How to Evaluate a Hi-Fi System

Published on: February 18, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

I recently had a conversation with someone whose method of choosing Hi-Fi equipment struck me as being dangerously random. It put me in mind of an article I wrote some years ago relating to how to evaluate a Hi-Fi system. It was written in response to a magazine article about the divergence of approach between different Hi-Fi manufacturers.

I hope it may be of use or interest to someone out there, so here it is:



The idea that anyone should feel the phrase “High fidelity” is open to interpretation bothers me a bit. Surely it’s self-explanatory: high fidelity – as in a high degree of fidelity to the original; as in departing from the original as little as possible, etc., etc…

The question “Why else is there such confusing diversity of product on the home hi-fi and professional markets?” was presumably intended to be rhetorical. Rhetorical or not, I’d like to try and answer it.

Maybe some people are better at it than others? Maybe the plethora of hi-fi equipment on the market isn’t equally good yet somehow mysteriously different? Maybe some people are getting it wrong?

Consider the possibility that high-fidelity does in fact mean precisely what it says. That then begs the question, what is the original and what did it sound like anyway?

Evidently, for hi-fi purposes the original is the recording, be it good, bad or indifferent. The most one could ever attain is an exact replica of what was recorded. One cannot possibly go beyond the recording and reproduce parts of the performance that weren’t recorded in the first place, ‘cos they aren’t there to reproduce! In truth, all we have to work with is what the engineers managed to get onto the disc, tape, hard drive or whatever.

When choosing a hi-fi component, all that’s required therefore is an evaluation of which of the components within one’s grasp best does the job for which it was intended, i.e. faithfully reproduces a recording.

Unfortunately this seems to be where the confusion starts in earnest, largely because a lot of people are uncertain how to evaluate a hi-fi system, beyond the inspired guesswork approach.

One aspect of the problem is that the list of things you don’t know about what’s on a recording is endless. I mean KNOW. You may have heard a given recording a million times. What you know about that recording is based entirely on what your existing system allows you to hear and since no system on earth can reproduce 100% of the information on a recording 100% accurately, your knowledge of that recording MUST be imperfect.

You may be a very accomplished musician yourself and know a great deal about a particular instrument. That being the case, you would also know that if five different people played the same piece of music on the same instrument in the same room, it would sound different each time.

You may have attended a live recording session. There are many aspects of the performance which will inevitably have been altered by the time it arrives on the tape or hard drive, by virtue of the recording process itself. The recording by definition MUST differ from the original performance.

The more you try to bring your experience of music, live or recorded, to bear on the process of evaluating a hi-fi component, the more you introduce preconceptions, expectations which have no basis in fact and a lack of objectivity. The real danger is that you can easily, using a purely subjective approach, arrive at a system which happens to produce an effect coincident with your expectations of one recording, only to find that every other recording sounds awful or at least at variance with what you hoped for or expected. The logical result of this approach is a different system for each recording in your collection and that way lies madness.

However, the concept of gauging how easily you can follow the tune as a means of comparing the relative merits of different pieces of hi-fi equipment gets around these pitfalls.

Trying to follow the tune is certainly used to great effect as part of a design approach which, in the case of a company such as Linn Products, also incorporates the application of a massive array of technical resources, as any visitor to the factory will testify.

However, the greatest benefit of the “tune dem.” from my viewpoint as a specialist retailer is that it provides both ourselves and our customers with an objective yardstick whereby we can evaluate the relative performance levels of different products.

It’s hard to find a flaw in the logic IF the concept is fully understood. No-one to my knowledge has ever suggested that being able to discern a recognisable tune is the ONLY thing that matters but it’s certainly a vital prerequisite of faithful musical reproduction.

In order to get your head around the concept, pause and reflect on what we’re trying to achieve. Music isn’t some nebulous concept; it’s a very specific type of sound which is capable of triggering massive emotional responses in humans. This doesn’t happen by accident. What constitutes music CAN be quantified and it IS possible, if you have a clear idea of the objective, to tell that one component is better than another as opposed to just different, with a fair degree of certainty.


Consider these accepted definitions for a moment:

Tune – a melody with or without harmony.

Melody – an arrangement of single notes in musically expressive succession.

Note – a single tone of definite pitch made by musical instrument, voice etc..

A TUNE – an arrangement of single tones of definite pitch made by musical instrument, voice etc. in musically expressive succession, with or without harmony.


The object of the whole exercise is to trigger the emotional responses music is capable of producing. In order to do that, it must do what music does, i.e. have a structure, both rhythmic and melodic. This applies to all music. If in doubt, have a listen to Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” on anything other than a system that can clearly portray the melodies and you’ll hear a stunning piece of music being reduced to unintelligible drivel.

It is eminently possible to discern WHEN an instrument is playing and to an extent what that instrument is from its rhythm alone, without necessarily being able to easily determine WHAT it is playing in terms of a tune.

An analogy – One might well be able to discern THAT a conversation is taking place, WHERE it is taking place, HOW MANY participants there are, HOW LOUDLY it is being conducted, possibly HOW OLD and WHICH SEX the participants are and yet still not be able to decipher WHAT is being said. i.e. the message is not getting across.

The vehicle for the message in music is the tune. No tune, no message, at least, certainly not the one that the composer intended. If a system is able to communicate the structure of a piece of music effortlessly, it is eminently more likely that you will be able to appreciate all the nuances and emotion in the music than if, on a subconscious level, you are struggling to discern what on earth is being played.

Consider the alternatives the hi-fi industry offers its customers:

“Does it get your foot tapping?”

“Do the musicians sound as if they’re enjoying themselves?”

“Does it achieve a good, spacious depth of image?”

“Is the bass tight and controlled?”

“Are the spaces between the notes pools of inky blackness?” sic. etc, etc…


How on earth does anyone reckon to know how tight the bass was?

How much of the recording venue’s ambience was captured in the first place?

How do you record ambience?

How do you record the spaces between the notes?

The inevitable result of this oft used approach is review after review which reads more like a critique of a recording than an evaluation of a given component’s ability to reproduce that recording accurately.

While every reviewer I’ve met trots out the defence that their magazine only publishes “opinions”; that one should never buy a piece of equipment without auditioning it and that ultimately you have to make your buying decision based on “what your own ears tell you”, I am certain that without exception, every reviewer is aware of the extent to which a high proportion of their readers consider reviews to be objective, comprehensive, expert evaluations and as such, take them as gospel. Magazines can hardly claim to be trying to dispel this myth with captions like “The Best on Test – 300 hi-fi verdicts” on their front covers.

A further slightly bizarre twist to this that I’ve come across is that a lot of customers seem deeply puzzled when one reviewer contradicts another. Somebody even asked me once how he could reconcile two utterly contradictory reviews of the same product. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that either of them could possibly be wrong.

The usual conclusion the poor reader draws therefore is that there are no absolutes,  it’s all highly subjective and if the “experts” can’t agree, how can a mere mortal be expected to hear the difference and decide which is better?

Result – total chaos, a lot of very confused people spending their money on unsatisfactory equipment and a lot of very valid, honest designs being overlooked in the confusion.

The concept of evaluating the ease with which one can follow the tunes in a piece of reproduced music should not be dismissed as one man’s clever sales ploy or as just another industry fad. I would suggest it’s actually an eminently sensible and utterly scientific approach. You may also find on further investigation that it enables you to verify all sorts of conclusions that you may well have arrived at yourself, albeit by different methods.

© Chris Brooks January 2001


So next time you’re looking to upgrade your Hi-Fi, give it a try. It just might save you a load of time, grief and even money!

  • Brian Viercant says:

    Great piece of writing and hits the nail squarely on the head. I have heard such things as” it cant be any good as it doesnt have an equaliser, or coloured leds” Thankfully my ears tell the truth and so does my Linn kit, but being an old vinyl fart, some of the younger breed probably wouldnt agree or understand.

Blog Archives