Distortion and the benefits of a high-end Hi-Fi System

Music is a passion for many people whether it’s playing instruments or just listening. Good quality sound can enhance the listening experience and improves general feelings of well-being and happiness.

Listening to music can evoke many different emotions but research has shown that sharing music through listening, performing or playing, can increase the pleasure we get from it. According to Dr Nina Kraus of Northwestern University, hearing is the hardest thing our brains have to do every day.

Whether this is an install environment like an auditorium or a stadium gig, we pay a lot of money to go to concerts, but you’ve probably not thought much about the acoustic challenges of big venues, from surface materials to audience size.

Subpar sound

If the sound is subpar, it has a lasting impression on the artist’s ability to perform live and your experience of live performances, as a whole. That’s why, over many years of research and development, the level of expertise that goes into setting these events has cranked up several notches to involve many highly trained sound engineers, acoustic consultants and expensive equipment from amplifiers to specific speaker types from beam steering to line arrays. They’re striving for the holy grail of giving everyone in that space the same high performance listening experience – at the same time. Anyone who has ever been to a live music event knows that sadly it’s often not the case.

We can probably all remember a time when we were listening to a concert, and it made us feel agitated and edgy or gave you a headache or sore ears and made you glad when it was over. Why? It’s most likely because the audio coming from the sound system was being distorted or the reverberation from the building was interfering or even because the system itself has been poorly specified or installed.

Music Gig

OK, but what does this have to do with Hi-Fi?

We believe a vital role of a Hi-Fi system is to achieve a performance that feels like the musician is right there in front of you, delivering that immersive, inclusive, spine-tingling sound we get when we are at a live show. Thankfully in Hi-Fi there’s only one (or a few people) to consider and one room that needs addressing, the advantage of our IsoFlare with its wide soundstage is that it allows more people to enjoy the full performance together. Fuse this technology with correct speaker positioning and the required room treatment, you will get a truly immersive experience and a performance so personal and intimate it’s delivered as the recording engineer intended.

So what is distortion?

In short, distortion is where music is altered from its original form. There are many ways of distorting sound for example amplifier clipping, truncation (reduced bit resolution in digital audio) and overloading a speaker, to name but a few.

So, let’s look into things in a bit more detail…

The Nature of Musical Instruments
Most musical notes are sounds that have a particular pitch or frequency. But musical sounds don’t have just one frequency. Sounds that have only one frequency are considered a simple tone, without character.

Character of the musical sound is made by harmonics of the original fundamental pitch or frequency. These are all at multiples of the fundamental and are of even or odd order (eg. 2nd harmonic, 3rd harmonic etc). Let’s imagine the sound you get when you pluck that finely tuned Les Paul guitar E string, the harmonics will be quite different on a say a Gibson or Fender equivalent. And let’s not forget, there are additional variables such as how the string was plucked, amongst other things. On the other hand, some sounds do not have a particular pitch, such as some percussive instruments like cymbals. Below we can see the nature of many instruments, in terms of the fundamental frequency and harmonics (otherwise known as overtones).

music frequency graph

So harmonics are nice and musical?

Well, not always. Any harmonics that are not true to the original may be classed as distortion. The addition of odd order harmonics can be perceived as unpleasant, while even order harmonics can add warmth and character. Then we need to consider the frequency at which distortion occurs. The human ear is most sensitive around 2 – 5kHz, which is very important for speech intelligibility.

Intermodulation distortion
Distortion comes in many different forms, such as intermodulation distortion which occurs when two frequencies are presented simultaneously and the output contains one or more frequencies that are related to the sum and difference of the two input frequencies. For example sounds at 10kHz and 12kHz can cause intermodulation distortion at 2kHz. This is perceived as rather jarring, as there is no relationship to a fundamental frequency.

Transient intermodulation distortion
Transient intermodulation distortion can also occur when a large abrupt change takes place in the level of the input sound and creates intermodulation distortion products in the output.

Imperfections of the reproduction system
And then there are distortions caused by imperfections of the reproduction system, especially at high levels when it is overloaded and the sound produced becomes harsh and unpleasant. Amplifiers can be driven into clipping, where they run out of output voltage and loudspeakers can run out of cone movement and distort, sometimes hitting the end stops.

Linear Time Domain Distortion
Whereas the artefacts described above are non-linear and deviate from the natural harmonic structure of the music, linear time domain errors will occur in a discrete conventional loudspeaker, because the HF and LF units are in different physical locations. Fyne Audio’s IsoFlare driver is a point source system whereby the bass / midrange driver shares a common time aligned centre with the high frequency unit. This provides outstanding stereo imaging, even off axis, energy is radiated isotropically with constant directivity, following the flare of the driver cone. Sound is produced as if emanating from a single point in space. Over the frequency range that the IsoFlare operates, it does a far better job of preserving the harmonic content of instruments compared with the conventional discrete drive unit arrangement. This is because the low and high frequency sounds are generated from the same point in space (point source), and there are no time and phase differences between harmonics below and above the crossover point, as with discrete speakers. We explain our IsoFlare and it’s point source technology in greater detail in a previous article.

guitar pedals

Distortion can be good?

Sometimes distortion can be added on purpose, take guitar effects pedals for example. These are used to add character to the tone, bringing a sense of excitement to the music and possibly even adding to the perceived loudness. It all very much depends on the style of music of course, what works for Gun’s n Roses, may be too hard and gritty for other genres of music.

Can volume affect or cause distortion?

Unwanted musical distortion can have a negative impact on sound quality overall, even at low levels of volume, because peaks of energy in distorted frequency bands can be very subjectively annoying. It’s also often due to poor sound clarity or a lack of dynamics in sound that cause people to try to improve this by turning up the bass or cranking up the volume

In short, some levels of distortion in sound is inevitable but as with many of the things we enjoy, it’s all about balance and that’s where High-end Hi-Fi comes in. High-end Hi-Fi can replicate “good distortion” without the bad.

How does musical distortion and high-level sound impact us?

Loud sounds can cause brain fatigue as the sensory overload causes an increased release of cortisol. The constant feeling of stress these noises bring is due to the brain being always in flight or fight mode. The rise in blood cortisol levels and adrenaline accompanied by the raising of blood pressure, are what makes us feel on edge, or mentally fatigued which can result in headaches as well as increasing our risk of heart attack, high cholesterol and hearing impairment.

It has been shown that poor quality audio, where bits of sound are lost or chopped out for whatever reason, can have a negative impact on our brain. It can actually damage the neural pathways, but also makes us less likely to believe or have faith in what we are hearing.

You can read more in our previous articles about how music affects our physical and mental health.

But, does High-End HiFi help?

Well, having a high quality system coupled with the correct room treatment or clever use of soft furnishings and correctly positioned speakers, helps improve your chances of removing colouration or “bad” distortion from the music you listen too. If your brain is overloaded by unwanted sound, your relaxing experience of listening to your favourite tunes become less enjoyable and it’ll make you want to switch it off and may even induce headaches and anxiety. Not the affect we’re after from our favourite hobby.

A high-end system is less intrusive and as a result more pleasurable. You won’t feel the need to play music excessively loud, potentially harming your ears as the system will play effortlessly and at a safe listening level.

High sound quality has a significant correlation to stronger positive emotions, a richer musical experience, and general happiness

Daniel Müllensiefen, Professor of music psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Music was made to be enjoyed and listened too, in whichever form and method you prefer. High quality audio equipment helps reduce the distortion and noise that sometimes comes with it and allows you to hear the music much better than any live performance could bring.

If you aren’t sure your speakers are providing the best sound quality that you deserve, then contact your local distributor or dealer for a demo. They will be only too happy to guide you through your journey.

So, with all this information buzzing around in your brain, take a moment to relax to some of your favourite tunes.

Happy listening.

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