If you’re new to the world of audio and sound equipment, terms like hi-fi and lo-fi might be confusing. What do they tell you about the sounds the equipment will produce? What do they actually mean?
Hi-fi is short for high-fidelity audio: a piece of recorded audio that is meant to sound identical to the original sound, without distortions. Lo-fi is the opposite, meaning low fidelity. Some lo-fi tracks are the result of lower quality equipment, but there is also intentionally lo-fi music.
Whether you should listen to hi-fi or lo-fi music depends on several factors, including what your intended results are, how good your audio equipment is, and how trained your ears are. Read on to learn about what makes the difference in sound quality and to discover the right choice for your needs.
What Is Hi-Fi Music?
Hi-fi is a shortening of the phrase “high fidelity.” It refers to recorded sound quality that is very true to the original sound. Hi-fi minimizes noise and distortion, with the goal of making the recording sound as though you are hearing it live.
In modern music discussions, this is sometimes called lossless audio, meaning that nothing is left off of the recording that was present in the original sound. The term hi-fi has been around since the 1950s, and the quest to create a recording that’s equivalent to live performance is ongoing, even as listening and recording technology develops.
The term hi-fi briefly came to mean an at-home audio playback system in the 1950s. Marketing companies were using it to push their products, and rather than recognizing it as a quality marker, many people used it to refer to the general concept. However, true audiophiles continued to use it exclusively in reference to audio quality, and that is the meaning that persists today.
Hi-Fi equipment and quality levels weren’t standardized until the 1960s. Prior to that, it could be used by any company as a marketing tactic, even if the audio quality was substandard. A decade later, home-music centers arrived on the market that combined all of the high-standard components of a true audiophile’s playback equipment.
Now, you can get all sorts of information on how hi-fi a digital recording is based on the file type. Uncompressed files generally have higher sound quality than compressed files, but there are plenty of gradations. The ways we record and listen to music have expanded since the earliest recording, but a passion for good sound has stayed constant.
Getting hi-fi music is a two-fold experience. First, the recording has to be high quality, and second, the listening equipment has to be capable of playing the sound back at that same quality. Wired headphones or wired speakers are still the best equipment for clear, h-fi sound, despite the progress we’ve made in Bluetooth technology and wireless headphones.
If you don’t like wired headphones, wi-fi-connected speakers can be a good hi-fi alternative to Bluetooth. They stream directly from the wi-fi signal rather than via Bluetooth, so the sound loses less quality during the stream.
What Is Lo-Fi Music?
Where Hi-fi music is associated with live sound quality, Lo-fi music is more concerned with a particular listening experience. Lo-fi music intentionally incorporates some of the imperfections Hi-fi sound works to avoid. By literal definition, lo-fi is low fidelity recorded audio or a recording that includes noise, distortion, or other “mistakes.”
Lo-fi can apply to any musical genre because it refers to the audio quality rather than the musical style. It also has stronger cultural connections than hi-fi. In the 1980s, it was a big part of cassette tape and DIY music movements.
DIY and lo-fi music also adds in these imperfections, adding to what’s already present. Common distortions and additional noises are weather sounds like rain hitting a window or environmental sounds like the hum of traffic. Musicians and sound engineers might muffle the sound as though you’re listening to the song from another room.
Some older recordings qualify as lo-fi, not because they’re intentionally recorded the way modern Lo-fi is, but because the recording equipment that captured the sounds was a lower quality already. New lo-fi music sometimes samples these older tracks, taking advantage of the warmth that pre-transistor recording equipment gives a track.
Lo-fi music, no matter the date of origin, has a tone that is less clear and clean than a hi-fi recording.
How Lo-Fi Music Relates to Focus
A recent trend of lo-fi music or beats to help people maintain focus on work or studying has cropped up, and there’s neurological research to support it. Popular Lo-fi Youtube channels and streaming service playlists all do essentially the same thing: they provide music to cover background noise without the music pulling your attention away from the task you want to focus on.
A lot of lo-fi music, particularly lo-fi hip hop or lo-fi beats, relies on looped rhythms. After a certain number of repetitions, your brain starts to filter out the sound. It covers up noise that might be distracting you, but it won’t become a distraction itself.
Additionally, the imperfections that distinguish lo-fi, like the sound of a needle on vinyl, the whir of a cassette tape, or fingers hitting instruments, work together with the artificially added imperfections of the genre (rain sounds, muffling, etc.) to give you a sense of familiarity or nostalgia that can help ground you during a task.
The familiarity plays a similar trick to the looped sounds, letting your brain filter out the noises that could pull your attention away without disrupting you with a new or unfamiliar sound.
Hi-Fi vs Lo-Fi Music: Which Is Better?
Hi-fi and lo-fi music each have their place. Which one you choose depends a lot on your personal preferences and your listening set-up. Background music or ambiance music is a better situation for a lo-fi recording. However, if you want to listen to something to get the experience of hearing it live, then hi-fi music is more what you’re looking for.
Leaving intentionally lo-fi music aside, picking between listening to your favorite song in hi-fi or lo-fi depends on personal factors. Your equipment, both the external listening devices you’re using and your ears, will have an impact on your preference for hi-fi or lo-fi.
Generally speaking, the average person isn’t able to distinguish between a hi-fi recording and a standard quality recording. For example, if you’re debating between the hi-fi and lo-fi versions of a streaming service, you should consider the quality of your listening equipment and how trained your ear is.
Wireless headphones or the speakers on your laptop likely won’t let you hear the difference between hi-fi and lo-fi. However, if you’re an audiophile with professional quality headphones or speakers, you’ll be able to hear the difference more easily, and a hi-fi quality stream may offer you a better experience.
Hi-fi and lo-fi are a designation of how clean a recorded sound is. Whether you’re looking for equipment that will capture a true-to-life sound or headphones that will sound like a live concert, knowing what hi-fi and lo-fi mean can help.
Lo-fi is also used to refer to a way of recording songs. Leaving or adding distortions and background noise can create a soundtrack that helps your brain focus.
Whether or not you can hear the quality difference is personal. Knowing your goals and what the terms mean will help you find the audio equipment you need.