It’s the time of year for saving money!
When I was a young lad there were many options for sound reproduction gear. Some of it was so good that even today, when brought back to original specifications, it can rival currently available options. But a good portion of audio components that were available when I was in my formative years were not full fidelity devices and because of that we dubbed them mid-fi.
Hi-Fi, as we all know, is short for High Fidelity. Mid-Fi was short for mid or middling fidelity. And how do we define “mid fidelity?” Well, if high fidelity, by definition, is capable of reproducing a full-resolution audio signal without compression or truncation of its harmonic balance or frequency response, mid-fi is any component that does not perform at these levels. And back in the old days of audio there were many component audio products that failed to achieve this goal and they were rightfully dubbed “mid-fi.” Also, price often entered into the equation – Hi-Fi components typically cost more to make and therefore cost more to buy…
Flash forward to 2018. I know of several companies that produce what are unarguably Hi-Fi-level products for extremely low prices. These include Schiit Audio, IFI, Project, AudioQuest, Fiio, HiDiz, as well as many new overseas firms we U.S. Audiophiles are seeing available from out-of-country sites. In short, the only reasons for considering low-priced high-performance audio products as “Mid-Fi” are elitism and snobbery, pure and simple.
So, what would I still consider mid-fi in our modern world? That’s pretty easy if you go back to our original definition. As of this morning I would include each and every Bluetooth loudspeaker as mid-fi. None can produce anything below 100 Hz with low distortion. And if they are mono, how can they reproduce stereo information? Yes, Bluetooth stand-alone mono loudspeakers are most definitely mid-fi.
What else is mid-fi in our modern world? MP3-encoded music is mid-fi. MP3 files are compressed without the same high frequency extension or wealth of musical information found in a full resolution uncompressed file. That’s definitely mid-fi.
The third and last type of product that is currently mid-fi are the vast majority of Bluetooth-enabled earphones. The problem is that most use an iteration of Bluetooth that is lossy and compressed. Only AptX-HD and Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth transmission codecs can pass full-fidelity audio signal with negligible compression. When you combine the fact that most Bluetooth headphones are not receiving a full-resolution signal with the fact that most Bluetooth headphones are often underpowered compared to a connected version and you have a sure-fire recipe for mid-fi-level sound.
In short, a Mid-Fi characterization is no longer a function of price, but about technology and capabilities. It’s entirely possible, in our modern world, to spend a great deal of money of a smart-home sound system that sounds only mid-fi. It’s also possible for around $100 to assemble a full-fidelity portable system that is most definitely Hi-Fi.
Unfortunately for those of us who care about sound quality, mid-fi products are still very much with us, and I don’t see any signs that all mid-fi will be eclipsed by higher-fidelity offerings in the future. As an example of one firm’s tech focus, Apple recently applied for patents for a new headphone technology that determines the right ear from the left ear via an internally-located five-microphone system. In addition, it purports to improve separation between voices and background noise. It offers greater convenience but does nothing to improve overall musical fidelity. That is the sort of tech focus that leads away from hi-fi and will insures that mid-fi products will be with us for many years to come…
The real danger that I see for our hobby is if becomes “common knowledge” that the differences between mid-fi and hi-fi is negligible and virtually undetectable by humans in the “real world.” I hear this comment often when discussing portable wireless headphones. But we critical listeners and sound pros know there is a big difference between mid-fi and hi-fi, and making sure that we are clear about what those differences are is critical to continuation of high-fidelity sound reproduction as a thing that exists in the modern world…