“In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king”
Some useful advice
Buying hi-fi can be a daunting experience. It is something of a specialist field and as a result is full of “experts”. Experts are like lions and tigers; wonderful things but best seen from a distance or on the telly. You wouldn’t want to be in the same room as one.
It might be best if we clarify what hi-fi actually is. Hi-Fi is short for high fidelity which actually means high truth. This term is referring to the fact that high fidelity equipment should reproduce recorded music accurately.
To hear music reproduced accurately is a joy on a number of levels. For a start you can hear all the instruments, you can hear all the lyrics and you can enjoy the performance in a much closer fashion to how you could if you heard it performed live. The music will move you and you will respond emotionally.
You would be shocked at how badly a lot of music systems do that. Sadly many people never actually find out the truth because they never hear a good stereo system. And what they do listen on is so poor that they can’t really every bridge the immense chasm between listening at home and the live performance.
Why is most audio equipment so poor?
One of the main reasons for this is because there are too many compromises. Hi-Fi used to be designed to sound good. Now most of the stuff around is designed to be cheap or small. Or cheap and small; which is twice as bad.
The tiny system above is sold and advertised as a Hi-Fi system and sells for £55. It is incapable of reproducing music with any accuracy and is better as a paperweight or a door-stop. It is sold on-line or in supermarkets or sheds. Such shops do not demonstrate equipment and are unable to explain what the unit is good at (or bad at) because they are usually too busy chasing kids out of the computer section and trying to spot shoplifters.
Sadly Hi-Fi doesn’t really exist on the High Street so many people never come across it. Instead they buy devices like i-POD docking stations or wireless things from companies like Sonos. These are better than the micro system above but often only marginally. The reason for that is that when the MP3 revolutionised music, it did so at a massive cost to the quality. At a stroke, whole vinyl libraries became instantly portable, album artwork ceased to matter – and sound quality fell off a cliff.
Music deserves better. If you love music then you deserve better. And most of the stuff on the high street might be small or pretty but it is worse sounding than the stereo systems a lot of us had when we were in our late teens.
One of the reasons people get such a thrill out of live music is the sound. We hear it and we also feel it. Today many bands tour with amplification systems that are rather good. High volume has been replaced by high quality. There is no reason why you can’t have something approaching this at home. And it needn’t cost you your life savings!
Where did quality go?
In the Seventies flares were wide, music was poptastic and life was wonderful. We even trusted the government (to a degree). Most hi-fi systems were made of separates and an audio system cost more than a months wages. Brands like Wharfedale, Quad, Pioneer, Leek, Rodgers, Sansui and JVC made equipment that did a pretty good job of reproducing music in the home.
The Seventies were also a bit sexist!
Sadly the Eighties came next and for some reason everything started to be more about the technology rather than the sound. It was the age of the Midi, Mini and Micro system! Audio equipment had to be small enough to fit onto the palm of your hand and be festooned with flashing lights. Even worse the record player had to be balanced on top and also made out of pressed plastic. It sounded like junk and speakers had to get even smaller to match. Since speakers move air and small speakers simply can’t move air convincingly the High Street Hi-Fi system lost it’s merit. Don’t blame us – blame physics.
When CD came along it was embraced because it sounded clearer than the dreadful record players that sat atop mini systems. It also looked like something out of a science fiction movie and was sold with the tagline “perfect sound that lasts forever”.
Around this time Laskeys (the last domain of quality hi-fi on the High Street) dissipated. High quality audio had once been cool and something that was considered a must for the home now started to slip down the priority list until it resided somewhere between handbag number fifteen and a German cappuccino machine.
Behind the scenes many manufacturers continued to make good quality equipment and many broke new ground in terms of sound quality and value for money. Companies like Naim Audio, Linn Products, Rega Research, Bowers and Wilkins, Rotel, NAD and others soldiered on because the people who ran those companies were not orientated by fashion but by quality. Quality did not disappear it just went underground!
Hi-Fi shops prospered but they were serving a smaller bunch of rather discerning customers. These were people who loved music and understood that you needed decent equipment to reproduce it in the home.
Not all Hi-Fi shops are like the one in this sketch but a lot of people think that they probably are.
Hi-Fi didn’t really change at the quality end. It got better sounding and new technology allowed it to be more consistent and in many cases more affordable. But Hi-Fi manufacturers didn’t make tiny little speakers because tiny little speakers sound terrible. Bose might argue differently but if you listen to them and compare them to similarly priced ordinary speakers you might be in for something of a shock.
The nineties started well but the arrival of Home Cinema caused as much confusion as it did resentment. Filling your lounge with more than two speakers was never going to go down well with everyone in the home so manufacturers decided to make home cinema speakers either flat or very small. The end result was poor sound. It went loud for sure; but then again monkeys running around in circles banging metal trays is loud.
Sadly many people sold good stereo systems to buy poor home cinema systems. As a result their joy at listening to well reproduced music vanished in a puff of smoke and was replaced by that T-Rex in Jurassic Park banging his feet in puddles of rainwater and helicopters flying around the room.
It wasn’t just customers! Many hi-fi shops threw out the baby with the bathwater and started selling tellies and surround sound equipment in order to maximise on the craze. We even did a little of this ourselves but packed it in when we realised that the sound quality was getting worse just as the number of connections on the back was increasing!
We like our music!
The next Devil in all matters audio was Apple. In simple terms our love of their devices made us give up quality for quantity because storage space was at a premium. So a whole generation of consumers was tempted to store music in such a compressed digital form that it would barely sustain being played back through a decent hi-fi system. It was like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
This wondrous “precious” thing may well be a revolutionary device that could change your life and make it much easier to have affairs with old school friends (as well as taking pictures of your dinner) but it did nothing for quality audio. (NB. you CAN get remarkable sound out of an i-Pod or i-Phone but not with the manufacturers default settings!)
Apple did this because they don’t care about sound quality. If they did their i-Tunes delivery system would not supply you compressed music AND their i-Devices wouldn’t default to MP3.
Compared to CD, MP3 is like throwing a quilt over your speakers, or the musicians. It is a really bad place to start. And music is where we all start.
So what is the answer?
The answer is to get information. To find out what is going on. The best way of doing this is to find a specialist company who understand quality and who can help find equipment good enough to meet your needs; a Hi-Fi shop that sells real hi-fi. There aren’t that many of us and we’re mostly not on the High Street. A shop like Moorgate Acoustics. There are others of course but we’re not here to tell you about them.
You need someone to listen to your requirements and use their experience to help you find the best components or system for the job!
But that sounds expensive
It really needn’t be. Whilst good sounding equipment isn’t minuscule or dirt cheap; it needn’t be expensive either. We are often told by our customers that their music system is the best value for money thing they own. Another factor to consider is that decent components will usually last for longer than twenty years and some much longer.
You could own five horrid little stereo’s over a twenty year period or buy a good one that lasts twenty years. Which option do you think is best?
We’d go as far as to say that your choice of shop is probably the most important step. The right shop will listen to you and offer you the best choices; as opposed to trying to make a quick buck out of you. They will want to give you the experience of hearing your music as it was meant to sound.
Some shops don’t sell really good equipment and so they can’t show you the performance potential of your music. Or they sell a small range and so they can’t let you choose from the best equipment.
A demonstration room (like your lounge at home) is vital for a decent hi-fi shop. We sell by demonstration so it is important that we have somewhere to go where we can show you how good equipment can sound in your home. A noisy shop environment is no good for this. Our demo room is yours for the duration of your visit. You can’t buy a can without driving it so how can you buy a music system without hearing it?
Good customer care is also extremely important. Good shops want happy customers because happy customers are loyal and recommend the shop to their friends. Here are some of the things you can expect from a good h-fi shop;
- Good demonstration facilities
- Good pre-owned equipment
- Trade in on your existing equipment
- Home Trial
- Home delivery/installation
- 10 day replace/refund if not satisfied
- Extended warranties
Some shops are not eager to let you listen to things. If this is the case you are in the wrong shop.
Another thing to take notice of (and we really mean this) is that you are the best person to determine what sort of sound you want. We can advise you but only be demonstration can we assist you properly. Trust your ears; you might not think they are the best but they are the only pair that matters when you’re sat at home listening to music. No one has better ears than yours for that.
We’ve been supplying great quality audio equipment to customers for 36 years and we are always glad to help. We’re not after a quick sale either and would much prefer to make a long lasting relationship by supplying you with equipment good enough to exceed your expectations.
Finally ignore jargon and technobabble! We talk good sense in English!
Separates or All-in-one units?
Depends on your requirements. There are of course good and bad in either. We choose to stock the best because we’re not in the business of offering inferior products. Sometimes the choice is dictated by how much room you have. If you’ve got a small room but want decent sound quality, there’s no point in looking at massive loudspeakers that require a lot of power.
Generally good all-in-one hi-fi is capable of offering good sound quality. Arcam, Naim Audio, Linn and Cyrus all offer great products that fit into this catagory.
But for really serious hi-fi, two options remain: a high-end, all-in-one-box set-up such as the NaimUniti, or a traditional separates system. The NaimUniti is one of an increasing number of systems that is able to wirelessly play back a host of digital file formats without sacrificing sound quality.
For traditionalists, none of these set-ups rivals a traditional hi-fi system. Separate source, amplifier and a good pair of loudspeakers remain the very best solution. Nor do you need an enormous house to do justice to it.
The only really universal truth among all these different options is that whatever solution you think suits you best, you get what you pay for.
Arm yourself with some music and make some enquiries. Try and listen to something after explaining your requirements. Give us a try. We’d love to meet you and to sit you down in our listening room so you can find out why we are so passionate about great sound.