A pretty fundamental and in some ways a really dumb question, but when we start to think about it all sorts of issues can be raised by asking such a mundane question.

The easy answer is to say, “it plays music”. But that is far too simplistic. Perhaps we should say “it’s about playing music at the highest possible audio quality”? But that’s impossible to define, as one person’s hearing will define the best possible quality only half way down someone else’s scale of quality. The trouble with sound is it’s purely subjective and that is why there are so many different hi-fi systems out there, that all purport to do the same job, but sound completely different from one another. 

Why do they sound so different, if they’re all designed to play the recording on the disc using basically the same mechanism? It comes down to that personal choice thing again. Designing a piece of hi-fi is like creating a musical instrument, the designer puts his or her mark on it, in much the same way as a Guarneri violin sounds different to a Stradivari, even though they basically look the same and do the same job. The choice of which violin to play comes down to personal taste, based primarily on the sound (taking money out of the equation – if you can afford one you can afford the other!). Two interpretations of the same piece of music, played by the same person, but using two different violins will sound different. Which is right? Both are, of course, but one is the preferred choice of the musician.

Reproducing the recording of the violin is the job of the hi-fi system. And so, this is where the need for hi-fi to just reproduce what was captured in the studio comes to the fore in the argument about “what is the purpose of hi-fi?” If the musician has picked the violin that sounds the ‘best’ or ‘most appealing’, then surely the hi-fi should just give you that with nothing added and nothing taken away? The trouble is, you’re at the whim of the engineer or producer in the studio, who will have put their own mark on the recording by the use of EQ and the myriad of other adjustments and effects at their disposal. So you’re then relying on the artist having signed off the recording as it was played back in the studio. That should then suffice. And a hi-fi system designed to be accurate should play it back sounding the same as it did in the studio. Perfect.

However, you could argue that the listener’s judgment of what sounds ‘right’ is just as important and valid as the violinist’s choice of which instrument sounds the ‘best.’ They will want it to sound pleasing to their ears and will have made choices that help achieve that aim.

The end result is that the sound in the house can be a million miles from what the musician was trying to achieve – it’s gone through a mountain of electronics in the studio; the producer has imparted their own preferences on the recording; the mastering engineer has probably tweaked it again before the disc was cut; the designer of the hi-fi equipment has their own thoughts as to how their brand of amp/player should sound; and the listener has the ability to tweak the sound through something as simple as moving the speakers around. But does it matter at the end of the day? Surely it is the sound heard in the home and whether you like it or not that is the most important thing? 

Play it back to the musician and they may hate it though, feeling that the performance has lost the essence of what they were trying to achieve. Which brings us back to the need for a hi-fi system to be accurate. Take one major variable out of the equation – the change in sound of different hi-fi systems - and educate the listener to understand the importance of hearing it sounding like it did in the studio and the objective has been achieved. Don’t pretend to be reproducing a live music experience, but do reproduce the studio recording as it was captured and that’s the job done.

It’s an argument that can so easily get itself wrapped up in knots.

Fundamentally it boils down to science versus art. A bit like cooking. Blumenthal or Oliver? 

Some chefs get very touchy if people liberally apply salt and pepper to their food. The culinary masterpiece has been created to taste a certain way. It is an insult to their creative genius to change the flavour by shaking the Saxa all over it. Everyone’s palate is different though and if you want to spice it up with some Tabasco then why not? 

From a commercial perspective, there is potentially a flaw with the accuracy argument. If it was accepted by all hi-fi people (designers and listeners), then all systems would sound the same and there would be no need for so many brands and products and wouldn’t it be boring! Fortunately, this argument will never be resolved and there will always be as many different hi-fi options as there are ways of cooking. That’s good for consumer choice and good for the hi-fi industry as it keeps us all occupied. 

Perhaps we should just accept that the most important purpose of hi-fi is to keep thousands of people in work: designing, making, distributing, marketing, exhibiting, reviewing, servicing and selling it.