Is Your System Better Than the Music You Like?

I've recently come to the conclusion that the capabilities of my audio system exceeds the quality of my typical recordings. It's making me rethink any ideas I had involving future upgrades. Just wondering if anyone else has reached this point?

I have what most people would consider a very high quality system, but by no means is it a SOTA setup. The system is made up of components by JRDG, REL, Martin-Logan, MSB, Sony, TACT, RPM, Discovery, PS Audio and Benz. I have a decent room and while I won't say I'm obsessive about it, I've paid a reasonable amount of attention to setup issues. The overall sound quality is quite good. Still there's always room for upgrades. I could upgrade the DAC to a Plus, switch the subwoofer cables, add an Arcici stand, maybe go with an outboard tube phono preamp, etc. I could easily put another $10,000 into the system in worthwhile improvements without fundamentally changing the character or capabilities of the system.

Musically, I'm a basic old-school rocker. Anything from 50s New Orlean R&B, Motown, 60s psychedelia, 70s punk & funk to 80s rap. The 90s are less well represented, but there are smatterings. I'm a big Chicago style electric blues fans. I'm also a big classic jazz fan. I go for Ellington big-big-time, Billie Hoilday, Louis, 50s Blue Note and Miles. There's some classical as well as a couple of country artists (you can't go wrong with Dwight).

I have any number of audiophile quality pressings and recordings, but the majority of my music, particularly my favorite recordings, are down and dirty with no pretensions towards audiophilia. The 30s jazz that I so love is noisy, bandwidth limited and mono. The Chess blues recordings have a very nice aliveness to them, but they're mainly mono and without much deep bass. Most 60s to 70s rock is sonically undistinguished (obviously there are exceptions) and is more mid-fi than hi-fi. Rap is purposely lo-fi. Current recordings are extremely dynamically limited. My point is that you don't need a $150,000 system in a custom built room to properly reproduce these types of music. You still need a good system capable of low distortion, wide bandwidth, sharp imaging and all the other audiophile traits, but it doesn't have to be outrageously complex nor all that expensive.

I probably will continue to make relatively minor upgrades, but I can't imagine making any major changes. Maybe I'm no longer an audiophile and I've slipped down in the world of mid-fi, if so, I'd at least like to think that it's a quality mid-fi.
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spend that 10k on music! its much more fun to listen to the music than the equipment.
I've long known that I'm in the same boat you describe, except that I own no "audiophile" pressings or such at all. In fact, not only does a lot of the music I love not qualify as even coming close to being recorded with the quality of the "absolute sound", but with many of my favorite genres, I actually *prefer* that it sound this way. There can be something extremely evocative about "primitive" sound quality on vintage recordings of period music, and I don't believe my enjoyment of rockabilly, jump R&B, Chicago blues, girl groups, early soul, surf music, big band, early bebop, original ska, garage rock, etc., would be greater if those recordings had been made in modern "high-fidelity" sound - in fact, I'm sure it would be diminished. It's very interesting how on old recordings, we can definitely distinguish between "great"- and "bad"-sounding ones, even when none of them sound like the real thing. It has much more to do with the feeling one gets off the record, and whether that sound works to heighten the impact of the record's mood. In this sense, the "impressionistic" aspect of the recording art exhibited in vintage material has been lost to the technical competence of the modern age.

However, as far as my system goes, there are at least a few reasons why none of the foregoing makes me question persuing (to a budget- and neurosis-limited degree) a high-fidelity playback capability. For one thing, Howlin' Wolf and Link Wray still sound better on my system than they would on a department store rack system, and I think that remains true for all types of music, and for nearly all gradations of system quality. I will concede that some of the finer points of a high-end system's potential won't be realized when playing low-fi sources, but in general the presentation will still be better overall than if played back on a system that adds even more errors of its own. Even the "ruthlessly revealing" argument having to do with the supposed intolerability of playing back flawed recordings through a high-resolution, transparent system is, I think, unfounded when compared to listenting to the same recordings at anything approaching satisfying volume levels through a system that will add spurious resonances and distortions to the sound.

Additionally, for me, there is a need to feel that I can "trust" my system, to present a truer account of what is contained in the source material - whatever quality that may be. It doesn't matter to me if what I am spinning is the lowest-fi, DIY, beat-up old 45 of an amateur bunch of 17-year-old Yardbirds wanna-be's who can't even tune their instruments recorded in a backwoods shack with one microphone, I want to know that I am listening to the record and not my system, to the extent that is possible. Plus, as a musician of sorts, and someone who has done a decent amount of studio recording and is fundamentally aware of sound and its characteristics in general, I would never be happy for long with a playback system that displayed perceivable deviations from sonic neutrality which I knew could be minimized with better gear.

One more reason not to forgo the high-end route, for me, is classical music. Even though I don't listen to as much of it, and don't buy audiophile pressings and so forth, I find that, unlike the above-mentioned genres, I cannot greatly enjoy classical music that is not recorded with something approaching lifelike fidelity. By acquiring a system that can sound at least somewhat natural on naturally recorded acoustic music, I automatically get the added benefit of being able to listen to my well-recorded rock and jazz with a range and impact that my non-audiophile friends simply won't experience, no matter how much they love the music. Plus, I enjoy the ownership of quality gear, something I just wouldn't get from mass-market products. (But I do go the other route in my car - straight-stock, OEM, base-model indifference all the way for me, babies - and I still sometimes enjoy stuff most on the road regardless, despite [or maybe because of?] its low-fi freedom from thought.)

Well, I gotta go now, because the FedEx guy just showed up a day early with my new upsampling DAC, and the box displays some water stains and dampness. I know the point of diminishing returns is out there, somewhere...
I listen to a lot of older jazz Lps that are recorded in mono. Some are quite rare and in addition to less than state-of-the-art recording quality they have been roughly handled by their previous owners so they are not in the best of shape. That said I enjoy them more with each upgrade that I make in my system. To sit in my room with the Miles Davis band, all of them long dead, and be transported back to a warm summer night in Columbia's New York studio is one of the most transcendental experiences of my life. As Newbee says above, it's about the music.
Chicago blues ... oh yeah! I have not yet gotten to the point of being as satisfied as you with my system. That's good for you and bad for me -- you get to spend more money on your music and I have to split that with tweaks to my system. You lucky dog! Don't look back, don't rethink, stop subcribing to the rags ... get off the roller coaster and enjoy the music! If you focus on the music and the proper reproduction, you are an audiophile. If you are recreating the live sound to your ear, you are one lucky SOB or DOB. Enjoy!
I don't know if the premise that a hi-fi system will make most music sound bad is exactly true. I used to think that too, until I really searched around and put together a system that plays good recordings very well, and yet makes even bad recordings enjoyable. Funny thing is yesterday I came across an old review by Mr. Atkinson of Stereophile reviewing the Mark Levinson ?29 preamp and #20 amplifier. He discussed the differences between "neutrality" and "musicality" and how most of the time the two do not go together. However, and I've come to this conclusion too, that a system that is musical will be neutral and vice versa. Some things will play better that others, but a well balanced system will make music of all software.
So don't give up. Imagine the future just like my Musical Fidelity amplifier surpasses a $10,000 amp of only a few years ago, and digital is getting better and cheaper day by day. It was not untill SACD that I ever heard a LP lover comment on the sound of digital playback. And if you are still worried have your dealer come out a have a listen on your system, often they might be able to hear what is wrong, or even another experienced audiophile. It worked for me.

Your thoughts mirror my experience. In an ideal world we each would have several systems which fit the quality of the software used. I feel fortunate to own a system that provides the widest possible range of compatability (enjoyment) with my audio library. Never-the-less, I will continue to upgrade as finances allow. My passion for now is finding quality older vinyl at reasonable prices. I suggest you do the same since this is a finite resource.

Happy listening,
Thanks for your thoughtful responses. It's always good to hear other peoples' perspective, particularly here on A-gon.

Let me clarify a point, my current system is not "ruthlessly revealing" and thereby making my records unlistenable. Quite the opposite, I enjoy listening to my collection as much now as at any other time and this is at least partly due to high quality of my system. Great recordings sound real good, poor recordings sound like bad recordings and good music sounds like good music.

It so much more rewarding when you concentrate on the music as opposed to the equipment.
One of my favorite demos was that of Mark Levinson at the original Goodwins in Cambridge. He took an old old jazz 78, fiddled around with his Cello Palette equalization settings, and made the thing sound wonderful. The IS something to be said for a judicious application of frequency response alterations...
Ivan, I possess two somewhat-vintage equalizers at my disposal, a Soundcraftsman 15 band per channel graphic (complete with noise generator and microphone metering), and a rare Sony Esprit 3 band per channel full parametric (which is built inside and out like comparably older pieces of Accuphase or Mark Levinson might be!), and they have been very useful and very educational to play around with in the past. But ever since I got my system up to and past a certain point of truthfulness, I find I don't use them much anymore, and then only for dubbing and diagnostic work, not for straight listening. The more complete - sonically speaking - my rig became, the less, I discovered, I needed to make any compensation for variable recordings to achieve listenability. In fact, this was one of the phenomena that really let me know I was on the worthwhile track with this madness. This experience, too, would seem to bolster the argument for not downgrading one's system to "match" the supposed source quality.
Zaikesman, I don't disagree with you. Downgrading my system would make my ears hurt. But the Cello demonstration transformed a primitive, historical recording of great musical competence and made the music more accessible. The latter point, I think, is what it is all about. I don't think one can pull this off with the equalizer built into a appliance store receiver (not referring to your rig.)
Now if the multichannel hotshot engineers would capture the music event first and then worry about (SACD/DVD-A) multichannel, it would do us all a great service. I just replayed a Kate Wolf vinyl that she made with a tweaked Revox A77 and the presence and performance is wonderful. It's good recording technique that graces gifted performances.
I'm "there" too "61. My system is basically finished (I mean completed), and it is very enjoyable even with mid-fi and some lessor recordings. I see we have some very similar tastes in music, especially Chicago Blues and "ancient" ('50s) rock. I've got some Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry that all get the juices flowing even though we all know the recordings aren't that good.

But awhile ago, I got a Jacintha XRCD2 that absolutely made me melt it was so good, and the pretty high calibre of my system was suddenly all worth it. While I'm not a big jazz fan, I like some New Age, Celtic and Neo-Celtic, and some of it is very well recorded. My Vand. 5s are fairly expensive but they make all the Enigma CDs sound wonderful and IMO are definitely worth the cost for the excellent bass alone. So, yes, my system is better than 90-95% of my recordings, but I definitely put musicality first as I put it together and have no regrets. "Hail Hail Rock and Roll.........." Cheers. Craig
Absolutely - my system is better than a large portion of my CD collection. I share the opinion that a better system doesn't make "worse" recordings worse to listen to, but worse recordings don't inspire you to run out and spend a lot more on your system. And, there are many recordings that do benefit from the quality of my system, and when I'm listening to them, I'm thrilled that the system is as good as it is.

You don't mention how much your system costs (not that it's particularly important), but it's clearly less than $150K and situated in a custom built room - at some point in the upgrade process, you hit that knee in the curve where improvements are going to be more and more expensive. Since you can get a large majority of your CDs for between 8 and 13 dollars, you can get significant amounts of music for the same money as one of these expensive upgrades. Earlier on, it might have been 100 CDs for the same price as a very significant upgrade (relative to the quality of the system then). Now, it's probably 500 or a 1000 CDs. That makes a fairly compelling case for buying music and letting the system be.

Not caring for classical keeps the system cost down, as well. I like Rock, Blues, Jazz and several other genres, but I rarely listen to classical.

Finally, I'm guessing everybody who says they're at that point of the system being more than sufficient for most of their music collection has a system and a music collection that basically everybody they know believes is "over the top" - you're probably the most hard-core audiophile any of your friends know. And yet, there's something about getting to the point where the gear is sufficient and the showpiece CDs or LPs become uninteresting to listen to, that makes you question whether you're a "true" audiophile. Once again, it's easier (and cheaper!) to conclude that you don't much care. -Kirk

kthomas - couldn't agree with your post more! do they pay you more for being a true "audiophile"? fortunately most of my friends don't know what an audiophile is supposed to be so i don't have to deny being one.
I do find that when I am going to sit down and really listen, I am limited to what CD's I will listen to.

I want to listen to something that is really well recorded, musical, and has lots of "little sounds" that move around in the sound stage. Al Dimeola always fits this for me (tons of percussion and incredible guitar and piano).

If I just have music on while I am in the house or out on the patio, it doesn't matter as much.