What is a high end stereo SUPPOSED to sound like?

I've been thinking about this for a while....like 10+ years. Would be interested in what others have to say.
My latest answer would have to be "nothing". I want to hear the music and not the stereo. Like "Come over and listen to some music" versus "Come over and listen to my new stereo". If there are errors, they would be errors of omission, not commission because I assume they are less noticeable.
I was wondering myself and the closest to "nothing" I found in recording studio rooms with proper speaker placement and proper studio monitorring equipment.
Very good.
It sounds amazing. Makes you cry, makes you smile. It takes you away from where you just were and brings you somewhere else.
Should it sound like live music? If so, then your initial impression of a system would count for a lot, I would think. When you attend an audio show and go into a room for the first time, does it sound like something approximating the real thing or nothing like that at all? If the latter, can it really be any good?

I ask myself this all the time. And I wonder about the experience of a system or component that "draws you into the music, makes the emotional connection." I've had that experience as I'm sure we all have, but what relationship does it have to sounding like live music?
Doesn't matter. As long as it sounds very good, say well above average, to the guy or gal who paid and is listening, it is high end to me.

I suppose it is also high end if it costs way above average as well, but that alone does not assure that it sounds way above average as well, so cost alone does not mean it sounds like high end which is what the OP is asking.
Higher end manufacturers design for 1) the taste of certain audience and 2) signal accuracy. In other words, some high end manufacturers actually modify the electronics to produce a certain "sound" from their equipment. So, you have heard of the xxxxxx brand sound. Some design to accurately reproduce the electronic signal period. Some design to accurately reproduce the electronic signal and to drive specific loads. So, to answer your question "what is a high end stereo supposed to sound like?" well, it is suppose to sound like what the designer wanted it to sound like. I know this appears to be an evasion, but it is the truth. Since the majority of us were not present during the actual recording session, we have absolutely no idea what the original recording sounded like. We can only go by our individual experiences related to music, knowledge of instruments, recordings, and taste. Being an ex-violinist, clarinet player, sax player, oboe, basson, etc. I know what instruments sound like. And yes, even pianos or violins and drums, sound different from others. Listen to Joe Sample play the piano. His piano it totally different sounding than any other pianist. So, when I hear a recording and cymbols don't sound correct, or drums sound terrible, or the violin is horrendus, I know it is the play back equipment, recording, or anything in-between that is the problem. But, when I play that same recording on a really good system and it sound wonderful, that tells me what I want to know. That something in the play-back medium is faulty or poorly designed. So, my reference is a really great system at my favorite stereo store in San Diego. Every now and then I'll go there and listen to music on stupidly, I can't afford it equipment just to hear the recording on a better system. Also, I go to concerts. Outdoor, small venue, unamplified, amplified but small venue, classical, etc. to re-establish my frame of reference and for enjoyment. You want to know what a female singer sounds like? Go to a play, concert, ballet, etc. and listen. Then go home and play similar music and see if it is close. Nine times out of ten, it probably won't be close. Even with modern high end equipment, it still isn't there yet. As long as analog has to pass through equipment and be processed, there will be distortions, errors, time delays, etc. introduced by the processing equipment and the more equipment, devices it passes through, the more it will get away from the real deal. This is also why the typically best recordings are directly from analog master tapes direct to disc or analog tape to digital with minimal processing in-between. but, take your favorite music to really good high-end stores and sit in their most expensive high end room and listen.

have fun.
I agree with you Cdc. It should sound like nothing. At the risk of using an inflammatory word, the system should be neutral.

IME, the most common obstacle to reaching that elusive goal is the listening room. No matter how good the equipment, if the room sounds like something, the system will never sound like nothing.

"Nothing" would infer no effects from room acoustics. Is that what a high end stereo system is supposed to sound like? I am not sure about that. How would spatial queues captured in the recording be delivered to the ears accurately? Can a sound even be truly "high end" without delivering these accurately to some extent?

Inquiring minds want to know...
It should sound so good that you sold your soul to get it, but you're overjoyed because you still have your soul and you tricked the devil into accepting money for music!
It should sound how you want it to sound.
There are many studios that have floor standing monitor speakers(inside recording area) in order to compare sound recorded from each instrument where musicians before recording are being asked to play simple passage individually and than as band. Each time the passage played is compared to the sound from speaker till satisfied. The music instrument or any source of sound in the same room shoud sound as close as possible like sound comming from speaker(s) in the same room.

Pretty simple to judge this particular way and it's way different from "Nothing".

Ain't that Somethin'?
For me, a high end stereo is supposed to sound like music is being played in the room by real musicians, not by a stereo.
I'll buy Foster's answer.
Three with Foster, only it should sound like it's being played in the original venue(ideally, if the microphone technique captured the room acoustic). But then- who am I to say what your system should sound like to YOU?
07-05-12: Mapman
"Nothing" would infer no effects from room acoustics. Is that what a high end stereo system is supposed to sound like? I am not sure about that. How would spatial queues captured in the recording be delivered to the ears accurately? Can a sound even be truly "high end" without delivering these accurately to some extent?
Hi Mapman - When I said that the room should sound like "nothing," I didn't mean it literally, just as Cdc didn't mean it literally when he said he thought a high end system should sound like "nothing." The closest thing to a room that sounds like nothing is an anechoic chamber, and it goes without saying that no one would want to listen in a room like that.

What I was trying to suggest by saying the room should sound like nothing is essentially the same thing I meant when I said that the equipment should sound like nothing, i.e. that it should be neutral. I know that's a controversial word in these parts, but that's more or less what I believe, with some qualifications.

To head off another potential misunderstanding, a neutral playback room, IMO, most certainly has ambient cues of its own. The listening room's ambient cues hopefully provide simulacra of the ambient cues of the recording space, though that is often difficult to achieve. But the general point you make about the importance of "spatial cues" is something I am in complete agreement with, as I argued at great length in another thread, where I said...

Every listening room contains an abundance of ambient cues. The specific characteristics of those ambient cues are relevant to the audiophile, for the following reason:

During playback, the ambient cues of the recording space are COMBINED with the ambient cues of the listening space.

The combination of the ambient cues of the recording space with the ambient cues of the listening space creates, in effect, a NEW SET OF AMBIENT CUES. I will call this new set of ambient cues the “playback space.” In other words:

Recording space + Listening space = Playback space

The playback space is what the audiophile actually hears at the listening position. It is the combination of the ambient cues of the recording space and the ambient cues of the listening space.

So I think we are in agreement.

What is poetry? The most effective definition I've ever heard is that poetry is whatever people who are knowledgeable about poetry say it is. In effect it's a various of P. Stewart's definition of hard core porn. High end sound is whatever people who know about high end sound says it is.

An example: a Rega turntable w/ cartridge, NAD 20w integrated and Snell K speakers would be recognized as a high end system. A full out MBL system is also recognized as a high end system. The systems don't sound alike.

From the above I conclude that high end audio doesn't have a sound. Instead it's an approach to music reproduction that has very diverse sound characteristics.
Like the most beautiful woman in the world sitting in front of you and asking you if you would like to make love to her.
It'll put a big smile on your face and sent a rush through your whole being.
Like the telltale rustle made by ghosts of c-notes past...
Thanks for the responses. Drubin, I would say it SHOULD sound like live if the RECORDING sounds like live. Like Minor1 and Marakanetz said, you have to compare to another high-end or live to really know if it's the recording or the stereo that is off.
If you only listen to a certain type of music, like female vocals, maybe you would tune it to a particular sound. But if you listen to a wide variety of music, that strategy could make some recordings worse while others would be better.
I agree that the room is a HUGE factor. I spend a lot of time listening to a boom box at work and it does have 1 redeeming quality - minimal room interaction. But IMHO, the Holy Grail would be 100% CORRECT room interaction.
So would an anechoic chamber which has NO room effects be the best room interaction?
A high end stereo should sound just like a 1960's Japanese transistor radio... Only better.
Well, maybe much better.
Elizabeth, you are saying a high-end stereo does more, but the trick is getting it to do more of the RIGHT things than more of the WRONG things?

This is getting more complicated than I originally planned but:
1) Can a stereo make a recording sound better than it really is?
2) If so, can it do it consistently?
3) Is the best you can hope for is to mess up the recording as little as possible? I.E. add or subtract nothing.
If it's true hi-fi, it 'should' sound like the original source. However no stereo system does this, esp if you are sitting in front of it. My system which is very much lo/mid-fi CAN sound like a live artist is performing if I am listening to it while in a room other than the room the sytem is located, and it's solo or small group music. No stsero system will make you think the Chicago symphony is in your house, but maybe Joan Baez. The term 'high end' is not revelant. My system is just as realistic as any on this site i.e. it seldom sounds like the real thing. But it does satisfy my need to listen to music, and I cannot imagine being without it.

All systems, even the uber expensive ones, impart color of some type. Hi-end is all about determining what color you want and can live with long term. As to your 3 points:

1] A system will make a recording sound different than what it was monitored on...that may be better or worse to you
2] Yes, a system will consistently impart its unique color on whatever it plays
3]The best you can hope for is a system that colors your music the way your ears think it should be colored
Well a very slight amount of euphonic coloring would be best IMO. (unless you have unlimited funds to blow on equipment)
I have it in my VAC Standard preamp i use just as a glorified tube buffer to ameliorate the digital glare from my only slightly better than average digital front end.
If i had $50,000 to blow in a digital front end, I would not need the VAC.
So IMO a little euphonic coloration is better than a little 'honest but crap sounding stuff". (If that helps any.)
And yeas, equipment CAN be found which makes most recordings sound good, and still be close to the truth.
(IE not 'just' masked with colorations..)
Other may and will disagree. Such is life.
Well said, that`s my standard also.
07-05-12: Cdc
IMHO, the Holy Grail would be 100% CORRECT room interaction. So would an anechoic chamber which has NO room effects be the best room interaction?
IMO, the answer is no. The total lack of ambient cues in an anechoic chamber results in purely BIDIRECTIONAL sound. That is very unnatural, since in the real world, sound is always to some extent OMNIDIRECTIONAL, due to the simple fact that the real world always has surfaces that reflect, diffuse, and diffract sound.

Likewise, a purely bidirectional presentation of music in the playback space would be very unnatural, since in the recording space, the music was to some extent omnidirectional. Even when the omnidirectional ambient cues of the recording space are contained IN THE RECORDING ITSELF, a purely bidirectional presentation in the playback space will still not sound like the recording space.

IMO, the playback space must create an OMNIDIRECTIONAL PRESENTATION, because that’s what the recording space always sounds like (unless, of course, the recording space is an anechoic chamber!). I don't mean that sound arrives at the listening position EQUALLY from all directions. I just mean that the playback space must have an omnidirectional reverberant field that emulates the omnidirectional reverberant field of the recording space.

IMO, the only time a purely bidirectional presentation will sound like the recording space is in binaural recordings, which are specifically designed TO EMULATE THE OMNIDIRECTIONAL PRESENTATION of the recording space. And that brings me to Foster_9’s comment that…
07-05-12: Foster_9
For me, a high end stereo is supposed to sound like music is being played in the room by real musicians, not by a stereo.
While I agree with the spirit of this comment, which is to contrast real music with a stereo, I will quibble with the phrase “music is being played in the room.” I don’t mean to be argumentative, but there is a genuine point to be made, which is this: A high end system should sound like music is being played in your listening room only if the recording contains FEW ambient cues of the recording space. In that case, you have the experience that “They are here.”

But if the recording contains ROBUST ambient cues of the recording space, then a high end system should sound like “You are there.” In other words, the system should create the illusion that you have been transported to the musicians, instead of the illusion that they have been transported to you. IME, the former illusion is much more difficult to achieve than the latter, largely due to the fact that the illusion that "You are there" requires a neutral listening room, and most listening rooms are far from neutral. FWIW, I elaborated on these ideas at great length in another thread.

All this results in an alternative answer to the OP's question...

A high end system should sound either like "they are here" or like "you are there."

Again, IMO, IME, etc.

A high end system should do its best to recreate the original recording event. Take any MA recording. Different venues from around the world with no two sounding the same. Tons of ambience, decay and air are common themes in all MA recordings yet they never sound the same since the sites are all different.

A great high end system will allow each such recording to have its own unique sound. A room does influence the sound but even an average room should be able to allow the different sounds that a high end system can reproduce. I am one who feels that room interaction is further down the list than most (that is for another thread).

If your system can recreate that "you are there" effect or "they are here" effect, then you are knocking on high ends door. Just don't expect this effect all the time since most recordings aren't made that well. A resolving, high end system will accurately reproduce a studio setting as well as an outdoor or esoteric setting but lots of those clues are limited or truncated by the studio, compromised, if you will.

Everyone here has had those "you are there/they are here" moments. We all scratch our heads as to why it doesn't do it all the time. It's the recording that's limiting your pleasure. Once you've experienced those feelings, stop messing around with your system and concentrate on better recordings.

You can't make a silk purse out of a pigs ear.

All the best,
"If your system can recreate that "you are there" effect or "they are here" effect, then you are knocking on high ends door. Just don't expect this effect all the time since most recordings aren't made that well."

"You are there" versus "they are here" is a tricky one but a topic worth some additional analysis and discussion in order to understand what is possible and what is not practically in this regard.

Bryon hit the key point when he mentioned that sound is inherently omnidirectional. As such it is also inherently a 3 dimensional (actually 4 including time) phenomenon.

The reality of home playback of recordings that capture the spatial queues of what was performed live is that the acoustics of the room we listen in is never the same as where the recording was made. One of the biggest difference is often that of scale, ie a musical event in a large venue, like a symphony orchestra now occurs in a smaller one, your room. The original scale of what occurred cannot be matched accordingly in this case, but what can happen is an accurate "scale model" of the original can be reproduced in room at the smaller scale required.

Often if the scale of the source and target listening venues match, like say a small club setting to a decent sized listening room, the best results are possible in terms of accurately reproducing the original at the same scale.

So this is just one prime example of how recorded music can still sound like teh original live event if everything is done well. Often though, the best one can hope for is an accurate scale model of what was captured in the recording.

The perspective of the music from your listening position then comes into play as well. Sitting closer to the speakers might result in a perspective of the scaled down performance that makes it relatively seem as large as original (Hollywood plays this kind of trick all the time using scale models or CGI equivalents viewed from proper close perspective to make them seem as large as life).
Great point Mapman. I listen in the nearfield, allowing the illusion of virtually any perspective, according to scale, to sound convincing. Smaller, recorded venues come off more convincingly but the larger ones satisfy as well.

It also helps to turn off the analytical part of my brain when the spatial cues are convincing enough to warrant pleasure for pleasures sake. Imagination takes over and abets the process (the crime being believing something that is not).

I've also heard a better system in a larger, treated room pull it off much more convincingly. I wish I had that bigger, dedicated room to try it. It's all a trick, of sorts, and the better ones are more adept at pulling it off.

Most times, the less tricks used in a recording are the easiest to reproduce in the listening area.

All the best,
"High-end" has become a euphemism for expensive but I do not necessarily associate that with musically satisfying. I have heard many over the top combinations of equipment that provide an exaggerated, 'hyped up' version of reality that are neither musical nor satisfying and ultimately, aren't really 'systems' in the sense that the parts are working together effectively to create a natural sounding illusion. It may be an illusion that is more attractive, at first, but i think-long term- it would be fatiguing or simply unsatisfying. I suppose some of that is subjective, but often, in showrooms, you are supposed to be 'taken' immediately with how splashy the high frequencies sound and how deep and 'impactful' the bass is and none of this is what you typically hear with real music. There are any number of 'defining' attributes, such as 'imaging,' 'soundstage,' 'dynamics' and 'bandwidth,' but all of these describe attributes, or discrete facets of the sound, not the whole. I'm at a point where everything counts, even though all of it is a trade-off, compared to real music. (I'm not using hard rock as a benchmark, although I like it and listen to it, simply because very little of it is 'real,' in the sense of acoustic instruments or more naturally amplified ones-even in concert- lot's of distortion and over-amped drums and bass; granted a les paul played through a cranked marshall has a certain reality- but it's not the stuff i'd use to listen critically if I were trying to evaluate a system).
At best, we create an illusion that gives a level of musical satisfaction on the widest range of source material and compares favorably to what real instruments of the acoustic variety sound like. An impossible goal but one worth striving for. There are any number of approaches to get there. And i agree, the room is usually the last thing people address, when it should be the first.
I suppose it all boils down to how expensive to achieve musically satisfying?

The answer of course is: it all depends...on a lot of things!

_ _

Spot on about how the highs and lows grab you when you first enter a "high end" showroom. It's akin to what you see when evaluating TVs: settings that look great but permanently burn out the rods and cones in the back of your eye if you look long enough.

On another thread I stated just how much I'm now enjoying my CDP just by swapping out some ICs. Enough to stop listening to my iMac. All the little things you allude to besides the highs and lows that grab your attention come into play now. Gone is the indistinct, the vague, the missing, replaced by all the pertinent cues that make it seem all the more realistic. My speaker 'seems' to go lower though I know it doesn't. It just now has all the cues necessary to complete the picture of an upright bass, realistically.

Ambient cues like hands gently tapping and strumming along on instruments,
musicians preparing to play as they adjust their hands on their instruments, entering lightly before playing forcefully. There are times now where I swear I can almost discern body language or position as they play.

Spooky times indeed.

I've gotten to where, due to my listening room, I prefer these type of cues and sounds to whether or not I have that giant recreation of an orchestra's venue. Even from an orchestra, one can catch these kinds of cues, making it more convincing, for me. The rest I can fill out in my mind, overlooking the obvious.

All the best,
I agree that highs and lows are nice but overrated. :-)

Most of what is going on in music occurs elsewhere. Highs and lows can be the icing on the cake but not the initial key to basic enjoyment.

I do find that a large 3-D soundstage along with the rest can help with clutter and enable the listener to better discern what is going on in a more detailed and lifelike manner.

OF course, its all relative. ITs similar to where a smaller HD TV with 3-D might suffice in a smaller room or watching from a closer distance whereas a larger screen is needed generally to see the same details from more of a distance.
If you don't run screaming from the room when musical passages get complex and if at times you are almost startled out of your seat which makes you grin from ear to ear and the dog flick her ears back and forth ---you are on the right track!
The one point that high end really just means expensive is important. I don't know what just any expensive audio gear should sound like? It is not really a great question. What should an expensive car be like, fast comfortable, made of carbon fiber, etc all that matters about the car is what matters to you. You get the point.
The price of the gear, people are trying to elaborate on, which produces the perfect or ideal sound of is sort of irrelevant. The passionate answers are really answering a different question. That question is what is the perfect audio system. It was answered 5 and 6 decades ago with the term hi-fi. If you don't know it means highly like the original.
I happen to agree with Elizabeth it doesn't have to be an exact match, it can sound a little euphonic. that's what makes me happy, and that's all that matters.
Hi guys - I wanted to chime in on the conversation about recording spaces for a moment that Bryon and Mapman are having. I don't think that anyone has made the point here that one would almost never want their music to sound like the actual recording space, if we are assuming that this space is a recording studio. These are very dead environments that do not enhance the music whatsoever, meaning how the music actually sounds in that space as it is actually being played. What these types of rooms do enhance is the recording engineer's ability to make the recording sound exactly how he wants it to (which very often has nothing to do with how the musicians want it to sound, by the way). This point we have discussed on other threads, but it is certainly applicable here.

A related point, which has also been discussed on other threads, is that in general, musicians normally choose fidelity to the performance vs. fidelity to the recording of that performance (a whole bunch of recordings out there really suck, even if the performances are excellent, and why the heck would you want to be faithful to such a recording??). I think Elizabeth touches on this when she speaks of "slighty euphonic coloring." Most musicians want their systems to sound as lifelike as possible (timbres first and foremost), as opposed to trying to eliminate all "distortions." A whole lot of folks who attempt to do the latter end up with systems that throw the baby out with the bathwater, or lose the forest for the trees. Neither the recording nor the system it is played back on will ever be an exact match to the performance, as others have correctly pointed out here.
i don't think there is a definitive answer. after all "high end" systems do not all sound the same.

so i would say as have others, it should remind you of the sound of the timbre of instruments, and it should please the owner of the stereo system.
07-07-12: Learsfool
Hi guys - I wanted to chime in on the conversation about recording spaces for a moment that Bryon and Mapman are having. I don't think that anyone has made the point here that one would almost never want their music to sound like the actual recording space, if we are assuming that this space is a recording studio. These are very dead environments that do not enhance the music whatsoever, meaning how the music actually sounds in that space as it is actually being played.
Hi Learsfool - When I said...
...the playback space must create an OMNIDIRECTIONAL PRESENTATION, because that’s what the recording space always sounds like...
...I was referring to "recording spaces" outside a studio environment, e.g., halls. I understand that fewer and fewer recordings are actually done outside the studio these days.

I am also aware of the process by which studio recordings are created. I can't remember if I've mentioned this to you, but I studied with professional recording engineers for a brief but intense period (about 3 months), during which I learned how to capture recordings on a Nagra with a variety of microphones, edit those recordings in ProTools, and mix them on a Euphonix 5-B. It was a steep learning curve, but a very rewarding experience.

During that time I spent a lot of time in recording and re-recording studios, so I'm familiar with their typical acoustics, which as you say, are dead. My observations about the importance of creating a playback space whose ambient cues emulate the ambient cues of the recording space were NOT intended to apply to studio recording spaces.

Having said that, IMO there is a corollary consideration for studio recordings, namely that, in an ideal world, the ambient cues of the playback space would emulate the ambient cues of the "virtual space" created by the re-recording engineers. In the real world, that is of course difficult to achieve, partly because of the wide variety of virtual spaces made possible by modern mixing techniques and partly because we weren't present at the mix to know how things sounded. That is another reason why, IMO, it is valuable for a playback space to be neutral.

Bryoncunningham, you make some good points. I knew one guy who was all into soundstaging and money was no object. He looked into Audio Physic with their "walk in" soundstaging but ended up with some Brentworth single driver and a Wytec SET in a HUGE room. He had the best "You are there" thing on live recordings I've ever heard as there was little room interaction. I never could reproduce it because my room is too small.
Wow Cdc, I bet that guy's system sounds fantastic!
High end is supposed to sound like real live unamplified music- Natural, mostly free of elecronic artifacts on well recorded material.

Instead what we get(99% of time,regardless of price)is tonal freqency balance that is generally 10s to 100s of Hz shifted to the right compared to the real thing, making sound thinner than actually is real life. Also I notice that the timing is off between fundamentals and overtones/undertones. Combine the two and you have unnatural presentation. I don't know why is that. Is it electronic artifacts that you can't avoid or recording can't pick up everything?

Enter,add/subtract your own colors that makes it as close to 'realistic' as possible for YOU.
There's this guy's take which is as good as any what's been put forth so far:

All the best,
If it sounds good, it IS good! - Duke Ellington
I also agree with The Duke!
Someone forwarded this link to me, after I posted my comments. Sorry if it's a duplicate ...

I will simply reframe the question. What is an EXPENSIVE stereo SUPPOSED to sound like.

Again he didn't ask what a perfect stereo should sound like?
And in my view either expensive or just really good it better make some sounds. Not nothing for sure.
Maybe an expensive stereo is supposed to sound like your monies loss is your ears gain.

There is no answer save the one that makes you happy carping about it. Cost relative to enjoyment is always thought of by those of us who can't afford an expensive system while those who can afford it probably don't give a tinker's fart about it.

They just went out and bought what they think they should have at the same kind of emporium that sells them their kind of car, glasses, spirits, cigars, clothing, watches, etc.

They don't shop in the same places that average people do and I bet their systems, on average, probably don't sound much better (if at all) then one of our well sorted out ones.

All the best,
Well, if its expensive, it should also sound pretty darn good.

Aren't expensive things supposed to be better?