The eternal quandary

Is it the sound or is it the music?

A recent experience. Started to listen to a baroque trio on the main system, harpsichord, bass viol and violin. The harpsichord seems to be positioned to the left of centre, the bass viol to the right, and the violin probably somewhere in the middle. The sound of the two continuo instruments is "larger"/more diffuse than I would expect in "real life". The acoustic is slightly "swimmy". Worse still, impossible to tell if the violinist is standing in front of the continuo instruments, on the same plane as them, or even slightly behind them (in a kind of concave semi-circle). Then that tiny little doubt creeps in: although you want to blame the recording, the acoustic, the recording engineer, the digital recorder, could it be the system that's not quite doing the trick? Could its soundstaging abilities be somehow deficient? After about six shortish tracks I have stop.

Later, I finish listening to the CD on the secondary system. No, the timbral textures are not as fleshed out, no, the sheer presence of the instruments is not as intense, and no, the soundstaging is certainly no better, but I listen through to the end, in main part I think because my expectations are not as high now, and I'm listening to what's being played, not how it's being reproduced.

So are we listening to the sound or the music? Is this why car radios, table-top radios, even secondary systems have a certain, curious advantage over the "big rig"? By having so many expectations for the big rig, are we setting it up for failure? Is that one reason why lots of enthusiasts are on an unending upgrade spiral? Does this experience strike a chord (no pun intended) with anyone else out there?
I re-read your initial post. I do not have this particular recording, but I have a lot of HM's. Most of them are very good, but I would never call them rolled off or dull, in fact on some I found there was a tendency to close mic the instruments, which if not balanced properly could sound a bit bright, but not fatiguing so. Listen to some of Chiu's Prokofiev - the clarity of these recordings will not enhance the sound from a poorly balanced CD system (I really like these performances and recordings however).

Your complaint/observation leads me to think that the problem you experienced in your main system was due to a less than optimum mix by the recording engineer of the centered violin. Assuming each instrument was close mic'd and the engineer gave a little more emphasis to the violin because that would give a good central focus, then its acoustic envelope would overlap unnaturally that of the other two and become confusing to the critical listener with an audio set up with good resolution capabilities.

You probably didn't experience this with your secondary system precisely because it didn't have these resolution qualities. Back to 'Bose in the Bathroom' listening.

It's OK to judge the recording as difficient, after all that was NOT created by you so you're not to blame! :-)
Thanks, Newbee, for the reassurance--I'm sure you're right. The problem is aggravated somewhat because beyond getting the basics right (timbre, etc.) I do enjoy a good dimensional soundstage with good imaging within it.

Lately I've been noticing some major differences in the "apparent" acoustic (the hall acoustic as reproduced in/by the recording). The John Eliot Gardner Planets on DG (with Percy Grainger's Warriors) was another recent major disappointment. Swimmy and very diffuse again. All the more noticeable when played consecutively with some older analog Elgar recordings--cavernous acoustic, narrower, set well back from the place of the speakers, better localization of the various divisions (1st violins, 2nd violins, etc.) of the string section.
Interesting question. All I can add is this:
Years ago,(before I knew who he was), I purchased a collection of Chopin songs on cd. One eveing while cooking dinner I played this cd on a cd/radio which mounts under a kitchen cabinet; hardly audiophile quality. I heard one beautiful song after another. Then nocturne op9 no.2 came on and I was paralized. I couldn't even begin to describe what I was feeling.
Now, how could this $79 cabinet mounted radio emit the most beautiful 4 1/2 minutes of sound I have ever heard in my life? If the first time that I heard it was on the main system, maybe It would have been even more memorable.
I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes it doesn't take thousands of dollars to be moved.
I used to think some of the cds I own were poorly recorded, because they didn't sound good on my system.

Now that my system has improved, I know better. Those recordings that previously sounded bad, now sound right.

If the recording doesn't sound good, the problem is almost certainly with one's system, though most of us, I am sure, hate to admit it.
Jimjoyce--I'm afraid that I'm going to have to respectfully disagree.

As one moves up from boom-box to mid-level system, I would think the sound should steadily improve. But there has to be a point, an "elbow", somewhere on this line where, as the resolving power of the system continues to increase, it will start to show up all the particularities and peculiarities of each recording.

An analogy: put a polished pebble under a microscope at lower levels of magnification and it will look good, but as magnification increases, at a certain level you'll start to see roughness and pitmarks not visible to the naked eye.

As far as classical recordings are concerned, I would think many musicians would be more preoccupied with the performance (phrasing, dynamics, intonation, pace, etc. etc.) than with how well the recording happens to reproduce the acoustic of the space that the recording was made in.

Noticing what can sometimes be a large variation from recording to recording is surely a sign of the resolving capacity of the system, as labels, recording engineers and mixing engineers all have different philosophies, which they implement with greater or lesser success with each record.