What are the hallmarks of a superior audio system?
Let’s start with a popular misconception. Most people are of the opinion that a ‘good’ stereo system should play loud - REALLY LOUD! This is usually the observation of an unschooled visitor seeing an audiophile’s stereo system for the first time, particularly if the speakers are large - a pair of Sound Lab electrostatic speakers for example. The uninitiated generally equate volume or power with quality.
That the stereo system’s loudness capabilities should be the measure of excellence isn’t at all difficult to understand. One’s rock concert experiences as a youth instill that philosophy that bigger and louder is better. Many of these same people will then go on to install elaborate and costly audio systems in their motor vehicles, looking to replicate that experience of, to quote the Doobie Brothers, ‘rockin’ down the highway.’ Not only do they want to immerse themselves in their favourite tunes and try to replicate the sonic assault of a rock concert in the tiny confines of their car, but there is a certain level of showmanship involved as these moving ‘boom-boxes’ also draw the attention of drivers in the other lanes not to mention any nearby pedestrians. They are generally equipped with vast array of subwoofers that seem capable of shaking their host vehicle apart. But what also happens is they leave the once preening and proud owned with ear damage and hearing loss!
A dance club’s audio system is in the same league: ear-splitting, gut-wrenching, floor-buckling, high intensity output. But these are designed to encourage dancing, drinking and coupling – not to generate a pristine, emotive listening experience. With the exception of classical music, which is rarely ever artificially amplified, the same is true for most live concerts. Domestically, the average portable hi-fi can lead to one having to break a lease or at least get you into hot water with your neighbors and/or landlord, because of excessive volume.
Upon actually sitting down and listening to our hypothetical true audiophile’s sound system, the newcomer will likely say “Wow!” followed by “It’s so clear. I can't believe there is so much music there.”
A high-quality sound system will showcase clarity; a term takes on a host of qualities in this context. As strange as this may seem, one of clarity’s principal components is actually silence. A silent audio system –– an audio system that contributes little to no noise of its own –– reveals the music much more clearly at all listening levels, from soft to loud. This allows you to hear more of what is on the recording.
Likewise, resolution contributes significantly to clarity. Imagine two mounds of sand in the bright sunlight. One mound is mixed with mud, which makes it difficult to see its individual grains. The other mound is free of mud. You would have no trouble seeing its tiny, glittering grains of sand. It is the same principle with high-quality audio. The music shines through and you can hear every single note and every recorded piece of sonic information. Nothing muddies the sonic image and clouds the music you are listening to. You hear the texture of a singer’s voice almost as if they are in the room. Instrumental timbres allow you to distinguish the purposeful ‘heaviness’ of a rocker’s guitars. If distortion was recorded it's reproduced accurately as if the guitarist is right in front of you. Violas differ from violins, likewise oboes from English horns. A good sound system allows you to make these listening distinctions with incredible discernment.
Another critically important measure of an audio system’s quality is its ability to project a convincing soundstage. Conceptually speaking, soundstage places the musicians and the instruments in three-dimensional space before you using two stereo speakers that are properly placed within the room. Are you able to perceive the soundstage width and depth? Is it realistically proportioned? Can you hear the recording venue? Is it large or small? Is it clear to you where the musicians perform within the soundstage? Depending on the style of recording, our audiophile’s sound system provides the answers and of course, the accompanying aural delights.
Also important is the system’s speed. How fast can it start and stop making music? An audio system’s superior speed produces crisp, clean attacks: a violin or trumpet’s edge, a drummer’s rim shot, a marimba’s wooden loveliness –– all those little delights that mimic live music.
As a bass player, I'm personally a big fan of the ‘bottom end.’ To get back to the earlier image of trembling pavements and hard-pumping woofer cones, the audiophile’s guest will be pleasantly surprised to discover that a high-quality sound system’s low end is as tuneful and clean as the rest of the audio spectrum. The bass sounds realistic and not boomy or bloomy. It should not sound muddled and inaccurate - just lovely, well-defined low frequency information. A good audio system aims at naturalness above all else.
Finally, a good audio system is not necessarily a large audio system. If you shop wisely, you need not spend a fortune to achieve a high level of audio performance. Often, more expensive products will sound different but they may not necessarily sound better or more realistic. Even when spending thousands of dollars on a good stereo you do not always get what you pay for. They buyer must exercise caution as with all product purchases. Often the less expensive components can easily outperform things that are double or triple the price. There are many variables that should go into your purchase beyond the sticker price.
With these pointers as a guide, the newcomer has a good idea of what to listen for. The least expensive audio components will more than satisfy modest applications. With reference-grade components serving as the culmination of the very best in audio today, you can expect sound that is lifelike, vibrant and emotionally involving. It will provide you with years of musical enjoyment and you will experience music the way the musicians did when they created it for you.
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