What Hifi Sounds Like

So, what does hifi sound like?

To convey what hifi sounds like, here are audio samples from musician The Moon & I. They exaggerate what hifi speakers can do well—including greater dynamic range, instrument separation, bass control, and “soundstaging.”

For example, compare the two clips below.

Normal speaker setup

Hifi speaker setup

Typical setup is what you’re used to hearing. Better setup exaggerates a desirable quality of hifi speakers.

You don’t need hifi gear to do this test—crappy speakers or earbuds are fine.

Can you guess which hifi quality is being exaggerated in that first example?

The answer is…

Dynamic range. As audio engineer Dave Wilson explained: “Dynamics are how well you go from absolute quiet to maximum volume over a wide frequency range—while doing it cleanly.”

When listening to those tracks, pay attention to how Better setup’s highs get higher (like a fire alarm) and how its lows get lower (like a rumble in Jurassic Park). (If you're curious: when I run a dynamic range test on hifi speakers, here's a test track I use.)

Let's listen for another hifi quality: Speaker loudness without distortion. Meaning, when speakers get loud, do they introduce ear-hurting distortion—like crackling and clipping? Or, as with hifi speakers connected to sufficient power, do they sound clean and smooth?

Normal distortion

Hifi distortion

Next, let's hear instrument separation: Do the instruments sound muddled—or separated into distinct layers? Compare for yourself below:

Normal instrument separation

Hifi instrument separation

Before I continue, let me explain why these hifi qualities are important: they better recreate music as it's heard in real life—when played by instruments within arm’s reach. This is critical: our brains identify tiny aberrations from authentic sound. When the illusion breaks, so does our total immersion.

Onto the next example: Bass control. Does the base sound like a slow-moving thud (bad)—or a fast crack of lightning?

Normal bass

Hifi bass

Next: Room-filling soundstage. Does the music sound like it’s being projected out of two small boxes in front of you? Or do they disappear, making your room sound like a concert hall?

Normal soundstage

Hifi soundstage

In practice, to maximally perceive soundstage from a song, it should be a recording of a live performance. Live music contains reverb cues from the musical venue—think of a big, echoey concert hall, which are then reproduced by your speakers. In contrast, digitally produced dubstep will lack the minute reverb nuances of a live room. This is why live recordings are often used to demo hifi speakers.

Again, a huge thanks to The Moon & I (Spotify, Apple Music) for remixing his songs for this guide. To identify his tracks or connect with him, here's his Instagram.

Congrats, you now have a novice’s ability to identify a few aspects of hifi speakers. Few people in the world are even aware this ability exists!

We did this by way of exaggeration, however, so don’t take these samples too literally. (We also haven’t covered every hifi quality, such as timbre and soundstage depth.)

To finish driving my point home, let me exaggerate what it’s like when you’re missing these hifi qualities—when you’re listening to everyday lowfi speakers. Watch the video below for one minute and pay attention to the listener’s discomfort partway through:

I’d argue that the man’s reaction to the discordant sounds is analogous to what’s happening in your brain every second you're listening to lowfi speakers. While lowfi speakers don’t sound painful, your brain is aware something isn’t right—that music is coming out of boxes and not from musicians in front of you.

In contrast, consider an experience where music is recreated super realistically: there’s no drag force on your brain causing you to subconsciously think, “What is this?” And so your brain relaxes, and you lose yourself more in the music.

Imagine being at a private concert listening to your favorite band. When you’re at-home listening to great hifi, you can close your eyes and be transported there. Better yet, the band feels like it's a few feet from you—like you can reach out and touch them. You can own this experience at-home and recreate it at will.

Except, hifi actually sounds better than a live performance. When set up correctly, it's perfectly engineered for your precise listening position. To pull this off, however, you need the right speakers, the right electronics, the right room treatment, and the right speaker positioning. That’s why this guide is 15,000 words. This isn’t one-click and you’re done.

There's more to hifi than these qualities we've discussed, however. The Audiovector R6 Arretés that I fell in love with go far beyond these basics. (I have no affiliation with them; just a fan.) 

In fact, everything discussed so far are table stakes in hifi—nearly every hifi speaker can do these things. This guide’s goal is greater than that:

I seek to answer why a select few speakers sound transcendent—and whether you can own that magic at home for cheap.

Let’s try to crack the code.

Why some speakers sound incredible

After writing this guide’s intro, I paused to spend a year learning about hifi and experimenting with speakers. This section marks the beginning of me writing from a position of more experience.

Two insights guided the yearlong journey:

  1. Speakers are responsible for at most half of sound quality.
  2. Find the most interesting hifi systems by asking professional reviewers what they buy for themselves at home.

I emailed hifi reviewers to ask what they listened to at home. A revelation emerged: many prefer a similar system. There wasn't that much variation in preference despite there being dozens of hifi flavors to choose from.

This revealed that there’s a sonic architecture that’s more enjoyable for long listening periods. And the reviewers' preferences reinforced my affection for the Audiovector R6 Arreté, which embraces the same architecture and is an at-home favorite among European reviewers.

The architecture I'll focus on consists of three sonic goals: large soundstage, musical, and smooth. Together, they help you lose yourself in the music (discussion).

By the end of this page, you’ll have a grasp on how to use this criteria to buy great speakers.

1. Large soundstage

Let’s start with soundstage. This is the most absorbing quality of the Audiovector R6 Arretés—their ridiculous soundstage. Soundstage is a term for the size of the 3D sound space that speakers project into your room. Think of those holographic video messages from Star Wars or Star Trek. That’s what an acoustic soundstage is—but projectedly invisibly via audio—in your room.

The larger the soundstage, generally the more absorbing the music is.

Consider the tiny computer speakers on your desk. Now contrast those to the 30ft mega speakers hung from the rafters at rock concerts. The computer speakers, in contrast, sound like they’re projecting music out of pinholes, whereas the concert speakers sound like your entire field of view is drenched in sound. For reference, at least 48" (or 122cm) high is ideal for most average-sized home listening rooms.

That’s why these $330K Wilson Chronosonic XVX’s are tall. They don’t just play louder, they play larger so that your brain can’t tell if music is even coming out of a box—or if there’s a huge stage in front of you.

This brings us to our first takeaway when buying speakers: buy the biggest ones that can physically and sonically fit well into your room. Too large can be a problem, but too small is a huge problem. (I'll touch on the specifics later.)

The larger the speaker, typically the louder it can play without sounding congested or distorted. Some speakers sound great at low levels but break down at higher ones, which means they can't pressurize larger rooms well.

Note that while a speaker’s size affect its soundstage height and width, it doesn’t hugely affect its soundstage depth. That’s a separate engineering trick, and it’s a hallmark of the R6 Arretés: their soundstage is so deep that music extends past my shoulders and wraps around me like a blanket. This is critical for maximum absorption.

Without soundstage depth, the music sounds like it’s contained in a box several feet away from you—and it’s obvious you’re listening to speakers.

How does Audiovector cast a super deep soundstage? They place a woofer on the back of the cabinet that fires toward the back wall. In the image below, notice something on the right side?

That’s their rear-firing midrange driver. They do this because, when sound is projected at the rear, it hits the back wall of your room then bounces back toward your ears around 5 milliseconds after the sound from the front of the speakers hits your ears. By creating this reverb, your brain is tricked into perceiving acoustic depth.

After hearing the R6’s depth, the premiere hifi magazine, Stereophile, rated the Audiovectors among their best speakers of all time, remarking: “[I heard] a bass note directly behind another bass note… The illusion of depth was much stronger than I'm accustomed to, and it made a strong emotional impression (Source).”

Think of it like this: When you close your eyes and hear people in a room with you, you can still tell how far away they are without seeing them. Your brain does this by interpreting volume differences and reverb cues. You need these same cues from your hifi speakers—or the music sounds flat.

This is why audiophiles pull speakers 3-6 feet out from the wall—partway into their room. Otherwise, if speakers are against the wall, like almost everyone has them, the rear reflections bounce back so quickly that our brains can’t distinguish between them and the front projections.

Soundstage depth can also be increased through well-designed rear vents like those used by Sonus Faber, another hifi brand, which is pictured below:

To get a powered rear driver from Sonus Faber, you're paying $120K for their Aida:

Here’s a funny story about Elon Musk buying Aidas and destroying them.

You can also get fantastic depth simply by switching to dipole speakers. They forego cabinets, exposing their drivers to the air both in the front and the back. This is part of why people love the Magnepan dipole sound:

Now, here's an interesting question: What happens when we put speakers all around the cabinet—even on the sides—and blast the soundstage in 360 degrees?

That’s what the hifi brand MBL does. Their speakers look like this and they cost between $20K and $250K+:

MBL has made drivers that radiate sound in 360 degrees. Their sound is no longer akin to a pistol shooting music at your ears, but rather like a drum kit being struck where a hit radiates sound in all directions. This makes music sound lifelike.

The result? I've seen no other speaker with this many hifi reviewers exclaiming "This is the best speaker I've heard in my life." Everyone goes crazy for them—unlike any other speaker brand I've seen.

"Listening to [non-MBLs] is like going to a movie of a concert; listening to the MBL 101 X-tremes is like going to the live event. If you've got the dough (and the space) and are looking for the closest approximation of the real thing, these are the transducers to own." —The Absolute Sound

Unfortunately, they’re rare in the U.S. and quite expensive, so I’ve not encountered them. But these are my dream listen.

Either way, we have a new takeaway: when auditioning speakers, listen for whether the music wraps around you.

2. Musical

As important as soundstaging is, the next two sonic qualities—musical and smooth—are even more important to most listeners.

Let's talk about musical. Audiophiles have a trick for making all music sound better: they use tube amplifiers to introduce "second-order harmonics" into a song. This entails softly doubling up notes by duplicating them one octave above. It's unlike anything you’ve heard in nature (discussion), and it's spectacular.

As a point of comparison, whereas EQ alters amplitudes of frequencies, second-harmonic distortion adds frequencies that didn’t originally exist.

By introducing second-order harmonics, music feels thicker—more full—and noticeably more satisfying to people. When sound is enriched in this way—and it's not missing lower mid-range fullness—it’s said to be more musical. It's funny to hear hifi reviewers articulate tube harmonics magic in words. Just watch this for 30 seconds: video.

Here’s a visual analogy to explain the enrichment of harmonics. In the video below, an engineer shoots sound waves at sand to see which patterns emerge at various frequencies:

Each frequency creates its own geometric fingerprint. When using amplifiers to enrich harmonics, I think of it as thickening the lines around the smaller, secondary shapes in the sand. This makes them stand out more when they hit your ears. (This is just an analogy.) As amplifier engineer Jeff Nelson noted, "Tube amplifiers sing along." Meaning, they harmonize with the music.

The fact that harmonic manipulation sounds better to the ear reveals a fascinating facet of psychoacoustics: humans prefer sound that’s been enriched beyond what music actually sounds like (discussion). Hifi reviewers consistently comment on this—that non-enriching amplifiers are too “transparent to the sound” and are often less preferable: video, video, video.

Think of it like this: What makes a Twix candy bar yummy in yer tummy? It's the salt, sugar, and fat that's been added. Is this natural? No. No food in nature is both high in sugar and fat. Experiencing hifi is the same—for many listeners, you get the most satisfying outcome from being a chef who adds spice, not from being a purist.

The takeaway is that amplifiers can be critical components in hifi setups. I'll touch more on amps on the next page.

3. Smooth

Now for the last sonic quality I'll highlight here: smoothness.

When listening to the Audiovector R6s Arretés, it struck me how non-sharp and non-fatiguing its treble was (its high notes). It didn’t hurt my ears at all to crank the volume.

Why was that? Audiovector covers their high-frequency tweeter with an S-stop filter. Much like the one you'd place in front of a microphone to remove the harsh "s" sibilance from your voice. They also shape their treble dispersion pattern in a finely controlled, harmonious way.

With smoothness, you're aiming for highs that aren’t harsh like nails on a chalkboard, but soft like silk between your fingers. It should never feel like the speakers are jackhammering notes into your ears.

Smoothness is an engineering feat achieved in part by the speakers' tweeter and through the full chain of audio components you pair with the speaker: the power cleanliness, amplifier, preamp, digital-to-analog converter, and so on. (I'll explain these later.)

The opposite of smoothness is shrillness and grain. Think of running your hand over sandpaper—there's a sonic equivalent one can only appreciate by hearing an A/B test. It's like the music has a layer of hard grain over it. Every component in your hifi stack affects graininess, and typically higher quality gear reduces it.

Review: Audiovector R6 Arreté | Aiming For Perfection

My favorite speakers

Earlier when I said that speakers are half of good sound, the other half is equipment matching and room setup, both of which I'm about to cover.

It’s time to explore awesome hifi setups.

Recommended Speakers

See my favorite speaker systems.


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