What does listening to a speaker really tell us?

Ok. I got lots of advice here from people telling me the only way to know if a speaker is right for me is to listen to it. I want a speaker that represents true fidelity. Now, I read lots of people talking about a speakers transparency. I'm assuming that they mean that the speaker does not "interpret" the original source signal in any way. But, how do they know? How does anyone know unless they were actually in the recording studio or performance hall? Isn't true that we can only comment on the RELATIVE color a speaker adds in reference to another speaker? This assumes of course that the upstream components are "perfect."
What my speaker told me on my summer vacation:

Life is good.

If I am in a position to sit around and my biggest worry is how my system is coming along, sounding, or not sounding, I know life in California is good. Sometimes we don't know how lucky we are, but it is a great feeling when we do.

Yes, I try to compare them to a live performance, at least to the halls and locations I have heard and attended.

Fidelity takes many forms. As you have guessed accuracy is one of the dead end streets in Stereo Town. It's on offer anywhere audio is sold.

Once you get past the idea of replica, reproduction and analog, jump ahead to speakers that best convey the emotional intent of the performance. How to know what the intent was? The better the speakers convey it, the more you'll know it.
I'll add a few more questions to your query: What is "perfect"?
Why is a verbatim translation of an entirely subjective recording engineer's
idea of what a performance should be supposed to be a 'better' thing than
say, one that is "colored" by a component in a particular way?
Isn't all of it just an interpretation of what supposedly 'happened' in a given
space and time? And in that space and time would another person have
prefered to interpret it a different way? And why then would one of those
person's interpretations of the event be universally 'superior' to the other
person's interpretation? That idea is as ubsurd to me as saying one specific
component is "the best" there is. I submit to you that there is no
such thing as 'perfection', and there is no objective 'best' at any of this. It is
all entirely subjective. From the moment the energy leaves the vocal cords or
the instrument, it is interpretted in infinitely complex ways, and, in the case
of making a recording, there's some human being who has made an equally
infinitely complex set of decisions to interpret how that sound should be
presented judged by his ears and sense of hearing, and tastes and experience
which are as individual as his fingerprints. That in turn is tranformed
mechanically into some spinning plastic disk by yet another series of complex
electro-mechanical processes, all of which strive to some strange objective
interpretation of how they may be translated later on by the system of the
end-user. And onto all of that we add this little system of ours in our
listening rooms (an entirely new acoustic space), and have some kind of
warped expectations of some kind of objective, verbatim translation of the
original event as interpretted by joe shmo who you don't even know. And the
so-called "experts" refer to this as "high-fidelity".

I submit an alternate scenario by which to judge a system or a component
within a system: Does it grab you, engage you, get your toes to tapping,
raise the hairs on the back of your neck, allow you to listen to it for hours on
end and still keep you engaged and energized by the music? If it does those
things, that's really all I need. I don't need any reassurance that the reasons
it may, or may not do that is somebody's opinion about how much coloration
it may add to...well, to what really? To the engineers interpretation of an
event within a space as translated by electormechanical...blah, blah, blah.
And how can anyone possibly get into that engineers head and actually
experience whether or not succeeds in doing just that? Should we just ask
the engineer, and then, if they nod in approval do we then go away satisfied
that our system is "perfect"?! Does that speak at all to the
question of whether you, as an individual, actually like said verbatim
interpretation of the engineers intentions? What if you prefer a bit more
warmth, or the midrange to be a bit more forward? Should you seek out
different music then? It's all subjective. High fidelity is a sham if you take it
to be a generic, objective definition of what is "best" in audio
reproduction. It is like folks who have absolutely no connection with the
visual arts needing some interior designer to pick and choose what is "
good art" to decorate their home to demonstrate their superior taste
(which really isn't theirs at all). Keeeeerist, most of us have got two ears, and
a brain and a heart, and maybe even a soul...use'em for god's sake! You
don't need anyone else telling you what is best for you, nor do you need the
detailed analasys of machines to justify your perosnal choices! WAKE UP

So, Marco...........Seize The Day is the speaker for me?
You got it Albert. Go out and get yourself a pair of Carpe Diem Acoustic
Orgasms and use those phased arrays of yours for kindling! You can thank
me later.

The folks at Linn have always touted, the easier it is to follow the tune the better the system. I def. agree with that, whether or not one thinks that their equipment does it the best is another issue. Anyway the list of audiophile jargon is endless and I find most of it has nothing to do with music. Things like "neutral" when was the last time you went to a live performance and called the band "neutral"..if you did,sounds to me like a bad band.

Concerning the recording issue, I did a full length cd, so I was there (drummer) was the "image" anything like it was when we were in the studio...nope...did the "image" sound like pretty much all my other cds...yep.

So when it comes to hi end audio I just listen and see if it is musical...like real music...if the gear is it makes me want to listen to music more...all the while tapping my feet and bobbing my head.

So there is no one speaker etc..it is all a combination and the end result is how well it plays the music, not how well it plays the audiophile jargon.
Fidelity only takes one form. All the rest is editing. Some like edits some don't. Problem is no speaker is close to the ideal. Add to that the room interaction and then all hell breaks loose and the subjectivists have a field day opining willy-nilly. Subjectivists are happy with some of the most coloured speakers and pronounce them "moooooosical". Check out the measured response for the Verity speakers in this month's Stereophile. Unless the aberrations are great, most people’s ears get used to pretty dismal sound pretty quickly: that's called "break-in".
Everything is relative. Many like to forget this fact.
Since you are right that going from a live performance to a recorded performance degrades the performance,even with an excellent recording,it follows that you compare speakers using the same music. At least the degradation will be equal from speakers to speakers.

I stole this idea from an article in a magazine but it makes sense to me:

--Use a recording you've heard over and over.
--Make sure you listen to different speakers at the same amplitude;you might favor the louder speaker otherwise.
--Compare two sets of speakers at a time. Once you've decided between A and B,compare your choice against C,and so on.

Assess according to these four objective factors:

--timbre. Does the orchestrated color of a violin plus a cello sould like the color of a violin plus a cello(for example)?
--imaging. In a three part counterpoint,can you follow the melody,the countermelody,and the third line defining the harmony without the speakers getting in the way?
--dynamic range. Does the distance between a single instrument playing softly and a hundred instruments all playing loudly sould correct.(Even fine speakers will compress this distance a little. Even a good fm broadcast signal compresses dynamic range somewhat.)
--frequency extremes.Do violin half stops and organ pedals sound correct?

I know it's harder than that,but it's a start. Also,it's a personal preference. Maggie 1.6 s don't have the best bass or dynamic range in the room but,for me,the imaging and timbres are more important.

Enjoy the search,when you find something your ears like,get those speakers.
1...Listen to a female vocalist. Does she appear between the speakers?
2...Listen to a male news anouncer on the radio. Does his voice have an unnatural boom?
3...Listen to a piano recording. Does it sound like a piano?
4...Listen to a large orchestral piece. Does it sound full, and not strained.
4...(Optional) listen to some loud pop and/or rock. Does it sound aweful?

Carefully rank each speaker on a scale of 1 to 10 during the listening sessions. Add up the scores. Then, go to your nearest Magnepanar dealer and buy one. Spend the rest of your money on a nice vacation.
My yardstick for evaluating any component really boils down to how much I "get off" on the music over an extended period of time. What else matters?
I wish some one would identify for me the "perfect" upstream components that Pawlowski refers to so I can start to evaluate the performance of my speakers! :-)

For myself, its all about fufilling my fantasy of what I want to hear in my room - I certainly have no idea what took place in the recording venue. Beyond a certain point fulfilling that fantasy seems to be more limited by the recording than the equipment. I find it important to have electronics and speakers that are synergistic and produce a relatively detailed and neutral toned sound in my room. I want to be able to tell a bass in its high registers from a cello in its low registers and a cello in its high registers from a viola, etc, if its on the recording. I want to hear brushes distinctly without an uptilted high end, and and and.......
Part of the voodoo here is that human hearing isn't linear. When midrange and bass tones are at equal sound pressure levels, the bass ones will sound subdued 'cause the ear is more sensitive to the midrange frequencies. The reason fidelity takes many forms stems from the basic question Pawlowski asks, fidelity to what?
Rockvirgo, your logic escapes me: why would listening to a linear speaker be any different from listening to live sounds? Do you, somehow, think that music or any live sound for that matter reaching our ears is equalized to compensate for the ears lack of linearity? The lack of knowledge and acceptance of the basics of sound reproduction, propagation and perception mark you as a younger person formed at the teat of subjective audio. Pardon me if I am wrong.
Introducing a loudspeaker in your room, listening to a reference piece of music on your unchanged upstream components, ics, pcs, tweaks, etc. gives you the nature of that loudspeaker's performance relative to your current reference loudspeaker. Aural memory of other speakers used within this identical setup will expand the base of knowledge of what speakers can tell you. For me, information about any particular item in the chain can only be gathered after a reference has been established. Then, preferences become meaningful and allow you to find audio equipment “perfect” for you.

So, what does listening to a speaker (in our own room) really tell us? From a layman's perspective I can detect, dispersion characteristics, weight, color, balance, an so forth. The most important thing the speaker will tell you is whether you have found a “keeper” or to keep looking. Good luck.
I may have been misusing the word all along, but when I speak of 'transparency', I'm referring to the amount of information on the disc that is actually conveyed, sort of the opposite of veiled or smoothed over.

What I gather is that you are speaking of here is more a question of neutrality and accuracy, no? As in, how do we really know if what we are hearing is exactly what was recorded? I'm not sure that we do, frankly.

Personally, I draw the line between audio systems that sound like recorded music, and those that sound live. I need a connection with the players, and many audio systems lose me for the same reason that a lot of abstract art does. Because somehow I'm supposed to relate to the final product, but not the artist him/herself. An audio system that does not convey the humanity and energy of the players first and foremost loses me in a hurry. And while you may be alluding to accuracy and neutrality, I believe those judgments to be more intellectually based--and thus, more distancing--and have less of an gut-level, emotional impact than transparency does. In other words, IMO live music doesn't convey pleasantry. Rather, it bites down hard.

Very interesting topic!
Mark me as a person who having once fallen for "look at the perfect sine wave this unit produces" eventually graduated to a more mature understanding of the audio ARTS in all their varied subjective splendor. The good news is that anyone, who got suckered on accuracy as an equilvalent of audio nirvana AND is willing to admit to it, merits an opportunity to explore the wonderful world of perception called musicality. Great topic!
So ignorance is bliss?
So, I hear a lot of people saying that the only thing that matters is whether the speakers (and the rest of the system) present a pleasureable experience. I guess what I was saying was that, if you do that, you have two variables in that equation: There is the quality of the performance and recording and the quality of the playback that influence one's experience. If your playback system is NOT absolutely transparent, and what your hearing is NOT a pleasureable experience, how do you know if it's your system or the performance/recording that's causing the displeasure? I would think one would like to put the burden on the performance/recording to meet our needs and use our system to prop them up.
I think that's exactly what has most listeners conclude that XYZ component/cable/system is the "best", because it makes the music sound the way they want to hear it. We are always the litmus test for the system AND the recording. And where do each of us purport to stand on that malleable scale of evaluation? At dead-center neutral. Our perspective always looks to be the most sensical, the one against which all others are measured generally as being equal to or less than. Add one more like-minded vote to our own and we have successfully converted opinion into fact. Or so we would like to believe.
Pawlowski I like your formula idea. Let's say Performance plus Recording plus Playback equals Experience. Which props up which? Maybe they're all interdependent. A purist might say let's get the Playback to be totally invisible, remove it from the equation, get it to approach zero. That's a comfortable concept, right? However a pragmatist might give Playback a positive value to enhance the likely outcome. A realist might rationalize the value of whatever he can afford. A hedonist might escape the equation and redefine the Experience. Obviously there's more than one way to dig in. So how's this for a new equation for how do we know? Experiment plus Observation equals Awareness.
"I would think one would like to put the burden on the performance/recording to meet our needs and use our system to prop them up."

I 2nd this! Exactly what I have written several times before on this forum & over on AA.
IMO, the "awareness" of knowing whether a system is being true to the music comes w/ the knowledge of what instruments sound like in real life. This education occurs over a period of time in most of us. Then using this awareness & a budget, it behooves the listener to buy the most neutral electronics & speakers available for his/her budget. What I have also noticed is that every price range seems to have some components which are most neutral. The crux of the matter lies in finding them. As the budget grows, one can upgrade judiciously fully aware that not every more expensive piece is necessarily better sonically.
If I understand them correctly some people are arguing that if a specific piece of equipment makes them feel good, then it must be good equipment. That's an absurd notion. If that line of reasoning really were true, then a glass of alcohol would be considered an audiophile upgrade. It certainly increases toe-tapping musicality and the emotional involvement factor. Let's not lose sight that there is an objective reality somewhere beyond the firing pleasure synapses in our brains. No single piece of equipment adds emotion, musicality, involvement, etc. to music. All equipment, both recording and playback, can only add distortion to the electric based signal passing through. Neutral equipment simply distorts less than non-neutral equipment. All good familiarity with how real instruments sound, known high quality recordings, measurements, specifications and extensive long term listening can help one determine the relative distortion levels of a piece of equipment. This does not mean in the end we will all agree, since it's very clear that people have their own hierarchy of preferred distortions.
Audio is quite simply, at this stage, a quagmire.
>If I understand them correctly some people are arguing that if a specific piece of equipment makes them feel good, then it must be good equipment.

But if it's "good" equipment and doesn't make you feel good, would you buy it? Seems to me it boils down to what your goal is in assembling your system. If it is to get the most neutral reproduction of music, you might make one set of choices. If it is to get the greatest pleasure from listening to music, you might make different choices. It's all about preference, as you say. Which is why I cringe whenever I see people asking what is the best such-and-such. There is no "best", or rarely so. There is only "preferred."
"If it is to get the most neutral reproduction of music, you might make one set of choices. If it is to get the greatest pleasure from listening to music, you might make different choices."

In my books these 2 options are THE same thing! IMO, the most neutral system IS the most musical system 'cuz it is distorting the least & is being as faithful as it possibly can to the recorded music.
The most neutral system is the most musical is the most transparent is the most appealing is the most engaging and is the most everything because WE are the final judge of each. Every time we choose something it isn't because we have access to some divine rule of audio that others simply missed out on. Whether we're talking politics, audio, cars, or choice of life partners, WE are the point of neutrality on that grand, subjective scale called personal opinion. We might try and substantiate our choices through scientific fact, or by quoting a respected source in the audio industry, but each new 'teammate' for our cause is no more than a simple attempt to validate our own personal choices. We choose according to your own parameters and standards, and then many of us forget that they are only opinions.

Bombywalla, for you it might be the system that distorts the least. For someone else, it might be that last bit of inner detail brought on by shifting a bookcase a couple feet to the right. Some people just want to be moved by the music, while others are jazzed by being able to say they own a particular brand of speakers. We can debate right and wrong forever, but in the end, if you turn on the power switches and ease into a chair with a smile on your face, who cares?
Well said, Boa2.

Bombaywalla, why do some people love SET amps? Are they the most neutral? I don't think so. But in some key areas, they may be more faithful to the experience of music.
sometimes it is that I am listening to the performance. Sometimes it is the sound of the recording, regardless of its real merit. Even that has its variables. I love "gear". I love music too. What luck I can actually rationalize in such a way that the recording, performance, and gear can all be married together in my perceptions about how this works. It is a blessing to me, and a bit torturous too. But, overall, I am happy that my mind and heart can be given to such considerations. The advice to listen to Speakers before you buy them is solid. They have their own sound and that contributes to what you hear, and i guess you could say your speakers have the final word since they are speaking for the system as a whole. The individual contributions of the components that make up your system are accounted for here, and that is from your electronics to your room to the way you perceive sound and performance. Being largely subjective content means that what your speaker tells you could be as changeable as your perceptions, and most influenced by your preferences rather than the handful of absolutes you might come up with. This is more about love than obligation, and therefore not always reasoned with effectively. Listen and you will know- at least for the moment, if you are beyond reason.
Onhwy61 said:
(snip)Let's not lose sight that there is an objective reality somewhere beyond the firing pleasure synapses in our brains.

As soon as you bring a human being into the picture it leaves the realms of "objectivity". It may fire some pleasure points in each of our brains, or it may not, and what each of us does with that is entirely unique. It comes down to the age-old question, "If a speaker is playing loudly in the forrest, and there is no one there to hear it and analyze it ad nauseum here on Audiogon, then did it really happen?"

furthermore, from the beginning of that same post...
If I understand them correctly some people are arguing that if a specific piece of equipment makes them feel good, then it must be good equipment. That's an absurd notion.(snip)

I don't think that's quite it. The point is more accurately that if a specific piece of equipment makes a specific person feel good, then it is indeed a "good" piece of equipment to that specific person. Period. End of fact. Nothing, and it bears repetition, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS to that person, especially someone else's opinion of what is "good". User AgonArseWipe loves his iChing Final Fortune DAC. Does that mean the Final Fortune is a "good" DAC? No, it just means AgonArseWipe experiences it that way. Is there one single DAC that's going to pleae AgonArseWipe, SolidStateMadness and SET4Ever? I very much doubt it, and if there is, that same DAC may not at all please Gotmoremoney! Lets say the iChing Final Fortune DAC has the most uncanny ability to positively, and without deviation, reproduce a musical performance verbatim through some remarkably synergistic system. Do you think we'd all like that reading all the responses above? Do you think it may matter at all to most people? What is absurd to me is the idea of a black and white world where good and bad are absolutes. So what is verbatim? Is that something measured by machines and plotted out on graphs and in databases of zeroes and ones? Where is the humanity in that?! Sorry, but there is no 'objective' where humans are concerned. If you and I witnessed the same event from close to the same position, we would likely tell entirely different stories of that event. We would perceive and experience that event in different ways. Could be subtley different, could be profoundly different. But it ain't likely going to be the same. Such is the basis for the much simplified demonstration of the very principle in the child's game, "Telephone" where one person whispers a phrase into anothers ear, and that phrase is to be passed verbatim through a large group of people till it gets to the end of the line. It is pretty rare that the phrase remains the same from beginning to end, yet supposedly the translation from individual to individual is verbatim.

The whole thing is just as subjective as anything else in life. Who's going to tell you what the "best" music is? Or the "best" food to eat? Well, I guess there are plenty of folks who are willing to tell you, but are you really going to listen to them? And if some group of geeks in Redmond, WA came up with a program that they'd been working on for the last decade that actually analyzed and quantified such things into zeroes and ones and sine waves and pie charts, and analyzed all of that to spit out just exactly which food does taste "the best", would that data mean anything beyond a novelty to you as an individual? But the machines told me so!?

Marco, You sound like an anarchist. What do you mean everything is subjective? We live in a land of laws and rules, and objectivity rules! Don't be preaching that soft thinking stuff around here. We who know, know best! I just lit the fagots under the tar pot, killed the goose, and am out looking for a long rough pole. We are coming for you! :-)))

Sorry, couldn't resist.
if a specific piece of equipment makes a specific person feel good, then it is indeed a "good" piece of equipment to that specific person. Period. End of fact. Nothing, and it bears repetition, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS to that person, especially someone else's opinion of what is "good".

This is the most anti-audiophile/high end statement I've ever read on Audiogon. If you really believe this statement, then a boombox can be equal to A. Porter's system (at least in some poor soul's mind). Even if we can't all agree upon it, there is an objective reality. Before you were ever born your parents existed. That's assuming you believe your parents really existed.
...then a boombox can be equal to A. Porter's system...

Audiotruth Number 132466: The only system that actually matters is the one in the room you currently occupy.
This is the most anti-audiophile/high end statement I've ever read on Audiogon. If you really believe this statement, then a boombox can be equal to A. Porter's system (at least in some poor soul's mind).

Thank you! Actually, I really do like Audiophiles. They taste just like chicken! And yes, absolutely I do believe that there may be someone (perhaps even a few folks) out there who could give a tinker's cuss whether they listen to music on a boom box or Albert's sorry system (unless of course he's already picked up a pair of those Carpe Diem's I mentioned...in which case they would undoubtedly transform virtually any system to please everyone with two functional ears). I have met many very talented musicians who could care less about the system they listen to music on. Can they hear a difference? I'm pretty sure they can if pressed for an answer. Does it make them any happier or add any value to their life experience, well, if I am to take them at their word, evidently not. I believe them too!

LOL on the doubting son though! You'll have to excuse me as I run for cover from the tar and feather posse comin' my way!

Marco, I did in fact purchase those Carpe Diem's.

See, I do make purchases based on your suggestions, and now I expect you to bring by a bottle of wine and listen with me. They are fabulous!

P.S. Wipe your feet, I don't want any of that tar on my rug.
Let me make my point another way, with an analogy. Let's say instead of listening to music, we just liked LOOKING at birds. Well, as it so happens, for one reason or another, we can't always be outside to look at the birds or, some birds don't live around our homes so, we're relegated to looking at pictures of birds when it's convenient for us. However, we do have access to pictures painted by artists who's ability to reproduce birds is so lifelike that we could swear the birds were standing here with us. Now, let's say another artist, maybe Matisse or Picasso paints a bird. Clearly, their interpretation of a bird is NOT reality. However, there are probably tons of people that will get excited over their interpretations and would love to look at their interpretations of birds. But, we can objectively say that Matisse and Picasso are NOT painting pictures of birds; those that we like to see as we would have seen them, had we been there in person. Clearly, in this analogy, the birds are music, the realist artist is the transparent playback system and the impressionist and cubist artist is a "non-transparent" system. I love music. I listen to music in my home because the artists I like are either dead, or not performing in my home when I want to hear them. So, I HAVE to listen to a recording of them. And so, I would like it to sound as closely as possible to the way it would have had I been there at the recording/performance. Thus: Transparent playback system, and the pressure's on the performance and the recording engineer.
Your analogy is an excellent one, though as a painter I might consider the final product to be made less transparent by a glaze, a glass cover, and a complimentary frame. These ancillary effects are often made present by certain components, cables, tubes, tweaks, etc. And they may be exactly what my audiophile buddy wants, but instead might leave me wanting them gone. Because in the end, I don't believe we are looking for a connection with the music, but rather one with ourselves.

In regards to that bird, no two people observing it live would see the same thing. By the same token, you and I could listen to a live concert and you might come away saying that the singer really moved you because she is so close to the words, and I might interpret her as forcing it. You might come away with the impression that the sound was transparent, and I could find it muted. Whether at a live performance, or a recorded one translated via an audio system, everything is left to interpretation by each of us. And our own personal, individual conclusion IS our reality, whether fleeting or fixed. Sometimes it may feel more solid if we pair up with others of the same opinion, but it doesn't transform group opinion into empirical reality. It only makes you all friends.

So, to answer your original question posted here, I would have to say that unless Diana Krall pops out of my Klipsch speakers--and you know I'm praying that tonight she does--I am relegated to enjoying her recorded music through the system that I (and in this case, my wife AND I) determine to meet our standards for musical reproduction. And fortunately, our system does that really well...in our OPINION.

Next week, I'll be 40 years old. And in my brief time here, I have thus far earned only one unshakable truth. That is, Steve Guttenberg is a crappy actor. Now, back to the music!
Fabulous topic with existentialist leanings, I love it!
For mine, we walk a tightrope in "Audiophilia". There is this side that says "accuracy" is what we need, that what comes out of our speakers is as close a reproduction of what is going on upstream. What IS this accuracy thing anyhow?
If I want a "kind of accuracy" I can get vanishing-low thd from a seventies integrated SS amp with bucketloads of feedback. But does it "make music"? Not for me.
As for the "musical" thing, what is that? What makes a musical "connection" to me is another person's poison.
Recreate a "live sound"? This is always our reference point, it must be. Someone alluded earlier to the notion that live music "kicks your butt" or to that effect. Doesn't it though? There is nothing "polite" about a trumpet played with passion. So for me the "smooth, laid-back sound" doesn't cut it, it doesn't kick my butt. For others, that kind of sound just might "welcome them in to the performance". So be it.
So for me, I want a speaker that makes it all "HERE!", as much as I can.
Never having been blessed with a system that simply Does It All, I make my compromises how I think they work best for my way of appreciating the performance. In a way, since we can't get a "perfect" speaker/system that it voices, you kinda choose your coloration, and the more we do this audiophile thing, the better an idea we have of what that is, referring always back to live music.
PBB, I didn't forget you. One of the basics of sound reproduction and perception is that the ear's sensitivity to frequencies changes with the sound pressure level. Ever notice that there's a just-right playback volume? For example, below that level there's not enough bass, above it there's too much. That's your ear at work. In the context of this thread this means that the elusive wild goose of transparency can only occur at one volume setting for each recording. At all others the perfect system will sound out of balance, and so by definition, non-transparent.
Absolutely, Rockvirgo!
For this reason, in a practical sense, I'd rate a remote volume control more important than a "technically superior" one in most circumstances.
There seems always to be the "right volume", although the best systems seem somehow to work in a wider range of "close enough".
This is not a pipe.(The picture says,wanting to convey that it is a picture of a pipe.) If it makes you hallucinate the aroma of tobacco, if it gives you a nicotine-like rush,it's a good picture(maybe),but it's still not a pipe.

Music is a time art.Once performed,it is gone,never to be experienced again. We can replay it,if it was recorded;but live music and recorded music are two different things.

(turning up the gain,listening to a recording of the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet,wishing everybody a good morning.)
My question would be, if you can't tell what it sounds like when you listen to it, then how else could you tell?

We already know that no stereo system, no matter how good, actually reproduces the live event totally. Nor is there any recording sytem that captures it totally.

So, what we are after is what sounds the most lifelike possible, to us, and in our price range.

Or, in some cases, like your analogy supposes, there are some who would prefer some other "interpretations" or colorations to the presentation.

In any case, it is what the system sounds like to the owner which is most important to him. This makes "listening" the paramount benchmark of performance.
For the folks who still may have leanings towards a reliance upon flat-earth science to dictate to them some kind of objective reality that is outside of themselves: Didn't you guys pay attention in your high school Quantum Physics class? We just watched the film, "What the Bleep do We Know?" last night and it brought to mind just exactly what I'm trying to say in my posts. Though it is pretty corny in its filmmaking and writing, it is a very worthy film for anyone to see because it does put the science of Quantum Physics / Quantum Mechanics on a very basic and easy to understand level, and certainly one that connects with each and every one of us (pun intended). One of the fundamental ideas presented is the tremendous powers of the human mind to create/alter our own reality. The film just recently came out on DVD after a long run in theatres. Anyone who's interested in life should go out and rent it. In spite of being corny I bet it will hold your interest start to finish.

You know, I've been reading through this thread, smiling at seeing the same kind of thoughts that have gone through my head over the last 25 years in audio. Whenever I think I have something that sounds right in my home I go to a concert and come home laughing at how different it is. Does that mean my high end system is not "right"? No, but it does mean (as many have already pointed out) that it's pretty much impossible to recreate in a home the totality of a live music experience.

Many high enders (including myself) look for improved transparency in our home systems, while keeping the other desirable aspects of musical reproduction in the mix (pick 'em: PRAT, neutrality, frequency extension...). I choose this as a talking point because I have a recent example. We all hope to get the kind of transparent response that allows us to hear "the snap of the strings on a bass", the "sound of the stops on a saxophone", the "sound of the hammers striking the strings on a piano" - but not to mean that we are looking for a forward or in-your-face presentation.

I get to go to the Philadelphia Kimmel Center reasonably often. For those who have never been, it is a wonderous place to hear music. I've seen a number of classical and jazz performances there. The acoustics of the space are very fine. Last night I went to see Marian McPartland and Dave Brubeck. They each played for about an hour. Marian was fine, but Brubeck was pee in your pants GREAT!. Probably one of - if not THE - greatest jazz performance I've been to yet. He and his group were on fire; I had not expected a quartet of old men to be able to play like that.

Anyway, I was in the eigth row, and guess what? You CAN'T hear the stops on the sax, you CAN'T hear the snap of the strings on the bass, and you CAN'T hear the hammers in the piano hitting the strings. That's not to say you don't hear any cues, you do, but not in the way that we seem to be so happy with in home reproduction. Sure, if I was standing on the stage I probably would hear those things, but if the objective goal is to create an accurate portrayal of a performance then my home system fails.

Now, there are a ton of other factors that come into play at home: how closely the actual recording was miked, the speakers, the rest of the gear, probably 50 other things. But again, this doesn't mean that I'm unhappy with my system. I love the way it makes music. This is rambling, but I guess what I'm trying to get across is an example of how the real thing can often give you pause in regards to high end reproduction. Let's keep listening at home, but don't forget to go out and enjoy the real thing.
Tonyptony - Hope you've tossed your underwear after that concert. Those stains are hard to get out.

Good post. One point I'd differ on: I don't think all of us are necessarily interested in the hyper-detail you describe. It may actually may bother/distract some folks. It is a hallmark of SS components, but oftimes is lost or softened in the case of tube amplification, yet for some of us the merits of tubes amplification is more important and far outweigh hearing those kinds of details. True, you cannot always hear those kinds of details in a concert hall. The illusion I think folks are striving for in those cases where they are wowed by such things, is that of performers being right there in your living room, and not so much the experience of being in the eighth row of a concert hall.

I agree that you often can't hear those details in live performance. But if you could, you'd pee your pants and declare the venue the greatest in the known universe. So why not have the detail at home if you can.
If given the choice, I'd really rather not pee in my pants, either at home, or in
a public venue. Is there a way to have a great system and avoid this? I have,
thus far, managed not to pee in my pants when listening to any of the gear
I've owned...does that mean my systems are crap?! I haven't crapped my
pants either...what does it say about a performance if you do that? Perhaps
great performances and great systems ought to come with a supply of

Woking "across" some of the interesting perspectives above, I would offer this:
Last night when listening to a variety of music, it didn't matter how this might compare to a "live music event". It was its own thing. I delighted in the clarity of the female vocal, for its inflection and the message that was communicated. This observation on reflection; the magic of the moment was on a different plane.
In the final analysis, whilst the real thing has always to be our reference (and stands apart in truth), the thing we have has its own, not inconsiderable joys.
Which is why we do this.
Marco, I'm not sure that what I'm trying to describe really is hyperdetail. I've heard ARC and Quicksilver tube gear sound wonderfully clear and open, and with the right recordings will give you that "open window" into the tiniest transients recorded on a disc or CD. But I agree it's not necessarily the same as hearing it through SS. I think your last part has it; we tend to look for things in our high end setups that will wow us, even if we strive for some level of realism and natural presentation. So maybe the subjectivist view has some truth to it: it sounds right if it recreates music to a degree that is ultimately satisfying to us.

I don't know that I necessarily agree with that; it bothers the engineer in me.
Drubin, I've been at the front tables many times at Mahanttan's Blue Note. Yes, that close you can hear many of these things, but then what you get is a different sort of presentation, not one that is any more or less demanding of an involuntary bodily reaction. I think you missed my point: what made the performance last night "great" was not garnered by an analysis of the sound, but of the wholeness of the event, a point where musicians, audience, and material were all in near perfect unison. I've been to countless live events; things like that don't happen too often.

I've found over the years that getting that level of musical reproduction at home is very hard. When we try to get "more detail" or "more midrange warmth" or whatever is your fancy, it sometimes winds up becoming a "part" of our systems. But, if we get what we want then I guess we're happy with what we get.