What's so great about high-end audio?

High or low-end audio? Does sound quality play a part in how much we enjoy music?

Side and top of an Ayre MX-R oh-so very high-end power amplifier. Steve Guttenberg

It's the hi-fi's job to produce the sound of music encoded in a recording.

Does how well or how accurately it produces the sound affect musical enjoyment? I'm not so sure about measurements; they just define distortion levels, power rating, and frequency response, but they don't have all that much to do with good sound. Good sound is much harder to nail down; we like what we like. You know good sound when you hear it.

Studio recordings rarely sound "live," or even realistic. How could they? Chances are the band never played the entire tune together "live" in the studio. Their music was patched together from bits and pieces, overdubbed, pitch corrected, rhythm corrected, EQ-ed, dynamically compressed, and processed in a gazillion ways. Of course, a lot of that also goes into modern "concert" recordings. So what constitutes a good sounding recording is pretty impossible to define. Play it back over a great system and what do you hear? Does it get your blood pumping?

So the question really is, does the music fully engage the listener? Sometimes, the better the hi-fi, the more music the listener hears, the more they like the music. Why that is? I don't know.

Vinyl playback is in most ways technically inferior to CD, but a lot of folks, including me, enjoy the sound of LPs more than CDs, or even SACDs or DVD-As. That's our subjective call, but I fully understand why some music lovers don't like vinyl; they can live happily ever after listening to digital. So it's not a matter of who's right and who's "wrong." It's like arguing about what's better, chocolate or vanilla?

It's about music, and I'm in favor of listening to music in the best possible way. If a better speaker gets you closer to the sound of your favorite music, it's worth it. High-end turntables minimize LP noise, and get more music out of the groove. That's why they're better. If I can occasionally feel like I'm in the room with the band, that's a thrill I'd rather not do without. That's what's so great about high-end audio.

What do you think?

Have you ever heard a high-end audio system?

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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