Who needs a hi-fi?

Can a phone and a Bluetooth speaker qualify as a "hi-fi"? Or are they merely good enough?

A 'real' hi-fi vs. the 'good enough' music system, do you really think they sound about the same? Steve Guttenberg

Hi-fi has a dated, almost "Mad Men" ring to it, but it predates Don Draper's 1960s time frame. Sound-quality advances in hi-fis first grabbed the public's imagination 10 years earlier, in the 1950s.

A hi-fi system could be configured in a variety of ways, but the basic setup had a turntable, amplifier, and a pair of speakers. That sort of rig, with a CD player, still works for today's audiophiles, but they're probably 1 percent of all music listeners. For the other 99 percent, their "hi-fi" is in the car, or maybe it's their phone/portable music player and headphones, or their computer speakers. They're "good enough" hi-fis, but now there's another option, a tiny battery-powered Bluetooth speaker, or maybe a $600 AirPlay speaker. Sorry, phones and Bluetooth speakers aren't in the same league as a bona-fide hi-fi. It's like comparing a bicycle to a motorcycle.

As physical music collections are replaced with cloud based storage schemes and free streaming music services, hi-fis are taking a parallel path. The gear's presence in our lives is continuously shrinking, and with ever-smaller size comes ever-smaller sound at home. Fifty years ago the average hi-fi sounded a lot better than what most people are satisfied with today.

I'm not suggesting most people would or should buy big speakers, just that there are better-sounding alternatives to tiny Bluetooth speakers . Perhaps a pair of powered speakers, like the $199-a-pair Audioengine A2 , or the reigning champion of small, affordable powered speakers, the $349-a-pair Emotiva airmotiv4 speakers should be considered. It's not rocket science; a single "stereo" speaker can't generate a true stereo image, it's always going to sound like a small speaker. A pair of speakers, placed four or more feet apart can fill a room with vastly better quality sound. If you love music, a pair of decent powered speakers can really make a huge difference. If you absolutely need to go wireless, the speakers can be used with plug-in Bluetooth receivers , with some loss of sound quality (wired speakers always sound better than wireless options).

I recently wrote about a budget-priced hi-fi system that will clobber the sound of any battery-powered $300 Bluetooth speaker. The hi-fi isn't as cute and takes up more space, but if you'd like to hear more of your favorite band's energy and passion, you have to care more about sound than style. The same goes for movies; decent speakers like the Emotiva I just mentioned will sound better than most sound bars.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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