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When looking into any product that is designed to upgrade your current set-up and improve your experience it is important to get a good understanding to help you make a better decision. Much like you may have done when purchasing your existing turntable, you want to familiarize yourself with some basic terms and how they apply to audio. Once you learn these terms you will find it much easier to make a decision yourself, without solely relying on the opinions of others who may never even have made such a decision before. The bottom line is that you can do this…. its your ears, its your music, and most importantly it is your experience. With that being said, this does not mean you don’t want to talk to anyone or listen to the opinions of others. A huge part of audio is having those conversations, enjoying the discussions of others, and learning what other people experience. When you learn what other people experience it can only broaden your experience and help you be more diverse in your own thoughts and feelings. This sounds like a bunch of mushy feelings stuff when all you did was click a link to learn about some audio terms. That may be the case, but if you didn’t want to experience the most out of your music you probably wouldn’t be here.
It is not important for you to master each and every term. However, when trying to understand a lot of things in audio it is going to become common to see a lot of these. We put together a few of them and are continuously adding more.
It’s a term we hear a lot and could probably elaborate and dissect it for pages and pages. It’s thrown around and even argued amongst many groups of audio enthusiast. You don’t really need to get too hung-up on the term as it can probably be safely assumed that you already own a record player or turntable. What this means is that you already made the decision to incorporate “analog” audio into your experience rather than just digital media, which in actuality is a bit more convenient and accessible. Analog is really the opposite of digital, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to enjoy both. The appeal to media such as records is that they are (mostly) analog. This means that the audio signal that they are created from is “original” and has not been modified or changed/enhanced with a processor or something using a digital path. The grooves on a record have microscopic ridges and which are actually sound waves imprinted into the material of a record. We cannot see them, but the stylus/needle is so small that is can pick up each and every vibration, which in turn determines the behavior of the soundwaves. This, for all intensive purposes, is a mechanical action. It is argued that since most music is recorded in an analog fashion, it is best to preserve that as to have the experience be “as close to the original”.
Frequency is important and is a critical aspect of what we hear. By true definition it is the rate at which a vibration occurs. What it means when listening to music is that each and every wave created to make up the whole spectrum of what we hear is a vibration that the speaker needs to replicate, and our ears typically want to hear. Of course there are more components to that, but you get the idea. Now humans are said to only be able to recognize a range (individual frequencies) between 20 hertz and 20 Kilohertz (20 - 20,000) and that is the basic description of Hi Fidelity…..something that can produce that wide range. This is a critical aspect as increasing the amount of frequencies beyond that range may not be a dramatic difference but to limit the range to a much smaller spectrum would certainly change what we hear.
In conjunction with frequency is bandwith. This can be described as the range of different frequencies within a circuit. So, when looking at equipment you will see bandwith used to describe the complete spectrum of frequencies as a form of capability. As mentioned previously, a frequency is one particular wave but the entire range (i.e. 20hrtz-20,000hrtz) would be defined as bandwith. Thus, if a particular piece of media or equipment has a larger bandwith, the set of frequencies it is able to reproduce are potentially greater. A more basic understanding of that is to view bandwith as the total amount of “information”, in which decreasing the amount of information would in turn change the end result of what we hear and feel. The most important thing beyond the understanding of the term is to know that many factors of what we chose in our media (I.e record, cd, streaming, etc) and the equipment we use can dramatically change the amount of “information” that comes into our ears. (similar term is Dynamic Range)
Staying with frequencies and bandwith is dynamics. If we take the bandwith and we separate it into three primary groups of frequencies we would have the low group of frequencies (our bass notes), then the middle group of frequencies (midrange), and then the high frequencies (treble). How we define Dynamics is the correlation between those groups. If something is said to have good dynamics it means that one group does not seem more pronounce or prevalent than another and vice versa. We would want all the groups to be replicated and controlled as natural as possible, as the original recording was intended. There are a lot of personal preferences with in this term and it is highly subjective. However, as in bandwith, if one component does not have the ability to replicate a particular group of frequencies well it can be characterized as having poor dynamic range, as the total correlation between the groups of frequencies (for our purpose of discussion) is typically cut off at the bottom, or top of the spectrum.
As you can start to see a lot of these terms tie into one another. Fidelity is an important term to understand because it is used to describe whether the equipment has the ability to precisely reproduce the soundwaves in comparison to the analog signal inputted. So, if something that has bad fidelity it is to say that the input was good, but what we heard was not an accurate and true representation. Some would even say “I can’t put my finger on it, but it just doesn’t sound right” If something has good fidelity, or high fidelity, it has a much more true representation. The term fidelity is not just reserved for the equipment, but also can be used to describe the media in which we are playing. In example a cd or record will have higher fidelity then streaming off a free online service. If you are asking yourself as to why something just doesn’t sound good, when comparing sources and equipment, you would be in turn asking about fidelity.
This can be another heavily discussed term and is certainly arguable and subjective to the actual end result. The definition is really just the parameter used to describe whether parts of what you are hearing were actually not in the original source. This means that an amplifier or anything lese handling the signal may have caused discrepancies in the signal. This does not always determine that what you are hearing you would not like, as anything that was played live would automatically have a certain level of distortion. However, it can be used as a guide. The harmonic distortion is given in a percentage and we can assume that there is a certain range in which that percentage can be considered acceptable, with less subjectable aspect. So equipment that has a high harmonic distortion can be characterized as having a more dirty and clouded sound, in which may not be accurate of the original recording. Whereas something with a very low harmonic distortion is described as having a very clean sound, which could also be associated with sterile and unexciting. Again, this term does not guarantee that you will not enjoy a particular set of equipment based solely on how its harmonic distortion is rated. It is understood though that lesser expensive equipment will typically have a higher distortion as the quality of its individual components may not preserve the audio signal as well and even add unwanted frequencies and noise. You also would want to understand that the percentage that is used can be very nominal at times, therefore almost irrelevant. It is when the difference between values is extreme that we would want to have it weigh more heavily on the decision. In example, a range between 0.09% and 0.05% is considered minimal. This would even be true for 0.09% versus 0.009% as we are discussing minute fractions of a percentage. An extreme difference would be 0.09% versus 6.0%, where the difference is no longer small fractions. If you are looking at equipment that is mostly the same price point it is very common to find this specification, along with many other, to be very close.
Dampening is the ability for a material to control vibrations. This is most important for listening to records because vibrations are the basis of what we want to hear, as we explained in the microscopic grooves of the record. That is the most critical aspect, however, it is not the only source of potential vibrations. The main goal is to make certain that the record itself is stable and free from outside vibrations, so that the needle/stylus is only picking up the vibrations that create the music. The motor on the turntable, the shelf that it is on, the flooring in your house, toddlers and pets, etc can all cause unwanted vibrations. It becomes more complicated then this as there are many factors of dampening. If something is under-dampened, we are going to hear all the bad stuff just mentioned. This means that all the outside influence is making its way to the turntable, then through the platter, then onto the record itself. That is where the needle/stylus is picking it up and send it down the rest of the lane and out your speakers. If something is over dampened it can actually affect what we want the needle/stylus to pick up. We would be able to relate to this by putting your hand on a bell when it is ringing. The intention of a bell is to create a particular set of frequencies, a specific sound. By placing our hand on it we are effectively dampening the vibrations causing the bell to sound different and in actuality, sound worse.