“High Fidelity” is an ambiguous term. How much Fidelity is required to be considered High Fidelity? “Fidelity” in a listening system refers to its ability to reproduce sound that is true to the original event. In recordings, the original event is the actual performance of the musicians, but what actually reaches the listeners at home is a representation of that event, as it could be captured onto a suitable storage medium by a given engineer. The fidelity of the recording to the actual event is not always very high, but we can assume that the product that reaches the market is as intended by the producer. The home listener cannot influence the recording process and the creative decisions taken at that time, other than by preferring to purchase certain recordings over others, with the increased sales volume usually translating to more recordings done in a similar manner.
On the listening side of things, then, high fidelity means that the listening system will play back a recording as it was intended to be heard, which means that it should sound similar to what the producers heard in the studio. The more similar it gets, the higher the fidelity of the listening system to the original.
In Issue 120, Philip Newell stated, “it has been shown in various large international studies that the average [frequency response] of all domestic listening experiences is virtually flat.”
If we were to document a sufficiently large number of domestic listening system frequency responses to ensure statistical integrity, we would discover that although the responses of the individual systems are not usually flat on their own, the statistical average of a large-enough sample of responses would actually be flat.
If one system is a bit bass-heavy and another a bit bass-light, the deviations from flatness would cancel out statistically and the average response of these two systems would be flat. This does not in any way increase the fidelity of either system, or render them more accurate.
By definition, being bass-heavy or bass-light represents a lack of accuracy. Neither of the two would reproduce the originally intended sound of a recording and would instead “color” all recordings according to their response errors.
A true high-fidelity system must demonstrate fidelity towards the original recording, so it must have a flat frequency/phase response as well as a flat dynamic response, so as not to impose its own character upon each recording. Any deviation from flatness, either due to the audio components and loudspeakers themselves, or due to their interaction with the domestic listening environment (the influence of the room acoustics), therefore reduces the fidelity of the system.
There is not much that can be done at the recording side to compensate for the large variety of domestic listening systems and their individual deviations from a flat response. Where the statistical average becomes important, though, is in reinforcing the argument for using accurate monitoring with a flat frequency/phase/dynamic response in all stages of production.
The listeners who do use truly high-fidelity systems will certainly be able to enjoy the intended sound as it was recorded and mastered, but also, those with less accurate listening systems who will not be able to hear the intended sound will at least hear something that is hopefully not too far off from the original recording as heard by the producer. The statistical average works out to a flat response because of the large variety in response errors in all possible directions.
If we were to work on a recording in the studio using reduced-fidelity monitoring, we would encounter two major issues: first of all, it would become very difficult to judge how much of what we were hearing was really there in the recording and how much was augmented or concealed by the individual response errors of the monitoring system. It could easily happen that the end, home listeners would hear things that the producers were not even aware of. Trying to “shape” the sound would be a rather futile exercise, as we would end up merely compensating for the errors of the monitoring system, which would not translate well to other systems with different deviations from flatness.
The second issue is directly related to statistics. If the monitoring system happens to be bass-heavy, a recording that sounds just right under these conditions may translate well to a similarly bass-heavy domestic listening system, but would be guaranteed to sound completely asthenic on a different, bass-light domestic system. Even worse, it wouldn’t even sound right on an expensive high-fidelity system. Actually, the statistical probability of such a recording sounding good on any system is in fact quite low!
By comparison, a recording produced using accurate monitoring would sound bass-heavy on a bass-heavy system, bass-light on a bass-light system and just right on other, more accurate systems. It would be unlikely to sound totally inappropriate on any reasonable reproduction system and the overall listening experience would tend to improve in direct proportion to the amount of effort and money invested in the listening environment, which makes logical sense. The listeners with the highest expectations will usually invest more in accurate systems and will be rewarded with a suitably refined listening experience.
So, why aren’t all listening systems accurate, then?
A truly accurate listening system is difficult to design and implement, tends to be expensive, large and heavy, and the room in which the system is operating is an integral part, but the requirements for rendering a room “accurate” would rarely be considered acceptable in a domestic setting.
Even if we are to take a pair of loudspeakers of outstanding accuracy, when measured in an anechoic chamber or in a studio designed around them, simply placing them within a typical domestic living room will likely be enough to destroy their accuracy. The loudspeakers work together with the room as one system. One must complement the other. If uncompromised accuracy is the goal, the speakers must be designed for the room and the room must be designed for the speakers. Even the HVAC system and electrical installation must be designed as part of the total system environment. This is how world-class studios are designed, but rarely does anyone go to such lengths for their domestic entertainment.
But what if we did?
So, let’s assume that money and space are in ample supply, the entire family is in agreement and we have assembled an all-star team of experts to design our dream listening room, capable of truly accurate music reproduction. We begin with a large empty shell with a 24-foot ceiling height, only to end up with a much smaller sized listening room. The acoustic treatment necessary tends to consume enormous amounts of space. We haul in and permanently install gigantic loudspeakers, having first ensured that the foundations of the building can cope with the loading, which would normally only be encountered in heavy industrial facilities. Each decorative item, including furniture, must be carefully designed in.
After many months of work, our listening room is finally complete. We take a stack of records and expect to be completely blown away…only to discover that about 90 percent of the recordings we own actually sound rather disappointing. We start noticing all the little details we had never before heard. Breathing sounds, footsteps, clothes rubbing, rumble, a car honking in the distance, an airplane flying above, unintended notes, an unnatural frequency balance, obvious edits!
These are often a result of inadequate studio monitoring when the recording was made. Or perhaps recordings made under time pressure. Most listeners will never notice. Most domestic listening systems will never reveal such detail.
But while 90 percent of the recordings out there will probably not be very satisfying when all the detail is revealed, the 10 percent of the truly excellent recordings will be quite an experience! It then becomes a matter of hunting down that 10 percent, seeking thrill after thrill.
A truly accurate system cannot possibly make everything sound good. It cannot be flattering. It must be merciless in exposing every little flaw in a recording. This is a fundamental requirement in the recording side of things. But monitoring a recording is not done for pleasure. Domestic listening, on the other hand, is usually considered entertainment.
Quoting Philip Newell again, but this time from his book, Recording Studio Design: “Really, nobody in their right minds would want to hear an unintentionally bad sound for the purposes of seeking enjoyment.”
Is it entertaining to have all the flaws of a recording exposed?
This is largely a matter of personal opinion.
Will you choose the blue pill, or the red pill?
Do you really want to know what is going on under the surface, or do you prefer the pretty picture which will allow you to sleep easier at night?
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/CSTRSK.