Saturday, 3 April 2010

How To Assess Hi Fi or Studio Monitors?

For the last few years hi fi fanatics, especially those that might be described as flat earthers, have been in denial. They really don't like Apple and iPods, despite the fact that they are probably the only reason that legacy separates systems haven't disappeared altogether. Many commentators are of the opinion that the Apple thing has re-awakened interest in hi fi.

However, so much vitriol has been directed towards poor old iPods and the AAC downloads of which 10 Billion have now sold, that many don't realise that with good headphones, or even the standard ones forced into your ears so that you get some bass but are uncomfortable, are probably the best sound quality most of us will ever hear. iPods have extremely low levels of distortion and can provide a level of clarity and neutrality not possible, even with the best hi fi system. Therefore they make a very good portable reference that you can use to help you judge the quality of any system you may be considering. They will not have the stereo image or the three dimensionality of speakers, but in other respects they are very useful indeed.

Which iPod
I don't think it matters, the later ones certainly sound better than previous generations and other, better quality PMPs are just as good. I use a Touch, which is an extremely useful computer as well as having an excellent remote control application in it for my Apple TV, but I recently heard a Nano which was at least as good. I'm sure a Shuffle will be too. My Macbook Pro is excellent as well, but whenever I've tried PCs they've sounded poor by comparison.

Which Headphones
Differences between good headphones are far smaller than between speakers which vary enormously and even more so if sub 100 Watt amplifiers are used, especially with 4 Ohm speakers, so choice is far easier and it's not necessary to spend a fortune. I use Sennheiser HD25-2 Professional Monitoring ones, they are absolutely superb and have a 70 Ohm impedance that suits PMPs. However others may prefer more discrete in-ears ones from Shure or Etymotic. The main thing is that they couple well to your head so that you don't lose bass as you do with standard ear buds.

Choosing Appropriate Recordings
The purpose of Hi Fi or high fidelity equipment is to more nearly or, as accurately as technically possible, replay what has been recorded. A Piano or voice should sound like the real thing, a group of instruments should spread out in front of you, remain in position and you should be aware of the acoustic characteristics of the venue where the recording was made. To someone who loves Classical Music, Folk, Jazz, World Music, even live Rock Bands, the comparisons are easy to make and people do successfully all the time.

However modern music is a free for all, sound quality is not an issue, but selling it fast is and certain characteristics are often exaggerated to make it sound as loud as possible so that it stands out from other tracks being played on the radio. Adverts between TV programs get similar treatment and it's called compression; the quiet bits are made as loud as the loud bits. Because it then appears louder but flat sounding, more treble is applied and more bass too, not to mention various other electronic tricks to make it "exciting". The net result is that a lot of it doesn't sound much better on a good system than an ordinary one and often it appears bass light because the treble is so brutal. None of this means you shouldn't enjoy it and collect it, but you do need to bear this in mind when assessing hi fi for possible purchase. You need also to use music with a real sound and proper musical instruments as well. If something live has been recorded to sound as it did on the day and the system does a very good job with it, it is a good one, but if you are impressed by the sound of purely electronic music without real references in and then find the real stuff sounds wrong, be wary because it probably indicates fatiguing distortion that will ultimately spoil all enjoyment.  An old Ella Fitzgerald recording is very much more useful as a reference than something modern and mostly electronically generated.

In previous blogs I've explained the benefit of better sound quality to minimising fatigue, but another is that is with an accurate and neutral system of the highest quality, you can enjoy a wider more diverse collection of music and movies without discovering irritating distortions that flatter some material while ruining everything else. I remember once a sound engineer friend explaining that his particular monitors did wonders for Saxophones. I asked if they made Pianos sound like Saxophones as well and he laughed and agreed they did!

I do hope this helps.

Ashley James

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