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Speakers

Would you be happier listening to music if you had better sounding headphones or speakers?

It's not a trick question. Do you think sound quality enhances musical enjoyment?

Even as a kid I was always seeking out better sounding speakers. Sometimes I'd borrow friends' speakers just because I liked hearing familiar music sound different. With one set of speakers, vocals would be more or less prominent. Bass lines that were inaudible might come to life over a different set of speakers. Stereo imaging also changed, and becoming more aware of those differences led to more exploration, and that cycle of searching for better and different sound led to ever greater perception.

Years later, when I made my living selling high-end audio equipment and demonstrated great sounding systems to thousands of people, I realized that most folks weren't moved by sound. After the demo they'd shrug their shoulders, and say something like, "That's nice," and that was it.

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They don't sound the same, do they? Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Ah, but one out of three or four would totally get it. And they'd get really excited and say they never knew recorded music could sound that good. We'd then spend some time zeroing in on a system that they could afford. Some of these customers would eventually become audiophiles and their interest in music and sound would blossom. For some it was a life changing experience.

So yes, to answer my own question. Better gear can enhance some people's enjoyment of music. And yes, those that can't care less will be satisfied with whatever works for them. Hey, most folks are perfectly happy with the camera in their phones, but others seek out high-end dSLR cameras.

Back to audio: You'll never know what you're missing if you never get to hear your favorite music over a great set of speakers. And, if music is a big part of your life, that would be a shame.

With fewer brick and mortar stores selling high-end audio equipment nowadays, there's a lot less opportunity for novices to hear the good stuff. So if you have an interest in checking out some of the gear I cover in this blog, you might have to take a chance and buy it unheard -- hopefully with the option of returning it if the sound doesn't click with you.

The good news is that affordable speaker sound quality has never been better. The Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers (which cost $130 a pair), and Pioneer SP-FS52 towers ($260 a pair) are both highly recommended, and the Klipsch RP-150M ($335 a pair) and ELAC Debut B5 and B6 bookshelf speakers ($230 and $280 a pair) have all raised the standard of affordable speakers.

Of course, headphones are usually more affordable than speaker-based stereo systems. And, dollar for dollar, they make better sound than speakers do. The budget-priced FiiO EK1 ($90), Focal Sphear in-ears ($179), and Grado SR60e or SR80e full-size headphones ($79 or $99) might ignite a passion for high quality sound.

If you don't try, you won't know what you're missing. You may find you get more out of music when it sounds better than what you're used to. The sound has always been there, you just never heard it.