Writing for the Technopolis column in HTSI has given me the chance to try out a fair number of audio products that are venerated for their sonic capabilities. Given that I’m a musician for half of my working life, I like to think I’m equipped to fully appreciate the sound of, say, a pair of £1,299 Focal Clear Mg Pro headphones or some Wharfedale Dovedale speakers (£5,500 with floor stands). But I grew up listening to poorly recorded guitar music very loudly on cheap cassette players, and I still find that kind of racket to be emotionally resonant. My parents were never keen. I still am.

The late BBC Radio DJ John Peel once poured scorn on a suggestion that CDs were inherently better than vinyl because of their lack of surface noise. “Listen, mate,” he replied. “Life has surface noise.”

Wharfedale Dovedale speakers, £5,500 with floor stands

Wharfedale Dovedale speakers, £5,500 with floor stands

Focal Clear Mg Pro headphones, £1,299

Focal Clear Mg Pro headphones, £1,299

I have a similar suspicion of audiophiles who suggest that budget equipment does music a disservice. Deep down, I don’t believe the value or beauty of music lies in its fidelity, and yet the best systems are clearly exquisitely crafted pieces of audio engineering. It presents a personal and philosophical dilemma: how good does my hi-fi system have to be?

At KEF, overlooking the River Medway in Maidstone, they’ve been pursuing the idea of the perfect loudspeaker for more than six decades. In 1988, they came up with a solution to one of the key problems of acoustic design: higher and lower frequencies from two different drivers (woofers and tweeters) clashing audibly and unpleasantly as they meet. That invention, named Uni-Q, placed the tweeter at the centre of the larger cone to create a single point of sound. “It gives you a phenomenal image between a stereo pair,” says KEF’s Ron Locke. “If you move from side to side, you can tell that you’re not dropping any detail.”

Advanced computer modelling has seen KEF extend that concept for its flagship Blade One Meta (£30,000 per pair), where the sound from no fewer than six drivers presents from a single point in space. I’m shown some of the work it is currently doing in acoustic simulation and 3D CAD, which is mind-boggling in its ambition. But I’m still not sure it would make me feel differently about my favourite songs than if I listened to them on a Bluetooth speaker. After all, it’s the same music, right?

KEF Blade One Meta speakers, £30,000

KEF Blade One Meta speakers, £30,000

KEF Reference 5 Meta speakers, £17,500

KEF Reference 5 Meta speakers, £17,500

Gilad Tiefenbrun, CEO at Linn Products, begs to differ. He describes listening to Harvest by Neil Young in his car and the pleasure it always gives him, but contrasts that with listening to an original pressing on a Linn turntable. “It’s like all the lights are going on,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ But that’s not to denigrate anyone’s preference. It’s not our job to tell someone [who prefers different equipment] that they’re listening wrongly. It’s to say, ‘That’s interesting — can we figure out why that is?’”

The objective versus the subjective is the burning question at the heart of audio appreciation, but it can’t be properly addressed unless we’re giving the music our full attention. Peter Comeau, director of acoustic design for the IAG Group (which includes Wharfedale), recalls his selling slogan during his days in retail. “I would say, ‘You will watch less television if you buy these speakers,’ and many customers came back and said, ‘You were absolutely right,’” he says.

While our appreciation of musical detail is related to our listening behaviour, we’re less willing to devote time to it in these days of omnipresent, all-access music, according to Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford. “Tests comparing high- versus low-quality reproduction show that young people will say that high quality sounds better,” he says. “But when it comes to spending money or changing listening habits, the answer is mostly no.” Little wonder that brands are keen to promote the rediscovery of listening as an experience. “People have almost fallen out of the habit, because it’s so easy to listen anywhere around the house,” says Sarah Yule at KEF. “But when we start to listen properly, we start to enjoy the detail. We fall in love with the art of music.” Some firms are now striving to bring advanced audio technology to more competitively priced products to help bridge that gap between convenience and fidelity.

“With more expensive speakers, any improvements have smaller and smaller returns,” says KEF’s Dr Jack Oclee-Brown. “Where the budget is small, that’s more of a design challenge — but you can innovate in quite big ways to make products sound better.” Yule, his colleague, agrees. “There are exciting possibilities with materials science and how parts are made,” she says. And according to Comeau, such advances will have implications for products like smart speakers. “Huge inroads are already being made,” he says. “Some Sonos products are surprisingly good.”

KRK GoAux 3, £289

KRK GoAux 3 monitors, £289

KZ ZS10 Pro in-ear monitors, £45

KZ ZS10 Pro in-ear monitors, £45, amazon.co.uk

While improving technology may encourage us to listen for pleasure, the question of what constitutes “better” will always be thorny. “There’s this continual search [among some consumers] for the holy grail,” says Comeau. “There are people who’ve spent huge amounts of money on what I call fripperies, things like cables, to try to make things better. We see them at hi-fi shows, year after year, and they’ll never take your recommendation. But I guess it’s a hobby, and one shouldn’t decry hobbies.” Some enthusiasts might deem certain gold-plated connectors or high-resolution audio files to be essential, but the things that actually make an audible difference often get forgotten, according to Cox. “If you spend a lot on equipment but none on [acoustically treating] the room, well, the room has a much more dominant effect after certain price points,” he says.

Most brands in this market aim to deliver music “as the musicians intended”, a transparent conduit that leaves original recordings untainted. But marketing this benign concept isn’t easy, and Comeau is critical of both the flowery language used by some reviewers and firms’ pursuit of perfect frequency curves over how the equipment sounds. “Consumers are trying to find an objective way of substantiating their purchase,” he says. “So if they see a set of measurements that look perfect, they feel secure in buying. But that’s the wrong way to evaluate any product where you have subjective enjoyment. It’s the same with 0-to-60 times for cars — they have no relevance to actually driving it.” In other words: graphs and reviews tell you little, but listening tells you everything.

The team at KEF guide me to a room equipped with their Reference 5 Meta speakers (£17,500 per pair) and play songs clearly intended to show off their capabilities. “Would you humour me?” I asked. I needed to listen to something deliberately obtuse, lo-fi, something I knew backwards. I put on “Frownland” from Captain Beefheart’s divisive 1969 album Trout Mask Replica. Just 99 seconds long, its brutal cacophony was reproduced in a way I’d never heard before and, dear reader, I welled up despite myself. “There’s no black magic,” says Oclee-Brown, gently. “We’re just helping it to be the best version of itself.” Now that’s an idea I can get behind.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article