What’s so great about high-end audio?



What's so great about high-end audio?

by Steve Guttenberg

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Side and top of an Ayre MX-R oh-so very high-end power amplifier.

(Credit: Steve Guttenberg)

It's the hi-fi's job to produce the sound of music encoded in a recording.

Does how well or how accurately it produces the sound affect musical enjoyment? I'm not so sure about measurements; they just define distortion levels, power rating, and frequency response, but they don't have all that much to do with good sound. Good sound is much harder to nail down; we like what we like. You know good sound when you hear it.

Studio recordings rarely sound "live," or even realistic. How could they? Chances are the band never played the entire tune together "live" in the studio. Their music was patched together from bits and pieces, overdubbed, pitch corrected, rhythm corrected, EQ-ed, dynamically compressed, and processed in a gazillion ways. Of course, a lot of that also goes into modern "concert" recordings. So what constitutes a good sounding recording is pretty impossible to define. Play it back over a great system and what do you hear? Does it get your blood pumping?

So the question really is, does the music fully engage the listener? Sometimes, the better the hi-fi, the more music the listener hears, the more they like the music. Why that is? I don't know.

Vinyl playback is in most ways technically inferior to CD, but a lot of folks, including me, enjoy the sound of LPs more than CDs, or even SACDs or DVD-As. That's our subjective call, but I fully understand why some music lovers don't like vinyl; they can live happily ever after listening to digital. So it's not a matter of who's right and who's "wrong." It's like arguing about what's better, chocolate or vanilla?

It's about music, and I'm in favor of listening to music in the best possible way. If a better speaker gets you closer to the sound of your favorite music, it's worth it. High-end turntables minimize LP noise, and get more music out of the groove. That's why they're better. If I can occasionally feel like I'm in the room with the band, that's a thrill I'd rather not do without. That's what's so great about high-end audio.

What do you think?

Have you ever heard a high-end audio system?

Steve Guttenberg is a frequent contributor to magazines and Web sites including Home Entertainment, Playback, and Ultimate AV. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

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by cvaldes1831 June 25, 2009 9:06 AM PDT
It's really about diminishing returns. I'm all for high-quality speakers (I bought a used pair of Thiel Audios for $600) and much of it has to do with placement.

That said, I like live performances by great performers in top-notch venues. Even in a staid classical concert, there *is* an interaction between the performer(s) and the audience. There's a tension and anticipation that simply is lost once you've listened to a record once. When you listen again, you already know what's coming.

Are my $600 speakers better than $20,000 ones? Maybe not. Are the $20,000 ones 33.33x better than mine? If you are happy spending your money on all that gear, more the power to you.

I must say that at least audiophile enthusiasts listen to music. A lot of wine collectors just look at dusty bottles with moldy labels, and a lot of Leica owners just polish camera lenses.

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by HiFiCollectorDOTcom June 25, 2009 9:27 AM PDT
"I'm not so sure about measurements; they just define distortion levels, power rating, and frequency response, but they don't have all that much to do with good sound."

Yes, but these are all the things that human ears can actually hear. I'm a firm believer that when it comes to amplifiers, preamps, and CD players, mid priced units with high input impedance, low output impedance, flat frequency response, low distortion, and low noise will sound every bit as good as gear costing ten times as much. Double-blind tests have proved this to be true. I suggest we purchase high-end gear for other benefits : better build quality, greater reliability, better retention of value, greater pride of ownership. Because when it comes down to it, measurements do count, and ABX testing has proved this.

Thanks, and keep up the great work. – HiFiCollector.com

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by 54321ron June 25, 2009 11:35 AM PDT
I demoed a $25k system at a dealer & the "being there live" felling was uncanny. This became my reference when I started putting a system together. I've spent about $4k for a 2 channel system with $3k going to the speakers and it gives me that same feeling with some of my music. For example, I enjoy listening to Amos Lee and I feel like he is singing in the room every time. I saw him live last month and while the show was great, the sound quality was not. So now, I combine the memory and ambiance of that live show with the quality of the music coming out of my system and the experience is that much better. It's the most I've ever spent on a system but it is definitely worth it.
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by TXinD76121 June 25, 2009 12:37 PM PDT
The sadness of "high end audio systems" (I've heard a number of them) is that they so often start with a flawed source. As the recording industry has gone downhill, record companies spend less and less on recording sessions–some of which are now done for as little as a few thousand dollars, a small fraction of what would have been spent on a recording production years ago. It's mostly done according to what's easiest and cheapest, with no care whatsoever for sound quality. Rudy Van Gelder and Wilma Cozart Fine were doing better work with much more primitive microphones fifty years ago–Van Gelder literally in apartment living rooms. Even when recordings get some money spent on them today, the money isn't spent on the right things–rather, the sound is massaged and compressed and computerized and manipulated nineteen different ways until it has little to do with any acoustic event.

Why bother with an extreme audio system when 97% of the music being made is recorded barely even competently? Listen to a really beautifully-crafted record like, say, Erik Friedlander's "Broken Arm Trio" vs. a really horribly recorded album like Neil Young's "Living With War." THAT'S where sound quality really resides, not in the difference between a $2,000 and a $20,000 amplifier. "Living With War" STARTS OUT sounding like an AM radio in a '77 Pontiac. Yes, you can get the gist of it even so, but you just plain can't put enough lipstick on that pig–it makes a high end system totally pointless. And, unfortunately, that's overwhelmingly the norm these days. Purely in terms of sound quality, "Broken Arm Trio" will sound better on ANY system, not just super-expensive ones.

Audiophiles are left in a really weird position: we listen to poor recordings on inferior media (CD and vinyl) on super-expensive audio setups. Maybe if more care and effort were more routinely expended at the beginning of the chain, less would need to be done at the end of it.

–Blue Mikey

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by pubmat June 26, 2009 8:06 AM PDT
So true. From the 400 pound gorilla of dynamic range compression, the loudness wars, et al, modern recorded music has been ruined, At a time when we could be taking huge leaps forward in playback fidelity with dvd-a, sacd, or blu-ray music discs, we've backslid into oblivion.

by TheTurntableFactory June 25, 2009 1:13 PM PDT
My first exposure to "hi-end" audio was at an older friend?s home about 1985 with Magnepan speakers (they were nearly 6 feet tall), Macintosh separates, and a Shure V15 III pickup. My MFSL recording came alive that night; I was floored, and hooked. I'd grown up with a 1972 Panasonic CD-4 setup that was at best, tolerable. I spent the next twenty years looking for that sound again, knowing that my weakness was always the end component, speakers and a small annoyance, my turntable. A recent friendship brought me to my current end component, Grado GS1000 headphones. Not the best fitting pair I've handled, but the sound floors me no matter what the source (iPod, laptop, or MFSL vinyl through some of the best and affordable equipment made.)

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to impress a 20 year old vinyl fan. With a capable turntable in hand, he brought me an AT 440MLa he received as a birthday present. After mounting the cartridge and showing him how to adjust the tonearm properly, we hooked it up to my system, and played some Supertramp "Breakfast In America". By the look on his face, he was floored with the sound that came out of my speakers, and showing him how capable his source for music was.

I think a lot of audiophiles spend too much time debating intangible characteristics, and spending too much money on a solitary hobby. The best sound that I've ever heard from any component was that which was enthusiastically shared with friends and family. It's something that can't be measured or bought, but is enjoyed and cherished forever.

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by HalSF June 25, 2009 2:33 PM PDT
Chocolate is better, by the way.
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by buzzvader June 25, 2009 3:06 PM PDT
I've listened to great bands live like Chicago, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Leo Kottke, and even the Buffalo Philharmonic in a hall designed by Eli Saarinen and his son (Kleinhans Music Hall) in Buffalo, N.Y. You know what? A studio recording sounds better than all of these after it's done. Even music played on an older tube radio sounds better than many live shows. 60s radio.com sounds better than some music.
Just my opinion, but give me an Ampzilla or Audio Research tube amp and a set of Magnepans with a Dual turntable to play vinyl records and you have sound heaven!
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by one_flat_monkey June 25, 2009 6:03 PM PDT
I hope some time you have the opportunity to hear the Linn LP12 turntable with a good cartridge. I've owned both a Dual and the Linn, and there's a lot of difference.

by coprock June 26, 2009 10:09 AM PDT
Studio recording better than live? I find listening to recorded classical music unsatisfying after seeing a live symphony or chamber music presentation, especially at a place like Disney Hall. In my heart I know that it would take much $$$ to purchase a system that could even make a recording come close.

I agree with you regarding rock concerts, because I usually find the acoustics and sound pretty crappy, unless it is an intimate club and I am 10 feet in front of the stage.

by sspadafo July 2, 2009 1:16 AM PDT
Steve, great article.

There are two things I know are certain, and NOT subjective
1. CDs sound better than Vinyl
and even more important…
2. Chocolate is WAY better than Vanilla 😉

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by mikeinhouston July 2, 2009 3:18 PM PDT
OK, CD's will never sound as good as vinyl, not even using a $200 turntable against a $50,000 CD transport/DAC set up. The term 'sample rate' means just that, part of the original. Vinyl, in most instances is the orginal.

I had not listened to vinyl in years, but out of curiosity took my 1981 Reference (from Pacific Stereo)Direct Drive semiautomatic turntable out, with it's circa 1987 Shure 104e cartridge and fired up a new pressing of Hotel California and I was SHOCKED by how much fuller and deeper the sound was. The wife even noticed without prompting. I compared that to a heavily modded Denon 5910ci playing the same recording on DVD-Audio, and it was no contest. Let's not even discuss CD's or lossless files even running those through the Bel Canto Dac III I had at the time. The sound from that is good, but it's not anywhere near as good as vinyl.

The subsequent Clearaudio and VPI tables I have bought have been absolutely magical.

My first hi end audio experience also was with Magnepan speakers, and no matter how many others I try, I always come back to them. Currently my 3.6R's are driven by amazing Cary Audio CAD 500 monoblocks and a Cary SLP98P F1 tube preamp.

Long live vinyl.

Chocolate is better than vanilla though.

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by DaveOCP July 5, 2009 8:51 AM PDT
Almost all recordings range from atrocious to tolerable. This is why I think that the best sound system is one that can make poor recordings sound as good as possible. That means a nice, warm midrange and somewhat forgiving (but not dark) highs. A speaker that shines a thousand watt spotlight on every last flaw, and sounds good with one recording out of a thousand is pointless.
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by Donkeyshins July 15, 2009 3:10 PM PDT
Define 'high-end'.

My system at home (Denon DL-103R -> Origin Live RB250 -> Nottingham Analogue Interspace -> Kenwood C2 Basic -> custom Dynaco ST-35 -> Kipsch Heresy II + HSU VTF-1) may not qualify as a high-end system by the likes of TAS or Stereophile, but it sure sounds great to me. And yes, I also have a digital source (and a tuner and cassette deck) but I do the majority of listening to vinyl – both new and original releases.

The best part, I spent way, way less than high-end prices on most of this stuff.


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