Evaluating a system - what do you listen for?

I have been in this hobby a long time and my opinion of what I want to hear in reproduced music continues to evolve. Having owned many systems - and critically listened to many, many more - I am now looking for an overall sound that as accurately as possible captures the tone and tempo of the music with enough of a bass foundation to convincingly portray an orchestra at full tilt or club beats while still nailing the timbre of an upright bass. Decent portrayal of leading and trailing edges is nice, and a high end that’s fully present and balanced without stridency is a big plus. Detail’s good, but hyper detail without musical flow can be distracting. Airy treble and pinpoint or large soundstage are also nice to have, but if what’s coming out of the speakers doesn’t make me want to tap my toe or cry a little bit when a vocalist holds a note just so, then what’s the point? That’s what I’m looking for these days - what about you?
I’ve been trying to find parity between brass instruments and female vocals. By tweaking the system to provide female singers with warm & rich vocals, horns can sound more golden - less brash & brassy. It’s a balancing act.  Lately, I've been dialing it in by experimenting with various vibration control devices under different components.
I want emotional connection more than anything else from my system
After years in the recording studio I have a sound built into my head that I go for. It is very similar to the sound in a control room of a good studio.
Though Art Dudley disagrees with me, my number one priority is lifelike vocal and instrumental timbre---lack of what J. Gordon Holt called "vowel colorations". Next up is immediacy and presence---the illusion of living, breathing humans singing and/or playing right there in front of me, fully formed and fleshed-out. Too many systems I've heard create "whispy" (ghostly apparitions), miniaturized voices and instruments that sound thin and small, lacking body and substance. Live music sounds big and bold, I like it's reproduction to as well. Live music is experienced not through just the ears, but the entire body. Reproduced music often sounds eviscerated, robbed of it's physicality, appealing to the intellect only! That for me is the main failing of music reproduction systems, apparently even harder to achieve than the ability to provide lifelike vocal and instrumental timbre.
First, get the mids right...
Just an opinion here, on the subject of the ability of any given component to provide an emotional connection to the music it is reproducing. That concept implies that that ability is separate from sound itself, that the sound of music alone does not necessarily communicate it's emotional content. Art Dudley is a proponent of that concept, and I find it a bit hard to accept. Music IS nothing more than sound, in one way or another. Sure, the emotion in music, and even the "intent of the performer(s)", as Art and others like to say, is affected more by some aspects of sound than others, but it is still the sound itself which contains and conveys that emotion. To characterize the ability of a component in such personal terms as to how it conveys emotion is just too subjective to me, too personal. The emotional connection to reproduced music as provided by any given component can be affected by many things other than the component itself, very personal things that one listener may not share with another. Sorry, J. Gordon Holts version of subjective reviewing is about as subjective as I am willing to embrace!
“The music is not in the notes,
but in the silence between.”

 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
I think Bpd expressed himself very well with what is important to him. I think that different aspects of sounds are different for different people. They are drawn to different things. For me it is the timing of music more that a couple of degrees off tone, timbre, warmth or cool or frequency response. So after those thing are close for me the music has to bounce and groove naturally for me, on a micro level as well as a macro level, all of it altogether at the same time. And as music is played a lot of things make that up. I think Amadeus was eluding to that. I think the phrase 'starting and stopping on a dime' use to be kind of used for what I am saying. And it is not just the overall sound that needs to do it for me but all parts, all instruments, voices, hall/venue noises, etc.,  so it doesn't alter the timing for the completeness of the music. I think Bdp was a musician and I would think that probably is important for him to. I don't think it is easy for the reproduction of sound to do that real well. It can be likened to a not very good band to me. To me that is a big(huge)difference between live and reproduced. When it fits, it's tight, it's more right as a musical fabric, it is satisfying. Then the knit fabric of music paints a more colorful, emotional? picture to me. It fits all together much better. I think it effects those other things already mentioned( tone, timbre, warmth or cool or frequency response), for good reason, in the reproduction of satisfying sound. So in a roundabout way I am saying some of what Bdp did, and that is, I am most concerned in how I connect to the music on the system I am listening to. 
So I would take a spectrum of favorite music and listen. Takes note of how each piece, on each system, moves me and move in the direction that I like most.
Not necessarily audiophile approved, but satisfying for me. 
This is what I do not want:

Exaggerated high frequencies and etched sound = "detail", biting unnatural attacks = "fast transient response", unnaturally dry bass = "taut" and “tight”

This is what I want:

An emotionally accurate feeling of live, natural, sonics when listening to acoustic  music.

The  "You are there", feel of electronic music, that does not "add any distortion from the original performance, or take any away". 

A great stereo can do both!

randy-11  First, get the mids right...

Agree, I list to the piano first.  It has to sound right to me and it seems that it is the hardest for digital to reproduce.  After that violin, I have to know if I am listening to Sastradivarius violin.  Then space between instruments, vocals, placement and then TONE, TONE, TONE.  Front to back layering, left to right layering.  Decay of notes especially the piano.  Stand up bass has to have that wood sound.  I never found the sound I was looking for with what I could buy so I finally built my own DAC, preamp, phono and now amp.  Not to say there is nothing out there because I have not heard it all but I was swapping out components and cables, etc., and never found the overall improvement I was looking for (actually I never knew that something could be so different because I never heard it before in a system).  Even with people I know who also build or modify their own components, I heard better sound but not to where I am today.  What I found when building my own components was I learned what parts made a difference and how they made a difference.  So I can use that information to modify other peoples components as I do repair/modification work also.  It was a extremely great learning experience for me at least.  I was looking for my digital to sound analog.  Now I finally have that although the phono stage I build is also something special also.

Happy Listening.

In this order:
1] Driver integration (if that's not dead-on right, nothing else matters)
2] Total lack of treble fatigue
3] Tonal saturation (aka timbral accuracy)
3] Sufficient 'weight' across every frequency
5] Dynamics
6] Soundstaging

...and the magic ingredient? If the system does not want to make me sing, tap my foot, or bob my head, it's a no go for me. Because why else listen, right?

I always listen for this first:
1) Vocals - Both male & female
2) Piano
3) Stringed instruments - Guitar, violin, harp etc.
4) Bass
If all this sounds right - then, depth of sound stage - dynamics & most important = Make sure to your ears that it all sounds real!
Do this as many times as necessary & then start all over again until you get it all 100% right!
Remember one thing: This is a uncureable disease!

That for me is the main failing of music reproduction systems

It's always going to fail because it's a reproduction...

All good comments---everything matters! Reproduced music still, after all this time and effort, sounds very different from live, and undoubtedly will for the remainder of even the youngest of Audiogoners lives. But it can already sound close enough to allow the suspension of disbelief, and for the music to have an emotional impact on the listener. I can be brought to tears by Iris Dements singing even on my computer monitors speakers.

The thing about elements of music and it’s reproduction such as timing, is that we don’t necessarily know how a recording should sound in that regard---what the timing of the original music, as opposed to it’s reproduction, was like. We DO know what a voice free of vowel colorations sounds like, generally speaking. And we know what natural instrumental timbre sounds like. No, we don’t know how well any given recording has captured vocal and instrumental timbres, but ya gotta start somewhere, if that makes any sense.

Reproduced music can sound no better than the quality of it’s recording---source material is still the weakest link in the reproduction of music, in many cases by a wide margin.

Here’s a thought regarding the "timing" ability of a component: Being a drumset player, I value the "rhythm & pace" abilities of a component and/or system as much as anyone. Both Art Dudley and Herb Reichert make this ability a large focus of their component evaluations in Stereophile, even of electronics. Let me pose a question to ya’ll: How much do you think an electronic component can affect the timing of music? My opinion is that the effect on timing by electronics is far, far exceeded by that of speaker and listening room behavior, the effect of electronics being miniscule in comparison. In low frequencies especially, there is NO room which does not produce bass resonance modes, causing bass notes to linger after the signal has stopped. The result is the common bass-overhang (characterized as "slow", "fat", etc.) often blamed on the speaker or sub, when the real culprit is the room itself. Before you worry about the ability of an electronic component to effect timing, you had better have dealt with your rooms acoustical behavior.

Now speakers and turntables, being mechanic devices, ARE a genuine cause for concern and attention in regards to timing---cartridges, being an electro-mechanical transducer, as well. But electronics? Swamped by other factors imo.

I think it's too difficult to quantify in hifi terms.  I want a system that makes me want to sit and listen, as opposed to a system where I get up after 10 minutes and wash dishes or some other chore.  While I have a few bucks invested in my system, sometimes I can just sit and listen to my Tivoli radio when I like what's playing.  
Compared to what?

Thanks for your thoughts everybody.  A comment on the importance of timing.  My brother is a musician and he would agree from the perspective of a player, that in a group of 2 or more people, timing is the ultimate separator between good, mediocre and awful.  So it would figure if we are trying to recreate music in our homes, work place, cars or even headphones on the go, if our playback systems (including the listening space) cannot faithfully honor the timing in the original performance, then much of the other elements that make music enjoyable to the listener are severely diminished.
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@b, on the emotional connection imparted by a particular component. I wonder if Art Dudley is admitting that even he doesn't have the Audio vocabulary to capture or summarize the full effect of adding or subtracting a particular component from the chain. Perhaps the effect was too profound in one or many ways, and it just resonated in his listening experience to create a personal reaction beyond rationalization. This may sound too "woo woo" for some, but I think I can relate.
@bdp24 I don't know how they do it, but when you hook up certain amps to speakers they just seem to have better timing than others (One brand comes to mind).  Good speakers do what they are told.  Source material and electronics (and turntables) do the telling.
Power amps DO interact with the speakers they are hooked up to, (particularly at high and low frequencies), different drivers in different ways. Dynamic woofers are well-known to send a signal back to the power amp, though I forget what that phenomenon is called. Electro-magnetic feedback, perhaps. And some tweeters (especially ESL and ribbon) can cause slightly unstable circuits to oscillate. That interaction definitely can affect the timing of music.
I remembered the term! Back EMF, or electro-magnetic force. That’s what the woofer sends back to the power amp, different amps responding to it in different ways. I believe amps employing a lot of negative feedback have a more difficult time dealing with it.
global or local feedback?

I suspect impedance effects are the most likely cause of amp-speaker "interactions"

and electrostatics are the most difficult - Magtech designed their amps to drive them
All excellent answers. Timbre has to be "right". Imaging, soundstage, microdynamics and macrodynamics.
2nd Note;
a Piano is both percussive and melodic, most systems do not get this instrument correct.
Piano is an instrument about as difficult to reproduce as there is. As jafant just said, both percussive and melodic, it's frequency range also being very, very wide---very low to relatively high. That makes it very revealing of the octave-to-octave frequency response balance of loudspeakers and phono pickups. And extremely dynamic, a good recording of one being an excellent test of a pickups tracking ability. Many produce a "shattered", breaking glass sound when pushed hard.
you could do a lot with just 3 things:

female vocals
snare drums
Undertones, overtones, and Dap Tones.
I would add two more Randy---violin and cymbal, to test a systems ability at high frequency timbre. Piano and snare drum also tell you about that, but not to the same degree. Getting the ping/click of a drumstick tip on a cymbal right, and the sheen of violin string overtones, is very telling of the behavior of tweeters, pickups, and amplifier circuits. To get the combination of detail and sweetness, without etching and/or hardness, is a tricky balancing act.
DPT - Dynamics, Presence & Tone
I find two instruments especially good for analysis.

I listen to live piano every day.  If a system reproduces believable piano that makes you think it is in the room with you, you've got something!

The other instrument is violin, and the same criteria apply.  If you close your eyes and can believe it is in the room with you. you've arrived!

I was playing some well recorder piano on my big system and my wife called down and asked it I was playing her piano (she should have known it couldn't have been me due to the quality of playing).

For violin, I find my Martin Logan CLS based system very believable.
Our goal for building our system is to get the truest, the most realistic music we can within our budget. The starting point for me are the speakers and how good the sound quality is. If you don't succeed on the speakers, the music will not be as good as it could be. The sound has to fill your room completely.

Next you have to pair the speakers with the best amp/receiver you can get. I would buy as much WPC as my money will allow. The speakers and amp/receiver will be the heart and soul of your audio system. Also keep in mind, you should not get higher watts that your speakers cannot handle.

The Sources, such as turntable, cd player, tuner/network audio player, will be personal choices. What works for one will not work for all.

I hope this will be helpful.

1. bright high end.  If I cant close my eyes and relax, what's the use?
2 sloppy bass
3. bad room (slap echos, sprung wooden floor, etc.)


1. I want to hear ample micro and macro dynamics.
2. Soundstage - width, depth
3. Complex music doesn't overwhelm the system
4. tonal purity, starting at middle C
5. bass down to 45 Hz with a .707 damping factor
6. if any driver is better than the others, let it be the tweeter
I listen for phase shift distortion. The fewer crossovers, the less chance of that distortion. 
The faster the crossover slope, the more crossover distortion - phase shift.
6 dB/octave (first order) will introduce far less phase shift than 18 dB/octave.

Listen at high sound pressure levels - 85dB or so, and listen to music that you are familiar with. Do you get Listener Fatigue, i.e. an urge to turn it down?

Finally. listen at low volume. If the speakers don't excite enough air at low volumes, they will disappoint.
The best is not to try and focus on any particular frequency or sounds at first. I am a mastering engineer, and the best technique I use is to almost not focus too much initially. It sounds counter intuitive, but this approach allows you to get an immediate first impression on the overall track, especially if it is one you know. It takes a while to get used to doing this, because you need to not think and you might feel you are being distracted. A good way to practice is to put the track on and do something else nearby, or simply look away from your speakers. Once you have done this for about 5 minutes, you can decide to zero in on various frequencies in a focussed manner. As a rule, vocal and piano are the hardest to get right, so I look for this to sound natural and musical, but not "live".

Try not to look for this "live" sound. Most live sound is amplified and through a distorted PA anyway, so doesn't mean anything by way of comparison unless you are comparing to acoustic live music. Only then is the live approach valid. Even then, many acoustic spaces are not great, so live sound is such a broad church. Better to go with your own subjective preference. 

Psychoacoustics make a big difference too. Looking at a beautiful high end system or listing to one in a glistening top studio where you are overwhelmed by the glamour will often make you want to think it sounds better, so clouds judgement. Simply close your eyes to overcome this problem.

Finally make sure you are in a good mood/same mood each time you listen. Nothing affects your judgment more than how you feel.
The best is not to try and focus on any particular frequency or sounds at first. I am a mastering engineer, and the best technique I use is to almost not focus too much initially. It sounds counter intuitive, but this approach allows you to get an immediate first impression on the overall track, especially if it is one you know. 

I'm no mastering engineer but I've also found this is the approach that works best for me. It seems listening without focus highlights what's wrong (or right) rather quickly, at times it's immediately apparent.
I would use the words, realism or holographic, as the essence of what I am now hearing. My last four years have been eye opening to me. I am now hearing very precise locational information, such as where all musicians are, in the case of piano solos even knowing where the high notes are in space, a real sense of ambience in the hall, bass reverb. In addition every note from 20 hz to immediate leading edge, and human noises of the musicians. Sibilants with no breakups and sounding real.

Frankly I never expected to hear what I'm hearing. It is a real thrill to hear performances that I could hear as the musicians are now dead.

I must say that this is all very fragile. Some records don't have this information and sometimes my system is not fully ready, such as having to be on for longer after being off for thunderstorms. But when it is right, wow!

I want an accurate timbre  recreation of what's on the recording. That and 3 demensionality,  as well as, the ability to handle dynamic swings.

Right On! bdp24-

after the Piano, the violin and cello, is next on the timbral scale of importance.
At this point in my hi-fi journey, the best system is the one that reveals the talent of the musicians  and the instruments they play. 

When I consider upgrading my system, I want new components that will reveal more of what the musicians are holding in their hands.  I want to hear what their instruments are made of and the sound of their bodies on those instruments.  And I want it in a natural and realistic way.    The last part makes it a difficult dream to achieve.    Is it possible to have ultimate detail while maintaining ultimate realism?
Yes, it is possible to achieve the 'Absolute' sound- mward.
The problem with what many say they are looking for is that the recording may not contain it. Mainly, you really can only hope for truth to the source with no limitaions or added distortions. Your system can be a window to the source, Alhough, some systems will create a better illusion of 3 dimensional space, and, within this is where the devil with the details lives.

Very interesting discussion. Thanks for the thread, @knownothing .

I am not going to go into a lot of detail with terms that don't have precise definitions; but I really like the sound of my system. The only thing that occasionally causes me to cringe is accentuation of sibilants. While I believe that they are in the recording for the most part , I was wondering if there are ways to tone them down without changing the overall reproduction to a great extent.
My hearing isnt isn't what it use to be but music will always be a window to the soul which is what it's all about ....enjoy

For evaluation purposes I like to listen to well recorded piano and flute.
For some reason flute, especially in the higher range, really shows off a system’s upper ability.
Well recorded piano music can also illustrate a system’s capability.
These are just starting points.
BTW: Not a big fan of the flute but they can really make your ears bleed in a system with problems.

Whomever knows a guy with a real good analogue recorder---even the reasonably priced Revox A77, plus some condenser microphones, arrange for him to make you a recording of live acoustic music, the event at which you will be present. Listen attentively to the sound and music the musicians and singer(s) are making, taking notes if you wish. From those tapes burn a CD/SACD (and an LP if you have the disposable income!), and use it to evaluate equipment. From being at the recording session, you have a good idea of what the music and sound should be, much more so than any professional CD/SACD/LP you have. The recording will most likely be far more alive and transparent sounding than almost all of them, having gone through none of the processing commercial product does---equalization, compression, added electronic reverb and echo, gating, etc.

I made such a recording, and have used it for years as source material with which to judge the sound quality of equipment. It was made by myself in a small bar on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale California, the band being a Jump/Blues septet comprised of drumset, bass, upright piano, guitar, tenor and baritone saxes, and singer. The bass and guitar were plugged into small amps, but contrary to the mistaken notion (notably by Stereophile founder and chief-tester J. Gordon Holt) that instruments employing amplification are not acoustic sources of sound, the sound produced by amplified instruments is indeed acoustic---you hear the sound produced by an amplified instrument directly through the air with your ears, it is not an electronic sound source. The sound of an electric guitar and bass, while different than that of acoustic ones, have their own signature characteristics. If you were at the recording, you have heard that sound for yourself.