At what point does lousy sound interfere with enjoying music?

For some the nadir is MP3s, but other folks can't stand noisy LPs. Where do you draw the line?

Apple's awful earbuds Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I've always been obsessed with sound, and I've always wanted to hear my music with the best possible sound. It enhances the experience for me, because I can more clearly hear what the musicians are playing, and the subtleties in the mix, so I get more out of the music. That's true at home and for on-the-go listening, and even when I didn't have much money I still managed to put together a pretty good hi-fi. Then again, good sound is in the ear of the beholder, and that beholder may not be so sure about what good sound really sounds like. It's a moving target.

I'm a high-end guy, but I can enjoy music with dirt cheap gear like my $23 MonoPrice 8323 headphones, Dayton B652 speakers , or Lepai LP-2020A integrated amplifier. Some low-bit MP3s and streaming audio sources might be acceptable, but I draw the line at the $100 or even $200 Bluetooth speakers. I love when people describe their sound with lines like, "I was surprised by its big sound given its size." Yuck, Bluetooth is always coarse and grating, I'd rather listen to nothing. The free earbuds that come with Apple products are a wee bit better, but still wretched. That's me, everyone has a different threshold and priorities when it comes to sound.

The bottom image illustrates what compressed sound looks like. John Atkinson

The quality of the gear is one thing, but some recordings, like Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" also fall below my acceptable range. It's a nasty sounding album, and no release format -- MP3, iTunes, FLAC, or LP -- makes it any more palatable to my ears. The recording itself is at fault, or maybe it's just that the goals of the engineers and the band are at odds with my taste. Whatever, I like their music, and don't have a problem with the sound of Arcade Fire's earlier albums. Once recordings are overcompressed they can never sound good.

What about you? What does it take for you to turn off the music or gear, how bad does the sound have to be to fall below what you find acceptable?

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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