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Deward Hastings

High Fidelity

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For the most part it really doesn’t matter. At least not in the sense that “old timers” in the music reproduction business meant it. Modern music is mostly “synthetic” in its creation (see those speakers on stage?) and where it isn’t it is processed and manipulated in “post production” (Pro Tools anyone?) in ways that make the delivered product, and the “sound” produced in the listening room, “fidelitous” to nothing but an idea in the producer’s head. People attend “performances” of such music more as a social event than for the sound . . . and most attendees will readily tell you that it “sounds better” on the CD, or even their ipod. If it’s loud and “punchy” and doesn’t shred your ears then any “stereo” has done the job, or not, depending only on whether you like how it sounds . . . or not.

There remains, however, a small (around 1-2%) portion of the music listening world which listens to “classical” or other “acoustic” music in live performance, and wants to reproduce that sound at home. In “High Fidelity”. Those folks, when they go shopping for loudspeakers, encounter a problem . . . because the vast majority of loudspeakers are designed to satisfy the vast majority of music listeners, and as a result “high fidelity” is not high on the list of design goals. Not that it’s not talked about, or even bragged about in the advertising . . . just that it’s not there in reality. And it’s not there in reality because to do it requires overcoming some really hard problems that simply can’t be “solved” by the almost universally accepted paradigm of speakers in boxes.

If you don’t care about high fidelity in that “old fashioned” sense, and don’t feel a fundamental dissatisfaction with the sound of speakers in boxes, then little of what I write will matter to you, or make much sense. There is no reason for you to expend any effort solving “problems” that you can’t hear, or if you can hear don’t care about. If you do care, however, there are a couple things that are good to know; no “box” loudspeaker solves the problems, and there are loudspeakers that do come reasonably close in addressing many of them.

Those problems come in three flavors: the behavior of loudspeakers, the behavior of loudspeakers in rooms, and “psychoacoustics” (understanding what our minds make of the sounds that reach our ears). Understanding each flavor involves multiple disciplines, but the first is dominated by physics, the second by acoustics, and the third by physiology. None of them, unfortunately for the DIY speaker designer, is much helped by wishful thinking, cabinet finish, or any of the other things that contribute to a “good looking” loudspeaker. We don’t hear with our eyes. That’s not to say that there’s no reason to try to make loudspeakers look “nice” . . . just never lose sight of the fact that looks are for selling, not for sound, and that four dowels and some grill cloth will turn anything into a box (if that’s what your aesthetic demands).

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