What bugs you most about sound quality?

I would have to say that excessive compression is the most bothersome quality issue on recordings. Over the years I have periodically purchased recordings that I have either returned to the seller or demoted to coaster duty because of excessive compression. I cannot even begin to get near the music on these recordings as they take the very life out of the music, all the nuance of a human playing an instrument is lost in the machine-like drone of equalized dynamics.
I guess what bugs me most is that some poducers/engineers and many consumers doesn't give a rip. I can go over to the many review forums and there won't be a single negative comment (out of hundreds) about the sound quality on these garbage recordings. The producer/engineers often contend that highly compressed recordings sound better/jump out at you when played over average audio equipment. I believe this is a disingenuous argument at best. Taking the worst case scenario of a highly compressed recording played over a highly compressed radio signal, how can one tell the difference between a highly compressed recording and one with dynamic range? Perhaps you can with classical music with it's inherent greater dynamic range, but with most pop music I just don't hear it. I know I can't, which is why I purchased the drek in the first place! Therefore, if you can't tell the difference why would you do harm to the recording (at least when played over better equipment)? The contention that compressed recordings sound better on lesser equipment doesn't wash either. I have an average quality car stereo and micro system at work and I can hear the dynamics when playing cd's just fine. The compressed recording sounds more lifeless than the dynamic recording.
I don't believe these producers/engineers have any excuses to give those who have anything better than tin ears. While consumers who have only heard mediocre or worse audio rigs may be excused for having tin ears, most of these producers/engineers have to know better. I don't necessarily hear lack of transparency on most of these compressed recordings, ie. I assume the studio equipment if of high enough quality to hear the dynamic compression. In fact I have heard good quality recordings (good dynamics) come out of the same studio these compressed recordings came from.
I guess the point of this post is that we audiophiles owe it to ourselves and the greater public to bring awareness to this issue. Perhaps we can go on music review forums and post negative reviews in regard to sound quality issues. I have done so in the past and it is often surprising how many then come forward with similar responses (many of the so called tin ears are really just not able to pinpoint why they might not like a recording, they just don't know how to describe it from a technical viewpoint so they keep quiet). I assume most audiophiles don't intentionally purchase poor sounding recordings, perhaps we should make our buying decisions (or lack of) public. On the other hand perhaps I'm just spittin into the wind...
If you can hear uncompressed CD's in your car stereo with out detecting loss of the quiet moments, you either have an extremely low noise threshold in your car (like a RR),you have a very compressed audio system in your car, you have lost the ability to detect quiet high frequencies, or you just listen to music without quiet moments of sonic importance, such as Rap, Rock, Hip Hop etc. The reasons which the recording engineers give for compression are marketing reasons and valid because audiophiles needs do not, generally, come into their equasion. Now, as an audiophile, what I dislike is an audio system which compresses the sound even more.
Compression, and peak-limiting (which are not quite the same) are a necessary evil in recording. If they were not used the recording would need to be made at such a low level that quiet passages would be noisy and lack resolution.
There are times, like listening in a noisy environment like a car, or late at night when others are sleeping, when even greater compression is desirable.

Dolby and DBX processing use extreme compression when the recording is made, but then expand the dynamic range on playback.
I couldn't agree more with Sns' comments. While dynamic compression serves numerous pratical and even artistic purposes in the recording process, the current trend of hyper-compression in pop/rock music is ridiculous. It is destroying the sound of popular music.
Im not a big fan of compression, it makes real heavy rock passages sound like crap.

However, i agree that some music sounds better on lower-end rigs, and most likley IS a result o the compression.
Heavy rock like System of a Down sounds downright terrible on a real nice rig. You need something grungier and dirtier to make it sound good.
weird but true.

You also gotta think, Pop recording companys dont give two shits about audiophiles because most audiophiles call the music "Crap" or dont even regard it as music at all. Audiophiles are also a very very small market for them.

They want to get the music out to make the bucks. They compress it, and in your average joe's system, which is a 100-200 stereo system, it sounds just fine to them.

You can say that we need to give negative reviews on the sound quality, but in the end, nobody will care, and nothing will change. This music is made for the masses, not the privledged few with a high end system. The masses do not own big expencive stereo systems.

The best thing to do is just not buy it if you dont like it. Most people dont understand or care about this arguement, because for them it is good enough. And as long as it is good enough for the masses, dont expect any spending in R&D to fix this issue...

Just my humble 2 cents.
Yes, compression is a BIG problem in recording. Also, cymbal sounds coming out of one or both loudspeakers instead of between them where the drumkit is generally located. I hate that--makes the music sound fake and not real and life-like. Is that a problem with improper miking technique or just the nature of the beast?
Well Slappy , here is what i think about your two cents..... I give you five bucks. You hit on something touched on many times but I am wrestling with now. I grew up on Zep , Floyd , Yes , Elp , Doors ect. I have embraced the likes of Krall , Barber , Davis ect im my quest to create high resolution systems. I am getting some fantastic sounds when I demo say.....Janice Ian s " Breaking Silence" and I am so proud of the efforts i have made. On the other hand , Rock and roll sounds horrible. I put on Toys In The Attic SACD and a remastered Zeppelin this weekend at a party and I could have died. I thought it was just my reconditioned ears and expectations but a friend with tin ears said I should get a pair of Bose 901 s . He was dead serious too. We use to listen to all that stuff with my old series 4 901 s in high school. And I do remember it sounding better then. Could it possibly be true that an old sansui reciever , radio shak cables and a pair of bose speakers make my favorite rock recordings sound better than my 137,000.00 Pipedream system. Dont get me wrong. Some rock recordings like Rammstein sound incredible in there. I assume its the compression but what is the reasoning for this phenonenon?
Brainwater: The reason is that real rock & roll wasn't made for audiophiles, it was made for kids in high school. (And I personally would rather listen to TITA over my high school's intercom system than Rammstein through an audiophile rig ;^)

Onhwy61: IMO, the sound of pop music hit the skids over a decade ago - right about the same time as the content ;^)

OK, what bugs me most about the sound of pop recordings today? Yes, compression abuse is a biggie, but also the utter lack of any natural acoustic environment (ROOM SOUND, baby!), as well as "Aural Exciter"-type harmonic 'enhancement' effects, particularly on vocals (for that unnaturally 'breathy' sheen that pierces the ears). And oh yeah, the way the music really sucks too.
aaaa man come on Zaikes , tell me its not true. Rammstein rules dude!!
Compression,definately. Watching most of my disks on a scope was pretty annoying; the average dynamic range was still less than a phono or tape could hold! Many pop disks have no more than 20db of dynamic range!!

I grant that this makes sense on pop records that are expected to be played in a car; with a back-ground noise level of at least 70db even a compressed disk is pushing the upper safe limit of human hearing.

I remember a singer by the name of Shawn Phillips. My wife was always going on about how good he was (she heard him live as a young hippy). Listening to his records and cd's made me think that he sucked; I couldnt hear anything interesting. Then, one day he came into town and put on a live show. My wife dragged my very reluctant ass down to see him. Well, out comes this aged-looking hippy who, as he is sitting down, asks "How many of you were dragged here by your Significant Other?". About two-thirds of the hands went into the air, including mine. Shawn just smiled knowingly and started playing.

In three seconds we were his. The subtle (and not so subtle) dynamics of his guitar playing and singing captured us immediately. This man knew how to use ALL the aspects of music to his advantage, timing, harmonics, dynamics and etc.

Yet what does the recording company do? It compresses the life out of Shawns music leaving only the harmonics and some of the timing intact. I call it music murder. He should get the same recording people that Patricia Barber has. And his recording engineer should get life.
Lack of bass and too bright highs. Although I think newer recordings are getting better in this respect.
Also a lot of rock/pop recordings seem to be filled with NOISE. I don't know if this is some grunge carry over but I used to love Rush. Their latest CD was so full of noise I could hardly make out any melody.
CS Lewis says Heaven will be filled with music and silence. Hell, and the future of our universe as we know it, will be comsumed by noise.
Had anyone ever heard of this happening?

I too had found purchasing compressed recording to be quite irksome and basically a ripoff. But in the last year, I've entered a pretty unique situation that I've not heard of before.

After only a few upgrades a year ago, I noticed most of my otherwise older compressed and otherwise mediocre recordings had new life. In fact, aside from a bit of digit hash in some of them, many of these formally very poor to decent cd formatted recordings now sounded near reference level.

The bass can be absolutely phenominal, soundstaging almost as good as I've heard, pinpoint imaging, the cymbals shining thru with an air around them (perhaps with a bit of hash but again it depends on the recording).

Some of the more lifeless recordings (non-audiophile grade) I have been thoroughly enjoying over the last year include Chicago's Greatest Hits, Al Stewart, Isley Brother's Greatest Hits, Jethro Tull, Grover Washington, Bob James, and most of my Alan Parsons Project cd's or even my wife's Amy Grant's Christmas cd. Most of the Alan Parsons cd's are pretty decent recordings anyway but are now very good, especially the cymbals.

Dare I mention I tried my wife's Culture Club greatest hits a few years ago and found it pretty lifeless and put it away within 10 minutes or so. I just put it in again a few weeks ago. The percussions on track 4 are as tight, deep, and pronounced as I've ever heard in my more reference-like recordings. Almost all of the other tracks are quite good as well. There are many other cds, but I see no reason to embarass myself further.

The Isley Brother's cd is perhaps one of the worst I've heard(before last year). I contemplated numerous times about returning it for a refund. I actually felt that a crime had occurred with my purchasing this cd. And now almost of the songs are so involving with warmth and bloom that people who listen to it are tapping their foot for the duration. 'Harvest For the World' is something else. The PR&T is in many of these otherwise flat and lifeless recordings.

Perhaps an even better example would be a Vivaldi Four Seasons cd my wife purchased around 1991 found in a bin near the Warehouse Records checkout counter for $4.99 (regular price). Again, flat and lifeless and lack of dynamics. Today, I'd put it up against many finer recordings. It will lose but it would still place a very competitive second.

When I invite guests over to listen, I never suggest anymore that they bring their better recordings, but now I always suggest they bring their older and worst recordings they wish sounded better. And they always seem pretty amazed at the quality of these otherwise worthless recordings. A reviewer/columnist was at my home to evaluate my system last summer. He had mentioned that he had purchased 3 different pressings of Al Stewart in order to find the best one, so I put on that cd and he was quite impressed with the sound and especially the bass on these older recordings. He took a stab at explaining why he thought it sounded so good.

There's only been a few recordings that appear completely unsalvageable on my system. Two of which come to mind include an old 1968 Grand Funk Railroad recording on cd and some of the songs on Tears for Fears greatest hits cd.

Now it's most always fun to load up an old cd and see what I've missed in the past. Sure there's plenty of songs I still don't care for, but it's almost never due to inferior engineering quality now. However, in my heart of hearts J.Geils will always sound inferior.

heres a shocker....99.5% of all recordings in the history of popular music are not made to sound great on high end systems. they are mastered to sound good on the widest variety of playback systems possible.
I didn't know that compression was so widely dispised! If you really do have such a big problem with it, why not get a hold of a dynamic range expander/peak unlimiter and put it in your playback system?
Eldartford, it's not the use of compression that's hated, but the current use of EXTREME LIMITING/COMPRESSION in current pop/rock releases that is a big, big problem. Records are being released with 4 to 6 dB of dynamic range. Here's a link to a thread on EQ Mag's forum where pro engineers discuss the evils of over compression. Once dynamic range compression has been applied it cannot be undone. A dynamic range expander may give you greater apparent dynamics, but it won't recreate the original uncompressed signal.

For actual musical examples, compare the first Sheryl Crow CD, "Tuesday Night..." to her more recent "C'mon, C'mon". Compare any early Dwight Yoakam to his last 3 releases. Compare Sade's "Lover's Rock" or "Lovers Live" to any of their earlier works. The newer records are noticeably louder and definitely less dynamic. It's sad.
Onhwy61...Compression/peak limiting can indeed be undone during playback so as to restore, or even enhance, the original dynamic range. The issue is that with analog logic the playback expansion will always be slightly behind the sound, so that the "attack" may be noticably different from the original. This is less of a problem where the compression during recording, and the expansion during playback are both done in accordance with one standard, Dolby or DBX.

Digital processing could eliminate this problem with delayed logic. The music signal, in digital form, would be delayed by the time interval necessary for the logic to examine it and adjust the gain. Then the gain changes could be implemented at exactly the right time in the music. It would not surprise me to learn that such a device is available. It's an obvious solution to what is evidently a widespread problem.
Eldartford, Dolby, DBX and the RIAA equalization curve all work because they have set standards for threshold levels and compression/expansion rates. Sns and I are talking about something completely different. In modern pop/rock productions there are no set standards for the amount or type of dynamic compression. As a listener how do I know what value the engineer set the threshold level at? What compression ratio was used? What was the attack set to? Was multi-band compression used? If yes, then was it 2 band, 3 band or 5 band, each with individual threshold, ratio and attack settings. Without this info it's impossible to apply dynamic expansion that would reverse the effects of compression.

Whereas compression can theoretically be undone, limiting cannot. Limiting cuts off the peaks of the music waveform above a set level. Once the signal is altered in this way it cannot be accurately reconstructed. No amount of look ahead processing can determine whether the original signal was .1dB, 1dB or 10dB greater than the limited signal.

Modern pop/rock music involves the use of extensive limiting and compression techniques. A recording may be run through a limiter then compressed, run through a limiter again, compressed again and run through a limiter and a compressor a third time. Different settings may be used for each pass through the chain and EQ may also be applied. The idea that a simple dynamic range expander can undo this sonic manipulation is not realistic.
I have to agree with Onhwy61 about the limitations of attempting to restore dynamic fidelity upon playback in lieu of some formal encode/decode protocol.

(Of course, this doesn't matter if you're listening to Raaaaaaaammmmsteiiiiiiiiinnnnnn!! :-)

Stehno: I've often commented here that IMO, a better system will commonly render even lo-qality recordings more interesting and communicative, despite their flaws, and that audiophiles who curtail their listening variety to only well-recorded material are doing themselves an artistic disservice - in fact defeating the very reason they (presumably) ever got into audio in the first place (da music!).
Onhwy61...I guess it is a matter of degree. "Moderate" compression/peak limiting, such as that which is necessary because of limited recording dynamic range, can be undone on playback with pretty good results. And more extreme processing like Dolby and DBX can work because both ends of the process are controlled. This is all I meant when I took issue with your blanket statement that it can't be done.

The Phase Linear Autocorrelator and the DBX equipment that I once used had knob adjustments for the compression/expansion ratios. However I agree that if they do it differently for each cut on a recording it would be tough to get them all right, although if what you say about their practices is true you could probably crank it up all the way and leave it.

I have never been to a live rock/pop concert, so I don't know how much dynamic range actually exists in this stuff. My impression is that it is always LOUD, LOUD, LOUD, but perhaps that is because I have only heard recordings.