Do Hi-Fi Amplifiers Sound Different?

Whether you are attached to your amp or not, you have probably wondered if there is a difference in sound between amplifiers. If so, then paying a premium price is worth it. But if hi-fi amplifiers essentially sound the same, then saving some money on an amp is worth it.

The majority of people can’t notice a difference between Hi-Fi amplifiers. In some studies made by audio engineers, even audiophiles had a hard time hearing a difference. In contrast, there are plenty of audiophiles meaning there are major differences in sound quality between amplifiers, making this topic a hot debate.

Practically the only thing the audiophile community agrees on is that music should sound good. Everything else seems to be up for debate, including amplifiers. This article will take a closer look at whether or not all hi-fi amplifiers sound different, why or why not, and what things should be considered when trying to compare amplifiers. 

Vintage Hi-Fi amplifier

Hi-Fi Amplifier Sound Studies Have Proved Inconclusive

Audio designers have tried numerous ways to determine whether there is any difference in sound by using different hi-fi amplifiers. The debate regarding amplifier sounds began with sound engineers who decided that if two amps had identical frequency response and distortion measurements, they must be the same.

Audiophiles who had invested in hi-fi amplifiers did not believe the engineer’s measurements to be accurate. This began a debate between the audiophiles who claim that they can hear a difference and those who disagree and say save your money and spend more on speakers.

To settle the issue once and for all, engineers and designers decided to use blind and double-blind testing. In a blind test, the listener doesn’t know which amplifier they are listening to. In a double-blind test, neither the listener nor the operator knows which amplifier is being played.

The following tests are among the best and most well-known ones:

A/B/X Tests by David Clark

In this test, the listener knows the A and B amplifiers and is asked to compare the X amplifier to the A and B. One amplifier is a more expensive model, and the listener must guess whether the X amp sounds like the expensive model or the other.

Clark used an Audiophile Society as the “Golden Ears,” and the “engineers” were members of the Southwestern Michigan Woofer and Tweeter Marching Society. The speakers were set to have a slight harmonic distortion.

The golden ears could not reliably hear the distortion between amplifiers, but the marching society members were.

The $10,000 Challenge

Richard Clark established a $10,000 challenge for anyone who could reliably tell two amplifiers apart. So far, he has not had to shell out the cash. 

He has run many tests with large groups of participants, and the results are usually around 50% can hear the difference between two amplifiers, and the other 50% cannot. These are results one would expect from chance or random choosing.

No one ever got 65% right.

Other tests have found similar results. 

Some Audiophiles Hear a Difference in Sound With Hi-Fi Amps

Discussion boards are full of people who believe there is no difference in sound between two amplifiers and those who disagree. There are two main reasons for this.

First, people do not generally equalize their amp to be precisely the same. Speakers might respond differently to amps. If a person buys a new amplifier, the difference in sound could be due to the speakers.

Also, the tests have not proven that differences do not exist. If anything, they have only proven that any differences are not reliably detected by the human ear. The only differences heard are based on personal hearing ability or even subjective feelings for one amplifier over another.

Different Hi-Fi Amplifiers Produce Different Sounds

Every hi-fi manufacturer claims their product is the best. But there are certain variances between them that some audiophiles claim make the sound different. Compare hi-fi amplifiers on these measurements:

Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise

Audiophiles typically use the acronym THD + N, and it represents a measure of harmonic distortion and the noise added to a signal. Harmonic distortions refer to how much a device changes the shape of the sound waves. Noise is any hum or interference produced by the amplifier. 

Some people prefer a slightly distorted sound for more color to the sound, and a higher THD + N will get that sound. If you want a sound closer to the original recording, then a lower number is better.

Signal to Noise Ratio

The SNR is a measurement of how much background noise the amplifier makes compared to the sound coming from the record player, cd player, or other sources. The greater the difference between the two, the less background noise the amplifier produces. Therefore, a higher number is better with the SNR measurement.

Crosstalk

The crosstalk is a measure of how much the left and right signals interfere with each other. If there is too much crosstalk, the sound that is supposed to come from the left speaker bleeds into the right speaker. When comparing amps, the larger the negative number, the less crosstalk, and greater separation. So a -100 dB is better than a -60 dB measurement.

Tricks That Can Make Any Amplifier Sound Better

Whether you have a high-end or budget amp, you would like the best sound you can, right? The following tips can help improve the sound of any amp.

Break It In

As electronic devices become used to their operating parameters, their sound will change slightly. Although this is another debated topic, many manufacturers recommend the burn-in period, and since they have sold you the amp, they don’t have anything to gain from the recommendation. How long should you keep the amp running? Estimates range from several hours to several days. 

Listen in the Dark

If you listen in the dark, your sense of hearing is heightened, as your brain is not distracted by any visual cues. We are visually oriented, so eliminating the visual component lets us hear a purer sound.

Some people claim their system sounds better late at night. There could be some truth to that because once fewer people use power, you will get a more consistent flow of energy. However, if you get a better sound, it’s probably due to the darkness.

Pay Attention to Your Cables

Those that come in the box are beginner’s cables that you should probably replace for better ones. The makeup of the conductor material—how much and what type of copper and silver—can affect the sound. The insulation’s ability to separate the positive and negative conductors and the arrangement of the conductors can also change the sound.

Do all audiophiles agree that more expensive cables are better? No. One sound engineer has used a coat hanger to show that the sound from a coat hanger is as good as that coming from a cable. The results of these experiments show that in some instances, listeners cannot tell the difference between the two. 

Those who think that cables sound the same claim it is a placebo effect—you think the cables sound better, so they do. If that is so, then get the more expensive cables. After all, you need to be happy with your sound.

Bottom Line

Whether different hi-fi amplifiers with similar specs sound the same is a matter of debate. No professionally designed test has shown that people can hear the difference, and sound engineers rely on the data to tell them. Furthermore, some people have better hearing, and others just feel that one sounds better than another.