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How Good is Good Enough?

Date: 2nd December 2013

How Good is Good Enough?

Early recording technology was undoubtedly a breakthrough, but rather basic, and remained so until well into the twentieth century. Now, we can reproduce the essence of a huge orchestra and choir, a jazz quartet or a girl and a guitar, with extraordinary realism and subtlety.

Of course, doing so to the limits of what is possible is still a hugely expensive and painstaking business, but amazing quality is now within reach of music lovers with ordinary levels of disposable income. The sad thing is that so few people realise this, and will settle for far less. Which leads me to ask, “How good is good-enough?”

Glastonbury, Reading, V, Download, Creamfields, to name a few of the UK’s bigger ones, music festivals are huge, hugely popular and seem to get even huger every year.

And that doesn’t include the hundreds of smaller, local or specialist music festivals thriving all around the country. Get a decent busker in the street and a crowd will form. People are drawn to good music, and even though that busker is hardly likely to be in a position to produce an impressive sound, he can still create a memorable musical experience.

So there’s no doubting that people still love music; more than ever, it seems. We’re also living in something of a golden age, where the capabilities of a good music reproduction system are simply astonishing. Barely more than a century ago, the only way to hear music was to attend a live concert, or play it yourself on a musical instrument at home. Early recording technology was undoubtedly a breakthrough, but rather basic, and remained so until well into the 20th century. Now, we can reproduce the essence of a huge orchestra and choir, a jazz quartet or a girl and a guitar, with extraordinary realism and subtlety.

Of course, doing so to the limits of what is possible is still a hugely expensive and painstaking business, but quite amazing quality is now within reach of music lovers with ordinary levels of disposable income. The truly sad thing is that so few people realise this, and will settle for far less. Which leads me to ask, “How good is good-enough?”

Millions of us every year go to music festivals, arenas, concert halls, or even local pubs and clubs, to hear real people perform live music. Given a choice between sitting in ankle-deep mud, in cold rain, drinking weak, overpriced beer, or sitting on my sofa at home, I’d probably take the sofa 9 times out of 10. Except where the mud-rain-overpriced-beer thing happens to coincide with musicians I love, playing live in front of me. Even if I’ve already got recordings of those same musicians within easy reach of that sofa. So the fact that there are millions of us who do these things, suggests that there are millions of people who can tell the difference between live music and recorded music, and that the difference is big enough and important enough to overcome considerable personal discomfort and inconvenience.

So, are we to assume that these same people can’t tell the difference between good quality music reproduction, and poor quality? Because that’s what a lot of people will say. In fact, that’s what a lot of people tell themselves.

Me? I think people can tell, and it matters to them, but often they simply aren’t aware just how good, and how affordable, a great hi-fi system can be. Nobody sensible will pretend that a hi-fi system can precisely reproduce a live event, though some get a lot closer than others. It’s not really about realism, or detail, or any of those things. They are nice, but not essential.

It’s about being able to recreate the feelings you felt when you listened to the live event.

Many people I speak to assume you have to spend thousands, and that the difference is something they aren’t going to appreciate. But that’s because they assume hi-fi is all about detail, and minutely subtle things which are inaudible to most of us. Well, here’s the thing: you don’t have to spend the price of a new BMW on a hi-fi system to get truly satisfying and rewarding music, and if you can tell the difference between live and recorded music, and you prefer live, then you’ll prefer a well-chosen hi-fi system to almost anything but the real thing.

The key thing is to choose something that is dedicated to playing music, and choose it carefully. You could probably bake a cake (a small one, obviously) in a toaster*, if you put your mind to it, but why would you even try? Computers are an essential part of life, you wouldn’t be reading this without one, and I wouldn’t have written it. Computers can play music, sure, but it’s not what they were designed for. So just because you can use something for a particular purpose doesn’t mean you should, and it certainly doesn’t imply it’ll be any good at it. Computer audio and mp3 players have their place in a modern life, but if you want to tap into the feelings you get when you listen to live music, you have to take just a little more care over the process.

It’s not a black art, but it does need a little thought and effort. Reading this website is a good start. The expertise of a good hi-fi dealer can save you money by showing you the best available kit for your budget. If you do that, you can get the sort of system that turns music from being just background, a soundtrack to life, into one of the things that enriches and improves that life. Forget about mp3s and their convenience. We have enough capacity to do away with that horrible compression. Ditto iTunes and that pseudomusic they sell which is actually CD quality music – with the life squeezed out of it! So – OK – it ends up having a capacity that is many orders of magnitude smaller than a CD but at the terrible cost of being many orders of magnitude less musical!

if you care enough about your music to sit in a muddy field to enjoy it live, you might just be surprised what a decent, inexpensive CD-based system can do these days, at a price which starts somewhere around the annual insurance bill for that BMW. And once you’ve done that, you have a lifetime of music ahead of you.

*Please don’t try this at home…