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What is High Fidelity? – Concept Explained!

Have you ever heard of this term being thrown around in the consumer audio market? When you go out there, looking for the ideal stereo system that fits your budget, I’m sure you’ll come across similar labels. Whether you are an aspiring audio engineer or just an enthusiast, the real question that you should ask is – What is High Fidelity?

In today’s article, we will be discussing what this commonly used audio term really means to consumers and professionals alike. You’ll be able to learn about the different aspects of high fidelity audio, and how each of them contribute to this concept’s creation. Are you ready to arm yourself with more audio knowledge? Then, lets begin!

Introduction – Does it matter?

Also widely known as simply “Hi-Fi”, high fidelity is a term used by consumers, audiophiles and home stereo enthusiasts to define high-quality sound reproduction and discern it from the low-quality sound produced by cheaper audio systems, or the poor sound quality that can be heard in audio recordings made until the late 1940s.

Philips Hi-Fi

Philips hi-fi série 800 / Photo by liwi.s / CC BY-SA 2.0

In an ideal audio world, components in a high-fidelity sound system would have minimal amounts of noise and distortion. They are also expected to have an accurate frequency response. In the 70s and 80s, audiophiles preferred to buy each component separately. This allowed them to choose from various models with the specifications that they needed.

Here are the various aspects of high fidelity that we will be discussing:

  • Listening tests
  • Realistic experience
  • Integrated systems
  • Modern equipment

Listening Tests

Hi-fi manufacturers and audio engineering researchers use listening tests to determine whether certain audio components (such as expensive cables or amplifiers) have any subjectively perceivable effect on sound quality. If a listener is able to see the audio components that are being used for the test, then the listener’s judgement of sound quality could be affected by pre-existing biases towards or against certain audio components or brands.

In response to this issue, researchers started using blind tests, where the researchers can see the audio components used, but not the listeners who are judging the sound quality. However, in a double-blind experiment, both the listeners and researchers do not know who belongs to the control group and the experimental group, or which type of audio component is being used for which listening sample.

Solid State Amplifier

Solid State Stereo Tuner Amplifier / Photo by Joe Haupt / CC BY-SA 2.0

It is important to take note that not all “audiophile” magazines rely on these blind tests in their evaluations of Hi-Fi equipment. For example, John Atkinson (current editor of Stereophile), stated (in a 2005 July editorial named Blind Tests & Bus Stops) that he once purchased the “Quad 405” solid state amplifier in 1978 after seeing the results from blind tests, but after some months he noticed that “the magic was gone” until he replaced it with a tube amp.

That being said, there are also magazines that fully accepts blind tests. Doug Schneider, editor of the online Soundstage network, stated: “Blind tests are at the core of the decades’ worth of research into loudspeaker design…researchers knew that for their result to be credible within the scientific community and to have the most meaningful results, they had to eliminate bias, and blind testing was the only way to do so.”.

Realistic Experience

In order to create a more realistic listening experience (as if being in a live music performance), stereophonic sound was used to provide some semblance of realism by creating a “phantom middle channel” when the listener sits exactly in the middle of two loudspeakers. However, as the listener moves slightly to the side, this phantom channel will slowly be reduced.

Do take note that multi-channel playback systems are now more affordable, and many consumers are willing to accommodate the six to eight channels required in home theatres. Today, audio signal processors are able to synthesize an approximation of a good concert hall, which ultimately provides a more realistic impression of listening in a concert hall.

Home Theatre

Typical home theatre system setup / Photo by PascalSijen / CC BY 2.0

Compact discs (CD) are also able to provide a dynamic range of about 90dB, which is well beyond the 80dB dynamic range of music (typically perceived in concert venues). Audio equipment need to also be capable of reproducing all the frequencies within the human hearing range (20Hz – 20kHz), in order to achieve a more realistic listening experience.

Speaking of frequency range, compact discs (CD) are designed to reproduce frequencies as low as 10Hz and as high as 22.05kHz, which makes them suitable for reproducing all the frequencies that are audible by humans. There should also be no noticeable distortion of the signal or emphasis or de-emphasis of any frequency (by the sound system) within the human hearing range.

Integrated Systems

In the market, there are lifestyle or integrated systems available, that consists of one or more audio sources such as a CD player and a tuner (for radio), together with a pre-amplifier and a power amplifier in a single compartment. These systems are generally unpopular among audiophiles, as they prefer to buy separate, specialised components from different manufacturers.

Integrated Amplifier

McIntosh Labs MA6800 integrated amplifier / Photo by Akira Kamikura / CC BY 2.0

This allows audiophiles the most flexibility for piece-by-piece upgrades and repairs, as compared to having a single integrated system. Despite this, integrated systems are still appealing to many consumers, as they don’t take up too much space. Do take note that a repair of an integrated system means not being able to use the whole system.

In contrast, Hi-Fi systems that are build by using separate components may sometimes allow partial use of the rest of the system, if one component breaks down. You can also choose to spend money on only a few core components in the beginning and then later add additional components to the system. However, this may incur more expenses in the long run.

Modern Equipment

Modern Hi-Fi equipment are engineered to be compatible with digital audio. Signal sources such as digital audio tape (DAT), digital audio broadcasting (DAB) or HD Radio tuners can now be integrated. Some modern Hi-Fi components can be digitally connected via fibre optic TOSLINK cables, universal serial bus (USB) ports (including one to play digital audio files), or Wi-Fi support.

Digital Audio

Digital audio interfaces / Photo by Musicproducer / CC BY-SA 4.0

Another modern audio technology is the music server, which consists of one or more computer hard drives that stores music in the form of computer files. When the music is stored in a “lossless” audio file format such as FLAC, Monkey’s Audio or WMA Lossless, the computer playback of these audio files can serve as a high-quality source for a hi-fi system.

That’s it folks, a general overview of high fidelity audio systems. I hope that the information here would help you to make an informed decision when looking for your next home stereo!

Do leave comments or questions below, and share this article with your friends!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

10 Comments

  1. I love music! And Im always on the search for the best sounding equiptment. Surprisingly, I never knew what hi-fi was. You have some great information on the tests used to get the best audio out there. I will definitely be taking some of this information with me when making my next home sound system purchase. Great article!

    • Hello Skylet!

      This website is created for music lovers just like yourself, so i’m glad that you got something out of this article. Hopefully, many music and audio enthusiasts out there will also find this site helpful. Don’t hesitate to come back if you need to learn more.

      Thanks a lot!

  2. I enjoyed reading your article. The systems that you show look like the one we had in our living room in the 1980’s. At the end of your article, you talked about digital audio. Has that become the best audio option?

    Is HiFi still the go-to system for audio? What has changed in HiFi sound over the last 30 years?

    • Hi Jan!

      Digital audio has become more prevalent in recent years. Many people are now storing their music in digital format. Hence, many home theatres or Hi-Fi systems (even the cheaper ones) are designed with at least a USB interface.

      Home sound systems have come a long way since the 70s. Integrated systems, sound bars, home theatre systems are now much more affordable for consumers. You would be surprised at the quality you can get, within a reasonable price range.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  3. A very informative post, thank you.
    My speakers at home have recently broken, so I am on the search for some better quality ones.
    I am glad to have stumbled across your website!

    Surprisingly, I didn’t realise that hi-fi stood for high fidelity, so thank you for educating me on this matter.
    Hopefully this information will lead me on to more successful purchases in the future.

    Thanks again,
    Isobel

    • Hi Isobel!

      It’s great to know that you have found this article educational. Do feel free to come back again anytime!

      Thanks!

  4. I claim to be very technical savvy…except when it comes to equipment like this. The home I am in has a surround sound system and some very fancy looking pieces of equipment that were left when I bought the home. It looks similar to integrated amplifier in your post. You have inspired me to get with it…after 5 years… and get that thing hooked up.

    • Hey there!

      Wow, 5 years? Hahaha….that seems like a long time for a sound system to be left untouched. Well, it’s never too late to start dabbling with audio equipment, and i’m glad that this article has inspired you to do so. Don’t hesitate to keep in touch with me if you have any questions. I’ll try my best to help!

      Thanks for reading!

  5. I love this page! I’m currently listening to my music right now as I am working, and I simply couldn’t imagine life without it. However I can admit I’ve never really thought about how the music sounds over different systems because of High Fidelity. Honestly probably should have known this, I used to work tech support and my uncle is a sound engineer. However I didn’t know anything really about it until reading your easy to understand/follow page, so thank you very much!
    Ravyn~

    • Hi Ravyn!

      Its cool to have relatives that are involved in the audio or entertainment industry. They are usually very passionate people who have lots of interesting experiences to share. Anyway, I’m happy to know that you have learnt a lot from my article. Do drop by again soon!

      Thanks!

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