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What is HiFi in 2021


We all have a different image in our minds when we talk about HiFi. HiFi, or High Fidelity, refers to music (usually) that is of the pinnacle of quality. This is the best of the best. A HiFi setup is the gear you need to realize that quality. It became so ubiquitous to say “HiFi” when referring to gear that it became a proper noun for a while. You could say, “I bought a new HiFi,” and people knew what you were talking about. Usually something like this:

HiFi Pre 2021

It is hard for people to imagine now, but there was a time when there was no way to reproduce music in such a way that it sounded lifelike. If you think about those old, scratchy radio recordings of presidential addresses (here’s a link for fun), that was all there was. You were listening to a terrible recording probably playing through a terrible speaker in mono. HiFi was used to describe a quality recording played back on equipment of high enough quality to compare with a live experience.

In my youth, that was the Pioneer system you see above. Massive speakers flanking a stack of electronics. The Sears catalog was full of them and every Christmas I’d ask for one. I never got it, but I had friends that did. This was the pinnacle of HiFi back then (1970’s-80’s).

You are probably aware of many of the forms of media for playing back recordings. Vinyl has has a bit of resurgence lately but there were reel-to-reel players, 8-Tracks, cassettes, and more. They all had their benefits and drawbacks. The key is that they generally moved from lower fidelity to higher fidelity. Sometimes that fidelity was sacrificed for portability or flexibility (looking at you cassettes), but in general, we’ve moved towards higher quality.

HiFi in 2021

Since the introduction of the iPod and (later) the smartphone, the landscape of HiFi has changed dramatically. Kids these days aren’t asking for speaker systems. They are asking for headphones or Bluetooth speakers. And who can blame them? When the Walkman was introduced, every kid I knew wanted one (including me). Taking your music with you? It was great! Never mind that the headphones were garbage. The ease and convenience were far more attractive than worrying about the fidelity.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t ever care about fidelity. We nearly ruined our hearing blasting Metalica through those garbage headphones and we made it here. They will too. So, what does HiFi in 2021 look like?

Headphones

More than anything, HiFi in 2021 looks like headphones. The proliferation of headphones on the market is all the proof you need that they are the most common way people consume their music. While it seemed that headphones were more of a status symbol than anything else (*cough* Beats *cough* ), they have started to trend towards quality. We’ve noticed more and more of the marketing of headphones talking about sound quality over other aesthetic concerns.

Focal Spirit One S headphone cup

With more and more of our lives being spent online, it makes sense that many people’s first foray into HiFi is a pair of headphones. Sure, they may buy their first (or second or third) pair because of how they look, but they’ll eventually start to notice their inaccuracies. When they do, they’ll research an upgrade.

HiFi at Home

There are people that will gladly die on the “two-channel stereo is king” hill. Others believe that the more speakers you have in your system, the better it is. Neither is necessarily true. The fact is that the only real advancement in audio recording has happened recently. This is object-based audio and it applies mostly to movies. There is very little reason to use it for music reproduction.

HiFi really hasn’t made much headway past CDs. Blu-rays and Ultra HD Blu-rays have seen scant few music recordings. There really isn’t a reason for it. We’ve had mediums that had higher resolutions than CDs (SACD and others) but they’ve never really taken off. Why? CDs have all the fidelity we need.

Streaming

This brings us to streaming. More than anything, streaming is the way people consume their music. Streaming has historically been limited by bandwidth. A quick search will tell you the quality that the different services stream their content. But in recent years we’ve seen a move toward higher-quality streams. Why? Consumers want it!

A consumer upgrades their headphones because they don’t like how their “popular” headphones sound. But now they think their music sounds worse? How? A little research teaches them about compression and how it can affect sound. Now, they want a higher-quality stream! Sometimes they just have to switch from one free service to another. Other times they may choose to pay for one of the top-tier services. Regardless, they are now thinking about HiFi. While it won’t immediately translate into a full home theater, it is the path that leads there.

HiFi in the Future

We can’t know what HiFi will look like in the future. But we’ve got some ideas. Object-based audio is here to stay. Eventually, it will make it much easier to place speakers in your theater. As it is now, Dolby and others force you to label your speakers based on their position. In the future, we think you’ll be able to place them wherever you want and your receiver will detect their location. It will then be able to mix the sounds into the different speakers in order to “place” the sound in your room in the correct location.

Headphones also have a bright future. Some of us are aware of HRTF and binaural recordings. Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF) can personalize your audio experience for you. When we are listening in a real-world environment, the shape of our heads and ears make a difference in how we experience sound. By measuring your head and ears, a HRTF can be created to adjust the sound so that it sounds more accurate to you.

Binaural recordings are made with two microphones often placed in the ears of a dummy head. It is used to create extremely lifelike, three-dimensional audio recordings. We’ve seen this type of technology already with Apple’s recent announcement of spatial audio. These methods will propel HiFi to new heights of realism and quality.

Do you have predictions for HiFi? Let us know in the comments!


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