Should the best systems sound almost identical?

If the overall goal of audio equipment and the various media types is to reproduce recorded music the way it sounded when it was being recorded, then it seems that as an audio system gets closer to achieving this goal various systems should sound more and more alike.

For example, in a utopian world my stereo system would so perfectly reproduce a singers voice that if they were standing between the speaker you couldn't tell the difference in an A/B test. If the equipment is adding a characteristic sound the listener would be able to tell a difference. The less of the systems characteristic sound the closer to the actual singer the recording would be.

Taking this another step, does it make sense that the "better" speakers are the more they should sound the same? Should they not be getting closer to the perfect reproduction of the signal that is given them?

How about the Focal Grande Utopia speakers that retail for $180,000 vs. some of the crazy expensive MBL stuff. I'd venture a guess that they sound nothing alike. Almost seems like speakers at this level should almost be interchangeable in a system at least at the sweet spot.

By the same logic then all high performance cars should drive the same.

The utopian goal is faithful reproduction, but apples to oranges each person's vision of nirvana is different.

Even faithful reproduction may not quell the audiophile desire to enhance what is there. A perfect reproduction of a particular event may still not be technicolor enough for certain listeners.

So as with every horse race people have their particular favorites and the toughest thing to judge is emotion, what moves one person may not move another.

Utopia is boring give me discord and a colorful struggle that is worth living for.
"How about the Focal Grande Utopia speakers that retail for $180,000 vs. some of the crazy expensive MBL stuff. I'd venture a guess that they sound nothing alike. "

You would be correct.

I happened to hear the Focals just this past weekend. They share a lot of attributes one would attribute to very high end gear, but I think are quite distinctive sounding from others including mbl I have heard in the same league.

Which is better would be mostly a personal judgement call more than anything quantitative. Like choosing one beautiful woman over another. Same kind of thing.
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"By the same logic then all high performance cars should drive the same."

Not really. There are high performance muscle cars, touring cars, sports cars, etc. All high performance in different ways. Me, I'd like a Ferrari but the next guy might like a new V8 Camaro.

Not likely we'll ever agree on what is "best" if for no other reason than our outer ears are shaped differently. Ever cup your hands behind your ears while listening and hear the dramatic difference? Or lean your head back against a reflective leather high-backed chair and hear the midrange become more pronounced?

Me? I'd rather rip around in a 300HP AWD Subaru WRX than a 300HP Camaro. Uh oh. What's best? American or Japanese or UK hifi?
There is no standard for a sports car that manufactures are trying to reach. The reality is that audio manufactures are "stuck" building to personal taste on some level because approaching a perfect reproduction seems to be impossible. In audio there's loss at every step in the audio process, but the ideal state would be that you couldn't tell the difference between a live accoustic sound and the reproduction coming from your speakers.
Mapman - I had one listening experience with the Focal Grande Utopia's when I was purchasing my 836v's where my friend and I both agreed that when making the switch from the 836v speakers to the Grande's we preferred the 836v. We both thought that the 836v made us forget about the speakers themselves. Then we realized that we were at the wrong listening location for the Grande's. Amazing difference when we moved back abouta foot.

My take away was that the 836v was a pretty great value if there was any scenario where I could concieve of preferring it over the Grande.
I suspect no one, not even audio designers have any idea how individual recordings are mixed and sound. Even 'live' room acoustics will vary depending on the venue and your seating position in that venue.

So there isn't a definable target by which to measure. I think designers try to voice their products with an assortment of recordings and each use different ones.

Similarly, the ancillary equipment designers use will vary - I doubt all speaker manufacturers use the same electronics and cables when voicing their designs.

So what you get in the end it each designers best compromise or preference, regardless of price.

Not to mention hearing differences we all have, as others have suggested.

So, you spend big bucks, you take your chances just like everyone else.

It's also fair to realize that 'statement' products carry profit margins that are obscene. Focals $180,000 speakers likely ship from the factory for 1/4 the retail price, and the factory makes a killer margin on them as well.

Exotic wood and premium craftsmanship does not come cheap, nor does it impact the sound. You can buy the same drivers/internal parts for $6k in the Utopia micro, minus a bigger box and a few extra drivers.

Not that the last few statements are relevant to the question, but I couldn't help adding that bit!
I expect that if I led you blindfolded into 10 rooms of my choice on any given could not tell me which room had the $180,000 speakers, and which room had the $10,000 speakers.

You would never get any agreement on what "best" is. There are`nt any all knowing sound gurus who could judge and determine whtat`s right for evevryone.The beauty of this hobby is is the subjectivity and thus it comes down to each person`s ears and perception, as it should.
They should but they don't. That means that they all are very far from the reality of the recorded musical event.
And I don't really care if I like what's coming out of the speakers. And if by any chance this illusion actually sounds "better" than the reality, I will be more than happy.
The analogy with performance cars is incorrect, by the way.
Yes. They should come as close as possible to the absolute sound. At that price.
I really don't buy an argument that we all hear differently. May be we do marginally but not enough to skew perception so much. I bet you we all can tell, blind folded, when live ( acoustic) music is playing in a room and which instruments are being played. Even when we all move to a different (diff acoustics) room.
Agreed. Really good hearing is just that - good hearing. Preferances is another thing.
Hell, I don't even know what the half of those instruments in a big orchestra are called. But when played live they sound, well, live; that's for sure.
Too many variables. Time of day, day of week, room acoustics, local seismic vibration characteristics, associated cabling, local power behavior, tube selection, CD treatments, etc.
all comes down to room dependency....and how well the speaker interacts with that said room.

I have heard other smaller Focal's as well.

Size and cost makes it an apples/oranges comparison of sorts, but smaller speakers can certainly often deliver just as much or more enjoyment, which is what it is all about, in some rooms.

To me sound is about quantity as well as quality. Depending on the room, it is very easy to go overboard with too much of a good thing.

For any particular room, to me, there is a point of diminishing returns in regards to speaker size and associated cost. You want to max out what can be done in the room but not pour money down a hole, which can be easily done in this hobby, in teh process.
The idea that we all have different hearing doesn't make sense in this context because if I spoke to you multiple times it would sound the same to you each and every time. If a speaker could perfectly reproduce my voice it would still sound like my voice to you.

I agree that it's likely that even if someone were produce the perfect speaker and associated system many audiophiles wouldn't think it sounded the best due to personal preference.
"Personal preference" is determined by one`s hearing and processing(ear-brain). Ears are always in the equation.

Without ears there`s no perception.
Best Regards,
planar speakers do not sound like cone-based speakers.the dispersion of sound differs between driver types.

also it is possible that tube and solid state based systems will sound different.
Charles1dad - Ears are always in the equation, but is a constant unless you somehow manage to changes ears. Personal preference matters in the real world because we can't match the original sound exactly.

An idealistic listening test for a speaker/system would be to have a singer in a room that is also being recorded. The recorded sound would be played back through the system on deley providing the A to B comparison. The best system would be the one that most closely matched the original sound at the listening sweet spot, but that doesn't mean that it would be the preferred sound in any other setting.

If I was Bill Gates I'd waste my money setting up some listening events along these lines just to see what happened. If money were no object it could be fun. It might even be possible for vendors to come setup in identical rooms so you could see which system most closely approximated the original sound.
Let's, for the sake of argument, take an extreme position:

Look at it this way: would you expect that one $2+ million Stradivarius violin will sound the same as another? Or as a $1,000 violin? No, I would argue, of course not. Yet, they are all made, to the greatest extent possible, to be physically identical; the goal is to make violins that are physically and acoustically the same. Try as we might, can’t be done.

So, why should we expect any two speakers – let alone any two speakers that are physically, electronically, and acoustically radically different – to sound the same reproducing the different sounds produced by intentionally identical instruments? It is, I would again argue, entirely (physically, in accordance with the laws of physics, etc) impossible. Full stop.

Try an extreme: if “neutral” “transparent” “100% invisible” “disappearing” or any other manner of verbiage amounting to the claim that this X, Y, Z is so unspeakably wonderful that it simply vanishes to present one with an uncolored magical connection with the true essence of whatever is recorded on any given random piece of software turning in circles someplace in the chain were anything other than meaningless marketing pabulum, then why not take one of your Focals, mate it with one of your MBLs, and call them the perfect stereo pair. Hey, if they are each the perfect realization of some platonic ideal of sound reproduction, mix and match: no worries. Unthinkable?

Or another take: a tweeter blows on one of your speakers. Do you replace it with a Rat-Shack, off the shelf tweeter of the same size and specs, or do you get as close to a matched replacement from the manufacturer or, barring that, scrap the working one and reinstall a matched pair? (Verity, e.g., keeps records on the specs of each an every driver they ship in order to be able to supply a matched mate for just this occasion). So, identical enclosures, identical electronics, slight variation in a single driver = completely unacceptable – yet we’re discussing whether two things that are 100% different in every way could sound so close to identical as to be interchangeable?

Clearly, I have an opinion on this one. Put me firmly in the camp believing that uncolored, “objectively true,” musical reproduction is a myth. Marketing nonsense. Yes, it is the goal. Yes, we all chase it. Yes, one might inch ever “closer.” Yes, one may honestly believe that A is objectively “more invisible” than B (while their neighbor believes the opposite…). But it’s a lie. Everything adds color. Every design is a product of choices, and each choice has an impact. Enjoy – revel in – the boundless pleasure that music brings to life; the infinite variation of each voice, instrument, the equipment used to record, the choices made in the mix, and gear used to reproduce them all. But, really, let’s not kid ourselves.

Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (And yes, all that said, I certainly believe that my present setup is more “real” than any other I've had before, and various manner of possible alternatives. Inconsistent? Hypocritical? Meh....I’ve been called worse.)
Bad example - all Strads actually do sound the same. That's why the discerning music buff can identify the characteristic Strad sound on recordings by Heifetz, for example.
Ask yourself, do all violins sound the same? All pianos? If not which is the "correct" one? Do all conductors get the same sound from an orchestra? etc, etc etc. So why should all systems sound the same. Mine sounds like I think music shound sound, YMMV.
If the goal of the system is to reproduce the input signal with minimal coloration, then the answer is systems should trend toward sounding alike. To make the issue clearer I would reduce it to "should power amplifiers sound alike?" Power amplifiers are not cars, wines or women -- they are audio amplifiers supposedly designed to reproduce the signal feed them at an amplified level. In the real world even amplifiers do not sound the same. I could argue that the differences between competent, high quality amplifiers is quite small, but I think a better explanation is that many audiophile amplifier manufacturers don't want their amps to sound like other amplifiers. Their amps are not intended to be neutral sounding products. At the system level I suspect audiophile are also not trying to put together neutral sounding systems, hence there is little convergence in sound quality even as prices climb. As a group, audiophiles use their systems as a form of personal expression. It's something that reflects the audiophile's tastes, sophistication and preferences.
Mezmo - While I think the ideal goal of sound reproduction is to have an identical sound to the original, I would agree that it's likely not physically possible to do it perfectly. If it could be done the majority would probably think it inferior.

Using cables as an example, if you ever did put a perfectly transparent cable into your system, how would you know?

The fact that musical instruments all sound slightly different (even though all strads have a signature sound that can be easily identified by some people) each individual violin sound the same as itself and the goal is to reproduce the sound on a specific instrument on a recording.

Assuming that because two violins sound different that it makes it "ok" for my system to make one sound like the othe isn't really any different than saying it's ok for a violin to sound like a trumpet as on my system logically.

A friend of mine was listening to a violin recording that I have and stated that it was a strad. I pulled the cover and he was right. He has a friend that is a great violin player that picked out Josh Bell specifically on Josh Groban's CD just from the style and tone. I don't claim to be that good by any stretch.

I also agree with the idea that designers are not trying to really approach the goal and are instead working towards a somewhat unique signature sound that a select group of people will prefer.
Stanwal - our systems are not musical instruments creating original sounds. They are intended to reproduce a recorded sound. How could the goal not be to perfectly represent that original sound?

In a good system you should be able to tell the difference between a bass and a bass guitar playing the same notes because of their individual sounds. In a perfect system you should be able to tell blindly which violin is playing which part of duet IF you can audibly tell them apart in a live acoustic environment.

To understand what the "original/perfect" recorded/intended sound is you would have to use the original sound engineers brain and ears (probably while listening to the music through a variety of crappy sounding speakers used in the "original" studio, as well).

"True to the source" Hi-fi quests are dumb @ best, IMO.
Don't know about Stradivari's violins but I heard many acoustic guitars, bad, good and great. All sounded different even if slightly so. But guitars made by masters usually do have particular sound signature, so they are recognized by those who know and can hear it. The same, I suppose, with Stradivari and other invaluable instruments.
The plot thickens. From Wikipedia:

Controversy over Sound Quality

Above all, these instruments are famous for the quality of sound they produce. However, the many blind tests from 1817[6][7] to the present (as of 2006) have never found any difference in sound between Stradivari's violins and high-quality violins in comparable style of other makers and periods, nor has acoustic analysis.[8][9] In a particularly famous test on a BBC Radio 3 program in 1977, the violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and the violin expert and dealer Charles Beare tried to distinguish among the "Chaconne" Stradivarius, a 1739 Guarneri del Gesú, an 1846 Vuillaume, and a 1976 British violin played behind a screen by a professional soloist. The two violinists were allowed to play all the instruments first. None of the listeners identified more than two of the four instruments. Two of the listeners identified the 20th-century violin as the Stradivarius.[10] Violinists and others have criticized these tests on various grounds such as that they are not double-blind (in most cases), the judges are often not experts, and the sounds of violins are hard to evaluate objectively and reproducibly.[9]

In a test in 2009, the British violinist Matthew Trusler played his 1711 Stradivarius, said to be worth two million U.S. dollars, and four modern violins made by the Swiss violin-maker Michael Rhonheimer. One of Rhonheimer's violins, made with wood that the Empa researcher Francis Schwarze had treated with fungi, received 90 of the 180 votes for the best tone, while the Stradivarius came in second with just 39 votes. The majority (113) of the listeners misidentified the winning violin as the Stradivarius.[11]

Analysis of the treated wood revealed a reduction in density, accompanied by relatively little change in the speed of sound. According to this analysis, treatment improves the sound radiation ratio to the level of cold-climate wood considered to have superior resonance.[12]

While the majority of world class soloist play violins by Antonio Stradivari, there are a few exceptions. For example violinist Christian Tetzlaff formerly played "a quite famous Strad", but switched to a violin made in 2002 by Stefan-Peter Greiner. He states that the listener cannot tell that his instrument is modern, and he regards it as excellent for Bach and better than a Stradivarius for "the big Romantic and 20th-century concertos."[13]
How coukd a reasonable person expect very different speaker technokogy, amps, pres and on to sound identical? Should a panel speaker dipole sound like a box speaker with dynamic drivers? No
Should a pure Class A tube amp sound like a Class D? No
The best systems can be different and still the best just like cars as a quick example.
***Bad example - all Strads actually do sound the same.***

Really? I don't think so.

Even through my computer's speakers, the difference is obvious.
Agree with Frogman, having heard a number of them. Same with Guarneris; each of these instruments is unique.
All good discussions above and all but what Mc's original contention or question is that on a PARTICULAR recording (be it a $1000 or Strads or Guarneris)., well matched high end best systems should bring out all three pretty much just like it sounded live while being recorded. We know that more likely than not they don't.
Why is that? And many reasons are mentioned above- diff speakers type, diff amps, diff type sources and many many variables.
But If all the systems claim to be reproducing the absolute sound they are all wrong because 1) none sounds like the other and 2) none sounds like the real thing. (caveat: rare systems do come real close in absolute sense, but not exactly though)

Agree with Mc's idea of testing recording live vs reproduced in high system back to back if you have unlimited funds ( like Bill Gates) and experiment and really find out who and where the culprit/s lies. It may come to the state of current recording technology or it come to speakers limitations and anything in between. But it is clear some research needs to be conducted rather than same old same old and leading folks to spend enormous amount of money and on wild goose chases.

When I was audiophile novice I did hear such claims of experimentation where they ( e.g My own favorite speaker manufacturer- Dunlavy) were auditioning recorded , say a live real piano in between speakers and then playing same recording and switching back and forth. I never heard these type of demos ever myself but how good was the comparison? Any one knows first hand?

Once again I do maintain the fact the there are rare systems that do give you many glimpses or comes close to the real thing. ( and I am sure all of us would raise our hands to say my system does that) But the fact that like OP asks, many so called best systems do not ( on the contrary quite the opposite in some cases).

Why can't we accept the fact that our technology is not yet space age and will never will be.

Back to regularly scheduled programming and circular arguments ;-)
The discussion of the appropriate metaphor has actually been very helpful.

First, where we seem to agree. Different things sound different. A violin sounds different from a bass. A trumpet will not sound like a sax. No one will ever confuse the Vienna Boys Choir with the muppets Christmas album (which my wife nonetheless insists on subjecting me to every year. Something about childhood. Jeesh.) Doesn't matter what you reproduce these sounds on, you will hear the difference. I can hear the difference on the mono 1mm speaker on the iPad. Anything will be up to the task.

Second, things that are supposed to be the same can also sound different. One piano -- or any other type of instrument -- will not sound like every other piano. Ah, you say, but there are different types of pianos, of course those sound different. Yes. But it starts to get more interesting as we narrow our comparison set. Back to violins: folks who are trained to appreciate the differences can perceive the distinctions between, say, a Stradt and something else. Some will perceive the distinction between one Stradt and another. Yes they are more similar than different, thus identifiable as a class, but also individually distinguishable. They sound different. Could I hear that difference? Not a chance. My brain hears "violin" and stops processing -- it's never been trained to parse finer. Example, like why US troops used "lalapalooza" as a password in Asia during WWII. Certain languages do not contain sounds to distinguish between "L" and "R." If you grow up speaking said language, your brain never develops the processing bandwidth to make that distinction, and while your ears will hear the difference, your brain will simply not register it, and you won't perceive it. Same with violins or, for that matter, everything else. But a useful concept for the discussion: the difference between making (or reproducing or "hearing") distinct sounds and the ability (training, expertise, cultural, etc) to actually perceive the distinction.

This, of course, is where one may be prone to veer off into the mental masturbatory quagmire of debating objective vs subjective based reality. Is the world comprised of objectively verifiable truths, independent of any perceptual framework, or is all reality ultimately dependent on, and mutable as a product of, the particular lens through which it is being perceived? We won't be solving that one today. Just let's stipulate that folks have been debating that one for as long as there have been folks, you'll likely instinctively feel that one makes more sense to you than the other, and just make peace with the fact that about half of the people out there will think you're wrong. Moving on.

To return to the regularly scheduled programming, all of this discussion on one level misses the mark in that we're talking about original source material (a violin) rather than the task of reproducing that original source by recording it and then playing it back. One might observe, but the issue isn't whether the two violins sound different, but whether the recording and playback exercise can preserve and reproduce that distinction. I would argue, this is only partially correct. First, yes, can be reproduced. Second, however, this line of inquiry potentially confuses the issue. The ability of two sets of speakers to reproduce the ability to distinguish between two violins in no way means that either speaker sounds like the other one, or that either is closer to "truth." Guess the only way to do that would be to put the original head-to-head with the recording and see how that goes. In short, an "apples to apples" comparison (violin vs violin) ain't our project, we really need an "apples to oranges" comparison (violin vs speaker) to address our question. Yes and no.

The violin vs violin analogy becomes interesting if we, for example, contemplate comparing two identical pairs of speakers, coming out of the same plant on the same day. Will they sound identical? Only practical way I can imagine to do such a comparison would be in the testing room at the plant, on identical equipment, in the same controlled environment. Would the two sets of speakers be indistinguishable? No idea. Bet the manufacturer hopes so. Bet that's, in fact, exactly what they test for. Do all the speakers "pass"? Doubt it. If drivers are carefully "matched" pairs, must be a reason -- and that reason necessarily implicates that "unmatched" drivers, say, as between two otherwise identical pairs of speakers, sound appreciably different, at least to the ears of the designer. Otherwise, why bother? Say we then ship the two pairs of speakers to different customers, who install them in different rooms, on very different systems. Will they sound the same then? Almost certainly not. And say they continue to play for ten years in those different systems -- if we then ship them back to the manufacturer for a turn in the identical test system, in the same room, are they going to sound the same (or as close to the same) as they did when fresh off of the line? Again, no idea, but a lot more reason to question the

If we assume all of the preceding (your call), the question becomes whether one could reasonably expect two entirely different speaker systems (different manufacturers, electronics, enclosures, drivers, materials, sizes, designs, etc) to sound indistinguishable -- not because anyone ever intended them to be identical -- but almost by accident because each was independently designed to be able to sound like, for example, the same recording of the same violin. That's really the question, right? My response is, if we can't reliable make two violins that sound identical, if we can't even reliably make two identical speakers sound identical -- even when we're trying really hard -- how could we expect two entirely different speakers to sound identical by accident, just because they were aiming at the same target? Might it be possible? Sure, and infinite monkeys are bound to pound out Shakespeare. But I don't see it happening. (BTW, I think this is fun, not that I am entirely sure I like what that says about me....)

"To understand what the "original/perfect" recorded/intended sound is you would have to use the original sound engineers brain and ears (probably while listening to the music through a variety of crappy sounding speakers used in the "original" studio, as well)."

Agree that the sound engineering process and equipment is part of the entire package and a contributing factor to why audio system will never be able to perfectly reproduce an original sound.

If you're familiar with Regina Carter, she's a jazz violin player that had the opportunity to perform a concert and record a CD using Paganini's own violin. When she returned to her, I'm sure very nice, violin she described it sounding like a mouse in comparison. I've only heard that violin on her recording but plan to purchase another CD using that violin in the future to see how much of the wonderful sound comes from Regina's style and how much is the violin. The sound that I would describe from the instrument is that it has an almost cello sound in the lower register that is more full than other violins.

Here's an analogy that seems to make sense to me. Have you seen Top Chef, Master Chef, or Hell's Kitchen? From time to time the chefs are asked to reproduce a dish based on taste alone. The obvious goal is to recreate the exact dish, but I've not yet seen anyone do it perfectly. The interesting fact, that I had not really thought about until this discussion, is that the judges are trying to choose the best match, but it's almost certain that their person tastes will be a factor in which one taste "better" because they are more sensitive to a particular flavor. This is similar to audio because it's virtually impossible to recreate the original, but it's still possible to prefer the recreation more than the original.
Imagine going into a hospital to get a CAT scan or MRI and the tech says that the machine isn't designed to give accurate image, but one that makes everything look kind of good. When compared to pro audio, high end equipment manufacturers go for the good sounding rather than accurate. That's the primary reason really expensive systems do not sound identical. But then again, audio equipment is not FDA approved for medical diagnosis.
i think that as has been stated before, there are two camps. one tries to minimize errors to the signal, the other tries to satisfies one's taste/preferences, or whatever word (subjective) you choose to select.

the former stereo systems as a group would tend to veer towards the neutral, while the latter would vary all over the place.

so, it's a matter of what your idea is as to the purpose of a stereo system. there is no definitive answer. there is no write or wrong.

this issue has plagued serious listeners for years. it is a philosophical issue and will be argued forever.

rehgardless of the approach what is considered "best" in stereo systems will present audible differences.

It would seem that you may not understand my post, as your response does not make any sense in regard to what I posted (what I posted was clearly stated, IMO).

Simply put, there is no achievable "true to the source" documentation/measurement as to what the original ears/brains involved in the musical production listened to.

I may have misunderstood, but it appears that you're talking about the recording process and I'm simply talking about the reproduction of an original sound.

You are correct that we'll never be able to really know what the original sound was on any given CD.
" Should the best systems sound identical " . Do the best car's drive the same .
Tmsorosk - Audio systems would be a better comparison with various kit cars trying to replicate an original. Fiero had a few models that looked almost identical to a Ferrari, but they drove like a VW bug. Some people were very excited with this level of replication.

I think the industry has become more about "do the best car's drive the same" and are no longer working toward replication of an original sound, just their own signature sound.
Mceljo - good analogy . But although kit cars have become better handling ect , I don't know of any that perform or feel like the originals .
Ideally yes, but at present there are so many different variables that are still varyingly different degrees away from mastery, and different systems demonstrate their different degrees of mastery at different variables.
We still have aways to go, hopefully we'll get there; soon.
"If the object of an audio system is to reproduce music as close as possible to the real event, then logic seems to dictate that the "best" audio systems should sound very similar." Mr. Spock, Second in Command, Starship Enterprise, Somewhere in the Galaxy

"In reality I don't think this is true." Capt. Kirk

"Damn it Jim, I'm a doctor not an audiophile!" Bones

"I can't hold it together much longer captain! I think all the power tubes are going to blow! " Scotty
the basic problem is the words after "if the object of an audio system.....".

i believe there are many goals for the sound of an audio system. while , according to any criterion, the best systems will sound similar there will be audible differences.