IT MAY BE HI-FI BUT IS IT MUSIC?
Not an original title for a piece and not an original subject for discussion,
but as our respected webmaster has been urging me for years to put my
experiences with hi-fi on paper, now seems as good a time as any.
So to which camp do I belong? I was about to say that I must confess
to being of the hi-fi persuasion, but dammit, what is there to "confess".
Thereís nothing at all wrong as far as I can see with simply trying
to reproduce music as realistically as possible, and even if there were
something reprehensible about it, heaven knows we pay a mighty high
price for the privilege of trying. Of course, hi-fi clearly means different
things to different people. For those such as myself whose interest
is almost exclusively classical music, the objectives are surely straightforward
as, I think Quad, neatly summed it up some years ago with their slogan
"the closest approach to the original sound". Folk with different
interests, say electronic music, may have totally different criteria.
After all, with studio produced electronic music who knows what the
original sound was, apart from the performers and recording engineers.
So therefore it is not so unreasonable that enthusiasts for that particular
medium may wish to tune it to suit their own ideas. For them presumably,
the ability of their sound system to rearrange the sound balance is
positively desirable, and somewhere along the way Joe Public seems to
have come to associate hi-fi exclusively with such gizmos as graphic
equalisers, tone controls, and other add-ons. The fact that these positively
militate against truly accurate reproduction has unfortunately been
In my case, apart from the very early years when I didnít even know
what a live orchestra sounded like, it has been a desire to achieve
Quadís definition of that very simplest of ideals which has motivated
my particular interest. I suppose it was the advent of stereo which
first started me off down what has subsequently proved to be a very
testing, costly, but ultimately rewarding route. Costly mainly because,
like so many hi-fi virgins, I hadnít a clue as to the best way to go
about it and my inexperience was exacerbated by the delusion of youth
that I didnít need advice from anyone older. Many years and countless
"upgrades" later I now have the experience to avoid at least
some of the pitfalls, although with so many illusions still being hyped
and marketed by makers of hardware, software and often assisted by the
more irresponsible journalists, Iím sure that the potential for further
blunders still lies ahead.
So what have I learned. On reflection not much in view of the vast
sums squandered, vast that is relative to my fairly modest fiscal status.
Rule 1: Experience the real sound which you will be trying to
reproduce. It's amazing how many people will pass judgement on the quality
of a recording without having the faintest notion of how it should sound.
Clearly only the very fortunate or the idle rich can ever experience
the live sound of all the top orchestras, or the characteristics of
all the worldís great concert halls, but even one orchestra and one
hall can give some meaningful reference by which to judge.
Rule 2: Try to start with a balanced sound system in which all
the links in the chain are of roughly comparable quality.
Rule 3: Apart from secondary items such as cables and supports,
which in my experience really can make a difference, do not upgrade
one part of the system at a time, regardless of the solicitations of
the more unscrupulous hi-fi dealers.
They know, as I found out for myself the hard way, that although you
will perceive a degree of improvement initially, it will almost always
be accompanied by subsequent awareness of a limitation elsewhere in
the system which had not previously been apparent.
Rule 4: Never make a small change. If youíre going to upgrade
make it a big one, and make it across the board. If funds are limited
either wait until you can afford it or better still, if like me you
have a low threshold of patience, do not overlook the availability of
second-hand kit which at new prices would otherwise be beyond your reach.
Premium quality equipment will not be redundant after six months and
will still be hard to beat after six years, and large savings are to
made from those who have more money than sense and who change equipment
in response to fashion or fallacy.
Rule 5: Find a good dealer and, yes, they do exist. One who
most importantly will give you a constructive demonstration, and then
allow you to re-evaluate the products in your own home, and if necessary
allow you to make changes from your original selection. Your own room
and furnishings have a major influence on how any equipment will sound.
The ability to demonstrate a broad range of equipment demands substantial
investment by the dealer, and their provision of a good and thorough
demonstration is also expensive. Because this quality of service is
not cheap to provide, a good dealerís price may not match that obtainable
by mail order or through the internet, but in my opinion it is reprehensible
to steal a dealerís time and knowledge and then save yourself a few
pounds by buying cheaper elsewhere. It is also potentially self defeating
as, should a problem subsequently arise or you decide eventually to
upgrade again, then that dealer will probably, and quite rightly, tell
you to take a hike.
Rules one, four and five are probably the most important.
I make no apology for mentioning for the benefit of anyone in the West
Midlands of the UK, that I count myself lucky many years ago to have
discovered Music Matters at Solihull. They have unfailingly provided
first rate service and excellent value over several upgrades as my circumstances
have improved. Their service at times has included money-saving advice
not to make changes which may have seemed attractive, but which with
hindsight have been shown to be ill judged. Although undoubtedly there
are other good dealers within the region, as long as they continue to
earn my business, theyíll get it, (my sole connection being that of
a satisfied customer).
So much then for the equipment, but what about the music.
As I mentioned before, when I first rambled off down the hi-fi trail
I had no experience of listening live to the classical music which nowadays
represents about 95% of my interest.
It therefore came as a welcome surprise on my first visit to a concert
in the Town Hall at Birmingham, to find that the sound of the CBSOís
oboe bore a very close resemblance to that same sound as reproduced
by the Decca cartridge I was then using. Yes I know that the comparison
should really be the other way round, but the experience came as quite
a revelation, as was the accompanying awareness that the rest of the
orchestra did not replicate nearly as closely the sound to which I was
accustomed. Nor was there the apprehension with the live orchestra of
the clicks, hops, and splutters which were then a regular, albeit unpredictable,
part of my "hi-fi experience". From this you may rightly conclude
that even at that time I had no great affection for LPs, even if they
were the only viable alternative to either FM Radio or the recordings
I made from radio using a treasured Nakamichi cassette deck.
The advent of CD therefore was a red-letter day for me, although I
still recall the sobering effect some years later of hearing, once again
in Birmingham Town Hall, Simon Rattle and the CBSO performing the Mahler
Second Symphony, having that same day purchased and played their recording
of the same work. Oh dear. It was immediately and painfully clear that
even the major advance represented for me by CD over LP was still a
massive remove from the real thing.
At this point perhaps I should perhaps amplify my position regarding
analogue sound and, in particular, LPs.
Basically I have no reservations regarding analogue recordings, indeed
some of my favourite discs are analogue in origin. Nor would I claim
that the actual sound quality of CD is superior to that of the equivalent
black disc. No, my objection to LP is solely directed towards the, crackles,
pops, and other extraneous rubbish that comes with the product, as well
as the intrinsic flaws such as pre-echo and end of side distortion.
And despite listening to several fairly expensive analogue systems,
I still find that these intrusions are present to an unacceptable degree.
This is not to ignore the problems inherent in CD, some examples of
which have been abominable. However, in recent years I have been fortunate
enough to be able to create a CD based stereo system the cost of which
not very long ago would have represented a yearís income. The resulting
improvement along with the major advances which seem to have taken place
in the recording and production of CDs themselves have now brought me
much closer to the, letís- not- kid- ourselves still unattainable, sound
of live music. In addition I am currently having my listening room extended
at a cost not far short of that of the equipment itself in the hope
of further improving my listening pleasure. At the moment multi-channel
sound offers no temptation as my interest is only in music rather than
films, and those, albeit modest installations Iíve heard have been totally
unappealing. Cost too is a major deterrent, not to mention the fiasco
of competing hardware and software that the recording industry has currently
My music collection numbers around nine hundred CDs, and a mere ten
opera and ballet DVDs, which I doubt will ever exceed more than thirty
or so. The size therefore is by no means large and is only growing slowly
as, despite spending much time searching the orchestral and instrumental
byways, I find it increasingly difficult to discover works of more than
superficial appeal. Perhaps using Sibelius and Shostakovich as yardsticks
is too severe a test, although in recent years some British composers
as well as those from the Baltic States and Scandinavia have proved
The modesty of my collection contrasts dramatically with that of my
friend Steve whose collection of CDs numbers well over five thousand,
but which are played on a fairly ancient
Interestingly, although our total expenditures are roughly similar,
and must represent for people of our means a commitment bordering on
the obsessive, if one compares the relative cost of hardware to disc,
whereas the figure for my system is around £50/disc, his is probably
Not surprisingly each of us thinks that the other is mad, and weíre
both probably right.
The builder who is currently extending my listening area inadvertently
described me recently, and perhaps over-kindly, as "eccentric",
and Iím happy to plead guilty to that.
Needless to say both Steve and I think that the other has their priorities
totally wrong and, having only just worked out the £50/disc cost for
the purpose of this article, I must admit to being somewhat shaken by
it. However, I feel that my basic justification for such apparent profligacy
is still tenable. For, while my listening experience is still far short
of the live concert hall, I also avoid the less desirable but unavoidable
supplements to that venue: the coughers, programme rustlers, digital
watches, mobile phones and worst of all, the premature clappers.
All too often I have attended concerts where the breathtakingly delicate
final moments of a work such as, say the Mahler Ninth, have been utterly
shattered by insensitive cretins who canít wait to start clapping and
Within milliseconds therefore, bliss becomes brutally transformed into
something not far short of murderous rage.
Some audiences are better than others, and perhaps I am unusual in
finding such fragility in the magic woven by a performance which should
be allowed to simply decay gently into space, but for me there needs
to be only one vandal to destroy the spell. Furthermore, even with a
perfect performance, and an audience of saints, you wonít get to hear
a work live many times for your £50.
Even so, despite the sixteen versions of the Symphonie Fantastique,
ten complete cycles of the Beethoven Symphonies and numerous other duplications,
triplications, quadruplications and so on, the £0.40/disc of Steveís
collection is undeniably impressive in terms of value for money.
Or is it? You see, from my "eccentric" point of view there
is rather more to it than mere cost effectiveness. For me personally
the two principal elements are the purely quantitative amount of pleasure
experienced regardless of cost considerations, and the extent to which
we all vary in terms of our tolerance and response to extraneous influences.
This I hope will be illustrated by the following anecdote:
Some years ago I was a member of a "Gramophone Society".
The concept of various people from often diverse backgrounds and tastes
joining together on a regular basis to listen to recordings may strike
some of you as quaint, to put it mildly. However, many societies are
still active, and for a number of very good reasons. The membership
is no more diverse than that of a concert audience, and not everyone
has the facilities at home to simply sit with like- minded companions
enjoying music which the spouse or partner or kids may detest. The other
reason in my case was that, as a regular member, you frequently find
yourself forced to listen to works which otherwise you might avoid,
often erroneously. It was by this means that I first encountered Schubert,
and what an oversight he had been. It is also possible to meet people
who, starting from the shared interest, subsequently become true friends.
But the real point of this digression is that through the society I
encountered people whose enjoyment of music was on a totally different
basis from my own. The most memorable event in this context was when
one evening the programme was presented, as was often the case, by one
of our own members. Now this was in the dark days of LP, and one particular
disc sounded as if the stylus was struggling its way through treacle
saturated with granulated sugar. To my ears the sound was indescribably
bad, and at its conclusion our presenter, a delightful man, had the
grace to apologise for the poor quality, but then added with disarming
sincerityÖ" but with such wonderful music it doesnít really matter,
I was stunned, then baffled, incredulous, furious; had he really not
heard how horrible it was. But then I realised that he truly had not.
To him it was simply wonderful music and, as that realisation sank in,
how I envied him his ability to ignore the irrelevant and focus on the
true substance. Since then I have encountered others similarly blessed
to varying degrees with immunity from the extraneous.
However, enviable and admirable though I find this trait, to my regret
I do not possess it, but presumably to some extent Steve does, because
when playing discs on his system, although I am always aware of a great
sense of loss he is clearly impervious to any deficiency. When he visits
me however, he normally seems equally impervious to the extra presence
and detail revealed in even his own recordings. Except that is when
the extra detail exposes something negative such as the tube trains
present in many of the old Kingsway Hall recordings. In these instances
he then claims with breathtaking conviction that his previous lack of
awareness is irrefutable evidence of my folly in having a system
which is too revealing! And infuriatingly, Iíd have to agree that up
to a point he is right, with gain there can indeed be pain.
So: it may be hi-fi but is it music? Inevitably in the final analysis
it must surely all depend on the individual listener.
In that case what is the purpose of this article? The answer is as
an attempt to set the record straight ( no pun intended), because it
does seem to me that far too many of the people who are blessed to hear
only the music, far from being grateful for their gift assume a quite
unjustified condescension towards we the less privileged. This is what
caused the initially defensive tone of my opening paragraph. They appear
to have an unwarranted smugness, similar to that of sayÖÖ.. slow drivers
and early risers, but letís not complicate matters by starting on those
May I wish you all enjoyable listening, however you take you pleasure.