Do we really know what "Live" music sounds like?

Do we really know what music sounds like?

Pure, live, non-amplified, unadulterated music.

Musicians do but most layman do not.

Interesting read by Roger Skoff.




About twenty years ago I started seeking real unamplified instruments in an effort to know what the real thing sounded like. I found an isolated piano here and there… occasionally a little jazz trio. It helped a little. Particularly the piano and drum kit.

Then about ten years ago, I got season tickets to the symphony, 7th row center… where all sounds are unamplified and solo performers were close enough: the sound hole of the violinist or sound board of the piano was pointed directly at my seat. This had a profound effect on the objectives of my system and my upgrades took a big change in direction… for the better. I realized I had a characterization of what music should sound like that was a conflation of memories of rock concerts, systems I had heard when young, and some smaller concerts.

I turned from planar speakers and massive amplifiers to tube electronics and Sonus Faber speakers. All music types sound better with my improving system… while in the past one type might sound better with an upgrade and the rest worse. My system is an order of magnitude more musical and satisfying to listen to. Cymbals sound like brass, and trombones and trumpets have that complex microdetail that makes them so amazing when live. My system still has all the detail it used to, only the detail is not in your face detracting from the full bloom of the mid-range voices and instrument.


Yes, exposure to live un-amplified music is the key to understanding sound and creating an empirical ruler.

One of my favorite concerts was when one of Martin Sexton's two mics wasn't functioning at the start. The room for ~200 folks was very much like a smallish church. He lowered the other mic to the opening of his acoustic guitar and he sang unamplified. It was heavenly(pun!). Cheers,


Let talk the live music.

live music is based on music instruments. Not one ,but many kinds of. Different instrument make out different sounds, Piano,drum, violin  are very popular but they are very different. You can never ask the piano get the sound like the sound from drum,right? so It is the group of instruments to make out the sound.

But for the amplifiers,it is just one or two(Pre+power),they take all the jobs, they re-produce all the sound from all the instruments. 

so it is unfair to ask the amplifier to make the same or almost same soundstage.

This is the point we understand the amplifier and we can never ever expect the  real live music coming from that equipments..

In our grade school they had a Seattle Symphony Orchestra violinist come and play in our classroom. He demonstrated the range of the instrument with about half an hour of music, and explaining classical music, what it is like to attend a concert. This was so we would keep quiet and know when to applaud on our field trip to Seattle the next day.

The next year I played piano, then took accordion lessons, then for 6 years jr high to high school played French horn in band. In band I learned to play trumpet, and a little sax. After that I took up harmonica for a while.

Altogether that's about a decade hearing live unamplified acoustical instruments on a regular basis. Not just hearing either, but listening critically, because to play we must be in tune. Also there is a huge amount of technique involved, all of which you have to learn to hear and evaluate in both yourself and the other players.

In Jr High and High School I also attended a slew of concerts- band, orchestra, choir. All of it live and unamplified. 

So yeah I guess you could say I know what live music sounds like.

Having said that I think the whole "do you know' thing is overrated. The question is not do you know what live music sounds like. The real question is do you know what anything sounds like? The real question is, Are you a listener? Or do you merely hear?

Because in band, we had to be taught to listen, including what to listen for. Once you learn that, turns out it works for everything.

But do we really know what live music sounds like?

As roger pointed out when you go see a live performance with the exception of a Marching Band most all instrument and vocals are run through microphones and P/A systems.


Heard the Wailin Jennys do some unamplified songs at a great venue, soul stirring.. Pre Pandemic, i got a steady diet of acoustic unamplified music…. gotta get back to the Garden…as Joni sings…..


Approx. 10,000 performances and recordings, everything from solo piano to symphony to big band to trios, etc....yeah I have a vague idea.

Spoiler alert: it can't be reproduced on a stereo.

One of the reasons why many serious audio equipment designers at the storied firms will sponsor / underwrite / participate in the recording of music. Vandersteen, Audioquest, EAR, Conrad Johnson, Wilson, M and K, Water Lilly, Soundsmith ( via Direct Grace ).. the list is long… Witness the original acoustic event, see where things go wrong in the recording / reproduction chain, seek to make it better.  Joe Harley at Tone Poet / Blue Note, one such genius….

@retipper Anything new with Direct Grace ? I have some sponsorship $ for a good cause.

Yeah. All the time. Every day. If the sound doesn't come from me, myself, it comes from listening to my wife play her various brands and models of acoustic guitars.

I know my system doesn’t sound like live music. In many cases that’s a good thing, my system sounds better than live music. If I went to a lot of classical chamber or symphonic concerts and I could afford the good seats, I might try to reproduce that sound at home. In the meantime I just want my system to sound really good to me, to relax or excite me when appropriate, and give me that endorphin burst from time to time.

PS Audio has started a side project called Octave Records. The idea is to produce the best sounding recordings for SACD, PCM and vinyl. If you’re familiar with Paul McGowan you know that his descriptions of the releases will be very enthusiastic.  Keep that in mind when purchasing any.

They have a few releases out from people you’re probably unfamiliar with. Still I think this is a venture worth supporting. How many record companies even care what their releases sound like? So check out their website and see if there might be something you’re interested in. Hopefully they will grow and one day get well known performers to record with them. The website is:

Octave Audiophile Masters – PS Audio


Having been to over a thousand  Symphonic concerts I think so.

I know that those who go to Rock concerts are clueless .

Unamplified listening acoustic music HABIT is key...

Timbre perception is the key factor...

Engineering audio vocabulary is USELESS to tune acoustically an audio system....

Speaking about "bass" or "highs" end of the spectrum made no sense, save to compare 2 amplifiers or 2 pieces of gear... This is USELESS in listening experiments and experience in acoustic...

Acoustic is the sleeping princess and all pieces of gear are only the 7 working dwarves...

Skoff: "Correct judgment requires a fixed standard – one that is absolute and unvarying....we need to know what the reality we’re trying to re-create actually sounds like. And in order to gain that knowledge, we need, somehow, to experience the real thing."

From which row? Which side? There is no one fixed standard at the live event itself. There is no "the" to the initial reality.

@edcyn "I know my system doesn’t sound like live music. In many cases that’s a good thing, my system sounds better than live music."

Great observation. Indeed, the quest may be to get back to the music as conceived not as performed or performed and initially reproduced. This was Glenn Gould's idea. Concerts were not ideal ways to approximate the music. Concerts are dispensable. He did so and to all our benefit.

I will not add anything to this very good post! thanks...

He wrote more economically than me anyway..... 😊


Skoff: "Correct judgment requires a fixed standard – one that is absolute and unvarying....we need to know what the reality we’re trying to re-create actually sounds like. And in order to gain that knowledge, we need, somehow, to experience the real thing."

From which row? Which side? There is no one fixed standard at the live event itself. There is no "the" to the initial reality.

@edcyn "I know my system doesn’t sound like live music. In many cases that’s a good thing, my system sounds better than live music."

Great observation. Indeed, the quest may be to get back to the music as conceived not as performed or performed and initially reproduced. This was Glenn Gould's idea. Concerts were not ideal ways to approximate the music. Concerts are dispensable. He did so and to all our benefit.

More good times at weddings, quinceanera, anniversaries, and PARTIES than at concerts. As for live, they don't get much more live than that, Amigo!


For me it really depends on the room or live concert venue as to how good live can be.  Honestly what I can reproduce at home from studio recordings is better than most concerts I've been to. But that's an entirely different sound space.  What I can reproduce at home from live recordings takes hooking up my JBL's and I might get close to what I've experienced at live events. Fun question though. 

PS I'm not talking about classical music here. 

I would think that older people know...

When I was really young I played at recital competitions (clarinet) and my sister played piano in the same (she was good).

In these cases the audience always considerably outnumbered the players.

Later on when I was 10, or so, I played guitar with a local Blue Grass band @ local "coffee houses" and none of the instruments/vocals were amplified (including bass guitar).

Once again the audience greatly outnumbered the band members.

Added to this are the numerous band/classical local performances I recall from my youth.

Much later on, but long before "unplugged" became a thing, I also listened to various acoustic/non-amplied performances in the greater Los Angeles area.

In the late 70's I was waiting for a dinner table @ a local restaurant and Herbie Hancock played a few improvisational pieces on an upright piano they had available (he was also waiting for a table:-).

Never cared for his electronic keyboard stuff up to that time, but he was awesome on the acoustic piano, just doodling away.

Anyway, musicians often have audiences that HAVE experienced non-amplified music/sound.


Live music sounds an almost infinite variety of ways. Even the same room will sound different based on the number and location of bodies and furniture, the temperature and humidity level, the instruments being played, and the way they are played by the musicians.  

Kind of a bogus question. My music is different than yours so you can’t say music is only un-amplified. My music is all amplified and I have spent decades playing music in different bands, so I know what certain instruments should sound like.

99% of the concerts I attend are outside and quite a few of them you can hear the guitar thru the fender amp, others you hear everything from the PA system.

You bring up mics/pa systems, how about the room/hall/arena you hear the music in? That makes a huge contribution to the sound. 
I would take a concert in a great amphitheater that is amplified instead of an orchestra concert in a concrete building that is not built for good audio


Spent my entire childhood singing in groups and choirs un-amplified music. A choir doesn’t require application if the signers are taught correctly. Attended a church that only allowed un-amplified music (no instruments - voices only) performed by all the parishioners. I also spent time learning to play the guitar and the piano. I had to listen to a brother learn how to play the bagpipes.

I have a pretty good understanding what live "un-amplified" music sounds like. It sounds very different from music that is transmitted through a speaker.

Am I the only one that the only thing that really stuck with me from the article was how the author thinks it’s OK to go into a music store and lie to the workers and waste their time trying to improve the sound of the author’s system?

Most live music I have heard has sucked, especially rock music, utterly dreadful....big over blown booming bass...way way too loud....saw imagine dragons a few years back, sounded mostly awful. Marron 5 at the TD garden sounded a little better....However, the Boston symphony Holiday pops concert at Boston’s Symphony hall sounded fantastic. Ahhhh the good old days! Just a short two years ago! Insane....

Live music used to be the preferred method for street beggars. 

Some were darn good too. Now you just need a #1 black felt tip marker

and some folded cardboard and you can make more than the people

at MacDonalds in less time.

Can tell the folks who read the article.


enjoying the answers and the non answers.


love this stuff. 

@secretguy nailed it. I’ve got an hour or two (entire life) of listening to live music. 
What we hear recorded is always subject to the mics (brand, type, etc) any amplification at all, placement of mics and post production. There are a million other variables as well. But, it doesn’t matter. Good sound, is good sound. That is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but the general baseline is pretty universal. Some people listen better than others, some people just prefer what they prefer. Sometimes this game is just too analytical and we forget to just get absorbed in the moment. When that is easy to do, then good sound is what you have.

live music comes in many forms

music can be performed live but amplified by p-a systems - electric/synthesized instruments are of course processed at the outset, that is their sound...

to me this explains why there can often be such divergent tastes and sonic preferences in reproduced music - different people can have vastly different reference experiences for ’live music’

some smaller venues let you hear some unamplified music mixed in with amplified (in a jazz club for instance, if you are sitting near the artists)

it is reasonably rare that one gets to hear major artists perform live yet unamplified, but you can hear such naturally performed live music with local artists, acapella groups, street artists, smaller professional performance venues, classical venues (chamber groups)


I don’t care much for the suggestion of a salesperson playing something in the store. That could be a very forgettable experience. [edit - and now I read @feldmen4  thought.  Quite so.]

Another rather el-cheapo option - seek out a church (however defined) where they have a resident choir accompanied by a pipe organ.

If sitting through the service isn’t your calling, they rehearse, you know, and sometimes may have special performances of some choral piece/s by JS Bach if your lucky.

For years, I was totally into guitar rock, including concerts. Some were pretty good, but for the most part the bands sounded better on record or CD rather than live. The vocals were often drowned out by the instruments, decreasing the fun of hearing the music live. I was particularly disappointed when I saw the band, Three Doors Down, in concert, as the vocals were non-comprehensible (even if you knew the words) and all together it was about as pleasant as having a chain saw operated beside my ear. I was very disappointed, though I continue to enjoy the band’s recordings.

Acoustic music and low-amplified bands are usually much better, though that depends upon the artist. In recent years, I attended concerts by Bob Dylan and “Willie Nelson and Family” and both were snorefests! Utterly disappointing. When I see someone claiming “Attend live music, then seek to have your audio system sound like that”, I know they cannot be referring to concerts like these. Best that your system not sound like that.

I’ve never been into classical or symphonic music, but I bet that is what the advocates for live music are referring to, The closest I have come in recent years were concerts by Tony Bennett and LeAnn Rimes, both backed by 3-4 piece bands. When the quality of the artist is that good, you don’t need to be blasted out of your seat or strain to hear what is being played or mumbled. I regret that I never attended a Linda Ronstadt concert, as I’m certain the power and clarity of her voice would shine through even during rambunctious guitar riffs.

P.S.  After writing the above, I read the referenced article (I’m lazy that way).  It was interesting read and made good points.  It was definitely worth reading and I thank the OP for bringing it to our attention, 

If I’m not mistaken, amplifiers are part of every non-acoustic instrument. With a great deal of effort, I’ve learned to appreciate opera; but the amplified human voice is to me, far more listenable in any venue larger than a coffee house.

That said, I think it’s impossible to know what live music sounds like until/unless you actually hear it, simply because no listening room's acoustics approximates those of the broad range of acoustic environments in which one hears live music. Nevertheless, psycho-acoustic phenomena more than adequately compensates for that deficit . . . provided the playback system is linear in all respects and capable of reproducing the frequency extremes included in all live music.

My preference is two-channel analogue for the ultrasonic frequencies that convey the emotion and sound staging the performers and recording engineers intended their listeners to experience. I prefer valve amplification on accounta' it augments my GFA heating system at my sedentary listening position enough to keep me comfortable during cold winter months.

Besides, tube rolling is kinda’ fun.😀

At least with live music one will not encounter 'sibilance' with vocals. But back in the days of 70's live Rock gigs the sound was so awful that I remember suffering from sound buzzing in my ears for a long time after the concert.  Especially the time when I was directly positioned on the side where Ritchie Blackmore's guitar came out of the huge concert speaker, it was good to know the tunes of the songs played in advance because one would not recognise the song actually played live in concert because of the distortion of the loud sound.....!

Coming back to the op’s statement I often find that so called ’live music’ via HiFi System would sound better than the ’studio’ version, because it has the advantage of sounding organic with verve. Sometimes listening to sealed speakers in comparison to ported speakers has the same effect which makes the music more ’immediate’ one of the treasure of the ATC speakers and highlights more how the musicians are playing their instruments. Groups such as Pink Floyd and Dire Straits have done studio and live albums of their same tracks, often the way the tracks have been performed are nearly  identical in Studio mode or Live mode but the sound effect of the ’Live’ mode for me is the instant obvious advantage of that live instant and immediate sound.....

As virtually all the concerts I attend are unamplified classical concerts (orchestral, chamber choral, organ and piano recitals) or small acoustic ensembles (folk), and playing guitar and singing in choirs myself, I'd say I know what live music sounds like.  I don't know what classical concerts Roger is attending, but rarely do I see the use of sound reinforcement in a concert hall other than for Broadway shows.  

     A little something, of which most are unaware, regarding some of those, "...unamplified Classical concerts...", here:


     It’s been my experience, if one desires (generally) good (sometimes: excellent) venues (acoustically) and a live music experience, of diverse genres, without breaking their budget; doing an online search for local college campuses, with concert programs, can be most fruitful.


Used to go to Carnegie hall but that's history I'll stay home and play my MAGICO based system.Wont be going to concerts as I hate wearing a mask for 4 hours.Live music is history for me now so sad.

@rodman99999 Yes! Love going and hear bands, orchestras, choirs and the like at local universities and colleges here in the Chicago area.

I do and well. I married into a family of Jazz musicians. Also, I lived in the French Quarters where many bands would perform on the streets with no amplification. NOT ON BOURBON street, Frenchman Street. Never heard much good music on Bourbon, tourist stuff.

There is a famous post card of the Preservation Hall Jazz band. My wife’s grandfather and uncle are on that postcard. Two other uncles are famous musician, at least in Jazz, as well.

Stevie Wonder would call one uncle, a famous Jazz musician, every Christmas at the family Christmas dinner to wish him Merry Christmas. Dinner would stop and everyone was quiet while Stevie was on the phone. That uncle had produced a Grammy award winning album for Stevie.

Audiophiles are always complaining about how harsh something sounds. I am amused to no end because I realize that they may have never been in a room with someone playing a live trumpet, unamplified. Even at low volume, some of those high notes can cut like glass.

One uncle, that played sax, played with Cannon Ball Aderly. Herbie Hancock, B.B King, and many big names.

So soon after marrying my wife, the family informed the one that produced a Grammy album for Stevie, that I had a very expensive stereo and loved Jazz. He constantly reminded me of the Grammy and that Sony records had custom built his recording studio and gave me the dollar amount it cost. Years later during hurricane Katrina he would be a guest lecturer at Princton University while we were out of homes.

So, he came by one day." Let me hear what ya got!" So, I play some Mobile Fidelity stuff. He turns and lowers his head sideways and listens. Immediately he has a kind of grin and at the same time a smirk on his face. He turns to me, " I couldn’t use dat stuff. See cats like you, into that sort of stuff. I need something that can sound good on a tiny radio, a car radio, or anything. Sure dat stuff you got sounds good. But it’s not for me!" Initially, I was confused as to what he was saying. He was talking hip and using a lot of 60s and 70s slang. He kept saying, "I master my stuff. I master my stuff" Then I fathomed what he was saying. He was telling me that the music was uncompressed. My stereo had the dynamics to play it and make it sound great. But the masses do not and it would not sound good to them. I was shocked.

Interesting but hmm?  Yeah I know what live music sounds like.  Having played in bands for 20 years of my life including, marching bands, attending many acoustic shows, jamming with nothing but guitars a drum or maybe even just drum sticks or a bongo maybe a sax and a piano no amps yup I do .  That also being said also palying through amps attending well over 1000 live shows or even 2000 counting bar bands local players, piano bars etc... yes I know what i am listening for. 

Also why cant amplified music still be live music?  Whay does live music mean no apmplication ?  What we all strive to reproduce is the sound we hear seeing a live show so what sthe issues if its amplified?  I really do not agree with the premise of that whole article.

Maybe thats the key, to know what you are listening for amplified or not .  I can tell if its sounds close to live or as reasltic as it can be  or just music coming through a speaker.  

Here we go again with a post that asks if my listening habits are better than yours. It is now and always should be about the enjoyment of the music. Any way you hear it from any source. If you are listening and enjoying the sound then who cares what others think. Even at a live un amplified performance three people sitting together will hear three different versions. I also like the “musicians” who are on her claiming that since we do not play we have no idea what we are hearing. Yes I would have loved to play guitar but did not have the talent so I was a sound engineer. Believe me their are plenty of musicians who have all the talent in the world but can’t hear squat. It was me who made them sound good.

Of course! If the article weren't so silly, it would be hopelessly pretentious. Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop isn't real music? The Philip Glass ensemble doesn't play real music? And Taylor Swift and MF DOOM and Bob Dylan (rumors are that he went electric), not to mention all the contemporary fusion and hybrid quartets.... And we need to show our bona fides to prove that we're ... *serious* about music?? (For over fifty years I've heard unamplified classical concerts in virtually every major hall in Boston, NYC, and Chicago, so count me in.) And don't get me started on soundscapes and ecomusicology....

I assume that the article is tongue-in-cheek. Of course there's nothing like the Takacs Quartet playing Bartok in a small venue (a pleasure!) or a throaty jazz sax or a fiddle opening up that high, lonesome sound. I'm there, too. But it's absurd to think that one person loves or understand music more than another, just because they've heard unamplified music (or they have a $50k sound system). 

Fun to argue about, though!

Mostly amplified metal and rock shows. All of them sounded better on the record/cd. I'm not into classical/symphony type music but can appreciate it for sure. My daughter who is 6 already loves classical music. That said she is going to be WAY smarter than me or her mom. Maybe that's saying something. 

What I do enjoy live is 1 guy with an acoustic guitar in small bars with no amplification. Saw some really good ones over the years. I think I know what that sounds like. I play acoustic guitar as well but I suck pretty bad!

I was in a rock band from like 17-20. We did some local live shows in Dayton and I played bass. The name of our band was very fitting. Simple. Lol 

It was the very reason I got into selling the stuff. Played trumpet professionally and then got into audio. Always attempting to chase the windmill of producing the energy, dynamics and presence of live music.

Close had to be "good enough".

I think the "visual aspect" of "seeing" someone play an instrument ties in with the sound and I believe part of the reason for failure to duplicate with audio equipment. 

It's more than an "auditory" thing i discovered.

Do we really know what music sounds like?
There are as many different answers to that as there are listeners.
Every succeeding generation finds its following one's music to be lesser, even unlistenable, compared to their own (classic rock perhaps being an exception), so grading the aural qualities (or lack thereof) is difficult.

For many, unamplified classical, bluegrass, jazz, etc is not what they consider music to be at all. This spreads further when you include the plethora of ethnic musics, at times with instruments unrecognizable to those from elsewhere.

On top of these differences, a music reproducing system often is to live music as a photograph is to standing in front of and seeing the subject - a brilliant reflection/approximation at best. As beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, music is what is in the ears of the listener.

Nobody know what live music sound SAVE with his own specific ears and history...

We were programmed to recognize human voices apparatus for million of years , sound coming from any direction...

No one is programmed in life to distinguish live music and playback music, it is an acquired skill and never exactly the same for everybody, SAVE for musicians practising the same instrument and exhanging impressions between them...

But even for them live music and playback music are different birds...

We can only compare the playing micro-structure of the tonal timbre of only one instrument at a times to improve our audio system.... Or use choral voices....

Pretending live instrument an recorded one sound the same make no sense...

A recorded instrument can sound natural for sure so much that even a musician can be surprized... But even a virtual 3D movie where we will be someday would not fool reality for an astute observer...


 « "Reality" is God kingdom smell's in us »-Anonymus Smith


If we don’t who does? 

Being a member does not mean a thing.

Here's an analogy for you. When you see the forest, do you just see the trees or do you appreciate the tress, their leaves, their texture and the way the light hits the foliage?

What you see and what you hear are intertwined. Develop one and you'll develop the other.

As Miller mentioned, it's all about the details.