When shopping for a new stereo system, the terms you will encounter can get confusing and repetitive. For example, the words ‘Hi-Fi’ and ‘HD’ get thrown around a lot, but don’t they both mean the same thing?
The difference between Hi-Fi and HD sound is one refers to media format, the other to equipment. HD sound is an uncompressed audio format that includes as much audio detail as possible; Hi-Fi sound equipment is used to get the most out of high-quality audio, including formats such as HD sound.
Read on to learn more about Hi-Fi sound, HD sound, and how they differ.
What Is Hi-Fi Sound?
Hi-Fi (short for High Fidelity) sound is the pinnacle of audio quality. When one listens to music on high-fidelity equipment, they will hear every audible frequency without noticeable distortion from the original signal. Hi-Fi is the preference of a majority of audiophiles who seek the most out of their listening experience, whether through analog or digital playback.
What Is Lo-Fi?
Before I can cover the concept of high-fidelity audio, I need to address lo-fi audio first. Lo-Fi or Low Fidelity audio is audio in its rawest form, complete with imperfections. I would compare the sound quality to listening to a low analog signal with distortion. You may assume that lo-fi music is outdated and undesired by audiophiles, but that is not true. Some music lovers enjoy hearing music as close to the original recording as possible.
What Constitutes a Hi-Fi Audio System?
Hi-Fi audio equipment is considered the gold standard by many music lovers. While some consider the cost for professional-level sound too expensive, most audiophiles would consider hi-fi equipment as a sound investment. But what makes a piece of audio equipment qualify as ‘Hi-Fi,’ and what do you need to get hi-fi sound at home?
I already mentioned that hi-fi audio accentuates detail while cutting back distortion. However, no two hi-fi setups will look the same. Building your hi-fi audio system is a highly tailorable experience that should match your needs as a listener. However, every hi-fi system consists of a few main parts.
First thing’s first: you can’t play your music without a playback device. Therefore, you need to consider the music formats you use. Do you have a lot of vinyl? Then you need a good record player. Those that stream a lot of their music should invest in a network player. However, if you left your audio cassettes in the ‘90s, you can leave that feature out. Again, the focus is on your music needs.
Amplifiers are an essential piece of any hi-fi setup. These devices are essentially your system’s ‘muscle.’ An amplifier receives faint audio signals from your music source and strengthens them for playback on your speaker system. Here are some examples of amplifiers you will come across:
- Preamplifiers: These amplifiers receive very faint signals, like mic-level signals, and amplify them enough so the power amplifier can consume them (line-level signal).
- Power Amplifiers: Power amplifiers add the power needed to amplify the line-level signals more, making them ready to be usable by devices like speakers.
- Integrated Amplifiers: Integrated amplifiers combine preamplifiers and power amplifiers, making them a very convenient and easy solution for beginners. You don’t need to make two choices, and you don’t have to make room for two separate boxes; everything is combined into one chassis. Even though you often can get higher audio quality from two separate amplifiers, an integrated model is absolutely the best way to start.
After audio signals run through an amplifier, they travel to the speakers. The speakers use drivers to convert these electrical signals into vibrations, resulting in audio playback. There are many factors to consider when investing in Hi-Fi speakers. A speaker’s design, type, compatibility with amplifiers, and placement in your space are a few vital details you need to research.
A speaker’s design affects more than space and aesthetics. Prominent speakers contain more drivers. This trait produces a cleaner sound. Compact-sized speakers are better for storage purposes. However, they sometimes fall short of their larger counterparts in terms of audio quality. Here are the two designs you should know:
- Floorstanding: As the name implies, floorstanding speakers can stand on your floor. Also known as ‘tower speakers,’ they stand anywhere from 60 cm (2 ft) to 2 m (6.6 ft) and can fit more drivers and dampening material, resulting in a less resonant cabinet and clearer sound. Keep in mind, however, that these speakers tend to run more expensive, take up more space, and may require more amplification power.
- Bookshelf: Bookshelf speakers can, you guessed it, fit on a bookshelf. These speakers are cheaper due to their smaller size and reduced number of drivers. Unfortunately, the lack of drivers means bookshelf speakers must work harder to reach higher fidelity sound. However, being less power-hungry than floor-standing speakers, bookshelf speakers can be paired with more amplifiers.
Speaker Type: Passive or Active
Speakers vary on how dependent they are on an external amplifier. While many Hi-Fi speaker options will require a separate amp system to power them, some have amplifiers built-in. AV experts refer to these differences as passive or active.
- Passive: Passive speakers are far more common in the Hi-Fi audio market. These products cannot produce sound without the power of an external amplifier. Once the amplifier sends its signal to a passive speaker, a crossover directs the signal to separate drivers. From there, the drivers convert these signals into sound vibrations.
- Active: Active speakers, on the other hand, have a built-in amplifier. When the signal reaches the speaker, it gets separated into different frequency bands. These bands get amplified and then sent to the various drivers in the cabinet. Keep in mind: you still need the main power supply for the speakers for them to work.
Both types of speakers have their strengths.
Active speakers are much more convenient and accessible to set up; however, since they are an all-in-one package, you cannot upgrade their components individually. Passive speakers give the end-user more flexibility in creating their unique sound profile. Usually, passive speakers are more budget-friendly than active speakers.
Your amplification system, whether it be integrated or separated, is working directly with your speakers. Therefore, you must confirm how well they work together. But how can you measure their compatibility? Here are some things for you to consider:
- Power Output: The power provided by your amplifier is the best indicator of how loud your music will be. Power measures in wattage and different spaces require different amounts to fill the space sonically. Small apartments only require about 10W, but more significant areas may need up to 100W. Keep in mind that the wattage of your amplifier gets divided between the speaker channels.
- Impedance: Impedance describes the capacity to resist, or impede, electricity. The measurement of impedance, Ohms, ranges from 8 to 600 ohms. Knowing your speakers’ electrical resistance is vital for determining how much voltage your amp will need to work them. In other words, your amp’s voltage is the amount of work required to overcome your speakers’ resistance.
- Sensitivity: It is necessary to know what your speakers can handle and what they cannot. Sensitivity, measured by sound decibels (dB), dictates how much volume a speaker can take. Increasing sound decibels produces pressure. If you force a speaker to play more decibels than it can, the resulting pressure will damage the speaker. Practice caution and buy speakers that can handle more dBs than you plan to use.
There are a lot of guidelines to follow in this regard. For starters, keep your speakers away from the walls, facing toe-in to the listening area. Furthermore, set the speakers on a stand so they are ear level without any obstructions. If you are ever unsure, refer to the owner’s manual for component installation instructions.
The last piece you will need in a Hi-Fi sound system is your cables. It is vital to research which cables you need to interconnect your devices and at what length. Additionally, you need to decide whether to set your speakers up with single wiring or bi-wiring. Single wiring sends all audio frequencies to your speakers simultaneously. Bi-wiring, on the other hand, uses two wires to deliver upper and lower level frequencies separately.
What Is HD Sound?
When talking about audio, Hi-Fi usually refers to the gear you are using to listen to music. On the other hand, HD sound refers to the format of the audio source. In sum, HD audio is uncompressed, offering as much detail to the listener as possible. Let’s look further into what this concept truly means.
What Constitutes HD Sound?
By definition, HD sound refers to digital audio files that feature at least as much detail as a CD. This higher level of quality is possible in uncompressed files of digital music. But what does it mean if an audio file is uncompressed? Let’s discuss the difference between lossy and lossless audio.
- Lossy audio: At the beginning of digital music streaming, audio files had to be minimized, or compressed, to be digestible by a computer’s limited processing power. Lossy audio formats are much easier to download at the expense of cutting back detail. One typical example of a lossy audio format is an MP3.
- Lossless audio: Lossless audio formats are uncompressed, meaning they maintain as much of the details of the original recording as possible. As digital technology and internet speed have advanced, streaming lossless audio formats has become much more manageable. Some lossless formats you may know include FLAC and WAV.
Suppose you seek a more quantifiable answer beyond lossy vs. lossless audio. In that case, there are more specific ways to measure the specs of HD music. Audiophiles use three standard terms when quantifying audio detail: sample rate, bit depth, and bit rate. Both values reflect how the digital mastering in the recording process.
- Sample rate: Consider sample rate as the audio equivalent of the frame rate in film. For instance, the frame rate is the number of visual snapshots recorded in a second—a higher frame rate results in a smoother, more fluid video. The Sample rate is the number of snapshots taken from an audio wave per second. For instance, if the sample rate is 48,000Hz, 48,000 audio snapshots get taken per second of recording.
- Bit depth: Bit depth determines how ‘hot’ (another term for loud) a signal can read without clipping in the recording process. On the opposite end of the sound spectrum, higher bit depth allows one to record quieter sound without introducing noise. In sum, higher bit depth increases the dynamic range available to you.
- Bit rate: Bit rate is the amount of data that gets transferred into audio. As long as it gets paired with a high sample rate and bit depth, a high bit rate is a good indicator of high audio fidelity.
The minimum sample rate, bit depth, and bit rate that qualify as ‘HD audio’ for music is a 44,100 Hz sample rate, a 16-bit bit depth, and an 850kbps bit rate.
When examined in quantified specs, HD audio seems relatively simple to define. However, hearing the difference in HD audio is a different story.
Some listeners have more discerning ears than others, meaning they might catch more essential details in HD audio than others. After all, humans can only hear frequencies up to 20,000 Hz. Even though it is possible to record at as high as 98,000 Hz, the effect of such a high sample rate is debatable among audiophiles.
Luckily, there are resources out there to help you determine if you can discern HD audio. For instance, NPR has an audio quality quiz that will help you tell the difference. Of course, you will usually need high-quality headphones or Hi-Fi system to really hear the differences.
What Gear Do I Need?
High-fidelity audio equipment can accurately play back the high levels of detail present in a track of uncompressed HD music. Therefore, if you have already set up a Hi-Fi audio system, you are almost ready to start. The last piece of equipment you should look for is a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). These devices convert the digital signals from your music device to analog signals, making them suitable for playback.
Any device that you listen to digital music on already has a built-in DAC. After all, when the music gets recorded digitally, an audio interface converts the analog signals to digital data for storage. When you listen to music on a computer or smart device, that same data gets decoded back to analog. However, while built-in DACs meet most consumer-level needs, they often cannot meet high-fidelity standards.
Suppose you want to get the most detail and clarity from your audio. In that case, you should invest in an external digital-to-analog converter. What makes an external DAC more capable than a built-in sound card is its ability to prevent clocking errors. Clocking errors are a timing sequence inconsistency that causes audio to ‘jitter.’ External DACs better manage clocking errors and decode audio data more faithfully.
There are plenty of DACs out there designed to fit with different audio setups. In other words, the DAC you use for computers and smartphones will likely be different than the one you pair with a home stereo system. Make sure to do your due diligence when equipping a DAC to your audio system.
Where Can I Listen to HD Audio?
Now that you are ready for HD audio playback, where can you start listening? Popular HD audio streamers include Amazon Music HD, Tidal Hi-Fi, and Qobuz Studio Premier. Both Amazon and Qobuz offer very high quality, topping out at a 192,000 Hz sample rate and 24-bit bit depth. Tidal offers MQA technology and tops out at a 96,000 Hz sample rate and 24-bit bit depth.
How Does Hi-Fi Audio Differ From HD Audio?
When discussing Hi-Fi audio and HD audio, it can be a bit confusing because “audio” is defined differently for each term.
Both terms refer to high-quality audio playback. However, when one refers to Hi-Fi audio, they are usually referring to the high-end equipment used to uncover the most detail from an audio source. Whereas, HD audio is a term used to describe a high-quality digital audio format. In sum, Hi-Fi describes equipment, whereas HD describes source.
While the terms Hi-Fi and HD audio often get used interchangeably, they both mean different things. Hi-Fi audio equipment allows one to hear as much detail from their audio as possible without distortion. On the other hand, HD audio is an uncompressed audio source that contains as much detail from the original recording as possible. While both terms are different, investing in both Hi-Fi equipment and HD formats will bring out the best in both.