What Is High-Fidelity (Hi-Fi) Audio?

My New Microphone What Is High-Fidelity (Hi-Fi) Audio?

The term Hi-Fi or high fidelity has been thrown around a lot by audio enthusiasts and marketing teams as the definite way of listening to music and recorded media. Its definition has evolved drastically since its inception in the early 20th century and has somehow stayed relevant, yet vague, even today.

What does Hi-Fi really mean? Do you need to consider this strange term when buying audio equipment like headphones, speakers and music players? Do studios need to consider Hi-Fi listeners when mastering their tracks?

What is Hi-Fi audio? Hi-Fi audio is an umbrella term for any sound reproduction system designed to reproduce sound as accurately as possible. The goal is to hear the media “exactly how the artist intended it to sound”. Hi-Fi equipment includes speakers, headphones, DACs, amplifiers and preamplifiers, cables, and more.

How did Hi-Fi audio come about? Why is it still relevant today? In this article, we'll explore the history of high-fidelity audio, look at how this term is used today and ultimately discern: do you need Hi-Fi equipment today?

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The Early Days Of Hi-Fi

In the early days of recorded media, the rudimentary recording equipment introduced significant distortion and noise into the audio. Electrical recording came about in 1925, though it wasn't until the 1940s that “high fidelity” recording technology began being developed.

Most music, until the 1940s, was overly noisy and distorted. In these early days, Hi-Fi audio contrasted with the poor recording methods of telephone wire and broadcasting AM radio.

In the 1930s, RCA Victor (Now RCA Records) began recording orchestra performances with microphones. The audio was recorded onto phonographic disc records to create high-fidelity masters.

Amateur violinist Avery Fisher – also in the 1930s – began to experiment with acoustics and wanted to make radio sound as close as possible to listening to a live orchestra. In his research, he found that listeners vastly preferred high-fidelity sound reproduction with the noise and distortion eliminated.

It wasn't until the 1950s that Hi-Fi became a common marketing term for any records or equipment that reproduced sounds accurately and faithfully.

Some key advancements in this period helped drastically improve sound quality. This includes the introduction of the long-pay microgroove vinyl record that decreased surface noise. FM radio was also seen as a massive step forward for Hi-Fi audio – and reel-to-reel tape recording helped artists record or distribute music with far higher fidelity.

As stereo media began to be introduced in the early 1970s, the definition of Hi-Fi expanded to include any system capable of playing stereo music.

Related article: Mic History: Who Invented Each Type Of Microphone And When?

Hi-Fi In The Digital Age

Starting with the introduction of the CD in the late 1980s, digital audio removed many of the artifacts and noise of analog sound – and so the definition of Hi-Fi changed once again.

To understand what Hi-Fi means in this digital age, we must consider two sides of the music process: the studio and the listener.

The Studio

Hi-Fi at the studio level refers to the audio format used to encode the master or distributed audio file and the tools and methods used to ‘master' the record. Hi-Fi is now being used as a marketing term to refer to high-definition lossless audio.

This term – HD audio (High Definition audio) – is another vague term with many meanings. However, the gist is that it refers to any audio format of a higher quality than CD audio. This is usually determined objectively by sample rate and bit depth, which is 44.1 kHz and 16-bit for CD quality. Some people refer to audio files with a 24-bit bit rate and a sample rate of 192Hz as High Definition or Hi-Fi.

I should clarify that a high-definition format doesn't automatically mean a record is “Hi-Fi”. Some CD-quality masters can sound far better than so-called HD records. A key aspect of creating a Hi-Fi record is mixing and mastering it for the highest quality possible.

This involves eliminating recording artifacts, mixing the tracks, making every instrument and vocal take sound great, and tweaking music to sound at its best. It involves using the best recording equipment available to studios, so they sound great. Many audiophiles consider this part of the process far more important to whether a track is Hi-Fi or not than specs and formats.

The Listener

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the audio playback signal chain and how the sound is reproduced. Here, we're looking at headphones, speakers, amplifiers, broadcast methods, etc.

Here's where consumers can choose whether they want to ‘buy-in' to Hi-Fi audio.

Listening to music through cheap earbuds on an iPhone isn't Hi-Fi. Listening to a record in a consumer-grade home entertainment stereo system is also generally not considered “Hi-Fi”. No, getting into the hobby of Hi-Fi is much more involved (and costly) than that!

This often involves buying headphones that reproduce music very well, that are balanced, accurate and have a good soundstage. Amplifiers that help push the best out of high-impedance headphones. Expensive loudspeakers can offer richer sound than cheap Bluetooth speakers. The list goes on.

Getting into Hi-Fi, we'll want every single part of our system to work together to achieve the truest representation of the audio being played back. As mentioned, this obviously includes speakers, headphones, power amps, preamps, headphone amps, and digital-to-audio converters (DACs). It can get as involved as upgrading cables and interconnects, swapping out power sources and even the power mains of a listening environment, introducing acoustic treatment, and more.

Wireless media has transformed what listeners believe to be Hi-Fi. While the purists will still embrace their Sennheiser HD 600 headphones and expensive amplifiers, higher-quality wireless codecs like Bluetooth aptX-HD have rapidly improved the non-wired listening experience.

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To learn more about Bluetooth audio, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
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Through our tour of the history of Hi-Fi audio, it should be fairly clear what the theme of high-fidelity audio truly is: audio that sounds as it was intended.

It's less of a marketing term attached to formats and specifications like other comparable terms like HD audio. It's more about the pursuit of accurate, pleasant and detailed sound. In the early days, pioneers like Avery Fisher just wanted to reproduce music in the way they wanted it to sound. Clean, accurate and pleasant.

Audiophiles will go on about flat, balanced sound profiles, open-backed headphones and all the other features they love from their Hi-Fi equipment. And yes, these are important aspects of the high-fidelity experience.

But what should Hi-Fi mean to you? It should be whatever fits your tastes, works well with your music and brings the best out of your listening experience, given your budget. Audio is a highly subjective field, and certain headphones, speakers and amplifiers will sound better to you, and some won't. Adopting a “hi-fi attitude” is adopting the willingness to try many different products until you find the sound that suits you the best.

For studios, high-fidelity audio is simply creating the best-sounding, highest-quality masters you possibly can.

Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

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