seems to be in the direction of home theater and multichannel sound. Without slighting the impressive achievements that have been made in those areas, I wonder if any corresponding gains have been achieved in the basic reproduction of music in the home.

I have long espoused the idea (heretical in the eyes of some) that the loudspeaker is more important than all other parts of a music system combined, since it alone produces the actual sound that we hear. But it is also inherently imperfect and inferior to digital software and hardware in its accuracy and precision.

Its very imperfection, in my view, is one of the loudspeaker’s greatest appeals. Because of the unavoidable interaction between a speaker and the surrounding room and furnishings, and the speaker’s inherent audio characteristics, there can be as much individuality (and variability) in the design and installation of a speaker system as in the creation of a work of art or a skilled chef’s prized dish.

In STEREO REVIEW’s 1995 Stereo Buyer’s Guide, the space devoted to speaker listings is approximately equal to that for all other components combined. Although I did not attempt an actual count, it is clear that the marketplace figures reflect both the diversity of the loudspeaker industry and the prime importance of the loudspeaker to the hi-fi world. With few, if any, of the other audio system components do we find the range of size, price, and performance that exists among loud speakers (from less than $100 up to $100,000, from small and light enough to hold in your hand to weighing a couple of hundred pounds and barely able to fit into a typical room). Despite what you might read or be told, the sonic differences between amplifiers and most other primarily electronic components are usually relatively slight (if neither is driven beyond its linear range, a $100 amplifier does not necessarily sound much different from a $10,000 amplifier). On the other hand, in side-by-side comparisons between speakers, it is almost axiomatic that no two models will sound exactly alike. The distinctions range from very subtle tonal or imaging characteristics to glaringly different colorations.

My advice is to avoid a serious mismatch between your amplifier and your speakers. I am not referring to impedance characteristics, which except in unusual cases have a relatively minor effect on sound, but rather to an overall quality or price imbalance, such as an amplifier that costs several times as much as your speakers. The reverse imbalance — speakers that cost several times what you spent for the amplifier — is not such a bad idea, provided the amplifier (or receiver) is powerful enough to get the most out of the speakers. A large speaker does not necessarily require more power than a smaller one, but it is more likely to profit from having it available when needed.

So to answer the question I posed initially, your system should be designed to satisfy your listening tastes and to fit within your budget. In apportioning the system budget, favor the speakers. You’ll appreciate the results.

Source: Stereo Review (09-1995)

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