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Sterile vs. Transparent vs. HiFi

Discussion in 'Amps and Cabs [BG]' started by uglybassplayer, Aug 23, 2005.

  1. uglybassplayer


    Aug 24, 2001
    New Jersey
    Browsing through threads here in the Amps section, I've seen these labels used quite often refering to several hi-end heads. While the words "transparent" and "hifi" are often used in a positive light, the word "sterile" seems to carry more of a negative connotation.

    So I'd like to ask this group: How would you describe these three labels, and what are the differences between them?


    - Ugly.
  2. The 0x

    The 0x

    Aug 24, 2003
    Timonium, MD
    hi-fi=overemphasized high end, somewhat scooped midrange
    transparent=no color added from the amp
    sterile=no life in the tone. this could also come from having a sterile sounding bass through a transparent amp, or the amp just not reacting to a player's feel.
  3. "hi-fi" = high fidelity = accurate frequency response of the source of the signal. What you get out is what you put in.
  4. Lonnybass

    Lonnybass Supporting Member

    Jul 19, 2000
    San Diego
    Endorsing Artist: Pedulla Basses
    I agree with all of the above. The beauty of having these options is it allows you to mix and match as needed.

    For example, if you like hi-fi sound, a hi-fi head might sound great through a transparent speaker, because it is not lending anything to change the sound.

    In general, I think it's fair to say that most players try to avoid "sterile" sounding equipment, but it does have its place in certain instances if you are going after a particular tone.

    Personally, I like having the flexibility of choosing between my preamps (both hi-fi and vintage) and going into a transparent speaker, because the differences in sound are much more defined.

  5. uglybassplayer


    Aug 24, 2001
    New Jersey
    Isn't this also most people's definition of "transparent"... If so, then is "hi-fi" the same as "transparent"?

    And while Lonnybass's statement about people generally trying to avoid "sterile" sounding equipment is true, that still doesn't describe the tone. So what's the difference between tone that is "sterile" vs. "transparent"?
  6. Kael


    Dec 26, 2004
    Oklahoma City
    I am of the opinion that they all pretty much mean the same thing and that the "sterile" descriptor is applied to transparent amps by those who don't like transparent amps. Just my opinion.
  7. KJung

    KJung Supporting Member

    Seems like 'sterile' is used on this site many times to describe rather transparent or 'hi fi' sounding amps and cabs by people who don't like the particular sound... just like 'flat' being used to describe a lot of different (and very different sounding)speakers based on an individual's liking of the sound (I'm as guilty as anyone else regarding this) :D
  8. lowphatbass

    lowphatbass ****

    Feb 25, 2005
    west coast
    "Sterile" may be a word that is used to describe "transparent" equipment buy people who like more "colouration" in their sound. My bass is never going to sound "sterile", IMO, it's got way to much character. I like transparent equipment in alot of situations because it allows me to hear my bass in a more natural way, it's just my bass, and how I am playing it that effect makes up the tone(in a perfect world). Alot of people would consider this "sterile" sounding,some people like the scooped mid range that Eden and SWR cabs have to offer, or the tubey rockish vibe that an Ampeg rig can provide. These colours added in with the tone of their bass is all part of their sound.
  9. Tryxx

    Tryxx Sputnik Forums: Bass Mod

    Jun 1, 2005
    Hurst, Texas.
    Sterile is often used describing basses as inorganic.

    In that instance my Modulus Quantum is "sterile" and "hi-fi" in sound.

    I'd say amp wise Peavey is "sterile" in a good way. If you know the Peavey sound, that's not hard to get.
  10. Hi-fi, to me, means that it has plenty of high end, but not necessarily a transparent sound. I expect a hi-fi amp to not have a lot of mids. So it's different from the traditional meaning of hi-fi. I think of guys described as having hi-fi sounds when I hear the word hi-fi, and that doesn't necessarily mean it's actually got perfect fidelity. Transparent means that it reproduces every nuance of what you play, and does it clearly. There's a lot of room in there for frequency boosts and cuts, but the amp won't be muddy, and you will hear every buzz, clank, rattle, and strings squeak you make. And sterile would be when a person either doesn't like the sound (i.e. they like a more distorted round tone), or they don't know how to work with it. That's what the terms mean to me anyway.
  11. You're right, this is what the words actually do mean, seemingly to everyone outside the rather small world of bass guitar.

    Somehow, to many bass guitarists, the term hi-fi has come to mean the type of the tone that The 0x concisely identified above. As someone who works with words professionally, I get bugged by this, because that tone, with its scooped middle, is *by definition* NOT hi-fi in any widely accepted sense. High fidelity means faithfulness to the source material; scooping the middle means you're altering the source material. Any coloration of the original signal, no matter how euphonic, is not hi-fi, to the extent that it is a departure from the source material.

    But this stuff gets hard to talk about, both because of the subjectivity of the liestener and because all equipment fails to reproduce the source material with perfect accuracy.

    For example, you could have two preamps, of which one reproduces the source material a bit too much to the "cold" side, and the other a bit too much to the "warm" side. When hearing them side by side, given the absence of any perfect reproduction of the source, different listeners could hear them in different ways. For example, one listener could hear the cold preamp as accurate, and the warm one as too colored. Another could hear the warm preamp as accurate, and the cold one as too colored, in a different way (i.e., too dry or sterile). The truth might be that the two are equally inaccurate--that is, that they fail to achieve "hi-fi-ness" by equal amounts, just in opposite directions.
  12. 4Mal

    4Mal Supporting Member

    Jun 2, 2002
    Columbia River Gorge
    Transparent, hifi and sterile; along with warm, growl, grainy and grind are all real subjective terms. As I see it it's kind of like the difference between a visual representation of a nude body and pornography. I know it when you see it, or hear it in this case.

    To my ear the SWR working man's 15 combo is sterile but not transparent. It imparts a sound all it's own. That sound is certainly impacted by the bass being run through it. A stock P is going to sound different than say an L2K, but there will be some similarities in tone that are attributable to the amp and cab.

    My old Demeter 201 pre was transparent in that it added nothing of it's own to the sound and was hifi as it was crystal clear with lot's of detail.

    The iamp 800 is transparent and hi-fi with less detail than the Demeter (I think) but only just so. A truly spectacluar amplifier Plus it has tone controls that actually work, something the Demeter sadly lacks and it doesn't weigh in at 50 lbs with everything else in the rack!.

    My GK 1001 RB II can be set to be *pretty much* transparent but it is not as detailed as the iamp or the Demeter. You don't buy a GK for transparent though. You buy a GK for the same reason you buy SWR or Eden or Ampeg - you happen to like their color choice. In my case I really dig the GK punch and voicing...

    The Alembic F2B is wonderfully colored and is also hifi. Not transparent. It has a sound of it's own and imparts that onto every instrument that if amplify's.

    For me...

    Transparent means that except for volume, nothing else is changed in the signal content. (The old hifi guys McIntosh, Harmon, Lansing Brothers, et al...) used to talk about 'a straight wire with gain.' Being the unobtainable ideal standard. If you amplify a Fender Squire through a transparent amp, all the flaws in the Fender are going to be on display... If you do the same with an Alembic all it's beauty will shine through... Having lived with transparent for a while, I decided that I for one can live without it in a live environment.

    Hi Fi means that while color might be added, no detail is lost. In fact, detail might be enhanced but in a good way (as in the case of the F2B).

    Warmth does not imply a smiley EQ! Warmth implies lot's of extra harmonic content being added into the signal. This is what happens when a tube is in the circuit and that tube is being driven to a point where it actually generates little bits of signal all it's own. Got's nothin' to do with EQ! and I'm quite sure that it is certainly possible to get a warm sounding solid state amp.

    Sterile means that I don't perceive any punch. It's the punch that translates into 'lively' for me. It also probably means that I don't like what I hear... I don't think you'll see the next mega-amplifier oporation add claiming *New* *Improved* - Now with Sterility! ==> marketing guy :hyper:

    For me, my rig is an extension of my bass. In fact my bass is just the 'frequency generating tactile interface' to my tone making machine! So I play a rig rather than just the bass... Actually that doesn't quite work as it doesn't account for multiple pickups - but you get the idea I'm sure...
  13. Larry Kaye

    Larry Kaye Retailer: Schroeder Cabinets

    Mar 23, 2000
    Cleveland, OH
    I know this is a little offshute of the subject, but...Take the styles of music your band or bands play, and ask yourself can you be heard clearly and distinctly (do you want to be???...do your fellow musicians care? do you add musicality to the band or just take up low frequency space?).

    I'm not exactly sure how important it is to understand or describe a bass's sound as sterile, hi-fi, colored, uncolored and although I find these discussions as interesting as the rest of you, I think it comes down to your "role" in the band being either a positive musical addition to your band no matter what style you/they play, or whether you just eliminate some white space and take up room on stage or on your group's recordings.

    If you believe yourself to be an integral musical part of your bands, IMHO you should be trying to get a sound that cuts through live and in the studio so that your bandmates and the audience can hear and feel your presence. Being a great a player that can't be heard unless the rest of your band stops playing is a waste of talent and in my opinion....your time. If you're the right fielder of the group, the "hey you can play bass...I'll show you what to do", it won't matter very much whether you have the highest hi-fi, the most sterile sterile sound, or the flatest of flat, you're not gonna likely add musicality to your band's efforts.

    I apologize for being opinionated and off the subject here but my bottom line is sounding good and being musical. How well I do it on a given night is subject to debate!!! Most of my fellow bassists in my area haven't a clue in these areas.

  14. Describing sound is allways difficult, but I would object to the notion that it's purely subjective. Of course it's subjective how you hear the sound, but our words are not. So to discuss sound we ideally have to mean the same by our words. As harsh as it sounds I think a person who says that hi-fi means emphasis on the higher frequescies, is wrong. Hi-fi is an ideal in the reproduction of a sound source. Transparent and sterile is different ways to describe this ideal. Transparant lets everything through, adding no color. Sterile is the negative connotation of the same: It doesn't impregnant (to stay in that metaphoric context) the sound with anything. I can see why a person thinks hi-fi means high-end emphasis, when hi-fi gear is compared to vintage sounding gear, but it's not the real definition of the word. The percieved high-end emphasis is just a result of the goal (being true to the source), not the goal in it self.

    What's objective should be our words and what we mean by them (hi-fi should ideally mean the same to everybody). What's subjective is what we think of what the words designate (Do I like the hi-fi sound or not?)

    And now, I think Larry has an important point here. Allways keeping the context you're playing in in mind:

  15. I don't think you can apply the term HI-Fi to a bass guitar itself, as it is the source of the sound, but I suppose certain pickups or preamps could be more Hi-Fi than others...

    Hi-Fi IMO means that the input sound and the output sound are exactly the same (ie. the sound is not coloured by the medium) although, they aren't necessarily the same volume. Therefore IMO transparent = Hi-Fi

    Some people like the sound of their bass and therefore want a transparent rig. others aren't completely happy with the tone of their bass and like to colour their sound with their preamp/poweramp/cabs or a combination of the above to get the sound they are searching for...

    as for what's better - apples or oranges?
  16. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    Fremont, Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    Well said. This fits with how I see these words being used in the act of describing how bass gear sounds. However, I agree with Richard Lindsey that the use of the phrase "hi fi" in the bass world is quite different from how it is used and comprehended in the home/pro audio world. This really confused me for a while, until I figured out that people meant "overemphasized high end, somewhat scooped midrange" when they used this phrase.

  17. KJung

    KJung Supporting Member

    Interesting stuff... I personally never associated hi fi with a scooped midrange... more of an even response across the spectrum... not a 'flat' response on a scope, since human ears are not evenly sensitive across the sound spectrum. I always thought hi fi in the bass world was a lack of nasally 500hz mid peak that so many older cabs had, and that are overemphasized by how our ears work (i.e., more sensitive to mids than other freq's), and the ability to actually, finally hear some treble over 2K! (I wouldn't call that an 'overemphasis in the treble area', but actually, finally, being able to hear some true treble response in a bass!). As we've all said, pretty much pure personal opinion.... if you don't like a full spectrum sound and like a mid hump... then hi fi has a negative connotation of 'lack of mids and too much treble :D
  18. KJung

    KJung Supporting Member

    That's the best definition yet :)
  19. Big String

    Big String Supporting Member

    Apr 22, 2000
    Northwest Indiana
    Hi, after taking in all this great information in....
    1. Take the bass you love the most.
    2. Try in the cab you want to use.
    3. Try different amps, pre's, combo etc.
    4. Most important (if you can) try in your main gig live several times if you can... ( this is the most difficult part I know)
    5. If you can accomplish all of this you will now have YOUR best opinion/knowledge of what is tranparent or sterile or if you like it and it will work for you.

    I've found out that everyone hears differently... hence "taste" etc. Your signal chain has everything to do with the final tone/cut/happiness thing.

    For me I found the basses I love and work for me.
    I have several amp solutions (don't think there is just one for everything though) Finally cabs... it's taken me many weeks and dollars to get there and I'm afraid I never be completely done, but I'm the happiest I've ever been with my gear for sound/compadability/cut/throw/hauling/versiatility.

    One thing for sure there are so many helpuful people on TB. Love this site. Good luck and let us know how you're doing with the quest.
  20. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Bettendorf, IA USA
    When I think hi-fi bass tone, I think of a very good quality SS amp and a low tuned 410 cabinet. IMO, the key to hi-fi is headroom. The preamp and cabinet may add their own color, but the overall tone is very clean and clear. The lows are quick, tight and percussive with no clipping or flab. There is no exaggerated midtone but that doesn't mean that it is scooped. The highs are very bright and ultra clear without being shrill or piercing. IMO, hi-fi isn't always transparent.

    Transparent is just a described. There is little or no tone color added to the original signal. I have a Raven Labs USIP that you would call very transparent. Great for DB. Great for acoustic guitar. Not the best for EBG.

    Sterile is transparent with a bad bass. :) !