www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997

What Happened to Hi-Fi?

Years ago, back in the 1950s and 1960s, audiophiles were interested not only in high fidelity sound, but in understanding how their equipment works. Many enthusiasts built their own phono preamps, power amplifiers, and loudspeakers from kits or plans in magazines and books, and some even designed their own gear. Back then, audio circuits were based on vacuum tubes, which are more complicated and difficult to design than today's devices that use mainly op-amps and transistors. With its very high voltages, tube gear is also dangerous to work on!

That was the age of Heathkit and Dynaco, and many audiophiles were also ham radio operators or short wave radio enthusiasts. The first Heathkit products were test gear such as oscilloscopes and signal generators, needed for troubleshooting audio and radio circuits. I recall fondly building several Heathkits including a 75 watt per channel solid state power amp that worked perfectly, and a 2-meter ham radio transceiver that didn't work at all. Fortunately, my older sister's friend Clif Mills was an engineer at a local radio station, and he had it working in one afternoon. Watching Clif figure out what was wrong, I learned a lot! And that was the beginning of my life-long quest to understand how audio and other electronics devices work.

Somewhere along the way the hi-fi hobby became less about knowing how audio gear works, and more about buying expensive stuff. Of course, an appreciation for music and high quality reproduction have always been important. But over the years interest in the technical side of audio and sound has waned. Today, few hi-fi magazines and web sites offer factual information, instead presenting mainly opinions and non-technical subjective reviews. Some of the most revered products we read about cost as much as a car. We rarely see tutorial or how-to articles anymore, and when product specs are shown they're often irrelevant, or so dumbed-down they're mostly useless.

Although I'm a musician, and my professional experience is mainly as an acoustician, recording engineer, and computer programmer, I also consider myself very much an audiophile. Like most audiophiles, I spent many years perfecting and fine-tuning my audio system to be exactly as I like. In my case I aimed for accuracy of reproduction rather than a pleasing coloration. I sought out gear and loudspeakers that are as flat as possible, and added extensive acoustic treatment to minimize the contribution from the room. This is my preference, and whether others have the same goal is irrelevant - I'm totally pleased, and that's all that matters. You like what you like, and nobody can say you're wrong.

It seems to me that the more deeply one understands their hobby, the more satisfying the experience. Many auto enthusiasts can do a full engine tune-up or even rebuild a carburetor, and most photo buffs understand the most complex details of their equipment. But these days few audiophiles seem to care about the science of audio. Even some audio dealers, who you'd expect to understand the products they sell, seem surprisingly clueless. Many enthusiasts don't know basic music theory either. Just as knowing how audio works increases our pleasure of owning the gear, knowing how music works increases the enjoyment of music. After all, enjoying music is the whole point of hi-fi!

Q: What's the difference between an audio equipment salesman and a used car salesman?
A: The used car salesman knows he's lying to you!

I contribute to many online audio forums, including those meant for audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts, as well as forums frequented by amateur and professional recording engineers. I'm often surprised by not only a lack of interest in how audio gear works, but also hostility expressed by some people towards science-based explanations. I'm curious to learn what changed since the old days that caused audiophiles to lose interest in the technical aspects of their hobby, and why.

Ethan Winer has been an audio engineer and professional musician for more than 45 years, and is co-owner of RealTraps where he designs acoustic treatment products for recording studios and home listening rooms. Ethan's Cello Rondo music video has received more than 1.5 Million views on YouTube and other web sites, and his new book The Audio Expert published by Focal Press is available at amazon.com and his own web site.

Entire contents of this web site Copyright 1997- by Ethan Winer. All rights reserved.