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The term “hi-fi” — or “high fidelity” — dates back to the 1950s when it was used to describe audio equipment that was able to faithfully reproduce music. It meant that the music sounded like you were listening to the band or artist in person. Over the years, the definition of “high-fidelity” has evolved as the audio equipment and the ways we listened to music have also gotten better. What counts as “hi-fi” today? It’s not so easy to say.
In the 1970s, the definition of hi-fi evolved with the introduction of stereo sound. With the addition of a second speaker, or second channel, stereo was able to add another layer of realism to the music. “It made such an impact on recorded sound that people started referring to a ‘Hi-fi’ as a ‘Stereo’,” explained Alex Munro, the brand director at Q Acoustics.
In the early 1980s, CDs came along and eliminated a lot of the extra noise, like the crackling and other imperfections that like vinyl is now sought out for. Perhaps more importantly, CDs were one of the first mainstream digital audio formats, which helped pave the way to today’s digital streaming age.
In the 90s, quality took a detour as the age of Napster and the iPod ushered in the dominance of compressed digital audio files like the MP3, which destroy data in their quest to get file size down. What hi-fi is may be a point of contention, but lossy compression certainly does not fit the bill.
Many of today’s music streaming services (including Apple Music, Amazon Music HD, Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz) offer a lossless streaming tier, meaning you can listen to digital audio files that are the same or better audio quality than a CD.
The tricky bit in the modern day is that so many mediums — CDs, vinyl, streaming, even tapes — are in play, and different formats can have different fidelities. In the past, hi-fi was generally defined as audio that was CD or vinyl quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz), but today you can listen to higher resolution audio files (such as 24-bit/192kHz or even even 32-bit/384 kHz). So should the bar for hi-fi go up in response?
What Does “Hi-Fi” Actually Mean Today?
We asked seven industry experts and audio enthusiasts for their modern definition of hi-fi. Of course there’s no one answer, but here’s what they had to say.
The following quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Charlie Randall, co-CEO of the McIntosh Group
“When used to describe equipment, ‘hi-fi’ means to be able to reproduce recordings of all types CD, vinyl or streaming. To be considered hi-fi, the equipment must be capable of playback with very low distortion, low signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic headroom and channel separation just to name a few. To distinguish the different levels of hi-fi comes down to the technology built into the equipment. Take [a] CD for instance, it has to be decoded from digital to analog, and the capabilities of the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) will have direct impact on the fidelity. 32-bit is better than 24-bit. With vinyl, there is a difference in phono cartridges that will have a similar effect as the CD player’s DAC does as to how pure the playback is.”
Dave Evans, co-founder of Audioengine
“Nowadays, [hi-fi] is kind of a moving target depending who you ask. Many would say the higher the better, but keep in mind, the bit rate/word depth number does not always tell the whole story. Quality or ‘fidelity’ also depends largely on the original recording, i.e. how well the original sound was captured. Some 24/44.1 tracks sound much better than 24/192 ‘other’ tracks, simply because their original was better.
“And then we come to the other end of the spectrum: the reproduction. Folks who are using cheap earbuds, or just the speakers that come with their phones, really don’t experience the full ‘fidelity’ of their music. Reproduction of sound depends upon moving air with accuracy. That is was our ears interpret as sound. Whichever product does this best provides the most ‘fidelity’.”
Brady Bargenquast, co-founder of Audioengine
“My take on ‘high fidelity’ is that wireless audio and streaming – mostly from phones – has changed the audio game for the better.”
“Back in the old days (3-4 years ago) our enthusiastic audiophile customer base would push us to go for the highest bit and sample rates possible, which we did. But since then we’ve seen changes with variable bitrate (VBR) encoding and decoding. MQA, Bluetooth aptX and aptX-HD, LDAC codecs and the various versions of each are real game-changers, which are optimized for streaming and sound fantastic in most cases.”
“So these days, when most everything is fake and phony, ‘high fidelity’ for me isn’t always about specs and all that, but simply about what sounds good, regardless of the bit rate and/or bit depth, format, or anything else. And for Audioengine, our approach is to use the best-sounding modern DAC, supported with old-school audio circuits, amps, drivers, and cabinet designs and that all fit without our budget for each product.”
“It’s really about everything along the audio stream – from recording, mixing, mastering, digital file format encoding/decoding, and finally to the consumer gear we use to listen. So I think overall we’re in a much better place these days as we have access to great-sounding music with the convenience of wireless streaming from our phones using Bluetooth or wi-fi.”
Mike Moffat, co-founder of Schiit Audio
“A dictionary definition of fidelity is ‘the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.’ So it follows that ‘High Fidelity’ means you get lotsa fidelity. Funny – when I first went to a CES some 45 years ago, Saul Marantz and Peter Walker (Inventor of the quad electrostatic loudspeaker) were at the bar in the show hotel and I had a chance to talk to two of my idols. It was explained to me that the purpose of a good sound system was to duplicate the original sound.”
“So we must remember that different folks have different priorities in their sonic preferences, including those which may be preferential more than exact. That is clearly the prerogative of the listener. This is precisely the purpose of our Loki units which allows the user to vary the frequency parameters to tailor the music to his system to ultimately his or her ears.”
“After the above few paragraphs, I see little difference over the over three scores of years of ‘High Fidelity’ usage. It is just you can get Higher Fi with less $$ today, at least until you get to the few car priced manufacturers remaining today.”
Alex Munro, Brand Director at Q Acoustics
“The original proposition and purpose of hi-fi has all but gone. That is except for a hard core among audio enthusiasts, who are still making tiny incremental changes to a component audio system seeking the ultimate sound, adopting higher and higher resolution replay sources. But only those of them who attend a lot of live unamplified music have kept touch with the original aims of hi-fi.”
“But you would have to be a very sad person to care too much about this evolution of purpose. Surely our aim as an industry is to produce products that give as much audio pleasure as possible to as many people as possible, whatever they want to call it and those of us who work in it and can count these people in the millions are very fortunate indeed.”
Louis Dorio, Product Specialist at Ortofon
“Hi-fi in 2021 really has to do with a philosophy rather than a set of stringent requirements. It’s instead a listener’s pursuit of the best playback quality, independent of the format (vinyl, digital) that the listener chooses. Hi-fi often gets thrown around as a marketing term — a way to try to get music lovers to buy products — but it’s not necessarily always about that. Although making meaningful equipment upgrades is part of hi-fi, so is adjusting speaker placement, improving the acoustics of your listening space, adjusting your cartridge alignment, or making sure your speakers aren’t distorting. It’s about concentrating specifically on the substance of music reproduction and finding ways to make it sound as natural and realistic as possible within the given means.”
Stuart Brown, Product Manager at Naim Audio
“For Naim, the ‘Fi’ — Fidelity — in Hi-Fi is as important as the ‘Hi’. Our founding mission is to deliver the authentic sound of the music you love, for a more soul-stirring experience. We’d suggest you aim for the best-quality recordings you can, but it’s not always about raw bitrates. Well-recorded, well-engineered high-bitrate tracks can transcend their lower-resolution equivalents, revealing more detail and depth, but a well-mastered CD quality track can sound more enjoyable and authentic than a poorly mastered high-resolution version.”
“At Naim, we test our systems with a wide range of sources: vinyl, streaming, CD, internet radio, podcasts, 24- and even 32-bit files – and are only happy to release products that sound authentic and engaging with the whole gamut. We’re not here to judge what you want to listen to, we’re here to help it sound the best it can be.”
James Johnson-Flint, CEO of Cambridge Audio
“The term hi-fi comes down to two things. What you’re playing and what you’re playing it on. Anything of CD quality and above is capable of delivering a brilliant listening experience if it is paired with equipment that respects the source material.”
“Of course digital music, and streaming especially, has had a massive impact on the way that people explore and enjoy music. Our customers now appreciate that great sound can just as easily come from a smartphone as it can a turntable, and that has been a driving motivation for some of our newest developments, like the StreamMagic platform, which we constantly evolve to support the highest-resolution file formats available. We believe that every music lover should have easy and affordable access to a rich user experience as well as great, highly emotive sound—even when streaming—and for us, it’s at the heart of a modern hi-fi.”
Enno Vandermeer, Founder/CEO at Roon Labs
“The term ‘hi-fi’ was first used in the 1950s to distinguish equipment capable of rendering high-fidelity audio using formats like 33rpm vinyl LP and reel-to-reel tape. Anyone who listened to those formats could readily be distinguished from mass-market consumers, who listened primarily to AM radio. In some ways, that early distinction persists to this day.”
“Lossy files and streaming are mass-market formats (like MP3 and AAC) akin to early AM radio. Music enthusiasts, like the hi-fi buyers of the 1950s, prefer lossless formats (like WAV, FLAC, and ALAC at 44.1 or 48kHz sample rates) which are comparable to CD, while the most demanding audiophiles explore high-resolution PCM (WAV/FLAC/ALAC greater than 48kHz) and DSD formats, as well as newer encoding systems like MQA.”
“To answer the question, we think of ‘hi-fi’ as being a category of high-performance audio equipment. The formats in which audio content is encoded are segmented into ‘lossy,’ ‘lossless,’ and ‘high-resolution.’ Within ‘high-resolution’ (also known as ‘hi-res’), there is generally consensus that the formats are superior to lossy and lossless encoding, but little agreement about the merits of one encoding over another.”
Mark Cohen, Chief Sales Officer at Audeze
“It really depends on the listener’s point of view. If you have the time and environment to really listen “to” the music instead of “at” the music, then you’re probably thinking ‘I want at least CD quality (16 bit 44.1) for streaming, but I’d prefer 24-bit/192kHz or better.’ On the other hand, if you’re mostly listening to music on the run, then perhaps iTunes is perfectly acceptable. Or maybe the need for noise cancellation, Bluetooth, etc. might be more important than ‘Maximum Rez’.”
“The bottom line [is] we’re all fortunate to have ways to enjoy music at many different levels – there’s something for everyone. The answer is really in ‘the ear of the beholder.'”