Once more, with feeling
Have you crossed the line from ‘audio’ to ‘hi-fi’?
Those readers particularly prone to peer carefully at magazine page ‘straps’ may have noticed that in recent issues we’ve divided up our Sound+Image review section into categorised blocks — this issue there’s our vinyl section, then hi-fi, an audio-visual section, and a lone headphone. These categories intersect — obviously we’re not implying that audio-visual can’t be ‘hi-fi’ too. But certainly not all audio-visual and audio gear qualifies as hi-fi.
And by hi-fi I mean equipment of a level that delivers a sufficient semblance of the original performance that it makes recorded music come alive — it works, it’s real, it recreates a moment in time. Which is something I think most people will have experienced at some point (hopefully daily for many of our well-equipped readers). It’s quite the moment when music becomes real; it can stop you in your tracks or transport you into some other emotional state, which is why some people may not realise what is going on, and may never have attributed such a moment to the music or the quality of the reproduction system, because they were, for example, dancing around a beach bonfire looking into someone’s eyes and enjoying a nice lift from some mild intoxicant. In such situations, I’d probably be the guy over at the beach cabana looking at the speakers under the palm-frond eaves, saying something like ‘Nice butt-kicking JBLs, mate, though I think this one’s out of phase, do you mind if I…’ Such is the lonely life of an audio junkie, but at least we often get free drinks for fixing things up.
That musical transportation is one which good hi-fi should be able to deliver at the flick of a switch, always assuming you’re suitably receptive. There is variation between products in tone, scale, timing and dynamics; their presentations and tuning differs. But if the music works, the equipment is at least capable of doing its job.
Happily music can achieve an effect through the most minimal of reproduction systems. I remember sitting high on a sunny mountainside above Samsun on the Black Sea coast of Turkey (pictured), equipped only with a palm-sized SW/AM/FM radio (Roberts, I think), listening to John Peel on the BBC
World Service, and the music dove as emotionally deep as if delivered dynamically from a reference system. (This is the second time in three issues that I’ve ended up in a travel analogy on this page. Must be lockdown travel yearnage.) It’s amazing how effectively music can be communicated, how good it can feel, even through a low level of equipment.
I realise, however, that judging how something ‘feels’ might seem a little hazy as a review criterion. I certainly object when I watch the weather forecast and they now tell me it’s 15 degrees but it feels like 10. I’m not even sure what that means — ‘feels like’. Feels like to whom? Who’s the Chief Feeler here — who gets to say how it feels? It might not feel the same to me. To the missus, for example, it often feels “F-ing freezing” when to me it seems merely mild. And yes I understand about wind-chill factor, and I preferred it when they just told us there was a wind-chill factor of minus five. Presumably they think people can no longer do the maths of 15 minus 5 (you can google the answer if you need to) so that they’re now dumbing it down with a ‘feels like’ rating. One more data point of despair for society.
Then again, here are we, as a magazine, partially judging hi-fi on how it makes us feel. But it’s not quite the same. Channel 7’s Weather Comfort Index moves along on a scale of reactions from cold to hot, starting at the chillier extreme with a woolly-scarfed emoji face looking like someone’s just poked a stick up its arse. But with hi-fi it’s initially a binary on/off criterion — either the music is launched with life, stirring the soul, transmitting the intent, or it just ain’t. It’s about crossing the line from mere audio to music-loving hi-fi. Which is a transition devoutly to be wished.
Even more vain-gloriously, we then pick the products which make us feel best of all and give them one of the Sound+Image Awards which are already in preparation, and which we will bring to you, dear reader, next issue. Meanwhile you all stay safe, and listen to vinyl.
Jez Ford, Editor, Sound+Image