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Can recorded music ever sound like the real thing?

The very best hi-fis can get close to sounding live, but they're never 100 percent realistic.

The listening room may be a biggest obstacle to reaching ultimate audio nirvana
Steve Guttenberg

I've heard most of the world's very best speakers and amplifiers, and while they can sound pretty amazing at times, they never sound like live music. The reasons for the shortfall are many, but heading the list are recordings, there's way too much signal processing and manipulation imposed on the sound of instruments and vocals, so even if you had a perfect hi-fi, the recordings wouldn't sound realistic. Analog or digital? Sorry, neither has a real advantage here; state-of-the-art recording technology still loses too much information to achieve total fidelity.

I covered this subject in a recent article for Stereophile magazine, so I won't go over the same ground here. When I hear a street musician playing a violin, drums, an acoustic guitar, or singing, the sound never fails to amaze me. The sound of live amplified or purely acoustic music is unmistakable, and a pair of speakers, or a home theater can't even reproduce the sound of a single instrument. Reproducing the true sound of an entire rock band or symphony orchestra may never be possible at home.

For one thing, your living room is too small to accommodate the sound of an orchestra or a band. The acoustics aren't conducive for those kinds of sounds, and their wide soft-to-loud dynamic range would overwhelm the domestic music making experience. The science of room-correction signal processing still hasn't progressed to the point where the room's acoustic signature is out of the picture. You always hear the room.

Stereo or surround imaging never conjures a believable, full-bodied sound. I doubt we are going to get a lot closer to the sound of the real thing anytime soon. But we will continue to inch closer, and that's still tremendously exciting to me. Have you heard a hi-fi that could fool you into thinking you're hearing live music? Tell us about it in the Comments section.