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What Is Hi-Fi

© 2001 - Val Pazin (for ESP)
Page Created 05 May 2001

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Hi-Fi - Where did it originate?

Its origin comes from the basic need to communicate.  The methods of communication have become less sophisticated (i.e. more blatant) in recent years, and this same claim has probably been made by every generation for hundreds of years.  There are only a few of the more subtle methods left, and music is most assuredly one of them.  Naturally, the better the reproduction, the greater the enjoyment, although it must be said that a degree of education is needed to separate the good, the bad, and the indifferent.  The downright ugly will not be discussed here.

As we scurry along with our lives, along the way we become excited by elements that we have not paid much attention to, largely because we are distracted by the fact that one's wife is pregnant, the bank approved the huge mortgage, pressures of work, etc.  As these pressures ease, we become more interested in the subtle aspects of music reproduction, where before it may simply have been used as something to dance to, or as background noise.

This article is a contribution from Val, and is subjected to my standard editing policy only - i.e. a small change here, some extra text there, and the occasional editorial comment, as shown here in reduced font and indented.  The views held are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or contradict the opinions of Rod Elliott (ESP).

For overseas readers who may be unaccustomed to it, the (Ed.) means editor, just in case you were wondering. No?  Never mind   (Ed.)

About Hi-Fi

Hi-Fi has evolved into a fine art as technology has improved the quality of every aspect of audio. As is usual there are the two steps forward one step back, which occurs in many areas of technology.

For example, when we first made the transition from vinyl records to CDs, there was something very wrong with the CD sound. This was partly due to the fact that test measurements were designed to pick flaws on the existing (vinyl) system. The flaws that were overlooked cause serious distortions, therefore reducing the confidence, enjoyment and interest of the general population.

Currently we are heading into a golden era for digital sound due to higher resolutions of the digital converters and more attention is being paid to the often neglected analogue stage. I have for quite some time been improving CD players for a moderate cost and achieving a good performance for price ratio.  Some owners that I know have spent AU$1,200 on machines that originally cost AU$1,000 by importing clock upgrades and souped up analogue sections.  A case of too much money and not enough brains, or a lot of over engineering, maybe both.

I have had better results using quality opamps and very low ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance) capacitors for between AU$180 and AU$320, including minor repairs 60% of the time. To simplify things, the analogue stage is trying to cope with digesting a 44.1kHz square wave residual as per the original specification, and over 340 khz with single bit converters. With SACD this will be over 2 megahertz. Small amounts of this type of signal destroy the performance of the opamps and as machines gradually deteriorate (sometimes as early as 18 months.) the supply lines become infected by odd order noise. Having experimented with over 50 types of opamps, I have developed a bias for a select few.  (Not necessarily the fastest ones as they tend to oscillate, but only until you attach test equipment or remove the lid :-)

I have just returned from installing a Yamaha AV receiver and a couple of Hifi VCRs at a friendly customer's place. He greatly appreciated my prompt attention to earn some money while providing him the ability to enjoy his DVD collection, refrain from exercising and to keep him company for a short while.

Having known Rudolph for some time, we have become good friends and have a trusting relationship. That is, I suggest items and he buys what I recommend.

We came upon this relationship due to the fact that I pointed out that he was responsible not in choosing his own equipment, but choosing someone with the confidence to do it for him.

He may easily have ended on the hifi (HELL) heap, as did many of my customers, except for the fact that I got him early. Many people in an approach to obtain a great deal, take on a huge burden on deciding what are the important criteria when purchasing equipment they know little about. At this stage I know that the three most important things in a stereo system are ...

  1. the recorded material,
  2. the speakers,
  3. the room they are performing in.

It has taken me 12 years to realise this and helps me to find people who also know what they are about in audio. Hopefully it will only take me a few essays to explain this simplification.

People who do mixes for bands pick this up, as do most women but we poor audiophiles are side-tracked by brands such as Krell, Gryphon, and their gold plated friends (plated so as not to expose the crap underneath, perhaps).  A woman won't sit for very long if the atmosphere is poor, nor will a person with little or no understanding of acoustics. If something is irritating them they just leave.

That's right folks, let your wife or girlfriend listen to her favourite music through your stereo and if she stays for longer than 15 minutes you're on a winner, you either got lucky or have an engineering degree in acoustics, electronics and have been fortunate to make quick decisions based on your hearing.


EQ - there you go, I have just sinned according to many a purist. I have fitted many graphic equalisers in homes, cars, and PA systems and every time, yes every time there is an improvement. This also means I know how to use the tool correctly.

I agree with my customers, silver cables do make a difference and so do pointy feet, Teflon, temperature, humidity and many other factors but the holy trinity (recorded material, speakers, room) still account for 90% of it. Sometimes more but never less!

Oh, by the way my audiophile customers who loathed the thought of applying EQ to their system now have them permanently connected, and occasionally use the bypass switch to hear what they had before (YUK). As was said on many an occasion; "Its amazing how well our brain compensates for these atrocious transistor radios".

I have great respect for transistor radios, as they are not pretentious. On the other hand, very expensive equipment such as the Wilson "doggies" safeguard themselves by instructing the owner to place the speakers and themselves as far from the room boundaries as possible. Why bother, just wear headphones if your environment has such an adverse effect on the speaker. But if the speaker has any flaws you're still stuffed!

We need to do reviews on people who know how to set up our systems properly, and not just review the equipment itself.

If you're not sure whether something sounds good or bad then don't buy it, no matter what the rest of your peer group may say.

Hearing (and Seeing) Things

Recently one of my clients said the too often quoted phrase "I'm hearing things I have never heard before!". Upon which one of my associates who was under the floorboards running cables to another room commented "It was all there before, but it's just like looking at an ugly woman ... the longer I look the more uncomfortable I feel".  You may need an example of "discomfort" in this context ...

From time to time I drop into my local mega stores to buy the traditional wedding toasters and such. Upon poking around and looking at the racks of ill matched and poorly displayed equipment I am approached by some unsuspecting new sales person.

SalesmanHi! May I help you ? (Yes, please call the manager, supervisor and/or owner)
MeThis rear projection TV is poorly adjusted, will you bring the remote for it please so I can see how well it can perform?
SYes, just one moment (off he goes and gets it) There you go.
MeNow can you dim the lights in this section by 70% please?
SI don't know, just hold on.
   ... A few minutes or so later ...
SSorry sir, the manager says that for insurance reasons the level of light may not be adjusted.
MeCan you demonstrate this set in an appropriate environment so the contrast and brightness can be reduced from maximum? (I sense his growing frustration).
SHold on a moment!

As he goes off, I proceed to adjust all of the TVs, reducing from maximum setting all the ones that have the greatest margin of profit.  The ones they don't push or don't have in stock have the contrast set very low and look washed out.  Some time later ...

ManagerPlease ask for assistance if you require help as we pay to have them set up.

Then I proceeded to explain that I have noticed less customers in the TV section since they have been "set up" and that if all the sets had a good picture people would be less likely to walk off.

The manager pulled me up on my next visit and asked me why there were more people in the section since I had a play with the tellies. "There are two reasons" I said, "Firstly, people feel more comfortable because they don't suffer fatigue from the poorly adjusted sets, and secondly, I adjusted the boominess out of a badly installed subwoofer located nearby."

What a way to get some free blank videotapes. I am saddened by the lack of basic knowledge of how to set up audio & video systems. Even the so-called specialist dealers (especially when they get in a bind) call on subcontractors to help them out.

The reader may have noticed that the nearby subwoofer and the TV settings are seemingly unrelated - but we use all of our senses all of the time, and will equate bad sound with a bad picture (although the reverse is not always true).  Tests have been done with an identical film clip, but different soundtrack quality.  The viewers were asked to rate the picture quality only, and to disregard the audio.  Overwhelmingly, the test group said that the clip with the highest sound quality had the best picture - but the picture never changed!  I would cite the reference for this, if only I could recall where I saw it.  (Ed.)

What They Really Need to Know

No sales person will find out anything useful unless s/he asks the right questions.  This is regrettably rare.

The first question should be - What is your room like, and how long will you live there?

If you intend to stay in the one place, floor standers may be in order, if you move around small satellites & a subwoofer will be more flexible for placement reasons. The furnishings and the structure of the room determine the tonal character of the speaker.

What type of music do you listen to, and do you actually sit and face the speakers?

If you face the speakers while listening you may be able to determine a sense of width and depth between performers and instruments). This is called the sound stage.

"Imaging" is how well defined the performers and instruments are within the sound stage.  Without going into great detail get a copy of "The ultimate demonstration disc" Chesky Records UD95. You will hear things you didn't understand before.

Do you have loud parties?

If ever you have to turn the knob past the 12 o'clock position on an amplifier STOP!  Get another amp with more power and maybe more efficient and powerful speakers.  (Except if you are using Rod Elliott's Better Volume Pot (Project 01). For this, 3 o'clock is its limit).

There are some possible reasons that the above may not apply.  If the source is low output, or the material was recorded at low level, it is sometimes necessary to increase the volume further than indicated.  If you hear sounds of distress from the speakers, then you have a real problem with either the amp, speakers or both.  Sometimes, if the sound is too loud, you may not even hear the distress.  Place your fingers in your ears to reduce the level - you will be surprised at the result.  Clipping distortion from 20kW PA systems is immediately audible when you reduce the level to something your poor ears can actually cope with (Ed.)

And lastly  - What is the budget?

This is where the juggling begins!

If these questions are not asked you will be pointed in the "we have just the one for you" direction.

"This one is on special, a bargain" (we have just done a cash deal with the supplier who may shortly have a fire sale).

Contact The Author, Val Pazin


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Copyright Notice. This article, including but not limited to all text and diagrams, is the intellectual property of Val Pazin and Rod Elliott, and is Copyright © 2001. Reproduction or re-publication by any means whatsoever, whether electronic, mechanical or electro- mechanical, is strictly prohibited under International Copyright laws. The author (Val Pazin) and editor (Rod Elliott) grant the reader the right to use this information for personal use only, and further allow that one (1) copy may be made for reference.  Commercial use is prohibited without express written authorisation from Val Pazin and Rod Elliott.
Page created and copyright © 05 May 2001