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Can hi-fis ever sound like real music?

Ponder this. Audiophile fantasy #1--the perfect hi-fi--wouldn't sound all that great. The problem: Nasty, awful sounding recordings, a lot of the music you own, would still sound awful.

Audiophiles are on a quest; we're always lusting after the perfect fill-in-the-blank (speaker, amplifier, turntable, CD player, etc).

Catch is, perfect gear wouldn't automatically make every recording sound life-like. At that point the gear wouldn't have a sound per-se; the recordings' sound would be laid bare.

The MBL 101X-Treme Reference System, $250,000, approaches perfection. MBL America

I wrote "How high do you want your fi?" for the April 2009 issue of Stereophile magazine, and I'm still getting a wide range of feedback about that piece from readers and friends.

I'm defining a "perfect" hi-fi as one that's indistinguishable from the sound of live instruments. No hi-fi has ever fully recreated the sound of a symphony orchestra, jazz group, or rock 'n' roll band. Solo instruments fare better, i.e. guitars, flutes, and vocals; you can almost get a glimpse of their sounds over the best high-end systems. But a drum kit? Piano? No way!

Audio components are far from perfect, so it's no surprise their sounds aren't 100 percent convincing. As imperfect as the gear is, the recordings themselves are even further away from documenting the sound of vocals and instruments.

The age-old analog/digital divide is the least of it. The musicians do their thing, and then the microphones, their positions relative to the instruments, the skill and imagination of the engineer/producer/mastering team's use of equalization, compression, processing, etc., create the sound we hear.

Pop or rock music is rarely played by the complete band, with vocals, live in the studio. Out-of-tune singers and players are pitch-corrected, drummers' off-kilter rhythms are tweaked, there's not a lot of there there to reproduce. Most recordings are so heavily processedthey could never sound real.

Think about it: if you were in a room with a singer playing an acoustic guitar and a drummer, without any amplification, you'd never hear the singer or the guitar. It takes a whole lot of dynamic range compression and equalization to create the illusion of pop music. And if it never exists in real life, it can never truly sound real over a hi-fi system.

The bottlenecks standing in the way of perfect sound reproduction are, in more or less equal proportions, the recordings, loudspeakers, and the listening room's acoustics. So, even with our fantasy-perfect hi-fi and a dead-accurate recording, the average living room acoustics wouldn't support the sound of a live band. The room's too small.

High-end audio may not be perfect, but it's light years ahead of $49 plastic computer speakers or the freebie earbuds that come with iPods and MP3 players. High-end audio, at its best, gets you a lot closer to the music. If you really love music, every little improvement to sound quality makes the investment worthwhile.

And please don't get the wrong idea, high-end audio isn't always stupid expensive. Vandersteen Audio's Model 1C tower speakers ($785 a pair) are a good place to start. Look for the full review at CNET Reviews soon.