better gear, worse recordings

ever notice that the better the gear you own, the worse some recordings sound?

some recordings you grew up with that were eq'd for lp's now sound flat and lifeless or the musical background is revealed as less captivating than it appeared on mediocre equipment

a few other rare jems show even more detail and are recorded so well that the upgrade in equipment yields even more musicality

I have my opinions, would like to here what artists you think suffer from the former or benefit from the latter

Here lies the trap of the upgrade / hi-fi bug.

One can climb the ladder of "better components" i.e. "greater detail, more accuracy" but does it make it more enjoyable to listen to i.e. "musically entertaining" ? I think that this is the tightrope that most of us here on A-gon are fighting.

How does one capture all of the detail without having it sound like a sterile, lifeless "hi-fi" system ??? Not an easy trick, as most of us have found out. Assembling a system based on "good" components will typically not yield the results that most of us are looking for. We've learned that the hard way. There is quite a bit of trial and error involved in making a truly "musically accurate" system. If you can do that, you've got the best of both worlds. Sean
I had the same problem. Detailed and somewhat bright gear (Thiel, Adcom, Rotel) made everything sound thin and unmusical. I got a Rega Planet 2000 and everything came back to life. It seems that the answer is all about system synergy. I think I read Mike VansEvers say that a system of class B/C components that match each other well will always sound better than straight class A equipment with no synergy.
As for artists, I noticed Pink Floyd recordings can sound better on some equipment and worse on other equipment but it always sounds good.
This could potentially be a very interesting thread if enough folks contribute. It points out the double-edged sword of high-end audio, that an utterly revealing system does not always equate to one that is musically satisfying.

Over the past two years, I've done a pretty complete upgrade of my system, and have encountered this same dilemma: some recordings I've always liked sound better, but others sound worse. The most recent instance was last weekend, when my wife and I had another couple for dinner. This other couple used to be pretty interested in high-end audio, and they wanted to hear some of the newer, re-mastered LP's I've bought recently. After listening to several of them, they agreed that most were an improvement over the previous versions, but not all of them.

Then I pulled out some CD's, one of which was the album titled "People Time", with Stan Getz and Kenny Barron. I've liked this album very much in the past -- it was the last recording done by Getz before he died of cancer, and it contains some very poignant, even searing, music. However, on my upgraded, higher-resolution system, the sound of Getz's sax was often very shrill, nearly piercing. It was hard to listen thru the sharp-edged sound to get to the heart of the music. Barron's piano sounded fine, however. The CD is on the Verve label, which normally has pretty good sound on their jazz releases, so the audio quality came as an unpleasant surprise.

I hope this thread gets some responses, because I'm interested to hear what others have to say. I will take some time today and sift through some of the LP's and CD's that have sounded either worse or better than I remember (as heard on my previous audio systems), and post the titles and an evaluation of their sound quality.
I suspect that what you're experiencing isn't a function of getting better equipment, so much as the fact that, over time, you've become more discerning, and more conscious of the fact that a lot of recordings really aren't very good, from a technical standpoint.

My advice would be to concentrate on assembling a system that makes great recordings sound great. When you find recordings that are too shrill or too flat, tweak your tone controls a little, or get yourself an equalizer.
the amazing experiance of hearing a great recording on a great system far outweighs the drawbacks on bad recordings. if you've ever heard well-recorded music come alive, you will not want to settle for a less revealing system that makes bad recordings more listenable. isn't that kinda what this hobby is all push the envelope of music reproduction at home? a boombox would suffice if we just wanted to enjoy music. just my $0.02.
i've had similar experiences, especially with rock and r n b / soul recordings ( like some of al green's albums ). this was particularly so when i'm using all solid state gear. since my move towards valve amps, i'm less bothered by imperfect recordings. i've also learned to make allowances cognitively for certain recordings and to play at lower volumes. however, our memory for events/musical experiences is not very reliable and is subjected to distortions. sometimes the recalled pleasant/nirvana-like memories of the past may have less to do with the equipment we were listening to at the time than to other factors ( like the company we had and our mood state at the time etc ).

but within these caveats, i agree that at times resolution and accuracy does come at a cost. the trick is , as sean puts it, to try and strike a reasonable compromise.
It goes both ways. We have discussed before how CDs that area mixed to sound good on portable units and boom boxes, sound worse as the gear gets better.

The opposite is true. Some of my favorite older CDs today are ones that I thought sounded thin and lifeless, years back in my late 20s, when all I had was a receiver, budget CD player and turntable, and bookshelf speakers.

Now today, the old CDs I liked back then, sound bloated with the echo added to make them sound fuller, not to mention the resulting electronic haze that causes listener fatigue.

What bothers me today, is a lot of recording reviewers are evidentially not audiophiles.

For classical music those "DG Originals" reissues of analog recordings sound worse IMHO than the earlier CD reissues. However, every review I have ever read sais the new remixes are a big big improvement over the older CDs. For example: if it is a concerto recording they are boosting the solo instrument and the violins that play the main melody, so they are very audible. Sounds good in the car, but the rest of the orchestra sounds like they are in another room when played at home. The orchestra balance is wiped out.

We should lobby for record reviewers to disclose what their system is composed of.

I must admit that I am somewhat of a contrarian on this issue. In my experience I have concluded that most recordings I percieved as poorly recorded on lesser equipment are now at least more interesting (musical may be another matter altogether) because of increased transparency of better equipment. Yes, there are downsides to this increased transparency, a harsh, bright recording only sounds more harsh and bright, however I've found few recordings (perhaps 10% of collection-all genres) to be unlistenable because of the increased transparency.
However, I find the more important question to ask oneself is, does this greater interest bring along with it a greater musical enjoyment? I would suggest that increased interest in a recording is an analytical phenomenon, perhaps not musical at all. But then I ask myself, does greater analytical involvement bring greater musical pleasure? In the final analysis I find that analysis is an inherent process to achieving musical pleasure. I've found over many years of listening that musical enjoyment of my systems to be so variable that I have trouble quantifying it. I can only surmise that musicality is purely a pschological phenomenon and analytical interpretations of a listening experience serve to impinge on the purity of the musical experience. I find my greatest musical experiences come when I'm able to turn off or ignore the analytical portion of my brain. Unfortunately this happy state of affairs never seems to last for long. My analytical brain invariably asserts itself, taking away from the muscial experience (audiophilia nervosa?).
Still, I would rather hear all the details (warts and all) that a high resoultion system brings than not hear these details at all. The analytical brain serves its purpose to qualify and quantify the ugly sounds and how one may delete them (through equipment purchases), hopefully bringing muscial bliss. This process replicates itself perhaps endlessly :-(,) for the audiophile. IMHO PURE musical pleasure can only happen if one is oblivious to the analytical process or if one has attained, with full analytical awareness a system that brings muscial nirvanna. I would propose that for a fully aware audiophile this musical nirvanna could only be achieved when one percieved there was no better equipment and/or system synergy to be gained at any price. Or am I just to cynical? Scott
I have experienced this as well. My take on it is a bit different than those stated thus far, though.

I think the goal of an audio system should be to reproduce EXACTLY what has been recorded. If you assemble a high-resolution system, you will clearly know the difference between a good recording and a bad one.

I don't believe you should use a less precise system to serve as a bandaid for poorly recorded source material.
As an example of what you're talking about, the late 60s/early 70s and beyond DG and CBS Masterworks recordings and the old RCA Dynagrooves stand out to me. The two former were heavily multi-miked recordings using very hot treble mixes and poor bass, mixed to sound like what the engineer wanted to hear (hence the 20 foot wide piano soloist or larger than life violinist that Sugarbrie so aptly points out) rather than what the orchestra played, which could sound good on inexpensive record players but did not fare well when you got them on a system which could realistically play back what was on the disc. The Dynagrooves were intentionally and heavily equalized by RCA to make up for the deficiencies of the record players of the time; Gordon Holt, I remember, was absolutely incensed about this, particularly considering the great recordings RCA had done in the past. While a noble idea, perhaps, they do not come close to the sound RCA had with its earlier efforts when played on high end or even modest modern turntables. And all those 60s rock records of my youth, of course, were mixed to sound good on a 3-inch transistor radio so that I would buy them (which, of course, as the ultimate consumer I did), so it's a miracle they are listenable at all on a good system (although many of them, particularly the Motown stuff, come across surprisingly well). On the other hand, the Vox and Vanguard records, which in my experience sounded mediocre due to the less than stellar vinyl they were pressed on (I may have heard poor pressings, I admit), are sonic eye-openers on both SACD and the vinyl reissues that have come out. So you're right, it does work both ways. I have tried to gear my system to be accurate but to err on the side of musicality, so that I can enjoy great performances that aren't pristinely recorded. The good news with recent classical recordings is that, in general, they seem to be better recorded on the whole now than they were, say, 20 years ago, when multi-miking seemed to be the rage. Good thread, looking forward to seeing other posts.
All of the systems are different. What is noticed with the latest system (and best to date) was staying on par with the recording. The bad recordings still sound bad but better than before and the good recordings are much noticeably better to just being astoninglisly good. Maybe should feel fortunate. I do hear some friend's systems that make cetain good recordings sound even better, but not so good with some of the bad recordings. This is very hard and almost seems impossible to get perfect. There is no perfect for all areas. Maybe this is why many of us make changes. It is a hobby.
Audiotomb; good thread but difficult to grapple with. I found Scott's (Sns) assessment above particularily astute and interesting, or said another way, I agree with much of what he says. I recently made a major speaker up-grade, ie from warm/forgiving to much more revealing-- but not analytical and lo and behold I had a whole new CD collection. I've got a feeling that has happened to everyone on this thread-- or reading this thread.

I found the "double edged sword" aspect that others have alluded to regarding recording quality and system quality to be true too. But I also found that it's not easy to predict what recordings are going to "survive" being played through a more revealing system, eg I have some remastered Jerry Lee Lewis CDs that sound very "musical" even though there are still some problems with the recording-- but PRT was retained. And the newly re-mastered CCR CDs are great-- they use JVCs K2 20Bit Super Coding system. I have purposely built my system to be musical, and don't equate either "high resolution" or "analytical" with high end audio. I'm too damned old to mindlessly pursue "resolution"-- I want musical.

Most audiophiles don't seem to like C/W music-- I do like some of it, but interestingly, I've found so many C/W recordings that have come out of Nashville that it can't be a coincidence. Nashville recording engineers know how to consistently produce good recordings, and I mean recordings that sound excellent on my pretty revealing system. Recent examples are Allison Moorer's "Alabama Song" CD, and Alison Krauss' "Forget About It"-- I don't actually know if these are Nashville recordings, but they are C/W and Bluegrass. How about Dolly Parton's "Sparrow"? And Emmylou Harris' "Cowgirls Prayer" is so good that it has survived several major upgrades. Enuf, and Cheers. Craig
in my experience it's tempting, when getting towards the top of the ladder, to take one or two steps too far. my system is becoming more comforting and listenable as i add or replace just a single component at a time. if i try to put several new pieces into it simultaneously, my "base" or "control" gets lost. i know i've gone a bridge too far when lp's or cd's i've learned to love begin to sound less comforting, musical or "real." recently, i've been experimenting with power "conditioners" and "regenerators." many of these products provide blacker backgrounds and a lower noise floor, but all are flawed in my current setup, since they cause a degradation of PRaT or a slight flabbiness in the mid to lower bass spectrum. i've spent years trying to reach that fine balance between "detail" and "musicality." i, thus, take great care not to let a single new bit act as gravity, forcing me to fall from the thin high wire. -cfb
Well put Kelly. I keep trying to "push" things sometimes and swap multiple components at a time. This is basically a BIG no-no from my experience, but i still do it. I have been hurt ( sometimes drastically ) by doing this too. At one point, i was extremely happy with one of my systems ( it sounded GREAT in terms of both musicality and detail ). I decided to "make it better" and move this cable here, that one there, take that amp out and put this one in, etc... As such, i lost the "synergy" that i had and was never able to get back to that point. While i can remember what preamp, amp, etc... i was using, i don't know what cables i had where. After learning that lesson, i'm now keeping a log book to keep track of what goes where, etc... This way i can experiment and still find my way back while trying to go forward : ) Sean
Hmmmmm... So we think a system should play back exactly what is on the recording. Tell me; how do we know when we have reached that point?? Unless we were present at the recording session, and we have a perfect memory of what we heard at that session, there is no way for us to tell what we are hearing now is exactly what was recorded then.

There have been cases where instruments were a little out of tune at recording sessions. If we choose one of these recordings as our reference, and we tweek our systems so it now sounds in tune, because we assume it was in tune then, we are in trouble.

Roxy Music's Avalon is the perfect example of this phenomenon for me. I have loved the music on this recording since I first heard it when originally released. As I began to improve my systems over the years however, it quickly became apparent that the recording quality on both my vinyl and CD versions sucked. Now the only time I can bear to listen to it, is when I'm driving with the top down in an older convertible that I have. With so much wind and road noise, I can crank it up and love the music all over again without obsessing over the awful sonic quality.
I am speaking here strictly only of big orchestral classical music and here you can safely say, that the art of recording has begun to decline with the introduction of multimiking , dynagroove and more and more electronic "soundshaping". In the glory days of RCA and Mercury the engineers were musicians in their own right and as a rule intimately familiar with the accoustics of the recording venue. They also collaborated much more closely with the artists they recorded on an artistic as well as technical level and both sides knew what they were talking about and what was going on. It was a much closer working together in comparison to what is happening today. So if you wanted good sound from your LPs, it was generally a safe bet to look for the name of the producer and chief engineer as well. Layton for RCA, Wilkinson for Decca and RCA, Bishop and Parker for EMI, Pontrefact for Harmonia Mundi come to mind as examples. I have improved my setup steadily for more than thirty years now and the sound of the early RCA and Merc stereos(until 1962)have improved with it. It is absolutely amazing, how much is on vinyl from the glory days between 1959 and 62. Later, into the seventies, the Brits with DECCA and EMI were a fairly safe bet and those recordings also hold their own until today. Red book CD just will not do for big orchestral music, especially if your ears have been spoilt by listening to the above mentioned gems and also SACD falls short as far as classical music is concerned. So yes, except for the old gems, which hold their own, because at that time the people concerend, knew also MUSICALLY what they were doing when recording, yes, recordings are getting worse as our systems are getting better.
I agree with many of the points posted, and certainlybalnce in a systemis very hard to acheive; however there are some strange ideas about the recording process I'd like to correct. First of all Sugarbrie's idea that one could retune and out of tune recording, unless it was intended metaphorically is impossible with stereo equipment (you can do a little of this in a studio on computers). You could speed up or slow down a recording on your turntable, but this would transpose everything, not change the relation of the notes to each other (this is what out of tune means, since the absolute frequency of the pitches varies a little from place to place and year to year anyway - not always fun for those of us with perfect pitch). The other this that is frequently mentioned in this thread is an idea that recordings have become more technical and less true, that multi-mike recordings are more common, etc. This generalization is not really true (at least in classical). I'm mostly a composer, but I also do Artistic Direction for classical CDs and if anything there has been a big push back towards direct stereo recording in the last 5 years or so. There has even been something of a push towards what we call tube mikes (they have tube mike pre-amps, in fact).

I think there are several issues with the recordings people complain about. One that has already been discussed is the tendancy (less present in classical) to mix for average systems. In the studio there are usually at least two sets of speakers a small close monitor speaker (like a KEF Reference or a GenElec) which is designed to be very analytical and not very pleasing for just listening, a good hifi type speaker (though these are often custom made) which is usually triamped with active crossovers, these are called the flatters because engineers think they make things sound too good. In may studios there will also be a low-fi pair of speakers for comparison. Most engineers like to mix on the analytical speakers and check on the flatters and the low-fi while I personally think that better results often come from mixing on the flatters and checking on the close monitors.

The real problem with many recent recording, though has nothing to do with this, it is purely economic. 25 or more years ago when an orchestra did a recording, they viewed it as a big deal. The conductor would come to the booth and listen, there was much more time to get things right, etc. Now orchestras run on insanely tight schedule (e.g. there are usuall three or four 3-hour rehearsals for an entire concert now as opposed to six in the past). Conductors fly all over and in any case do not view recordings as being all that important to their careers. You will almost always get a weaker result when the performers are absent from the process. Many record companies also don't want the added expense of a real artistic director plus an engineer, so they get a hybrid profile person (called a tonmeister) who does a bit of both, but these people are in an impossible position because if they say to the orchestra "we need to waste 15 more minutes of your precious time to move a mike" they will get in trouble because they put the mike there in the first place. They are also fully dependant on the record companies for their work and on-time on budget completions are viewed as the important benchmark. Many of these CDs hardly even get listened to by the execs and they certainly don't reward recording they think are particularly good. This time pressure can lead to aberant things happening (like the worng master making it onto a CD or reverbs changing in the middle of a piece).

However, even as all of these surrounding issues have deteriorated, there are many things that have gotten much better in recent years. Editing is far superior (and even in the old days many of the recordings were edited). One of the real problems today is the excess of dynamic range. Although SACDs can theoretically do more than 100dBs of dynamic range a typical house (which is a fairly noisy environment) will have real trouble with more than 60dBs and a typical car has trouble with more than 10 dBs. This is not to say that greater ranges can't be produced, they just won't be as satisfying. One reason many people prefer vinyl is that those records had their dynamic range reduce to about 30-35 dBs (in some case a little more). In general if you give listening tests most people prefer slightly compressed music to realistic music in a home environment which is much noisier than concert halls (where we shut of the ventilation systems during concerts, etc); in fact people's sense of PRaT oftenis related to the amount of compression. However, in an ideal listening environment the compression will reduce many wonderful aspect of the recorded sound. For a while Sony tried to sell car CDs with compressors (so that the recordings could be optimized for hifi listening and the player could do the adaptation to the noisier environment), but that never flew, people wanted the 'real' sound in their cars, which meant losing that sound at home instead. But in a good listening room with good equipment we can now reproduce the full live dynamic range which is amzing for me. This was one of the real lackings of recorded sound on vinyl.

All of this rambling post to say that amny things are better technologically than in the past the problems are with taste and mooney/time. Multi miking which was worse in the 70's is typical of an era when we all wore 3-ply polyester. Then as now great engineers can make great recordings when they have the time. It seems to me that if you are sometimes troubled with poorly done recordings the solution is not to reduce the accuracy of you equipment, but buy recordings done by good engineers. Another thing that can really help is to use studio-like post-processing at home to adjust recordings to your conditions. A good (studio quality) compressor/limiter is only a couple of thousand dollars (reverb and other processors can be really prohibative - over $40K).

I think it is absolutely false to blame the equipment, recordings and hifis are undisputably better than they were. However you still need skill, time and care to produce a good recording and it seems we have ever less of these. In the past recordings all felt new and so great care was taken. Now they are just filling market niches most of the time. After all there are already 3000 sets of Beethoven symphonies out there the 3001st won't change the world. Unfotunatel, you can't do anything great in music unless you do think you can change the world. Fortunately a few of us are still crazy and/or deluded and so do our best.
I don't have any recordings or experiences where I said, "huh, I really liked the way that sounded before I upgraded, but now with a higher resolution system it doesn't sound as good to me." I do find that as my system evolves and (hopefully) improves, I realize that there is music that I like that doesn't warrant sitting there "critically" listening on a high end rig. But, in these cases (for me anyway), it didn't warrant it on a lesser system either. I might have hoped that it would improve, that what didn't seem like a good recording might fare better on a better system, and it just didn't work out.

An experience I do have, regularly, is realizing that there is music that is not stellar in it's recording quality but that I like a lot, so I listen to it when I'm not critically listening, either up walking around, in my office, in my car.

Maybe I'm just justifying the continual improvement of my system, but I find that each improvement makes a good portion of my music sound better and be more enjoyable to listen to or neither betters or worsens it, but does not make anything less enjoyable than it was. -Kirk

I guess I did a poor job making my comments. I agree, we cannot re-tune instruments on a recording. I am not assuming that we know some (not all) instruments are out of tune. I am saying this recording is being used as our reference and we don't know some instruments are out of tune. If an orchestra is fine except the string basses are out of tune, it will just drive us nuts and we won't know why. The problem is hidden among the other instruments. Not everyone has good hearing for pitch; most of us don't, unless we are professional musicians, and then the off pitch is masked. The sound is not going to sound quite right, and we will try to tweek the system to make it sound better, not perfect. We'll never get there because of a few out of tune instruments.

I think some have asked what we use as a reference. I wonder how much time we all spend tweeking this and that, and the problem is not our systems, but the source material, whether some things out of tune, or just bright, dull, or poorly mixed. Garbage in, garbage out.

I enjoy reading the input of Audiophiles on Agon but have refraned from adding my input until now. I've helped many people assemble MUSICAL systems many of which were not aware of the pure enjoyment that could be derived from a well setup system. I think the lack of exposure to musical sound in a home setup is based in part to the recording engineers' lack of exposure to past formats which were more musical. Many of the newcommers in the recording industry have grown up in the DIGITAL era . Have they experenced musical bliss? Do they have a SOUND basis for designing musical recordings?
I also have experenced upgrades which have turned into sonic degration [as Sean]talks about in his above post.
His advice to use a controlable means and babby step approach to updates is well founded.
Excellent point Samg. The goal is a music system, not a sound system.
Interesting thread,I guess I'm with Kirk on his standpoint.
Although others make interesting points CFB,Finberg and Bomarc amongst them.
Being new to the audio game (maybe 5 years)but a big music fan for 21 years-I often find myself a bit baffled by the continious talk of bad recordings,I simply don't hear that many.
Of course I'm not suggesting there aren't bad recordings-either older ones or the odd new one that does sound overcompressed (U2's last springs to mind)but I guess I simply don't buy that much music that is prone to that type of production.
There is of course others that simply have a terrible production imho (The Strokes debut for example).
However to refocus totally on the original posting I have to say on my last upgrade-a new DAC, that so far I've yet to hear a single recording(CD's) from my collection that sounds worse however the presentation is different but it is in a positive way-I maybe not as discerning a listener as others and I guess at approx $7k my system isn't exactly at the top end.
Of course having a reasonable system does for example make Led Zeppelin 3 sound different than it did on my old mono record player in 1977 but I've never heard it sound better and if it does highlight flaws in the recording then somewhere in my brain is totally cancelled out by my love of the actual music.
I'm not sure if Peleon was at the wind up but you know he might actually have a point.
I find that when I listen to inferior systems to my own I'm nearly always surprised how much better it sounds than I expect but maybe that's because I'm not over analytical about how it sounds but rather what it's playing...
From my perspective, I cannot do anything about the quality of the CDs I love (except perhaps re-buying them over and over again, if possible, as they iterate up the higher-bit-mastering chain - which is kind of annoying and expensive - or waiting for broadband to deliver MP3-SACD++ on demand).

Therefore, I feel that the challenge is to construct (with a little help from friends... and you all here at Audiogon, AA, etc.) a system that reproduces real music at as high a resolution as possible, regardless of the quality of the input.

The resurgence of tubed equipment is in direct response to this problem (as mentioned above).

High-end CD players (Linn CD12 was the first, IMHO) are also finally being designed with the goal of playing non-audiophile CDs on audiophile systems.

Forgiving (but still high-resolution) speakers are also helping (especially as they are now often asked to reproduce video sound (TV and DVD) which is often worse than early 80 CDs)...for example the Revel Salon is able to sound detailed but 'never' harsh in the difficult to endure THX treble ranges (though, I believe for other reasons, it is not the most musical of speakers).

All this is to say, with all this good equipment available, I believe it is the system which is at fault if music does not sound musical and is not entertaining for both the analytical and emotional aspects of the listener.

Of course, because I personally do not care if the piano is 12 feet wide (I just imagine I am sitting 1 foot in front of it), or if the other aspects of the reproduction are not true to life (I have hardly EVER heard unamplified music other than a symphony or a guitar/banjo), I am perhaps more forgiving of unnatural effects than others may be (and techno and electronica are by definition unnatural :-).
Great responses to an interesting observation. It's not been a problem for me. As my system and hearing abilities have evolved I'm better able to hear some of the recording techniques on records, but this doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the music. Good music easily transcends the quality of the recording and/or playback equipment. I'm a much happier audiophile since I realized this.
Nice posts, all.
Re People Time: I agree that this LIVE cd is a bit hot.
But that's the best they could do in Copenhagen in a loud club: stick a mike in Getz' horn. It SHOULD sound hot and nearly painful!
Re Piano width: When I play my B it easily fills the wisth of the room, so yes, it seems 14' wide. This is a bit more unnerving on a recoding back in the listening chair, but nothing like as bad as cymbals all over the place or od course the 10' wide violin. But big pianos DO have BIG soundboards!
I remember reading something a long time back about spectral tilt: something like---
Average folks prefer a 1-2 db/octave rolloff above 1k.
Musicians and engineers 0.5-1 db/octave, and of course, audiophiles ZERO rolloff!
So part of me wants to equate analytical processing and psychoacoustic effects with high frequency cues, and therefore it's no wonder that flatter, extended response gets us into trouble with most musical/acoustic flaws.
As no reproduced musical experience can be perfect at BOTH transducer ends, as well as intermediate processing, it's naturally harder to "find" musical happiness when the treble info quotient is high.
Environmental noise effectively masks treble info. (Thus Avalon sounds ok in a convertible at speed...and lots of 70s hits sound better on an old 5 tube radio with no response above 8k, and a single 5" stiff speaker. WONDERFULLY coherent and musical, actually. Like BUTTA!)
From another angle, my search of the past year or so for an acceptable digital front end perhaps taught me that extended
HF response via upsampling, etc., was not the holy grail.
ARCAMS, Meridian and Bel Canto went by the wayside.
Yet rolling off the top, whereas it usually restored musicality, took too much of a toll on the rest of a great system's strengths. Then I got a detailed and measurably-flat CDP that simply doesn't sound shrill. I frankly don't quite get it. Yes, crappy CDs still sound that way. But MANY CDs that were too shrill and edgy on other mid-level CDPs simply sound acceptable, WITHOUT turning down the treble. So something else is at work here, NOT just spectral tilt.... Nonetheless, I still believe that changing spectral tilt-optimization can ALMOST be the panacea that restores the musicality quotient minima that we require psychoacoustically. I hate to think we just used to call them tone controls...or lately interconnects. Ha!
With the rise of the CD and the technology available in our components the quest for sonic purity has been the goal. This seems to be what we thought we wanted. As someone who has gotten back into audio gear i can see that many people feel that this isn't what we wanted after all. I believe our equipment should serve up a compelling big picture, not show us the music through a microscope. This is probably why LPs are big now. They had a huge impact on several generations and today's pure digital sound isn't the same. This may be why tubes are big now as well. Of course, both LPs and tubes have a retro feel, but it may be the sound that is the real reason people prefer these mediums.

For another perspective, think of film vs video tape. Video tape can be said to show a more pure visual image, but it is not as interesting as film. Film is grainy and, to use an audio term, adds its own color to the imagery. We prefer this over the image of video tape.

In updating my equipment I've heard some equipment that allowed every sound to come through, but in the long run this was tiring. It was interesting for a moment, but was fatiguing in the long run. I want to hear music in the large sense, not someone coughing in the background of a sonically pure CD.
Thanks to all for a thought provoking thread and especially to Fineberg for a real breath of fresh air. Having begun my chequered career as a symphony and ensemble player, I listened to recordings in the beginning for the absolutely faithful reproduction of live music. This was unimaginable back in the 60s and so gradually my interest changed from listening to the music to listening to the sound--and that led to listening to the assortment of parts and pieces littering my listening room floor. I stayed on the trade-tweak-buy-sell treadmill for a good twenty years and it was fun at the time.

Now, either because I've matured or my hearing has begun to fade or because I'm bored with the quest for the perfect preamp, I find that I'm back to listening to the music.

One of the joys of finally owning a really superb set of speakers is the quantum leap in low level resolution. Now I can hear what those violins wayyyyy in the back are doing. And this leads me to what I experience as the biggest disappointment in relistening to older recordings of orchestral music: the really lousy quality of a lot of the second-desk-and-beyond playing. Just about every player and teacher I know acknowledges that the overall quality of symphony players today is light years ahead of the glory days. And, man, you can really hear that. Makes me ponder the frustration that the old conductors used to experience.

Do you know the ancient story about Toscanini right at the end of his career conducting a regional concert with a local cello soloist? After two hours of frustration, when it had become obvious that the cellist simply could not play the notes, the old man turned to her and exclaimed, "Madam, you have been your legs the most beautiful object that God ever created. And all you know how to do is scratch it!"

With today's equipment, you really can hear stuff that was formerly buried in the fog. Not all of it is pretty.

wow, been away, didn't know my thread would generate this much discussion! good to see

I have always tried to only make upgrades where they contributed significantly to the musicality of my system, it's taken a while but I am really happy with the tonal qualities, musicality, imaging and vibrancy of my setup

I find some recordings are made to sound sharp on mid-fi systems and thus are a little bright on more revealing equipment. Two examples that come to mind - Steely Dan Two Against Nature (the sampled percussion is way too hot, why not a real drum track?) and Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire (very bass heavy). SOme recordings I have to listen to in the next room because they are a little bright (having a concussion from a truck hitting me 2 years back doesn't help my over treble intolerance)

Now with my upgrades to a refined musical system, when I get an incredible recording the rewards are really there, and one gets lost in the music. I listen to a lot of old seventies rock and 50's-60's jazz. I love buying the upgraded remastered discs (those original cd issues sounded flat). THere are artists whose work sounds simplier when you can distinguish all the notes etc (Stones, some Beatles,Dylan,80's synth pop, etc). Things that are less refined and separated out on old cheap vinyl playback or a mid fi system, become less engaging when you can hear things in a more revealing manner. Other artists work gets even more depth and engaging (Yes, Genesis, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young). Anyway it's a fun ride, and I am enjoying it, even if I think some recording engineers need to pay more attention to keeping it neutral and musical.

thanks for all the comments

(only kidding). Actually, there's a cornucopia of excellent insight in this thread, but I'd just like to remind you guys that every pop album (and many jazz and classical albums) you have ever listened to have been through an equalizer...of sorts...often not once, but many times, for individual instruments and vocals and then again in mastering (I own a small studio). This is hardly a new thought, but keep in mind that on the recording side of the equation every microphone, microphone cable, microphone pre-amp, pre-amp-to-board cable, board, compressor, gate, effect, monitor, yadda, yadda, yadda, has its own sound signature. One size will never fit all.

I further submit to you that aside from the issue of resolution (which I regard as the hallmark of high-end -- sound stage, imaging, etc. being its derivatives), the fundamental thing we're talking about here is tonal balance.

No, it will never be possible to change the tonal quality of an individual instrument in a recording without changing the tonal quality of the other instruments in a recording unless you have access to the 24-, 48-, or however-many-track master tape, but it certainly would be possible to change the overall tonal character of the 2-channel recordings we all listen to with -- dare I say it -- TONE CONTROLS!!!

Some of you call them "cables", which, you claim, should NEVER be used as "tone controls", (sorry, I realize I'm ranting), and others eschew the infamous destroyer of high-end systems, the EQUALIZER, but if the perfectly transparent EQ existed for a song, would you buy it? Hmmmmm.... Can we conspire to instigate a revolution?
... Also, I own Pro Ac Response 3.5's, Totem Arrow's, Sound Dynamics (both of the models recommended by Harry), Energy's, Snells, a Radio Shack boom box as well as myriad electronics, Quatro fil's, etc., etc., etc.
If you think it's hard to balance sound in your system, try balancing a recording in all the permutations of the above.