What does good sound sound like?

You don't need to be an audiophile to care about sound quality, but you do have to listen. Really listen.

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

Editors' note, October 3, 2012: This is an update of a poll from May 16, 2009.

I recently visited EarsNova, a high-end store in NYC, and heard one of the best-sounding hi-fis in my experience. The store's big Rockport Technologies speakers, Constellation Audio amplifiers, and dCS Digital gear reached beyond merely reproducing music, and with my eyes closed, the music sounded as close to lifelike as I've heard. The sound floated free of the speakers; it was effortlessly clear. The illusion worked best with orchestral music, but a few purely acoustic singer-songwriter CDs were almost as palpably realistic. And that's the goal: blurring the line between hi-fi and real, live music; that's what great sound sounds like to me. Lifelike rock recordings are harder to pull off, mostly because they almost always are so heavily processed and compressed they can't sound realistic.

You don't need to be an audiophile to hear the difference between average-sounding and great-sounding recordings, but you do have to listen. Really listen.

First try this experiment and set a benchmark: Listen to someone playing an acoustic guitar, in your room. Then play a recording of an acoustic guitar. Notice any difference in the sound quality between the two? Yeah, it's not even close. If your real, live guitar player can sing, next compare the sound of that person's voice to the recording's vocal. The recording's singer will most likely sound small, tonally thin, like the voice is coming out of tiny boxes. It might be hard to tell the singer has a flesh-and-blood body connected to that voice. The live guitar sounds big and clear -- very clear -- without any edge or harshness. Few recordings of guitar sound like the real thing.

My point here is to first establish a standard of what good sound sounds like to me. I like recordings that sound realistic. After all, if the musician on the record is playing a Gretsch Synchromatic 400 Acoustic Archtop guitar, I'd like to hear its unique sound. But if the producer and engineer recorded the Gretsch through a pickup instead of a microphone, equalized its sound, compressed its dynamic range, added digital reverb, and processed it to death -- there won't be much left to the Gretsch's sound. Then it's just a generic guitar, which is why I would describe the sound of the recording as "bad."

Most commercial recordings (purposely) distort the sound of vocals and instruments. And sure, they might even do it in a way that sounds great. That's the idea after all, but sometimes it's a treat to hear a recording that sounds like the band is in the room with you. If they're great players, I want to hear them play. That's what good sound sounds like to me.

There are objective standards that define sound quality: Low distortion, wide frequency response, and uninhibited dynamic range. Those are hardware-oriented standards, but they still apply to recordings to some degree.

But the business at hand today is to get feedback from Audiophiliac readers as to what you think constitutes "good sound." What qualities make for great-sounding recordings? Ultimately, we like what we like and that's fine. When you don't like the sound, what turns you off?