New Contest! Last Winner Poses Question

Lots of great questions and comments from last contest asking for topics, but the one that caught my eye came from SAS ...

"Is it more important for an audio system to faithfully reproduce whatever is on the recording or to make all recordings sound good?"

This may be the $64,000 question in audiophilia, as far as I'm concerned. If it's the former, well, we might as well give up on objective reviews and just read measurements. If it's the latter, there's no need for an engineering degree --- as long as it doesn't smoke when you turn it on, and it manages to give you an eargasm, you're good.

Alright, maybe it's not that cut and dried, but it's your thoughts on how to split the difference that count. Post them below, and if I find your answer the most interesting, you'll receive a $50 gift certificate to

Email sent, SAS, thanks for the great question!

rgovett's picture

I think it should let you hear exactly what was recorded or you will be missing out on what the artist wanted you to experience ..

dalethorn's picture

A music lover like myself who has music in a wide variety of genres as well as a wide range of quality, would like to have a single system that sounds good on the maximum percentage of music tracks in their collection. Good means good detail, but not so much that too many tracks sound rough because the detail includes too much noise and distortion, which are always present in recordings. Good means good bass, but not so much that too large a percentage of the tracks sound boomy or have excessive thumping. Systems that sound good on a very wide variety of recordings tend to sound similar because they have to be as inoffensive as possible on the majority of music that the majority of people have in their possession. There are more specialized systems that fans of a particular genre favor for that genre, having sound qualities that would not appeal to the majority of audiophiles. As far as accuracy goes, it is definitely secondary to sounding good, even among audiophiles. Perfectionists such as the late Gordon Holt preferred accuracy, to the extent that he could get it, but his music listening was largely confined to live recordings produced by people who understood the preferences of people like him. Putting together a really accurate system according to Gordon Holt standards, to play a fairly narrow range of recordings, would be a very expensive proposition for the average audiophile, based on the equipment dollars spent per recording played. So to answer the question of which is more important, if your requirements are for accuracy Holt-style and you have the necessary budget, there you go. For the vast majority of us, accuracy is something we may get closer to as recordings and playback equipment get better with improvements in technology, but accuracy still has to take a back seat to sounding good when accuracy doesn't sound good.

donunus's picture

I'm fine with accuracy first because the music will speak for itself if it is enjoyable to listen to or not.

Of course there really is no such a thing as a perfectly accurate audio system. In the end, most audiophiles settle for the lesser evil with the equipment they are selecting. Audiophiles find equipment that give the least offensive coloration to them.

Gatepc's picture

I think that is a very difficult question. The headphones in my opinion should be able to reproduce the music as accurately as possible. This leaves room for you to add your own musicality or sound to the headphones with different amps. For example on my k702s with my Burson amp it sounds amazing on good recordings however on poorer recordings it tends to sound way to analytical to fix this I just pop it over to my Little Dot MK III and it smooths it out and makes it more musical, granted at the cost of detail. You would not be able to do this if the headphones where already lacking detail with a musical warmth however with headphones like the K702 that are a little analytical this can be done. So no matter what your taste you can create using the right amps as long as you start off with a good pair of headphones. I'm not saying its impossible to have headphones that do both quite well but this is one answer to the problem.

SAS's picture

You could have a very accurate amplifier that is capable of driving any headphones, and vary the headphones that you use depending on the music style and/or quality. Either way will get you there. I find greater differences in headphones than in amplifiers, so I would tend to go that route.

Loudspeaker-based systems make such an approach much more difficult and expensive.

gurubhai's picture

From my limited experience, I have come to believe that a faithful reproduction system would actually make all recordings sound good.
A colored system may work very well with some recordings but it would falter with others. A faithful music on the other hand would render all the recording as they were & if you like that brand of music, there is no reason why you won't enjoy it.
A faithful resolving reproduction system is all I personally need to enjoy my music.

RudeWolf's picture

Well, first of all there is this question about what sounds good. Can't faithful be good? I'm pretty sure that there is at least one case when faithful can be good- it's when the recording is done good. Faithful could be always good if all recordings were well done but anyone who has dived in to the abyss that audiophilia is knows that after some time you realise that the recording quality of some of your favourite tunes is downright horrid. I guess that's the only thing I don't like about this new hobby of mine- mourning the old favourites.

Now there's this other question- does a colourated system make all recordings sound good? At this moment I'm wearing my Grado SR80i's and I know that I've never heard a better rendition of Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and other "tame" recordings. But God forbid, if I accidently play something that has been but touched by the loudness war. Can you say Deaf Magnetic? What? I can't hear you!

My take on this "audiophiliacs dilemma" is that a faithful system makes good recordings sound excellent and bad recordings sound irritating. The colourated system renders some music in a really fun way, but when you feed it with the wrong kind of juice the presentation becomes unbearable. So theres good and bad on the both sides of the coin. I guess it all boils down to what are you listening to. And if all fails one must keep in mind that theres always some obscure record you don't know about.

Soaa-'s picture

There isn't a single right answer. It would depend first and foremost on the listener's preference. Even in the most knowledgeable hi-fi circles, you find a group who calls a system cold and clinical like it's a bad thing, and you'll find a group that swears by that signature.

Ideally, pristine recordings should be played back on a system that is perfectly accurate. However, this raises two problems: limiting oneself to only the best recordings means one will miss out on a lot of music, and how uncolored are recordings to begin with?

Personally, I prefer to hear the flaws in my recordings if any are present, but that may not be the case for everyone. And honestly, I'm not one to tell someone who just wants to enjoy his music otherwise.

dalethorn's picture

If I could assume that not all high-priced headphones are intended for high fidelity use, it might explain a significant anomaly with some users.

If I had a bass-heavy music track, I would prefer a flat/neutral headphone to play it, or, I might apply some EQ to reduce the bass, or even use a bass-light headphone to compensate.

But why would any music lover demand a bass-heavy headphone to play bass-heavy tracks? Is that high fidelity in any sense? Is it audiophile? Maybe it's something that doesn't have much of anything to do with hi-fi or music - maybe it's some other category of listening altogether.

EDIT: I ask because there's a lot of that on Head-Fi (get it? "Fi"?), and no real explanation.

donunus's picture

Some people want to make use of the bass capability of their equipment. They want to play the biggest and baddest bass music to show off their systems. I see this a lot in car audio shows for example. Its not a habit of audiophiles wanting to listen to music, its more like a mines louder than yours kind of thing.

dalethorn's picture

I can understand that with a car stereo where you impress the heck out of everyone you pass close to, with huge earth-shaking bass and all. But with a headphone on your head where only you can hear it, the extra heavy bass just muddies up the sound. Are they making these bass-heavy headphones so kids can walk around with their DAP's and headphones, to hand to their friends to impress them? It seems peculiar. Then I read a review on the Shure 940 by someone who likes intimate female vocal music with little or no bass, who then switches to music with thunderous bass and boosts the bass further with extra-bass headphones. That makes no sense. Unless that person is listening to recordings of rockets being fired at close range, and has a death wish for his ears. I can't think of any genre of music that would benefit from such muddy bass via headphones.

Mortsnets's picture

This is tough. I don't want my equipment dictating that I can play only audiophile recordings yet I don't want to miss stuff from the high quality recordings. Maybe two systems?

It is not universally accepted that there is a continuum from euphony to accuracy and a trade-off is neccessary.

According to Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note: the better gear gets the most musical meaning out of even your worst quality recordings.

When deciding between two components what sounds good is more practical for me because I don't really know what is accurate - how the original recording should sound.

In his article "Are you on the road to audio hell?" Leonard Norwitz proposes that the best system maximizes the differences between recordings.

There may be other goals for listeners and equipment makers than just accuracy or pleasant sounds.

The Audio Federation store blog makes the following distinctions in the goals/results of high end systems:

Boy Toy systems: make loud noises
Gee Whiz systems: use really cool technology
Practical systems: are easy to listen to music on
Drug-like systems: evoke intense musical experiences

Another set of categories the blogger uses for components is:

Impressive - Exaggerated bass and/or dynamics and/or detail
Sweet - Exaggerated harmonics and/or warmth
Enjoyable - Nice to listen to, pleasant, musical
Emotional - Music often pulls at heart strings
Sophisticated - Excessive micro-dynamics and finesse, entertains the mind
Natural - Timbre/tone is correct, everything else well balanced, especially note attack and decay
Workhorse - Competent with no real intention to do anything specific especially well
Real/Truth - Transparent, accurate
Magical/Spiritual - Precipitates psychological effects other than what might be expected

Twinster's picture

For me it's all about the musical pleasure I'm getting from a good song. I like to think that what I'm hearing is what was intended by the sound engineers but we all know that we all ear differently so all it matters when I select a song from my library and then select my headphone and press play and wait patiently those leading seconds until the music start flowing in my ear like the blood in my veins and then I'm alive again playing guitars with Hendrix, playing piano like Jarrett. Amen!

LFF's picture

I'm with twinster. For me, it's all about the joy I get from listening to good music. If that means that I have to tweak my music to sound more natural and accurate, then so be it. it more important for an audio system to faithfully reproduce whatever is on the recording or to make all recordings sound good?

The answer should be "It depends". It depends what the audio system is going to used for, how much it costs and if, after everything is said and done, will it make you happy. If it makes you happy in the end...who cares!

Dull...bright...natural...etc...the only person who should give a damn is you and if you are happy with it, then that is all that really matters. Pay no attention to the naysayers and enjoy what your hard earned money has paid for.

Personally, I want an audio system to faithfully reproduce whatever is on the recording so that I can try to decipher how it was recorded and what processing, if any, it has received. You can learn a lot from great recordings as well as bad ones and that is why I cherish an accurate system that can show me the variety of recording tips and tricks used these days. After all...variety is the spice of life.

JohnHall's picture

People like different things. Most are pretty casual listeners. They listen to music while they cook and entertain and ride in their cars. For most of these types of listeners going to a big box store and buying some all in one solution is just fine for them. All of my friends fall into this category. Something that makes all of their music sound big and full will satisfy most of their need nicely.
Most of the readers of this magazine, including myself, love music on a whole different level. We want to be able to close our eyes and 'be there' with the music. For that you need an accurate playback system. That doesn't mean that you must spend obscene amounts of money to attain accuracy, however. Trust your ears people.

michaelfox's picture

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