As system improves, do bad recordings sound worse?


My early efforts to improve my system usually resulted in making bad recordings sound worse. But at some point in my upgrade history, bad recordings started to sound better - in fact, better than I ever thought possible.

Anybody have a similar experience? Anybody have a theory as to why?
bryoncunningham
In my experience,a bad recording is a bad recording.Better equipment might seem to help at first but the first impressions die off pretty quickly.Like I said this is my experience,others may differ.
Maybe the recordings actually were not 'bad'. Something in your previous system MADE them sound bad.
Take shrill digital recordings.. They get 'fixed by better DACs, BUT!! was the problem really a crappy recording, or your prior crappy DAC?
Sooooo...
Anyway, I just listen through the bad sound to the music.. and maybe turn it down a little...
Hi Bryon,

Here is another thread on essentially the same question. Quoting from therein:
(The question, posed by MrTennis): It is my hypothesis that greater resolution, while possibly "improving" the sound of well-recorded cds, makes poor recordings sound worse. thus, is greater resolution a boon or a bane?

(My answer): That was my initial expectation during the years when my system was evolving from low fi to mid fi to somewhere in the middle of the high end part of the spectrum. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that was not what happened.

What I found, at least with the classical recordings that comprise most of my listening, is that just about any recording manages to get at least a few things mostly right, and as my system improved and the things that were right about the recordings were reproduced with greater realism, my attention would be drawn by that realism to what was right about the recordings, and not what was wrong.

That said, though, I do find that a disproportionately high share of my listening is to recordings that are on audiophile labels or are otherwise high quality. And as Elizabeth said, if I had a $200K system it might be a different story.
Best regards,
-- Al
bad recordings should sound better but the differences between all kinds of recordings should become more apparent. most recordings should be listenable unless the copy is defective.
Thanks for the responses so far.

Maybe the recordings actually were not 'bad'. Something in your previous system MADE them sound bad.

Elizabeth - There's some truth in this, I think. What was paradoxical, though, was that sometimes what made recordings sound worse was an ostensible IMPROVEMENT to the system.

In the OP of a recent thread, I suggested one possible theory for this, namely, that the combination of highly resolving downstream components (e.g., speakers) with less resolving upstream components (e.g., sources) tends to result in the magnification of the flaws of the upstream components. Therefore, when a downstream component is upgraded, without a comparable improvement to upstream components, flawed recordings might actually sound worse.

...as my system improved and the things that were right about the recordings were reproduced with greater realism, my attention would be drawn by that realism to what was right about the recordings, and not what was wrong.

Al - This captures my experiences during the second half (more or less) of my upgrade history, but not the first half.

Bad recordings should sound better but the differences between all kinds of recordings should become more apparent.

Mapman - I agree with this completely. I made a similar observation in another recent thread.
I believe as you improve your system, the ability to play back music with higher resolution improves, but a bad recording will still be a bad recording played back on a higher resolution system. There is no fixing a bad recording and using whatever mechanism to play it back will only highlight more of the problems of the bad recording but at a greater and higher resolution.
Ciao,
Audioquest4life
Audioquest4life says it best. You can't get something out of nothing. If the source is flawed, the rest of the chain cannot fix it. Perhaps a helpful tool in our hobby would be the Recording Engineer's name just below the song title, or at least next to the label.
I believe a bad recording is a bad recording, garbage in garbage out.
What recordings do you use when you are making changes (improvements) to your system? Do you use only the best recordings or do you use average recordings? The really exceptional recordings sound good on any system and when we compare the best recordings to average recordings it can be disappointing.
I believe everyone has experienced what you have mentioned here.
If we make an improvement and a group of recordings sound worse, did we really make an improvement?
I know a speaker manufacturer that would only use vinyl when designing his speakers. He said it was because vinyl sounded better. You can imagine how bad CDs sounded on those speakers. He finally realized he had to use both formats.
The same is true for evaluating our systems. We need to use a wide variety of recordings otherwise our music collection will shrink to a tiny handful of recordings.
Truly bad pop recordings of the late 1990s are digital horrors, many other recordings overused analog "improvements" such as reverb and sound phony, and early classical recordings lack the dynamics of real music. I think your question depends largely on what you listen to. Generally, I find that improvements in my system raise the level of virtually every records with the exception of those I listed above. I am not saying, of course, that now poorly recorded material rivals well recorded music.
hi byron:

the issue is what is meant by "improves" and what is considered a "good" system.

i believe that audio is a subjective hobby so what constitutes "improvement" is a matter of personal taste.

if improvement=greater resolution , while maintaining a balanced frequency response, i maintain that recordings which are engineered to have a peak in say the range, 1000 -3000 hz, will sound more fatiguing.

i did raise this question as almarg has indicated but i was a bit vague about what constitutes a poor recording.

i am trying to be more specific by saying recordings having frequency response errors will, in a better system, as i have implied be exposed to a greater extent than in another system with certain colorations.
"As system improves, do bad recordings sound worse?"

In my experience, most definitely yes.
As system improves, do bad recordings sound worse?

In my experience, yes.
Depends on what you compare to.

They may be more disappointing and seemingly worse in comparison to good recordings now but should still sound better than they did originally.
As system quality improves, it becomes increasingly difficult to make lesser quality recordings sound agreeable. However, since this is all about MUSIC, the essence and spirit of the performance can be brought out regardless. Any system must have a SOLID foundation of the three pillars of audio: 1)power 2)acoustics 3)resonance control. Per a phone conversation on this particular subject with Albert Porter a few years ago, he told me that his system could successfully play any recording, but that any change could take him up to a month of tweaking to get it back on this track.
I don't know if they consistently sound worse or not, but as my system improved it became clearer why a certain recordings are "bad".
"As system improves, do bad recordings sound worse?"

Absolutely NOT.

How can a system be viewed upon as 'improving' when it makes ones cd's sound worse? DOH.

(well, maybe if one has bad speakers to start with that need well recorded material to shine, and owners to meekly try and justify a mega buck price tag).
Absolutely, not...after chasing the audio gods for a few years, I settled on Conrad Johnson + Proac combo...haven't heard a bad recording since then
There seems to be quite a difference of opinion so far, ranging from "most definitely yes" to "absolutely not" to "it depends on the recording." I wonder what accounts for the discrepancy. Maybe it's a consequence of different audiophile priorities and the differences in the systems they assemble as a result of those priorities. In the March 2010 TAS, Jonathan Valin said this about audiophile priorities:

...there are three kinds of listeners (though these types tend to overlap): first, those who primarily want recorded instruments and voices to sound like live music - what I can the "absolute sound" type; second, those who want to hear exactly what has been recorded, whether it's lifelike or not - what I call the "fidelity to mastertapes" type; and third, those who could care less about the absolute sound or mastertapes and just want to hear their music sounding thrilling and beautiful - what I call the "as you like it" type.

As I see it, the first kind of audiophile above prioritizes TRANSPARENCY to the musical event. The second prioritizes ACCURACY to the software. And the third prioritizes MUSICALITY as he defines it.

How does this bear on the question in the OP? Here's a theory...

For the audiophile who prioritizes ACCURACY to the software, and who builds a system that reflects that priority, bad recordings tend to sound worse as his system "improves," i.e., becomes more accurate.

For the audiophile who prioritizes MUSICALITY as he defines it, and who builds a system that reflects that priority, bad recordings tend to sound better as his system "improves," i.e., becomes more musical.

For the audiophile who prioritizes TRANSPARENCY to the musical event, and who builds a system that reflects that priority, bad recordings sometimes sound better, sometimes sound worse (depending upon the particulars of the recording), as his system "improves," i.e., becomes more transparent.

Jonathan Valin, for example, seems to prioritize musicality and transparency more than accuracy. As a result, he says:

I've never fully understood why a piece of gear has to periodically make records sound "bad" to pass audiophile muster.

Of course, other reviewers and other audiophiles have different priorities, and the systems they assemble reflect those priorities. That is why different systems handle bad recordings differently. And that accounts for the variation in opinion expressed in this thread.

Thoughts?
The difference in opinions is because the professional is able to compensate the idiosyncracies of his equipment. I can get my system to successfully play any recording of any music genre, regarding of its quality because...

"High end is who you are, not what you buy."

With psychic power and primal intensity,
this discussion has not included a statement of definition of poor recordings.

i attempted to suggest at least a connotation of a bad recording, and given such a definition, it is then necessary to define what improvement menas.

if one assumes that "improves" means, less errors in frequency response, then it follows that a recording with errors in frequency response will become more evident.

for some this situation is indicative of a better stereo system, but clearly the flaws in a recording could be fatiguing.
Moving from a warm system to a neutral and highly resolving setup can make recordings seem to sound thin and strident in some cases. I always measure system improvements by whether good recordings sound better.
One theory: As your system improved, you simply became more aware of what those recordings actually sounded like, and with time "acclimated" to their sound.

To disprove this theory you could define specifically what made the recordings sound bad, and confirm that those elements were alleviated by system enhancements. As another test, you could listen to recordings you thought sounded bad earlier in the upgrade cycle, but have not listened to for some time (and some upgrades): do they sound bad in the way they did before (indicates acclimation is the cause of your changing perception), or have they improved (indicates something other than acclimation)?

A second theory: Part of what you hear (and this is always true) is your system, and your system's interaction with certain recordings was unpleasant. But, as you became more familiar with the sound of your system, you were able to separate it from the recording, and the recording no longer stood out the way it initially did. (Or, possibly, later upgrades mitigated the unpleasant interaction.)

To determine if it is a system interaction issue, you could try the recordings on one or more completely different systems and see if the recordings still sound bad, and in the same way.

There is, of course, the possibility that the overall effect is a combination of these two phenomena.

I agree with Mrtennis, however, that it is important to define in what way a recording is "bad." For instance, I can think of four experiences I've had with bad recordings:

1. A recorded voice distorted because of poorly chosen recording levels, a bad microphone, or whatever. I didn't hear it with a lo-fi system, but it became apparent with upgrades. Nothing I've ever done has made it better, however.

2. Recordings that simply have a rough, "raw" sound. Again, it became more apparent with upgrades, but I realized that that was what the music really sounded like, and I adapted and learned to appreciate it.

3. Low-resolution recordings. Initially, upgrades (which improved the system's resolution) made these recordings sound rough, low-res, and ugly. Later upgrades (which improved musicality), made them prettier, and improved apparent resolution.

4. In my experience, better components (and especially better chosen components) handle shrillness better, so recordings with that characteristic will tend to sound better as your system evolves toward your personal tonal preferences.

I guess what I'm saying is that in addition to more than one type of listener, there is more than one type of bad recording. And the specific way in which a recording is bad may affect how we experience it later in time and later in the upgrade cycle.
I am increasingly of the opinion that the mark of a good system is that most all recordings of interest at least sound good enough to retain the listeners interest. Most recordings have deficiencies versus the ideal but few sound "bad" to me off late, unless they are defective in some. Defects that can make a recording sound bad are more common with vinyl (usually wear and tear on the grooves with used records more so than inherent manufacturing defects) than CD/digital I find.

If only audiophile quality recordings that you like sound good enough to retain your interest, I think there is a good chance something can be done with the system to rectify that, often without having to undertake an expensive upgrade even.
Mrtennis wrote:
The issue is what is meant by "improves" and what is considered a "good" system…i believe that audio is a subjective hobby so what constitutes "improvement" is a matter of personal taste.
To a large extent, I agree with this. I believe that how you answer the question in the OP tells you something about what you consider an “improvement.” Specifically...

(a) If you answer “definitely yes,” then you can conclude that, to you, “improvement” is largely a matter of increasing ACCURACY to the software. Because making system changes that result in increased accuracy, I believe, makes bad recordings sound worse.

(b) If you answer “definitely no,” then you can conclude that, to you, “improvement” is largely a matter of increasing MUSICALITY as you define it. Because making system changes that result in increased musicality, I believe, makes bad recordings sound better.

(c) If you answer “it depends on the recording,” then you can conclude that, to you, “improvement” is largely a matter of increasing TRANSPARENCY to the musical event. Because making system changes that result in increased transparency, I believe, makes some recordings sound better, others worse, depending upon the particular flaws of the recording.

In this way, the question in the OP is a kind of litmus test for judging what system characteristics you prioritize as an audiophile. For example, Gawdbless wrote:
Absolutely NOT. How can a system be viewed upon as 'improving' when it makes ones cd's sound worse?
I would conclude from this that Gawdbless prioritizes musicality over accuracy, at least when making "improvements" to his system.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m NOT saying that accuracy, musicality, and transparency are, necessarily, mutually exclusive characteristics. But budgets are limited, and no system can do everything, so audiophiles are forced to prioritize which characteristics they value the most, especially when changing components with the hope of hearing "improvements." This, I believe, accounts for many of the differences in the systems they assemble. It also accounts for the different answers to the question in the OP.

That's my theory, anyway.
As the speed of the amp increases, the irritating limitations of the recording decrease accordingly to the point where they're no longer bothersome, just limited.
"no longer bothersome, just limited"

That is a very good way to put it!
Sometimes the opposite!! I found over the yrs that as the quality of my rig improved, recordings that I used to enjoy started sounding worse. Makes sense as the better yr system gets at resolving details from the recording, the more revealing it is of poor recording quality.
" the better yr system gets at resolving details from the recording, the more revealing it is of poor recording quality."

yes, but I think its more all recordings sound better or at least more listenable but the best recordings move ahead further so the apparent gap is more obvious and perhaps even wider.
Chazro, If it gets better at resolving details, should it not be more pleasing? Recordings have an inherent ability at revealing your amp's transient response. A poor recording is actually a good instrument in measuring an amp's capabilities with your ears which is what it really comes down to. If upgrading your system isn't speeding up the source material, then I would seriously question what I'm substituting. More expensive isn't necessarily better. High-end has too many definitions. Hearing more is not necessarily hearing "better". There are very specific performance characteristics which must be improved in an amp over the one your replacing to experience an audible improvement. However, if analog is your source, improper set-up will be audibly accentuated with improved amplification.
"If it gets better at resolving details, should it not be more pleasing?" Yes, IF the recording is a good one, and I don't mean 'audiophile' good. I don't know how old you are, but when I was younger AM radio used to be a main source of music. Much of the music that I absolutely loved (and love), when played through a decent rig, sounds like absolute ka-ka. Much of the music wasn't recorded with true audio fidelity in mind and a good system reflects this, do you know what I mean? While I totally understand what yr saying, if the unsaid part of yr post is that perhaps my equipment or set-up is the culprit, I can assure you it isn't. I've been at this for close to 3 decades and have gone from an all transistor to an all tube set-up. I believe the popular audiophile consensus is, that if anything, a tube based system can add a euphonic coloring to the music. Which would actually make the system a tad more forgiving of poorly recorded recordings. As far as my analog rig, I've owned an LP12/Lingo/Ittok/Ortofon/ARPH3 that has regularly been tuned up by pros for yrs. It ain't my gear bro'!!;)
I hear you. I guess it's what we have to live with. They're starting to re-master some of that old stuff. You do have to really like some of those tunes to overlook the problems.
The last 2 paragraphs of this review by a very well respected UK hi-fi reviewer, is the opinion I also hold now. It should not just be applicable to the speakers being reviewed, but all speakers worth their salt.

http://www.acoustica.org.uk/impulse/images/H1_4.gif
As system improves, do bad recordings sound worse?

No, they sound exactly the same. The only difference is you can hear more of the "details" than you could with your boombox.
Interesting thread, Bryon, and I think that you are probably correct in general. As Mrtennis says, this is ultimately all subjective. I also agree with Audioquest4life's early response where he said that a really bad recording is never going to sound good. I believe that many audiophiles are too quick to blame their systems when in actual fact what they are hearing is a problem with the original recording. No two engineers record the same way, especially in today's digital age where they can pretty much manipulate the recording however they wish, and they have the same choices in values you mention (between musicality, accuracy, transparency, etc.) and many other choices besides. The recording process itself is extremely subjective. I also think that Cbw is correct that some recordings interact with some systems better than others and that this variable changes whenever a change to the system is made. I think that any change made to a system is going to make some things sound worse and some things sound better, regardless of the effect on the system overall - there are far too many variables for it to be otherwise.
I have experienced both. I have invested and upgraded my system only to find out that a lot of my rock/pop recordings sound better on a boom box or my car stereo than on my home system. Very frustrating. Revamped my system so more and now my bad recordings sound pretty darn good. I think one needs to choose gear according to goals and type of music and recordings one has. To me, having a system that excells at only good recordings and nothing esle is a waste, unless all you have is nothing but good recordings. I like a lot of music, that for whatever reason is not the best recording quality. It took me awhile and some trial and error, and plenty of money but I have finally assembled a system where all of my music sound really darn good.