High fidelity

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High Fidelity is also the title of a book by Nick Hornby and a film directed by Stephen Frears, based on Hornby's book.

High fidelity or hi-fi reproduction means the reproduction of sound or images in a way that is very faithful to the original. High fidelity aims to achieve minimal or unnoticeable amounts of noise and distortion. The term high fidelity tends to be applied to any reasonable-quality home-music system, though some believe that a higher standard than this is intended, and in the 1960's, a German Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN) standard laid down maximum levels for measurements of frequency response, distortion, and other defects and gained some recognition in hi-fi magazines. High-fidelity enthusiasts are often known as audiophiles or videophiles.


The 1920s saw the introduction of electronic amplification, microphones, and the application of quantitative engineering principles to the reproduction of sound. Much of the pioneering work was done at Bell Laboratories and commercialized by Western Electric. Acoustically-recorded disc records with capriciously peaky frequency response were replaced with electrically-recorded records. The Victor Orthophonic phonograph, although purely acoustic, was created by engineers who applied waveguide technology to the design of the interior folded horn to produce a smooth frequency response which complemented and equalled that of the electrically-recorded Victor Orthophonic records.

Meanwhile, the rise of radio meant increased popularity for loudspeakers and tube amplifiers, so you had the curious anomaly of a period of time during which radio receivers commonly used loudspeakers and electronic amplifiers to produce sound, while phonographs were still commonly purely mechanical and acoustic.

The advent of the microgroove vinyl record with low surface noise and quantitatively-specified equalization curves created the conditions for a major improvement of home-audio quality through the application of electronics to phonographs. In the 1950s, the term high fidelity began to be used by audio manufacturers as a marketing term to describe records and equipment which were intended to provide faithful sound reproduction. To synthesize a definition, the term high fidelity, if it had a definite meaning, probably meant that the amplifier incorporated the proper LP-equalization curve and that equipment characteristics such as frequency response and distortion had at least been measured.

The ordinary consumer simply interpreted high fidelity as fancy and expensive equipment and bought high-fidelity records such as RCA's New Orthophonics and London's ffrrs, and, if they could afford them, high-fidelity phonographs. Audiophiles paid attention to technical characteristics, bought individual components like separate preamplifiers and power amplifiers, and frequently assembled their own loudspeaker systems. In the 1950s, hi-fi became a generic term, to some extent displacing phonograph and record player. Rather than playing a record on the phonograph, people would play it on the hi-fi.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the development of the Westrex single-groove stereophonic record led to the next wave of home-audio improvement, and in common parlance, stereo displaced hi-fi. Records were now played on a stereo. In the world of the audiophile, however, high fidelity continued and continues to refer to the goal of highly-accurate sound reproduction and to the technological resources available for approaching that goal. A very popular type of system for reproducing music from the 1970s onwards is the integrated music centre--the successor to the older stereogram or radiogram. Purists will generally avoid referring to these systems as high fidelity, though some are capable of very good quality reproduction.

Ascertaining high fidelity: double-blind tests

Double-blind testing has been required in the approval of new medicines since about 1960. The double-blind audio listening test, however, was first described by Dan Shanefield in November of 1974 in the newsletter of the Boston Audio Society. This was later reported to the general public in High Fidelity magazine, March 1980. The double-blind listening comparison is now a standard procedure with almost all audio professionals respected in their field. For marketing purposes, a few manufacturers of very expensive audio equipment dispute the need for this test. A commonly-used improvement of this test is the ABX-listening comparison. This involves comparing two known audio sources (A and B) with either one of these when it has been randomly selected (X). The test and its associated equipment was developed by the Southeastern Michigan Woofer and Tweeter Marching Society (SMWTMS)--a semi-professional organization in Detroit that is very active in the double-blind testing of new audio components.

Semblance of realism

When high fidelity was limited to monophonic sound reproduction, a realistic approximation to what the listener would experience in a concert hall was limited. Researchers early realized that the ideal way to experience music played back on audio equipment was through multiple transmission channels, but the technology was not available at that time. It was, for example, discovered that a realistic representation of the separation between performers in an orchestra from an ideal listening position in the concert hall would require at least three loudspeakers for the front channels. For the reproduction of the reverberation, at least two loudspeakers placed behind or to the sides of the listener were required.

Stereophonic sound provided a partial solution to the problem of creating some semblance of the illusion of performers performing in an orchestra by creating a phantom middle channel when the listener sits exactly in the middle of the two front loudspeakers. When the listener moves slightly to the side, however, this phantom channel disappears or is greatly reduced. An attempt to provide for the reproduction of the reverberation was tried in the 1970s through quadraphonic sound but, again, the technology at that time was insufficient for the task. Consumers did not want to pay the additional costs required in money and space for the marginal improvements in realism. With the rise in popularity of home theatre, however, multi-channel playback systems became affordable, and consumers were willing to tolerate the six to eight channels required in a home theatre. The advances made in signal processors to synthesize an approximation of a good concert hall can now provide a somewhat more realistic illusion of listening in a concert hall.

In addition to spatial realism, the playback of music must be subjectively free from noise to achieve realism. The compact disc (CD) provides at least 90 decibels of dynamic range, which is about as much as most people can tolerate in an average living room. This therefore requires the playback equipment to provide a signal-to-noise ratio of at least 90 decibels. Many people can hear up to, at most, 15 kHz and for a few, up to 20 kHz. There is relatively little music below 50 Hz, loud bass below 30 Hz is rare, music below 16 Hz is almost non-existent, and music below 5 Hz is probably non-existent. (Incidentally, the cannons in Telarc's recording of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture are said to go down to 5 Hz.) The equipment must also provide no noticeable distortion of the signal or emphasis or de-emphasis of any frequency in this frequency range. Except for spatial realism, good modern equipment can easily satisfy all of these requirements at a relatively moderate cost.


Integrated, midi, or lifestyle systems contain one or more sources such as a CD player, a tuner, or a cassette deck together with a preamplifier and a power amplifier in one box. (Midi has no connection with MIDI technology in electronic instruments.) Such products are generally disparaged by audiophiles, although some high-end manufacturers produce integrated systems. The traditional hi-fi enthusiast, however, will build a system from separates, often with each item from a different manufacturer specialising in a particular component. This provides the most flexibility for piece-by-piece upgrades.

For slightly less flexibility in upgrades, a preamplifier and a power amplifier in one box is called an integrated amplifier; with a tuner, it is a receiver. A monophonic power amplifier is a monoblock. Other modules in the system may include components like cartridges, tonearms, turntables, DVD players that play a wide variety of discs including CDs, CD recorders, MiniDisc recorders, hi-fi video-cassette recorders (VCRs), reel-to-reel recorders, equalizers, signal processors, and subwoofers.

This modularity allows the enthusiast to spend as little or as much as he wants on a component that suits his specific needs. In a system built from separates, sometimes a failure on one component still allows partial use of the rest of the system. A repair of an integrated system, though, means complete lack of use of the system. Another advantage of modularity is the ability to spend one's money on only a few core components at first and then later add additional components to one's system. Because of all these advantages to the modular way of building a high-fidelity system instead of buying an integrated system, audiophiles almost always assemble their system from separates. Some of the obvious disadvantages of this approach are increased cost, complexity, and space required for the components.

Modern equipment

Nowadays, hi-fi equipment usually includes signal sources such as CD players and Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) tuners, an amplifier, and loudspeakers. Some modern hi-fi equipment can be digitally connected using fiber optic and TOSLINK cables and can have univeral serial bus (USB) ports and wireless fidelity (WiFi) support. One modern component that is making fast gains in acceptance is the music server consisting of one or more computer hard drives that holds music in the form of computer files such as MP3s. Increasingly, audiophiles are connecting portable versions of music servers like Apple's iPods to their systems for relatively quick and easy access to thousands of songs. If the hi-fi system includes components such as a DVD player, a projector, or a television, then it is often called a home cinema or a home theatre.

See also

External links

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