When music is at its best, we don t just listen to it, we experience it. Great live music, and, by extension, well recorded music played back properly, touches us not only aurally but also on physical and emotional levels. Nothing helps with this more than a good set of floor standing speakers.Our favorite speakers include the Polk Audio TSi500, British Industry Corporation's BIC Acoustech PL-89 and the Yamaha NS-777.
Sound is really pretty simple. Ultimately, sound is a series of vibrations which create pressure waves. We hear because our ears detect those waves and turn them into nerve impulses that our brains interpret as sound. Whether the gentle sounds of nature, the cacophony of a bustling city or great music, the physics of sound, or acoustics, is the same.
Though we can t see them, those sound pressure waves have physical dimensions. Their length, or frequency, determines the pitch of a sound while the height, or amplitude, gives it volume. Because the waves are physical, they must have space to be heard, and indeed felt, properly. The way we perceive sound, not just the way we hear it, is called psychoacoustics and it's why music can be so moving.
On our floor standing speakers review site, we present some top options in entry level audio speakers for those who want to experience music as it s meant to be. These are speakers that recognize the reality that, despite claims to the contrary, miniscule speakers cannot possibly move enough air to create emotive music as the artist intended.
Who shrunk the music?
When CDs started to replace vinyl records in the early 80s, many audiophiles saw it as tragic because the new digital recording medium could only approximate the original, analog sound. That s because digitizing sound means recording numbers that represent the sound rather than the sound itself. The process is accomplished using a device called an analog-to-digital converter, or ADC. The ADC takes numeric snapshots of sound at the rate of 44,100 times per second. The result is a very accurate, though not perfect recording.
There were immediate benefits in switching from vinyl to CD. Most notably, the annoying hiss and pops that were inherent in vinyl were largely gone. Additionally, from a practical standpoint, CDs were far more durable than vinyl and the quality was just as good after many playings as it was the first time. On the downside, some early CDs sounded thin and crunchy compared to good LPs. Some of the warmth that could be felt on analog recordings was gone in the sterile digital world.
Since the initial introduction of CDs, technology has improved markedly and CD quality generally rivals or exceeds vinyl. There have even been attempts to develop media that were superior to CDs, most notably Super Audio CD, SACD, and Audio DVD. Regrettably, the standards didn t really catch on, and though not extinct, they re certainly endangered.
Today, for many consumers, CDs have been replaced by digital audio downloads, primarily in the form of MP3 files. MP3s are extremely convenient. They can be downloaded and transferred over the internet and even by cell phones. They can also be resident on any digital storage device such as a computer hard disc drive, flash drive and most notably, portable audio players like iPods.
Phenomenal amounts of music can be stored on a tiny device. In large measure, that s because the file format is a compressed version of the CD-based recording. In compression, algorithms are used which discard data that is most likely to not be noticed by human ears. Incredibly, as much as 90% of the audio data can be thrown out during MP3 compression.
What is lossy compression and why should I care?
Discarding sonic information, as occurs when creating MP3 files, means that data are lost, hence the term lossy. Both dynamic range (louds and softs) and frequency response (highs and lows) are casualties as the data is swept away. The best audio recordings and play back equipment are designed to reproduce the entire sonic range that can be heard by humans. Conventionally, that s considered to be 20Hz to 20kHz, though some people are blessed with more acute hearing. Compression loses some of the highest and lowest audible frequencies; and that s to say nothing of the ultrasonic and infrasonic tones that are perceived by our brains that add a sort of indefinable space and airy quality to the music.
Dynamic range is also lost. That s the difference between soft and loud passages. Just think of your favorite music and you ll know why that s so important. Much of the drama and excitement that s created by music is a product of the differences between pianissimo and fortissimo.
A by-product of the compression of dynamic range is that recordings, even CDs, are now frequently recorded at or near absolute maximum volume levels. Rather than a naturally musical mix of loud and soft, everything is recorded at maximum volume in an attempt to grab the listener s attention. The effect is fatiguing.
As goes the music, so go the speakers
Compressed musical recordings are reflected in the proliferation of downsized audio speakers. People commonly listen to music through speakers attached to a computer or an iPod-type portable player. Miniscule earbuds are also commonly used in lieu of speakers. The sound quality of these options is often adequate for the environment such as while working at a computer, but when real music is the central activity, they are simply inadequate. A sad corollary is that many people have been exposed to so much compressed music that they think it s what the sound should be.
Tiny speakers in home theater systems also fall short of the sonic and spatial qualities that can be reproduced by larger speakers. Keeping in mind that sound is ultimately vibrations that create pressure waves, i.e. move air, it s easy to discern that the little drivers just don t have physics on their side.
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