Why bother with High-End Audio?

Brian May at a mixing desk reviewing Bohemian Rhapsody

Why bother with High-End Audio?

From time to time when I’m discussing music and audio with people, I hear a commonly used line that high-end audio equipment recreates the sound and dynamics of an original musical event in your home. I have come to believe that this is a complete misconception. Does a hi-fi system sound the same as a live event? Absolutely not!

When we are experiencing a live event, the sound is projecting at us from different point sources, bouncing off uneven reflective surfaces, interacting with objects and the people around us. If we are sitting in the middle of the first row, it will sound different to sitting in row 150 to the left. We are feeling the energy of the music in a real open space. It is an imperfect, raw, immediate experience.

When a live event is recorded, the placement of the microphones, the type of recording equipment, the recording technique, and a myriad of other factors all influence the recording. Whether it’s a live performance or a studio recording, the music is then ‘mixed & mastered’ which is a process of altering the music file to suit the ideals of the recording engineer/producer and sometimes the artist. ‘Undesired’ elements are removed, ‘desired’ elements are boosted and sometimes new elements are added or it gets equalized to make it sound better on the radio, etc. After this process has been completed, what you have is a music file that has been significantly manipulated and compressed.

Don’t expect your turntable, CD player or streamer to magically transform it back to the real event, miraculously putting back all that has been taken out of the signal, un-doing all the changes that were made to the original piece created by the musicians and the vocalists performing in front of the microphones.

Since the recorded music that we have on vinyl, CD or streaming files is so different to the original… why bother with high end audio? Are we not wasting our money buying costly equipment if what we are listening to is a poor facsimile of the real thing?

Actually, it is due to the fact that recordings are so imperfect that high-end audio equipment is relevant. When faced with the challenge of taking a compressed music file that is missing information and playing it so that it sounds as real as possible, this is when you need equipment that has been designed, engineered and built to a very high standard. This is where that attention to the small details pays off.

Consider for a moment if there was a way of getting recordings that were 100% true to the original recording. If this was the case, we could assume that even a very modest hi-fi system could do a great job of communicating the music because all of the information is there. One could say that in this example, there may be no need for highly engineered, specially designed high-end audio equipment.

However, not only is the master recording significantly altered from the original, but there are varying degrees of alteration. If you’re lucky, there will be enough information left on the recording for your mind and imagination to be able to fill in the gaps. If the emotional content in the music remains sufficiently intact and the system presents it in a natural way, you may be able to engage with it emotionally.

Weather it’s a quiver in a voice, a pluck of a guitar string, the dance of fingers over a piano keyboard or a propulsive bass guitar, it’s how we perceive the micro-details & nuances in that moment that determine if we ‘believe it’ or treat it as background music. A great hi-fi system has to take the imperfect information from the music file and present it to us as a sonic picture that feels authentic, natural and ultimately convincing.

Whether it’s a quiver in a voice, a pluck of a guitar string, the dance of fingers over a piano keyboard or a propulsive bass guitar, it’s how we perceive the micro-details & nuances in that moment that determine if we ‘believe it’ or treat it as background music. A great hi-fi system has to take the imperfect information from the music file and present it to us as a sonic picture that feels authentic, natural and ultimately convincing.

You may tap your foot to the beat, close your eyes and sway to the rhythm, cry, sing along, be transported to another place or re-live a memory… whatever it is for you… it’s that human engagement that gives us so much pleasure.
That moment where you really connect with an artist or that moment when you get totally lost in the music….these are the moments that we cherish as emotional beings. We want our hair to stand up on end, we want to feel the joy of the performance in our heart and share it with others.

Some people spend their lives creating special equipment designed to provide these moments for us. Equipment that takes that imperfect file and presents it as a cohesive sonic picture. Should we appreciate their efforts? I think so.
Is it worth investing in this equipment that can help facilitate this experience for us? Is it worth the bother?

Absolutely YES!

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