The Art & Science of Sound

What Exactly Is 'Hi-Fi' Anyway?

By Jack Sharkey for KEF

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language defines ‘high fidelity’ as the reproduction of sound with little distortion, giving a result very similar to the original.

In this case ‘distortion’ doesn’t mean noise, it means any change to the original.

Mary Had A Little Lamb

On November 21, 1877, Thomas Edison announced the invention of a machine to record and playback sound. The first recording in human history was Edison reciting Mary Had A Little Lamb into his new contraption, and for the first few years of its existence the phonograph was mainly thought of as a dictation machine.

To the tiny number of people who were suddenly able to hear their own voice, or a musical performance, or a dictated copy of their grocery list, the phonograph was an absolutely amazing technical advance. Until then, in all of human history sound was ethereal, transient and lived on solely in the memory of the listener.

From 1877 to 1948, the fidelity of the recording was not a consideration – the fact the recording existed at all was the big deal. Early commercial recordings were not very good but again that wasn’t the point.

From 1948 until the early 1950s, audio technology experienced an unprecedented explosion – a steep slope of advancement that wouldn’t be rivaled until the first decade of the 21st Century. Amplifier technology, loudspeaker design and storage devices (reel-to-reel tape and the vinyl LP chief among them) sprang from the overall technological advances that stemmed from World War Two. The era of home audio was upon us: For the first time in history, music was quickly becoming more a personal experience than a strictly communal one.

The Birth of Hi-Fi

In the late 1940s, the RCA Victor company (think the Apple + Microsoft of its day) performed experiments with people who listened to high-quality recordings through a series of variable filters that changed the ‘fidelity’ of the sound. Across the board, every listener preferred the cleaner, more accurate sound over any level of the introduced distortion or noise. For the first time, there was objective proof that human beings preferred good sound over bad sound – a notion that induces face palms of obviousness today but was a paradigm shifting discovery at the time.

In the mid-1950s, ‘high fidelity’ began to be used as a marketing term to describe audio reproduction that was of higher quality than the common AM radio and 78rpm acetate records that had ruled the consumer audio market since the 1920s. The post-War 1950s were a time of technological and economic expansion and along with the television, the home ‘hi-fi set’ became the status seekers’ must-have. The arguments over what exactly ‘hi-fi’ was began then and haven’t changed.

To the general consumer ‘hi-fi’ meant expensive equipment that let the neighbors know things were going quite well, thank you very much. To the discerning music fan ‘hi-fi’ became a differentiator between standard equipment and gear that did a superior job of replicating the sound, scope and power of a musical passage. 

Today, the term ‘hi-fi’ may seem antiquated and unnecessary but from a broad view, the difference between the early days and now are still quite similar.

What Exactly Is Hi-Fi?

In order to define high fidelity we need to objectively understand that even the most moderate contemporary ‘lo-fi’ system will often sound as good – if not better – than a hi-fi set that may have cost a consumer a month’s salary in 1959. As the technology has evolved so has the definition.

High Fidelity still has two meanings depending on how you listen to music.

Technically, ‘hi-fi’ describes a component or series of components that do a quality job of reproducing music. Here’s the catch though, what we think of today as doing a ‘quality job of reproducing music’ is almost entirely different than it was even twenty-five years ago, forget sixty years ago! Back then it was all about noise and distortion, having solved those problems today it's all about spatiality, depth and realism.

Socially, ‘hi-fi’ is sometimes a baseless marketing claim or a pejorative description of a hobby many people think of as anachronistic and excruciatingly un-hip, but 'hi-fi' is also still an ideal. ‘Hi-fi’ has always had a connotation of expense and exclusivity, but like luxury cars, meals at 5-Star restaurants, nice furniture and a decent vacation, ‘expensive’ is a relative term – we strive for things we deem important and don’t mind paying a premium for quality. The difference today is, decent sounding music is so pervasive we’ve kind of forgotten about the simple human joy music brings to our lives. One-hundred forty-two years after the very first recording of a sound, and with all the technology for storing and playing back music we can imagine, actively listening to music is somehow less important to us because it is so attainable. Have we stopped embracing the beauty of high-fidelity sound because marginal sound is everywhere? (Hint: The answer is a resounding ‘no.’)

At KEF, ‘high-fidelity’ means the same thing now as it did when we were founded in a Nissen hut in Kent in 1961: The purest possible reproduction of a musical piece through concentrated technical research. For us, ‘hi-fi’ is a mission statement – our raison d’etre.

Then and Now

Lo-Fi Then: Convenient and inexpensive formats like AM radio, 45rpm singles, and 8-tracks, played on convenient and inexpensive equipment like portable radios, turntables and tape players and all-in-one systems that played music at the flip of switch, with little money or time investment.

Lo-Fi Now: Convenient and inexpensive formats like Bluetooth, most streaming services, and mp3 files played on convenient and inexpensive equipment like portable digital music players, all-in-one systems and personal assistants that play music at the utterance of a voice command, with little money or time investment.

The convenience these products provide is amazing, but the common denominator is that over time they all become fads that fade away as people realize convenience often means a loss of musical fidelity.

Hi-Fi Then: State of the Art equipment that played music as faithfully as the technology allowed. It was often expensive and therefore not easily attainable but was absolutely worth the expense to those who wanted the richest musical experience possible.

Hi-Fi Now: State of the Art equipment that plays music as faithfully as the technology allows. Often expensive and therefore not easily attainable but absolutely worth the expense to those who want the richest musical experience possible.

Except to get better, high-fidelity has not changed over the years, and the argument can be made that the number of people interested in putting together hi-fi systems has actually grown – back in the day the pursuit of hi-fi was only for the few hobbyists and people with tons of expendable cash. While at the upper extremes that’s still absolutely true, technology has put outrageously good sound within earshot of many more people than ever before. What was considered unattainable even in the 1990s is commonplace today.

Definitions We Can All Live With

Lo-Fi is attainable and gets music into our ears easily and without a lot of expense and investment.

Mid-Fi was Hi-Fi a few years before but is now more attainable with less expense and investment required.

Hi-Fi is what music lovers strive for in their musical journeys and that hasn’t changed, it’s just that technology has made it easier to enjoy decent quality music earlier on the journey.

Ex-Fi, Extreme Fidelity. As technological advances make hi-fi sound more attainable, the extreme limits of technology (and therefore the expense) have reached heights attainable only to a very few. But take heart, this is the story of technology through human history: In the 1900s only rich people could afford a car, and everyone else had a horse. If you’re an early adopter, you’re used to paying thousands of dollars for a TV, or DVD player or whatever the tech of the day is only to see a better version of what you just bought at a discount retailer a year or so later. Those of us without the expendable cash to buy ex-fi depend on it to give us hi-fi.

So, manufacturers: keep pushing the technology, and consumers: keep demanding more from your gear – it’s beneficial to all of us, and it’s also just the way we humans do things!

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