Auditioning and Assessing Hi Fi Equipment
Despite the amazing number of variables in assessing Hi Fi equipment, there are products that consistently win great reviews from a large cross-section of magazines in the UK and worldwide. Room acoustics and equipment synergy will not completely wreck a good product.
Where performance between 2 items is close, then yes, these factors are critical. However there are certain aspects of music that transcend others. You may have 10 things you want your system to do in terms of reproduction but if you know your top 3 then you will probably end up happy and evaluating equipment suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.
First of all it is important to develop the capability to listen to the music not the system. Sit and try to imagine the performers playing in front of you - is it realistic? where is the singer positioned? is he or she clear or hidden behind a haze of electronic noise (known as "grain")? is the music natural or edgy? .
At a superficial level music is simple, however at an almost sub-conscious level it is inherently highly complex and subtle. At a superficial level there is a tendency to focus on particular aspects of the music rather than the whole. For example if a listener wants to hear clarity on female vocals then they will make choices accordingly. The problem with this approach is that product X may have greater clarity than product Y, yet you may have overlooked that product Y is superior in other important aspects. For many it is only with longer term listening that a correct appraisal is reached.
The ideal is to compare the reproduced sound with Live sound - What are the differences?
Everyone has their own way of evaluating sound quality. It may be helpful to outline some of the criteria that we at Origin Live consider crucial when evaluating sound. We use the phrase "closest to the original sound", because this is what our products are designed to achieve. In fact the name Origin Live is a shortening of the phrase "reproducing the original sound as played live". Some people have thought the name something to do with preserving the environment - in a sense this is true of course, if one thinks of the musical environment.
It is said that some magazines are advising their writers not to refer to live music when reviewing. At first this seems reprehensible but there are probably reasons that are well intentioned. Firstly much of what is called live music is actually reproduced via electronics e.g. a rock concert. This is completely different to a live orchestral brass band or an un-amplified piano and singer. So here we have the first area of ambiguity. The second area is the number of different qualities in genuine live music, which make it confusing to lump them all together in one term.
But how can you tell how close something is to the original sound? Most people agree that there is a difference between live sound and reproduced sound. Let us use an example; If you are walking down a street blind folded and a brass band is playing, the characteristics of the live sound would make it obvious that you were listening to a "live performance" and not electronics and speakers. The weighty powerful sound would have unique attack (dynamics), speed, reverberation and decay. It is these immediate characteristics that many top systems seek to emulate.
With careful analysis of 'live' sound behaviour, the determination of a system's performance may be rated on its ability to match the original qualities. Ultimately this is what makes a system great and saves following false trails that seem good at the time but lead nowhere.
The challenges for reproduced music to sound the same as "live"
This is the speed at which notes start and stop. In real-life, 'live' sound is more or less instantly perceived. However, electronic and mechanical devices (i.e turntables and originlikers) have acceleration limitations, and so only the best systems nearly deliver sound as quickly as real-life.
For notes to stop quickly the solution is to control resonances, which in poor equipment cause notes to become prolonged more than they should be.
Dynamics may be described as the quality of notes reaching the correct amplitude in the correct space of time. Reproducing mechanisms almost inevitably have some form of damping to control resonance and this usually has the effect of "slowing the transient speed down and reducing dynamics".
Bass That You Can Feel
Deep, fast, dynamic bass is usually present in live music - however this area is by far the most difficult to control in music reproduction systems. Poorly controlled, resonant bass masks midrange and treble quality. In an effort to obtain clarity, some systems deliberately reduce bass output slightly. CD manufacturers seem to start suppressing it under around 100 Hz in some cases. Vinyl is not handled in this way which is one of the reasons it is so popular. Good bass performance is fundamental to music reproduction as it adds a sense of power, weight and authority. Without great bass a system can seem to have clarity but ultimately sounds thin, wearing and lacking.
Harmonics That Lack Harshness or Edginess
Natural harmonics are present in music - however poor systems generate additional harmonics that detract from the originals. A good system will only produce the original natural harmonics whereas inferior ones introduce "colouration" that is not pleasing to the ear.
Origin Live design their products to optimise these qualities.