HiFi - but is it, though?

A thought that crossed my mind after a couple of recent concert visits - it might be erring on the tech-philosophical side, but maybe someone generates resonance with it and I’d love to hear your take:

I like music like the next guy and have come to dabble a bit in slightly above-average hardware for headphones. Nothing exceptional, but a pair of cans that make me discern music that I’ve learned to call “has been mastered well” from that that seems less so. A wonderfully disillusioning experience.

I also like going to concerts - some classical, some jazz, some vocal, some singer/songwriter, some hip hop, “all of the above”.

Comparing both experiences (concert and recording), I have come to question the idea of “high fidelity”. The degree to which I might differentiate one set of instruments from another in a concert setting is mind-blowing on good hardware. Would that ever happen in a real-life concert - extremely rarely, if at all. The acoustics of most concert halls and other venues is such a compromise between a large number of opposing goals that the actual acoustic experience is mediocre at best. Sure: you experience other facets of the performance, but for listening it’s far from optimal.

So far so… predictable. However, tech allows to push in ever more … advanced ways of listening. However, what’s sold as ever more “high fidelity”, to me, more and more turns out as “highly impressive” - more impressive than real life. I’ve come to wonder if modern music hardware simply goes the way of high-fructose corn syrup for the ears. It goes far beyond being true to reality. This does not only relate to over-accentuating base (BOSE), but also the ever more “analytical” performing professional gear: there’s simply much more detail there than would be likely to experience in real life. And therein lies a certain artificial touch that everything adopts. Kind of reminds me of the immortal Futurama line of “But this is HDTV. It’s got better resolution than the real world.” In a sense, “high definition” really is a better way of putting it than “high fidelity”.

Bwt - kudos to everything who thinks now “congratulations, you have discovered the difference between a concert experience and studio work - well done”. Maybe you are right.

Since these are the years where our tech gradually exceeds the bandwidth our senses can provide (think 8K televisions), I wonder whether the old idea of “high fidelity” might not also mean to capture slight imperfections. Like the age-old discussion between film and digital photography and cinematography. Are we bound for ever more artificial content? Come to think of it: certainly we are (CGI, audio enhancements, photoshop, etc.). Is that a good thing? Does asking this question even matter? In essence:



I do not have the answer for this but it does remind me how much I miss Scott Wilkinson and the Home Theater Geeks podcast and its deep dives in to such things… https://twit.tv/shows/home-theater-geeks


If you want really neutral headphones, you need to go the Beyer Dynamic route… But the DT1990 Studio Reference headset costs 600€.

At a concert or the opera, I can usually pick out the individual musicians. But the recording is designed to be the optimal “performance”. On stage, it is a one-off event, the album/single is a produced work, taking the best bits from possibly hundreds of takes. It isn’t a wonder that the two aren’t really comparable.

But do they have to be? One is optimal, one is live. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses. I don’t see the disassociation the way you do.


Absolutely. I was feeling the Scott Wilkinson vibe from the “The Tech Guy” show by Leo on the weekends. I believe, there was also some of the “as the artist intended it to be experienced” in there, which he loves to point to.

Funny you mention them - I went Beyer Dynamic DT1990 plus their A20 amplifier a couple of months back. This is what made me notice the difference in the first place. Very well spotted!

One facet might be that concert halls are more difficult (or impossible) to build perfectly than headphones. We went to Dresden last year to hear an organ concert in their new Kulturpalast concert hall. It was freshly refurnished and highly optimised for acoustics. Pretty awesome.

There is an excellent documentary on architecture for acoustics - sadly only in German: Architekten des Klangs - 3sat-Mediathek

It’s a pretty phenomenal and seemingly extremely intricate topic. Where was I going with this?

Right: one is optimal, one is live - sure. I agree. I wonder, however, whether there is a discussion to be had about that “live” (the performed art) is optimal and “canned” should approach that if “high fidelity” is really the point. Otherwise, the label says “it’s true to reality” but the product is something else - it might even be better. Where in the, say, 60s, HiFi was really meant to capture reality better, today, sixty years later, it’s about extending the experience. Maybe we need a new word. I do realise that my key gripe is about terminology at this point… Oh well. :wink:

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Which listener do you optimise for, though? Depending on where you sit in an auditorium, the performance will sound different. Perhaps less so in the best halls, but still different. And the performers will hear it differently again.

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No problem.

I had friends in the Bundeswehr and got free tickets to the Philharmonie München. We were given a behind the scenes tour, met the director and were given information about how they teach music, how the hall was constructed and so on. The hall is similar in design to Dresden, but older.

I’d like to go visit the new hall in Hamburg. I go to the local theatre in Osnabrück sometimes. My daughter gets cheap tickets through the Uni and if not enough students/faculty take them, family can get tickets.

I’ll try and watch the documentary over the weekend.

But, yes, I think we are talking more about semantics.


How full the hall is can also have a big effect on the tone.


Interesting topic indeed.
Obviously the difference is as pointed out, due to the lack of control of the live environment…
You hear it in live albums where they have mostly or totally used the audio from the arena, compared to albums mainly using the mixing desk feeds and some of the area ambience.
Again a discrepancy may be here due to the mics used for the arena compared to the stage mics.

Short answer: All things are relative.
Long answer: It seems to me that depending on the nature of the band that the live sound may be a truer expression of the music, “warts and all”
Often bands get labelled as festival or jam-bands.
Here you often find that though studio recordings offer a higher fidelity of sound, they lack the extra personality and fire you often get with the live event.

Some music is born of live outdoor performance and part of the sound the music relies on is the acoustics of that environment.
You often find that studio recordings of this sort of music will sound thin and lacking space, unless the production tries to fake the live ambience.

When Sepultura jammed with the Brazilian tribe they lived with, the recordings capture the ambience and sound of singing in a jungle clearing, but with actually being there you would have heard individual singers voices depending on where you looked or stood.

Big festivals are often the worst place to hear music if it is complex. The large open space leaves the sound waves at the mercy of the wind.

I can give you 1 example of the live sound being far superior to the recordings, both of the studio and live material (of which I also have)
Pink Floyd :grin:
First time I saw them was in the old Wembly arena in London.
I got in early enough to pick where the bast spot would be.
Right in the centre of the arena was the crew with the mixing desk. I stood next to them at the focal point of the awesome surround sound.
Best seat in the house.


The same for Queen. I was at Wembley for the A Kind of Magic tour, with a couple of small warm up bands, The Alarm, some unknown Oz band called INXS and Status Quo… Absolutely brilliant and Freddie live is an unbelievable experience.

I also saw the Blues Bothers’ Band live in Brighton. Again, a fantastic live band. The same for Jethro Tull and The Young Dubliners (Hameln, Germany).

On the other hand, there are singers and bands that are dreadful live. I saw Anastasia live in Munich, it was flat, off tone and, frankly, dreadful. She had 2 fans come up on stage to sing with her and, to be blunt, they sang her off the stage…


Thats true, too. I believe that is the point behind the vineyard type concert halls like the one in Berlin or Hamburg (below). They are argued to have a more “democratic” layout since more people will be able to sit closer and be able to hear a more equal impression of the sound. Of course, this design once again comes with its own downsides and I learned form this article that it’s at least in part motivated by cultural and societal motives (https://live.stanford.edu/blog/january-2013/note-vineyard-style)

Especially in a modern vineyard type concert hall, the problem can be that it’s too good - too precise. The documentation I shared above has a conductor pointing out that the room is too analytical and allowing listeners to discern individual instruments to a degree that there is only a limited acoustic integration of the entire orchestra happening. Apparently, this will increase with the hall settling itself in the first few years.


This reads positively exciting and always makes be a bit sad that I never really got on the bandwagon with festivals. Merely watching some live recordings of the Glastonbury Festival with Coldplay playing (I know, I know - guilty pleasure, not very fashionable; https://youtu.be/Vrq4RAhO4lY - btw horrible audio but it really does not matter) really get the point across that a live experience goes far, far beyond the music. It is incredible to which degree the audience co-creates this experience, pitches the band higher and higher an vice-versa. For 2020, I’ve made a new year’s resolution to go to more concerts…

Excellent lead - I’ll be checking that out! :slight_smile:

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The album recording of Kaiowas (tribal jam)

and a documentary showing them meeting the tribe and learning to play the original song.

You can imagine that if you tried to capture it in a studio it would lack the space you can hear around the performers.
Closing your eyes and listening you can easily imagine being outside.

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