What is High-End?


This is a question that has been asked many, many times. It seems there is no truly correct answer. Perhaps one way to approach the question is with another question: What is high-end audio equipment supposed to do?

One school of thought is that of the original goal of Hi-Fi; to reproduce with high fidelity the original event. In other words, it is the realistic reproduction of a recording in the home so as to give the illusion that the musicians and their instruments are right there in the room with you. A lofty goal without doubt, but the laws of physics keep this possibility grounded somewhat. Consider the size of the instruments being played in an acoustic environment and it becomes clear that the radiating area of most loudspeakers is merely a fraction of that of a full orchestra. As mechanics and subwoofer builders say, “there’s no replacement for displacement.”. One would need an awful lot of speakers to try to approximate the size of an orchestra, and for most people this is just not practical. Still, one can come fairly close to the illusion of having the musicians play in the home. This is one of the challenges of assembling a great system.
—Keywords for this presentation might be: Life-sized, palpable, three-dimensional

Another belief is that high-end audio should reproduce the recorded signal with the highest fidelity. This is slightly different than trying to reproduce reality. Most modern recordings are multi-track, multi-mic recordings. Trying to get a realistic sound, particularly from Rock and R&B recordings, can be an exercise in futility. Just the fact that a singer’s voice is not naturally louder than a drum kit indicates that this sort of performance cannot truly be realistic. With this in mind, the high-end system aims to retrieve as much information from the recorded media – the sound as heard at the recording studio or mastering house.
—Keywords for this presentation might be: Accurate, detailed, fast, analytical

Yet another definition of high-end would be that an audio system should be musical and should be able to convey the essence, the soul of music. These systems and components seemingly place musicality over accuracy and realism. Since even good audio equipment can, and usually will add colorations to the reproduction of recorded sound, then it makes sense to go for a sound that the listener likes. Systems with this type of focus can be really addictive but don’t always tell the truth. Often both good and bad recordings will be enjoyable on such a system but the system always insinuates it’s sound on the music. Systems like this are sometimes considered a music lover’s system.
—Keywords for this presentation might be: Romantic, rhythmic, musical, euphonic

For most, a high-end system will be a combination of the three. The experienced audiophile might look for those particular qualities that allow him or her to become closer to the music. Sound is ultimately a personal preference and there is no true right or wrong though there is the fundamental common goal of great sound reproduction.

Another question to the answer is: what differentiates high-end audio from consumer electronics? Well, there are many, many distinctions, but for the most part, high-end is about quality; quality of design, quality of construction & quality of sound. To make a sweeping genaralization, high-end audio equipment prioritizes sound over features. Let’s face it mass-market audio equipment is easy to find (both physicaly and sonically) - just walk into your local electronics emporium, close your eyes, and follow the horribly bloated, loud, distorted bass sound – there it is! Mass market audio equipment is usually made of plastic, has all manner of blinking lights and will include many of the following: Cassette/dual cassette, CD player, AM/FM receiver, graphic equalizer (often with the sliders set in the shape of a smile), spectrum analyzer, LCD/LED/FL display, bass knob, treble knob, bass boost button, stereo expander and a bunch of other features like a 6” subwoofer that goes down to 20Hz (yeah, right) – all of this for $199US!!! This equipment (with familiar names like JVC, Onkyo, Sony, Sanyo, Denon, etc.)* is designed to razzle-dazzle the less knowledgeable customer in the showroom/warehouse/supermarket – it’s designed to be sold more than listened to.

Consumers of mass market audio who might be familiar with quality gear may feel that high-end is nothing more than expensive audio gear for the wealthy, but like all well-made things, quality & attention to detail costs time and money; this is what makes a Rolls Royce special and is also why relatively few people own them. Ultimately audio, like cars, wine, and fine food, are worth only as much as connisours are willing to pay.

So, what is high-end audio?

Well, um….you’ll know it when you hear it :)

*Ironicly, the same country that produces and sells this crap absolutely loves vintage American made audio equipment.



Page created by James L Woodley © 2002 Page last updated 21 August 2005