The Historical-Mechanical Origins of Audio Fidelity

Since the explosion of recording technologies in the 19th and 20th century, the question of audio fidelity has been understood primarily as how closely a record reproduces its source. This is often framed in degrees, for example, “hi-fi” vs “lo-fi” stereos (fi = fidelity), or as a recent ad for JBL headphones puts it, in the ability to render ‘pure’ over ‘impure’ sound.

This experiential or “acousmatic” approach to understanding sound is highly problematic and ultimately untenable. The hierarchy that is in implicit in qualifiers like ‘pure’ or ‘true’ relies on a false dichotomy in which interpersonal “authentic” sound, is placed over and above decontextualized, supposedly inauthentic sound. Although highly profitable as a marketing strategy, it is a gross essentialism that is ultimately not born out by a close analysis of the material of sound itself (Sterne 2003)

The approach to audio fidelity for this project will focus on the historical-mechanical nature of sound reproduction, specifically as it is related to the recording process. By making fidelity a function of recording technologies, rather than of subjective user experience, we avoid the fruitless argument over ‘authenticity,’ as well as the controversy around the phenomenology of sound. That being said, there are some important caveats that deserve clarification before we move on.