equipment sound bad?

I took one of my favorite recordings to a local shop and played it on huge $11,000 Martin Logans and huge Classe amps. My recording sounded "bad" on this setup, whereas I had always enjoyed it before and I think I know why. Because the system was so transparent, had so little coloration of its own, it revealed more accurately that the recording itself was not very good. I don't think there was a problem with the room, the components or the speakers. OK, the room did have some strong rear wall reflections, but for the sake of discussion, let's say that the system was near perfect.

So, here's proposition #1 - we audiophiles have devoted our souls to searching for better and better sound reproduction only to find that when we get there, it can be a less than satisfying experience. Ironically, we wouldn't know how bad the recording was if we had a more mediocre system. Is this our reward for the pursuit of aural perfection?

Proposition #2 - it's all about perception. What sounds great to you might sound bad to me. Should we pursue the most musical systems instead of the most technically accurate?
Build a system that sounds good to YOU and does what YOU want it to do. If you worry about what others think about your gear based on brand names, cost, etc... you will never be happy nor have a nice sounding system. This doesn't mean that you should stop learning, experimenting, or trying out various pieces of gear though. Some of the "biggest names" thrown together make the "biggest messes" in my opinion. Sean
Proposition #3-

The system was producing sonic effects,ambience and detail not related to musicality at the expense of natural proportions and accuracy in note shaping, timing and expressiveness.It played sounds better than it could communicate.It broke the music down into its component parts and reassembled them into the shape of someone's ego.What you described as "accuracy" was anything but.If your favorite music did not connect,something was very,very seriously wrong.

Accuracy is a blind alley. You wind up with an annoying 'hey listen to that!' trick pony. Go for the emotional content.
I consider myself to be an audiophile, have worked in several aspects of the audio industry including recording, and now am prisident of the local audio club. A have found most recordings to be unlistenable as there quality is so bad, when I take a good CD into a store most systems are so choked there are no dynamics and little to any detail. My reference is what a real insturment sounds like, if it is a good recording, I can tell or be very close in picking what microphone was used. I continue to seek out good recordings because when you have a system capable of reproducing tonality with speed a triangle will sound like a triangle not just a pleasent smooth sound, by the same measure a CD with digital errors written in it will sound very bad. I think this is what audio reproduction is all about.
I understand where you are coming from and I think its that high end systems bring out all the details. Whether those details are nuances of the music or inperfections in the recording. It emphasises the bad parts as much as the good parts.

The thing is though you cant build a great system that will make bad cd's sound good because then the good cd's will sound bad. How would a cd player distiguish between a detail in the music and an inperfection in the recording.

Manufacturers have to design there system around a goal. To push the limits to perfection it creates this unfortunate trade off but if you think about it there really isnt any other way.

I use to have a huge problem with bass because I was so use to the mass market speakers that add bass. You get use to that sound and miss it when it wasnt there. Then you get use to quality and cant live with either. I ended spending eight thousand dollars in subs just to get the bass that I had come to enjoy.

If your high end speakers added bass then the perfect recording would sound bloated and boomy. Although it would make the recording with inperfect bass sound better.

There are many many cd's that I use to think were recorded well and now I can bearly listen to them. Its very unfortunate. To bad there wasnt a high / low resolution switch.
Dancarne, what exactly do you mean when you say your favorite recording sounded "bad". Did the dealer's system reveal that it was a poorly engineered track? Did it reveal some previously unheard fault in the musicianship? Or did the system fail to provide the emotional impact that the music normal delivers? It's possible that your reaction could be a combination of these factors. From an audiophile perspective a lot of pop/rock music is poorly recorded. It is not engineered to be played back on full range/low distortion systems. The engineer purposely manipulates the sonic qualities of the recording to sound best on lo-fi systems. There's also the possibility that listening in a dealer's showroom is not conducive to the enjoyment of music. Your mind may have been in an analytical mode as opposed to an get down and boogie frame of mind. BTW, what was the track you played?

I agree/disagree with Sean. A good system should sound very good to the primary listener of the system, but it should also sound reasonably good to any educated listener. It's not an entirely subjective experience.
My chief criterion for system building is to bring out the music on ALL recordings. This is not to say that I can't or won't be able to tell a good recroding from a bad one. But if music I love is unlistenable, mostly I blame the system. -Dan
check out the room you were in during the audition. Most
dealers are strapped for space and end up with several
pair of speakers in the same room. These will act as passive radiators and severely impact the sound. that's why
you should audition the equipment at home if you are
You know, when someone is offering to listen something "better recorded" on the system that I audition I usually get up and walk away. I know that I have to get a right sound with what I listen and with what I believe is best recorded. I do not believe that a good system can only play best on MFSLs or some extraordinary manufactured crap.
Try Fidelio Audio ( they make really good audiophile cd.
I also agree with Sean. We have an audiophile society where I live. We go to each other's homes and bring our own music and listen. All of us have expensive ($50k and up) and well designed systems. Most of us have dedicated or simi dedicated listening rooms. Every system has it's strengths and weaknesses (even at that price level). We all enjoy the listening sessions, but I'm pretty sure everyone goes home and says--"I really like my system the best". I know I do--and I know a few others think the same. It also has to do with the music you like. I like jazz and female vocal recordings--I have electrostatic speakers--no surprise there. You can probably imagine, however, that my system is really not optimized for amplified rock or pop music. The system has to work for the listner and the music the listner likes--a price tag doesn't make it a good system.
Sean has a good point. If your recording sounded bad on the mentioned gear ask yourself why. Perhaps synergy is what that system lacked. Not all big ticketed items make music. Good listening!
Hi Dan; While I agree with Sean in principle, my experience is most like that of Perfectimage (above). I am an audiophile, and therefore somewhat obsessive. As to your proposition #1, I think audiophiles will always try to improve their systems, and yes it is a risk. Proposition #2, I think with careful auditioning and component selection, you can have both high enjoyment and excellent music-- it just may not be the same music. That said, in support of my case, I absolutely HAD to do the following:

I recently upgraded(?) from Vandersteen 3Asigs ($3500.) to Vandersteen 5 ($11,500.) speakers, and even after break-in found myself often disappointed with the music quality/character of some of my favorite CDs that I was very used to with the 3As. So, for 2-3 weeks I tried to make the V5s sound rich, warm, and forgiving like the 3As did. No luck though, the 5s have exceptional clarity in the mids and "center of the earth" solid bass-- and I would call them very revealing speakers compared to the 3As. Don't let anyone tell you that the 5s have a similar sonic signature to the 3As-- the 5s are much more neutral/accurate and revealing of source material. The rest of my system is fully the equal of the V5s quality.

So I backed off on trying to make the 5s sound like something they aren't, and I just relaxed and started listening to music the way it is presented by the 5s. What I've found now is that with well recorded CDs, the 5s really are a completely different and very special speaker-- special in a good way . Fortunate for me, Cowboy Junkies music is mostly fairly well recorded as it's some of my favorite, and it sounds great with the 5s. I can now actually understand the words of many of the songs Margo Timmins sings-- couldn't do that with the 3As. And bass on the Enigma CDs-- all 5 of them-- is practically orgasmic.

I have a long way to go to work my way through 1000 CDs, but what I'm now sure of is that some will display a new found outstanding quality, and will become "new" favorites because of the 5s capabilities, but on others, I will miss the richness and warmth of the 3As.

So was this up-grade worth it? Long term, I think the answer will definitey be yes. Thanks for the thought provoking thread, and Cheers. Craig
This is a great topic. I am compulsive in my audio equipment purchases as many of us seem to be. I have made good and bad choices along the way. When I am at my best is when I use music as my guide and not sound. There are accurate systems that I have heard and that I have owned that reproduced sound. There are less accurate systems that I have heard and that I have owned that reproduced music. I have had short term success with the former systems and long term success with the latter systems.

I am interested in an emotional bond with the music. There are many I know who are interested in true reproduction of what went on in the studio. I do not think that it is an accomplishment to own a system so accurate that bad recordings sound awful and that a select few recordings are amazing. I am guilty of going down that path in the past and hope to stay clear of it in the future.

Also, as Sean mentioned, it is best to use your own ears as your reference. Reviewers have their own preferences as to what a great system sounds like. We all do. I have personally found every electrostatic speaker that I have heard to sound thin and bright. There are many who disagree with me and are very happy with their electrostatic speaker based systems. We all have our own listening biases. I trust mine. Trust yours.

As far as proposition #2 is concerned I lean toward system judgements by their musicality. Proposition #1 is to me about the empty feeling that some of us have because we enjoy the pursuit of perfect sound more than perfect sound itself. This will keep us searching to meet our need to keep searching. That is the burden of the audiophile.
This is a very thought provoking thread and made me think about what I looked for when desiging my setup. I tried very hard to create a system design that reproduced the tonality of live instruments I was very familiar with. I used mostly solo instrumental pieces but also compared the sound with vocals from performers I had seen live.

When I was done I also found that there were recordings that I had to come to a new appreciation for. I also found that I had a very low tolerance for highly produced recordings. But I think I enjoy hearing vocals and instruments sound as close to the way they really do.

I guess there is one more point, I find that while tonality can be mostly controled by good equipment selection; imaging is a very finicky characteristic. Imaging is so room dependant that I find when I go and listen to other systems it is the spatial imaging that I find so much more intriguing and makes me want to go and tweek some more.

This is a very interesting topic. In the final analysis, we all seek to make ourselves happy with our purchases by working to achieve the "sound" that we like. Certainly, I have heard certain systems, some very high end, which, by my standards, sounded awful and had no synergy whatsoever. It is easy to dismiss people who develop such systems as being uneducated listeners, but there may be many personal factors involved. One is human hearing. Even when I was 10-12 years old, I remember that it was shocking to compare the audiometry graphs from those school hearing tests that we all took. There were plenty of young kids with startling high frequency rolloff in their hearing. Another factor is personal taste. If the other guy likes his music ear-bleeding bright, I am not sure he hears it the same way that I do, but even if he does and that is his taste, who am I to say that he is wrong and I am right?

An example of this in the equipment category is Stax headphones, and forgive me Stax if I am smearing you because I haven't listened to your products in over 30 years, but according to my opinions of that time, all their products were extremely bright, harsh and awfully unmusical. I couldn't understand why anyone would want these products nor what relationship this sound could have in anyone's mind to any real or live music. It would be interesting to hear from someone who likes that kind of sound and know what he hears that sounds good to him and whether what he hears has any relationship in his mind to live or "accurate" sound as it exists in a live concert.

This brings me to my another point: Even though we seek to please ourselves first, regardless of the "accuracy" of our components, if live music in our homes is the standard for what we are trying to achieve then there should be a significant attempt to achieve a live music sound, to the degree that this is achievable, in the way we match components and what we purchase. Of course there are fine gradations in approaching what sounds live to any one of us. With regard to the original post on this thread of certain music sounding bad on certain equipment, I am always amazed when a certain recording that I absolutely loved on one system does absolutely nothing for me on another. Often these extreme changes in perception occur just by swapping one component for another (both extremely high quality and where neither lacks in synergy with the rest of the system). Garfish's experience with his migration from Vandersteen 3A to 5 certainly resonates with me, since I am a 3A Signature owner and have auditioned the 5 on several occasions. He is right that the 5 is a very different speaker from the 3A from the midrange up. It is much more airy, open and transparent. It is certainly not hyper-detailed, but it does retrieve a lot more information than the 3A Signature, while it manages to retain a smooth character. I have found that some of the recordings that I audition with don't sound as good on this speaker. Other material, often supplied by the dealer, sounds breathtaking. This breathtaking material sounds ordinary on my system back at home. I've had similar experiences to this after a simple amp, cable or speaker upgrade in my home system. I think Garfish got it right when he says you have to evaluate each system from step 1, applauding what it does well, and taking into account its flaws. If you compare systems head-to-head, it is not helpful to compare them on their individual characteristics. Each must be evaluated as a whole and we can't get too analytical in our comparison that we miss the forest for the trees.

And despite the fact that we each have a sound that we like, whether we know it or admit it or not, I feel that we should keep in mind what live music sounds like in trying to achieve what sounds like real live music to us while balancing that with what sounds good to us. Thankfully, the majority of high end aupdiophiles seem to do this.