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Why do musicians have lousy hi-fis?

It's one of life's little mysteries, but most musicians have the crappiest stereo systems.

I know it doesn't make sense, but it's true: most musicians don't have good hi-fis.

To be fair, most musicians don't have hi-fis at all, because like most people musicians listen in their cars, on computers, or with cheap headphones. Musicians don't have turntables, CD players, stereo amplifiers, and speakers. Granted, most musicians aren't rich, so they're more likely to invest whatever available cash they have in buying instruments. That's understandable, but since they so rarely hear music over a decent system they're pretty clueless about the sound of their recordings.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Musicians who are also audiophiles are rare, though I've met quite a few. Trumpet player Jon Faddis was definitely into it, and I found he had a great set of ears when he came to my apartment years ago to listen to his favorite Dizzy Gillespie recordings. Most musicians I've met at recording sessions focus on the sound of their own instrument, and how it stands out in the mix. They don't seem all that interested in the sound of the group.

I remember a bass player at a jazz recording session who grew impatient with the time the engineer was taking to get the best possible sound from his 200-year-old-acoustic bass. After ten minutes the bassist asked the engineer to plug into a pickup on his instrument, so he wouldn't take up any more time setting up the microphone. The engineer wasn't thrilled with the idea, because he would then just have the generic sound of a pickup rather than the gorgeous sound of the instrument. I was amazed: the man probably paid $100,000 for his bass, and he didn't care if its true sound was recorded or not. His performance was what mattered.

From what I've seen, musicians listen differently from everyone else. They focus on how well the music is being played, the structure of the music, and the production. The quality of the sound? Not so much!

Some musicians have home studios, but very few of today's home (or professional) studios sound good in the audiophile sense. Studios use big pro monitor speakers designed to be hyperanalytical, so you hear all of even the most subtle details in the sound. That's the top requirement, but listening for pleasure is not the same as monitoring. That's not just my opinion -- very, very few audiophiles use studio monitors at home. It's not their large size or four-figure price tags that stop them, as most high-end audiophile speakers are bigger and more expensive. No, studio monitor sound has little appeal for the cognoscenti because pro speakers don't sound good.

I have seen the big Bowers & Wilkins, Energy, ProAc, and Wilson audiophile speakers used by mastering engineers, so it does work the other way around. Audiophile speakers can be used as monitors, but I can't name one pro monitor that has found widespread acceptance in the audiophile world.

Like I said, musicians rarely listen over any sort of decent hi-fi, and that might be part of the reason they make so few great-sounding records. They don't know what they're missing.