Tuesday, December 18, 2012

High Fidelity Versus Public Address Systems: Insurmountable Kultur Kampf?

Even though both can play back recorded music when fed with an audio signal, is there a preexisting insurmountable Kultur Kampf between home high fidelity systems and PA systems?

By: Ringo Bones

It may be down to one’s ears’ aesthetics but almost all audiophiles – even new recruits – have readily perceived the preexisting and insurmountable Kultur Kampf between domestic high fidelity systems and Public Address systems used in high capacity stadium rock concerts. Even though pro audio public address speaker systems manufacturers have yet to manufacture a stadium rock PA system speaker whose sound quality is as beguiling that of a 200 US dollar entry level hi-fi loudspeaker for domestic use, are the two worlds forever destined in a “never the twain shall meet” stand-offish behavior?

My very own “epiphany” on questioning why PA systems never sound as good as well-shorted entry-level budget domestic high fidelity systems may seem oxymoronic to anyone uninitiated to the hi-fi world, but to hi-fi enthusiasts, the truth can be self-evident to one’s own ears. As an amateur heavy metal musician who judge “naturalness” of a heavy metal rock recording via live-in-the-studio standards, I kept on wondering till this day on why live concert PA systems and / or pro audio gear manufacturers had kept on ignoring the sound quality aspect of their PA loudspeaker rigs.

Assuming one judge the “naturalness” of the sound of a live heavy metal rock concert using the preexisting sound quality of the Public Address system loudspeakers being used, does this mean that an overdriven 200 US dollar bookshelf hi-fi loudspeakers destined for domestic use is the “natural sound” of a live heavy metal rock concert? You got to be shitting me!

Remember Stereophile magazine editor John Atkinson’s review of the Wilson X-1 Grand SLAMM hi-fi loudspeakers back in the December 1995 issue of Stereophile? Well. One of his statements on that specific review probably brought a sense of relief in me back then that I’m probably not the only one “astonished” by the sound-quality Diaspora between domestic hi-fi and pro-audio live concert PA Systems; According to Atkinson: “The bass guitar…thundered fourth from the (Wilson) speakers’ big Focal woofers in a way I had previously experienced only from live rock.” Not surprisingly, this was inevitably followed by scores of Stereophile subscribers writing in “angry letters” pointing out to John Atkinson the inherently low-fi sound quality of live concert PA systems.

Inevitably, John Atkinson issued a response on subsequent next issues of Stereophile magazine on the matter of the sound quality Kultur Kampf between domestic hi-fi rigs and PA systems that goes: “When you use a PA system to play back recordings, you are involved in a creative act, which is not what the concept of high fidelity is about. However, when recorded faithfully, the big, underdamped roar of a live bass guitar through a PA rig is just as much an authentic acoustic source as any other. It is also one that almost all hi-fi speakers, other than the big Wilsons get wrong in trying to recreate.”

Given that PA systems tend to be 5 to 10 times cheaper than their “proper” domestic high fidelity audio systems when compared in a power output per dollar basis, many had perceived Stereophile magazine editor John Atkinson’s statements about the difference between hi-fi and PA systems as nothing more than being self-serving to the whole hi-fi industry back then. But is it? Well, given that almost all hi-fi enthusiasts -including me – already possess ears that already know that there is indeed really a difference on how domestic hi-fi and the pro-audio PA system world play back music, is just makes me sad on why the two tribes can never see eye to eye when it comes to sound quality. After all, hi-fi enthusiasts go to live rock concerts too, while live concert FOH engineers also buy proper domestic hi-fi rigs.

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