What is the standard for judging a systems sound?

It is often said in these threads that this hobby is all about the music. That live music is the only meaningful standard for comparison when determining the quality of a stereo system. While these words sound good, are they really true?

A violin should sound like a violin, a flute should sound like a flute, and a guitar should sound like a guitar. Many purists will immediately say that amplified/electronic music cannot be used as a standard since a listener can never really know what the intention of the musician was when he/she recorded it, and what that sound should be.

Even something as simple as an electric guitar has multiple settings from which to choose. Electronic keyboards have hundreds of possible voices, so how does the poor audiophile know how the tone was supposed to sound?

These are valid concerns. Back to the purists!
“That’s why only unamplified classical music can be used as a standard!!!” On face value that looks like an acceptable statement. Consider some facts though. In my immediate family we a have several musicians who play a few different instruments. We have an electric piano (due to a distinct lack of room for a baby grand), acoustic guitar, Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, a nickel plated closed hole flute, a silver plated open hole flute, a viola, and a cello.

I have a fairly good idea how each of these instruments sound. One comment I must make immediately is that they sound a little different in different rooms. Another comment, which demands attention: when I bought my first flute I knew nothing about flutes. I began fooling around with it and enjoyed the sound. I liked it so much a bought a better, as mentioned silver open-hole flute. This flute sounded much better than the first flute. The tone was richer (the only words I can think of to describe the difference).

The reason for that background information is to show that the same instruments in different room’s sound different, AND different models of the same instrument have a much different sound!

If we audiophiles are using live unamplified music as a standard there are still several important issues, which must be addressed. How do we really know what we are hearing? What instrument is the musician playing? Was that a Gemeinhardt or Armstrong Flute. What are the sonic characteristics of the specific instrument. Stradivarius violins sound different than other violins, if they didn’t people would not be willing to pursue them so aggressively. Better instruments (theoretically anyway) sound better than lesser instruments. The point here is that different versions of the same instrument sound different.

I have seen the same music reproduced in different settings. I have heard string quartets play in a garden in Vienna. I have heard the Pipe Organ in Stephan’s Dom. I have heard Rock and Roll in arenas and Performing Arts Centers. I have heard jazz played in small one room clubs, not to mention the above listed instruments played in the house.

Each one of these venues sounds different from the other.

When I am listening to a selection of music at home, how do I know how it is supposed to sound? None of the LPs sounds like any of the particular places I have heard live music, while none of those places sounded like any other either.

There is no standard by which to judge the quality of live music since no two venues sound alike. If everyone were to go to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and hear Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 would everyone hear the same thing? Even if they did, and that one concert became the standard by which all other recorded music was judged, would that be translatable to allow the judging of all other music?

I have never heard a cello reproduced as well as my sons playing in the living room. I have never heard better flute players sound better than my own terrible playing at home.

So what do we audiophiles really use as the standard by which recorded music can be judged?
You have nailed the paradox. There is no such thing as "the sound of a flute." There is only "the sound of this flute, played by this flutist, in this room." And, getting your listening room to sound even close to any other room on the planet is a physical impossibility.

So what to do? First, let's dispense with the "sounds like a flute" standard. What that's really about is timbre, and modern audio systems, even relatively cheap ones, get timbre right, or close to right. What they don't get is ambience.

And, since the ambience of one space cannot be reproduced in another space, what's really going on is something the literature biz calls "willing suspension of disbelief." In other words, it's not that we are recreating the sound of an orchestra playing in Carnegie Hall. We are creating an illusion that makes us feel like we are listening to an orchestra playing in Carnegie Hall. And that illusion may be a long way from "the real thing" or, for that matter, a long way from accurate in the technical sense of flat frequency response, etc.

I'll probably get some flames here, because I'm really arguing that an audiophile who says, "My standard is the sound of acoustic instruments in real space" is fooling himself. That standard is impossible. But it's ok, because "fooling yourself" is exactly what you are trying to do. If you get a sound you like, if it lets you close your eyes and visualize your favorite concert hall, then you've really achieved something.
Good analysis! In the end there is not now, now will there ever be, a reproduced sound that sounds like the live sound in its original venue. While many claim to search for accurate reproduction of the the original, or more often the recorded, sound, they really have no idea what the recorded sound sounded like as they were not present at the event, or in the recording studio. All they can do is guess. And while they may know the sounds of the instruments and the venues, and even the engineer's recording practices, the best they can do in judging the reproduced sound is to make an educated guess. That is what we do, we use our experience in equipment, acoustics, and or knowledge of how music sounds live, to create a replication in which we can fantisize that we are hearing the actual performance. What it boils down to is we use our imagination as the standard by which recorded music is to be judged - that is, what sounds real to us, once we are done fiddling. But we know in our hearts that its not even close to real.
I agree with the above. A stereo system will never sound the same as the "real" thing.
Personally, my standard is, I judge a system by if it sounds good to me or not. That is why there is so much debate about what speaker is good and which isn't. We all have a different idea of what we want the music that comes into our room to sound like.
In a nutshell, my absolute first criteria is that the musical presentation sounds ...musical.
My system has gone through many variations(and still is) were I could hear the guitar pick pluck a string, were the vocals were right in my living room and the sax player sounded so real that I swore he was playing right in front of me.
But guess what?
The song I was listening to just didn't sound like the song.
It sounded like the guitar player plucking the string, the sax playing in front of me etc.
All great audiophile features, but it would be nice to hear..well, the song as it was meant to be heard.
So with all of that said, I look for a musical top to bottom coherence that still delivers on the audiophile stuff-high end air and bloom, transparency, presence etc.
Happy New Year!
Consider a speaker as a specific musical instrument(let's say for the ones that can't play any other instruments) that is someway pleasantly sounds in your room and let it be your judgement of a system's sound and recording.

Somehow I love the sound of electric instruments and they can sound real great to the listener. I like to listen to electronic instruments played by great musicians and composers. For electric instruments' judgement of the system's sound please refer to the previous paragraph.
Why not use a recording that you yourself have made? You control the instruments and the venue, so you know exactly how it sounds.

It does not have to be 'music'--because you are using it strictly to compare systems. You could gather your entire family together in your basement, give each one an instrument (or two, or three), and have them play, first one at a time, then all simultaneously. Of course, you need a decent recording setup.
Interesting question!

Playing something I've heard a hundred times,does the reproduction system get in the music's way or not. For me,ironically,the perfect system would be invisible.
I use the "Spinal Tap" criteria:

"....most amps only go to 'ten', but ours goes to 'eleven'!!"

Happy New Year everyone!

Great thread, I asked the very same question two nights ago when I spent 3.5 hours listening to my friends analogue system, Well Tempered, Benz, X-Ono Phono etc.
Bomarc said it right, you can get all the audiophile adjectives, but getting the "the actual ambience" is the toughy. A DEAD QUIET system helps a lot in getting that "illusion" in your room (of course if your components are up to snuff and matched properly) so I'll settle for now and accept, until a magic miracle break through is achieved.
Gould's prediction that the composer, performer, and audience would all be participants in the artistic process when enabled by recording technology IMO has become a reality. We make the final contribution to the artistic event as it unfolds in our listening rooms through the application of whatever skill we have been able to muster over the years -- and like anyone involved in the artistic process, we are never fully satisfied with what we have produced. Few of us are, however, willing to give up the pursuit.
Happy New Year!
funny but so many people stress comparing stereo performance to live music - what a joke
most live music is not live music but amplified
(a rock band playing through a pa system is not live music in the sense of true tonal reproduction)

I have the luxury of living in New Orleans and can catch jazz bands with little amplification (especially if I am sitting near the front between the pa monitors and close enough to get the sound direct from the instruments

but my favorite moment was at FEz at the Time in Manhattan catching the 18 piece Mingus Big Band 2 years ago. They had let go of their sound engineer and apologized for not amplifying the instuments (except flute). The sound that filled that club was to die for. Dynamic beyond measure and you could close your eyes and with pinpoint accuracy discern the various players. I was in tears it was so overwelming.

I play guitar and I know what guitar overtones on an acoustic should sound like - also the sound of a live piano, you get those two instruments even close in a stereo setting and you get the emotional side of music
You are right on Audiotomb. Live music is usually amplified. I was at a concert last night and the sound was excellent, but I could hear the sax 10 ft in front of me center stage as well as commming out of the monitor hanging from the ceiling to my right. Dynamics is where it's at with live music, no system can do dynamics like live, plus most recording engineers compress recordings to limit the dynamic range.
It is controversal, but important issue. I think all responses above make sense in their perspectives.

Yes, there is the true sound of every musical instrument albeit we don't know what the sound really sounds like. However, what we hear is only perceived sound of music, and we make decision based on the perceived sound.

Our emotion/mood is involved in such perception. Therefore, depending upon our emotion at that time of hearing, people say good or no good.

Theoretically, I think we can reproduce the true sound, but in reality, it is not so easy. That's why we try to change, upgrade, tweak, and do others all the time to get better sound.

In short, as all the above people mentioned, there are so many factors involved in making judgement. Therefore, if you are satisfied with any sound of music in a given circumstance, that is the criteria of judging the sound of music whatever components you are using and wherever you are.

Happy New Year.
I've enjoyed reading this thread immensely. I think the first post hits the nail on the head. Although I have a very large collection of musical recordings, I can honestly say that I have only experienced live performances by maybe 1% of the artists in my collection. I may be in the minority here, but reproducing a live event though my sound system has NEVER been one of my main objectives in assembling a musical system or enjoying it thereafter. Trying to guess what a live performance would sound like from each artist in each setting would be like chasing an intangible for me.

This is why I like this hobby so much. Everyone is in it for something different. The lucky ones that frequent live events have every right to attempt to recreate the experience. Others have never even been to a live concert, so to speak, and simply want to expose themselves to as many different types of music as possible through recordings on vinyl, tape or CD. Still there are others who prefer the intimacy and privacy of headphones and are accustomed to this sound that others consider "unnatural".

I believe this is one reason why there is still such a debate over 2-channel vs. surround sound audio. I have heard $100,000 surround systems set up by manufacturers at their booths and STILL do not think it sounds natural to MY ears. This is because I grew up listening to 2-channel and this is what my experience tells me the music should sound like through an audio system. I also prefer CD to vinyl (everyone cringe), but I have heard very good examples of both and still prefer CD. I think it's all about your comfort zone and what your listening experiences have done to shape your perception of what sounds right.

Ever go to a concert and listen to the guitar solo that you've heard hundreds of times on your home system and been disappointed at the way it was played or sounded live? Sometimes the recorded event surpasses the live, and maybe it's just because you're used to the studio sound and actually prefer it.

I don't claim to have the end-all of home theater setups, but I at least know that all channel levels are matched, and the sub is set to the appropriate level. Most of my friends and family are not audiophiles by any stretch. Visit their homes and they all have the sub cranked way up and the typical rumble sounds great to them. They always ask me why I have my sub level set so "low". Even though I know it's at the proper level, their preference is for the rumble-box sound that sounds better to them. They're used to it, and that is what sounds right to them. Technically, we could all fault their preference, as we "know what is right and wrong" in the way something sounds, but from a perception and enjoyment standpoint, why make them listen to something that doesn't sound right to them, just for the sake of being at "reference" level?

The same can be said about various forms of music and how a person evaluates their sounds system. Some would argue that classical or acoustic jazz recordings are the reference for judging timbre, soundstage, etc. It is true that many mainstream recordings are poor, but many enjoy the actual music and how it makes them feel without regards to how the treble was recorded "hot" or bass energy is extreme in the 40Hz region, etc. If a guy listens to Metallica and enjoys it, then he should build a system that will make him happy listening to Metallica. He would probably consider a 5-watt single ended triode amp to be a waste of money and a poor product choice, even though these are cosidered the Holy Grail in musicality for others. In this case, an old high powered Adcom could be considered a better amp than a Cary.

In any case, at the point when all I want to do is sit down and listen to disc after disc (or tape or LP) without the thought of what could sound better is when I have achieved the goal of my sound system. I've had glimpses, but never for long. Hopefully the day will come.

Sorry to be so long-winded.
And then there's the question of the different distortions added by the various microphones and recording techniques/machines used...

Of course Nrchy you are right in your critique, but there's still validity in the preference for acoustic instruments recorded live with minimal mic'ing in a real performance space, and with minimal alteration/processing during mixdown (or no mixing altogether). I won't go into all the possible reasons for this here, other than to say that it *is* very easy to hear for yourself that such records are usually far more revealing of the fine nuances of things like timbre and harmonic structure, low-level detail, and spatial cues than are recordings of electric instruments cut in multitrack studio settings. In other words, when I want to really hear what some change to my system is doing to the music, I always make sure to put on some more or less naturally-recorded acoustic material in addition to whatever else I might use, because quite simply it will show me the differences in the most revealing light possible.

None of which means that one can't or shouldn't use electric rock or whatever else to audition with, especially if that music accounts for most of what you listen to at home. Such recordings can and will be more demanding of systems in certain sonic areas where many acoustic performances tend not to be, and thus can reveal other qualities about a system. But what really helps is to keep the law of averages on your side, by auditioning many different kinds of music and recordings: If one system configuration can consistently give you a more natural impression - with more of your recordings - than some other system configuration can, than it's a good bet that system is, overall, providing reproduction that's closer to the 'truth', whatever that may be for any one given record. By the same token, utilizing a broad spectrum of recorded sources allows more accurate identification of any constant colorations or other distortions that are actually being contributed by the system itself. My own philosophy is of the 'master-tape' school of thought: The best you can strive for in a playback system is to 'accurately' portray what was laid down on the master-tape, as opposed to the live performance that tape was attempting to capture. Some will disagree, but I think that by trying to do the former, you are apt to get closer to achieving the latter on a more consistent basis. But you'll never get all the way there, or really even near enough for rock'n'roll...

One more thing: The very best, most revealing recorded source you can possibly use is the well-recorded speaking voice of someone you know well (not yourself! - we don't know what we sound like to others). But even this test only illuminates a relatively small portion of the frequency and dynamic ranges, and is not terribly complex or demanding a signal compared to group music. Its virtue is that we are intimately familiar with that voice as a reference, and that evolution has provided that our ears are most sensitive to minute variations in the human voice. The fact that this ostensibly simple test can never be satisfactorily met tells us all we need to know about what kind of chance we stand trying to reproduce live music convincingly.

Which is why, in my system, I don't try to. I just want my system to sound pretty good to me, meaning fairly uncorrupting of what my own sense about the 'correct' sound of decent recordings ought to be, with as little obvious sound contribution of its own as I can manage given my budget and commitment limitations. At the end of the day, if I can get close enough to where I'm not thinking about the sound of my system but just the music I'm playing, I really suspect that's all I can ask for. The funny thing is, this is very easy for me to do when I'm listening to a crap system, like the one I purposefully leave as stock in my car or my kitchen radio - I dial it in as well as I can, and then proceed to just get lost in the music, if it's good music. Only with the higher fidelity sound of the big rig do I tend to focus nearly as much on purely sonic attributes - is that self-defeating, or just the nature of the beast (or both)?
Exactly. Thousands of people think that Bose Wave Radios sound good, and good for them. They've found musical happiness. I'm just looking for a system that engages me and forces me to listen to the music, the phrasing of the artists, the sound of the instruments. That's pretty much all one can ask for, short of building a world-class concert hall and hiring an orchestra, jazz bands, rock groups, or whatever you want to listen to to play in it.
Zaikesman, that was one of the very best posts I have ever read here; I agree with everyone of your points.

Clearly, fidelity to the live experience is not the only meaningful standard, but it is most definitely a valid standard, and wether some can accept it or not, the most meaningful.

Nrchy, you make some very interesting points, but I don't quite understand why you dismiss the use of the live experience as the best standard simply because we audiophiles are not provided with enough information about the specific instruments involved in the recordings, or the sound of different venues. If we want to use the most meaningful standard, it is our job to familiarize ourselves with the sound of the different venues; and for the truly ambitious, the sound of different makes of instruments. A challenging, but not impossible task. You yourself have admitted to being able to discern the timbral differences between a Gemeindhart and an Armstrong flute. As the player of these instruments, you know better than most that the differences in their sound are not subtle; not to mention that the flute with the richer tone probably felt better to play and consequently, probably allowed you to be more expressive in your playing, which in turn allowed you to progress more as a player, which .... Anyway, the point is that I don't see how anyone can argue that the differences in tone, between those two instruments, would not be more faithfully recorded in an acoustic setting as opposed to an amplified setting. In other words, if you were to record the same twelve bars of the Bach E minor Flute Sonata on both flutes, first on stage at Carnegie Hall with minimal micing and no processing, and then in a club (or studio) playing into a microphone, which then fed a mic preamp, which then fed an amplifier, the resulting sound of which was then picked up by another mic which then went to the mixing board; which of the two different "standards" do you think will allow you to more reliably identify which instrument you were playing on?, barring performance differences, of course. I think it's a no-brainer.

There are timbral and dynamic characteristics in the sound of acoustic instruments playing in a live setting that transcend the differences in the sound of the venues that they are being played in; and I don't mean the differences in tone between different make instruments. I'm talking about the way that the dynamic and harmonic envelopes of instruments being played live interact with each other and affect pitch (intonation) and rhythm; subtleties that are obliterated to different degrees by electronic processing. Zaikesman's observations about the sound of the human voice are right on target. Nrchy, are you suggesting that you would not be able to make a judgement as to the fidelity of different recordings of the sound of the voice of someone that you know intimately, simply because they were made in different venues?

I'm not suggesting that one's approach to building a satisfying stereo system is dependent on using live music as a standard, or that there is anything wrong with electronic or amplified music. However, the truth of the matter is that acoustic instruments played live offer vastly more information to be potentially recorded than electronic/amplified ones do; more subtlety and complexity.

I think that every audiophile should own at least one acoustic musical instrument. Proficiency on the instrument is really not necessary to make this point. Take a decent guitar and strum the open strings. Fool around, pluck a few strings; first with a pick, then with your thumb. Listen to the differences in the sound of an open guitar string played first with a pick and then with your thumb. Really LISTEN! Strum the open strings gently and then aggressively. Listen to the amazing dynamic range; the amazing speed of the sound. Don't worry that you feel that you are just making noise; listen to the SOUND. Do this for a while, and then play on your stereo your best recording of an unprocessed/unamplified acoustic guitar; followed by your best recording of an amplified acoustic guitar in a studio. I rest my case
Back atcha, Frogman. I must say to you all, I was curious about Frog's forum history after reading his post, so I clicked on his threads and answers, and I thought it was notable that he boasts around three times as many responses in the "Music" catagory as in any other one catagory (which of course are all technical/gear-oriented). Now, *that's* an audiophile who's got his priorities straight!

(None of which is to suggest that Nrchy's points aren't very well taken.)
I happen to know for a fact that Nrchy is an idiot, so don't put much stock in what he says!

Frogman, you raise a lot of valid points and I hope I can clarify some of what I intended to state.

Thr issue is not that I would not be able to recognize voices I know in different venues, but that there are too many unknowable (I coined a word?!?) variables in any recording whether it is acoustic music, or electronic to be able to use live music as a standard.

Most audiophiles claim to use live, acoustic, unamplified music as the standard by which they judge the quality of their own systems. I think this is a noble sentiment, but practically impossible since there are too many variables which the listener cannot solve.

The same violin will sound different in Carnegie Hall than it will Stephan's Dom. I think it is practically impossible to be familiar enough with the majority of concert venues were recordings are made to be able to determine the specifics of that recording session.

I admit people like John Atkinson will have an advantage over the casual audiophile. Sitting in on the planning, recording and mastering of the CD allows for intimacy the rest of us will never possess.

We don't have enough information to determine what the recording should sound like, even if we attend live concerts regularly.

I have attended concerts in five different venues in my own home town, apart from various bars over the year. They all have good qualities which make the event enjoyable, but telling the difference between the venues later (on a recording) would be all but impossible except between the worst and best of them.

It is just disingenuous to say that one uses live music as their standard for putting a system together. So I wonder what the standard used by the average audiophile is based upon?
The standard is, Do I like it? Nuthin' wrong with that.
If the goal is attaining fidelity to the music as recorded, whether to vinyl, CD, tape, etc., then the only practical test is to compare the sound of your system to the sound of the final mix in the studio where the music was mix/mastered. That sound is the sound the artist and the engineers agreed was the sound they were trying to produce. The actual sound of the musicians playing in a real space is for all practical purposes unknowable and hence irrelevant.

Even the most minimalist recording requires a microphone, a microphone amplifier and a recording medium. Each of these components will in some way color the signal. There are literally millions of different combinations of these three components where each grouping will show slightly different colorations. However, the contribution of the equipment is insignificant when compared to the skill the engineer takes in positioning the microphone(s) to pick up the music coming from the musicians. Fractions of an inch really do make "huge" differences in the final sound of the signal. Without even taking into account the harmful effects of the audiophile's room and system, there are simply too many unknown variables between the listener and the original live sound for anyone to really know how the two differ.

When you're listening to music over your system you're not really listening to the sound of music being produced in a hall. Instead you're only listening to the music as captured at a specific point(s) in that hall by a microphone(s) and recorded to a storage medium. It's the recording engineer who compares this recorded sound to the original live source. The final mix or mastering stage is his final statement of how successfully he did his work. You would have had to been at the recording session to truly judge the engineer's work. But if all you want to do is test your system accuracy, then you could rent the studio where your best sounding album was mastered and play it back over the studio's system.
Funny as it may seem but most of the folks who responded to this thread know what they are talking about! I hardly see any dissagreements between various posters here. All have put forward valid points and interesting explanations (viewpoints). Yet, when two auddiophools discuss equipment there is always invariably a heated debate!

I have had the pleasure of listening to some instruments being played live (unamplified) from few feet away which included the harp, sitar, and guitar amoung others and one thing that I appreciated that the ambience that the instruments created was something that I have yet to hear in any audio system at any price.

Live music and reproduced music (through a hifi) are two different things altogether, NO COMPARISION!
I find nothing disingenuous in using recordings of unamplified music as the most valid test of a stereo system's accuracy; to the contrary, it is quite logical to do so. Why this is not obvious to some, I can not understand. Yes, everything that Onhwy61 says about the distortions added to music along the way to becoming a cd or lp is true, but does it not make sense to use recordings that have the least number of these deleterious variables? These are, without a doubt, recordings of unamplified music, recorded by a good engineer. Have we forgotten what it is that makes the classic RCA's, Lyritas, London's etc. great; minimal miking, minimal processing and a commitment to preserving the sound as heard in the hall. Yes, you can most definitely hear the characteristic sounds of different venues on good recordings. The sound of Carnegie is easily heard on many recordings, as is the sound of a club such as The Village Vanguard. If you doubt this, spend a few nights at the Vanguard and then listen to Bill Evan's "Waltz For Debby" and tell me that the characteristic sound of that historic, funky little club is not all over that recording. This is all valuable information that serves to test a system's fidelity.

Moreover, a system that does a good job of reproducing unamplified music will IMO do a superior job of reproducing amplified/processed music; assuming fidelity to the master tape is the goal. I have heard many high-pedigree systems that sound "really good", exciting on pop, rock, and even on alot of contemporary jazz, then you play a recording of a large string section in a hall, and OUCH! strings don't sound like that. Usually way too much high frequency content that makes the instruments sound screechy and thin.

The really unfortunate thing is that as audiences for live, unamplified music become more and more scarce, the standard for judging true high-fidelity will be diluted more and more. Is it really that important to adhere to such a lofty standard? Probably not. Music is about emotions, and ultimately, as was stated above, if it sounds good to you that's what really matters. But let's not be cynical or judgmental of those who acknowledge that such a standard does exist, and that ii is worth pursuing.

Happy listening.
Frogman, what I am saying is that a listener can only have a general idea what the original recording sounded like since there are too many variables in every concert.

What type of violin did the soloist play, what type of flute was each flutist playing, what are the accoustical signatures of that hall? How many people were in the seats (since this will affect the sound)? You as a listener cannot answer these questions so you cannot possibly know what the recording should sound like.

Frogman will respond with; I know what a violin, flute, or oboe sound like! Yes in general you do know what each sounds like, how about the specific instrument being played in that particular room.

I have never been to the Vanguard, so I like most people who have ever lived cannot make any determination if a particular recording should sound the way I have heard it.

If music sounding good is the standard, upon what is that standard based? It isn't live music, since your system will not reproduce music that well. That statement is not a condemnation of Frogman's system, I would say the same about Albert Porter's system which is probably one of the best ever set up!

On certain recordings if I listen hard enough, and use my imagination the music sounds magical, but it still doesn't sound like there is a musician sitting in front of me playing his/her instrument and singing just for me. I wish it did, but...
Nrchy, I must say that I am confused by your take on this subject. You pose the question "What is the standard...?, not once, but several times; yet you won't accept an answer that is in fact eminently logical and practical. What is your answer to your own question? That there is no standard to be used? Unlikely. If so, why ask the question?

The easiest answer is in fact that "if it sounds good to you...". Why? Because music should not be overly analyzed. Music is about emotions, and (I'm thinking about another thread currently running right now) if a listener cannot be moved by good recordings of say, Mahler 5 or Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count" on a "boom box", then there is too much preoccupation with the gear and not enough openness to the music.

However, and it's a big "however", audiophilia is a hobby, a very noble and rewarding one, but a hobby nonetheless. And an intrinsic part of this hobby is the quest for perfection in the reproduction capabilities of one's system. I think that most reasonably sober audiophiles acknowledge that this "perfection" will never be achieved, but the quest for it sure can be fun and if kept in it's proper perspective can enhance one's enjoyment of the music immensely.

I am impressed by the fact that you seem interested in the search for a standard. I'll say again. IMO live unamplified music is the best standard, if a standard we must have. I don't see why you let the questions of "what kind of instrument is being played" or "how many people are in the hall" etc. become road blocks in the acceptance of the live music standard. Clearly, these things will affect the sound of a recording. So what? There are far more aspects to the sound of music that characterize acoustic performance, that are far more important, in the scheme of things; generic traits of live sound, if you will. Complexity of timbre; something that is seriously diminished by the amplification process. Microdynamics; where a lot of an artist's expressive subtlety is manifested. And many more things; some that can be described easily, and many that defy description. The more live performances that a listener attends, the more these things become obvious; this is the key.

It really doesn't matter if you don't know the "sound" of the Village Vanguard, although, obviously, it would be ideal if you did. But if you played "Waltz For Debby" on two unfamiliar systems (or components) and one let you hear clearly that there is quite a bit of distance between the bandstand and the bar in the back, where a tremendous amount of glass tinkling and conversation is taking place, or that the slightly hooded sound of the piano and cymbals is classic "ceiling is too low" sound. While the other system masks these qualities and makes the instruments sound as if recorded in a studio, and the voices of the rude audience members sound as if they are right on stage with the musicians. Guess which system I would pick as probably being more faithful to the original event? On the other hand, if this music had in fact been recorded in a studio, with the inevitable reduction in complexity of timbre and absence of any natural ambience, combined with all of the "judicious" use of reverb and "natural" panning choices; not to mention the reduction in groove factor caused by the players having to listen to each other over headphones, as opposed to being connected by the same acoustic. What would we be able to tell using that recording? Not a whole lot IMO. Can it still sound good? Of course it can. But we are talking about establishing a benchmark for the hobby.

Anyway, I'm finding that I am repeating myself. Ive enjoyed reading and contributing to this thread. I would encourage everyone to check out Harry Pearson's (The Absolute Sound) writings and opinions on this subject. While some here will dismiss him as a pompous ass, IMO he does as good a job of dealing with this subject as anyone I have ever read.

Good Listening.
Above, I said I wasn't going to try to go into detail about *why* 'naturally'-recorded live acoustic music might make superior audition material. But it seems to me like one of the main reasons should be specifically addressed at this point. From the comments so far, I make the observation that most of what we're talking about seems to boil down to questions of tonal balance, and the timbral signature of any individual instrument's (or voice's) unique harmonic structure. All of this is valid, but let's not overlook the issues of phase and time.

Only in minimally-mic'ed live recordings do we get a good portion of the original phase and time relationship information preserved in the document. Despite our lack of familiarity with the actual instuments and venue used, our ears can still make use of the phase and time coherence captured. This translates - provided our systems can maintain and transmit the information mostly unscathed - into a better comprehension of spatial relationships and transient events.

In typically multi-mic'ed, multi-tracked studio recordings, where there might be no one original performance captured live, this information either doesn't exist in a relational sense (as in the case of purely electronic 'instruments'), or is distorted, or is in conflict between the various elements in the cut, or is artificially manipulated in the mix, or very likely is a combination of all of the above. The result is a playback performance containing no coherent spatial or transient unity to reproduce, which yields a muddled message no matter how we might try to configure our systems for convincing effect.

So, only if program material succeeds in capturing some of this original performance integrity which we would hear live (no matter what the venue, or where we were inside it), will a recording be able to illuminate much about what our systems might be doing to transmit or corrupt it. This is especially valuable for assessing transducer performance, and for investigating speaker/room set-up possibilities, but can be helpful for listening to the spatial and temporal linearity of any device in the playback chain. No, you still won't be able to know exactly what the original performance sounded like, but you'll still be able infer more about what your system is doing, because your ear/brain can detect and interpret a coherent signal, and therefore recognizes compromises to or absence of same.
Zaikesman it seems like your approach is a little different than a lot of people. People either pretend that their stereo sounds like a room full of musicians, or they say "it sounds good to me." You are trying to go from some kind of standard. What nrchy is saying is that real live music doesn't sound like what we get in the listening room. The group that stands out is the one that says "It sounds good to me." What does that mean? That is not fidelity, it sure isn't High Fidelity! The purpose of High Fidelity is to closely resemble the original event. If it doesn't resemble the real event it is not high fidelity.

...an dats da name a dat tune.
Uppermidfi, You state "The purpose of High Fidelity is to closely resemble the original event". Please define for us what you mean by "closely resembles" and tell us who decides when something does or does not "closely resemble the original event". Keep in mind that the admirable standard (goal) of exactly replicating the original event is unobtainable. Pleaase give us a yardstick to measure by.
As I suspect Newbee correctly infers, I'm not sure that Uppermidfi's (great username) interpretation of my take is exactly what I had in mind. Nrchy and Newbee are essentially on target to point out that in almost any instance of listening to recorded music at home, an audiophile is going to be making subjective, impressionistic, and to a large degree fundamentally uninformed judgements about the verisimilitude of what they hear.

I'm not trying to argue for a 'standard' as such - there *is* one in some senses, but we can't really know it for ourselves - rather, I'm just trying to point out why some recording techniques are going to yield source material where the degree of fidelity of our systems, especially in certain areas, is more critically brought into play than with other types of material. What it boils down to is that if we are listening to material which contains relatively less information that has a correlation to reality, then it matters less that our playback system be able to convey such information. This is why dance music will sound better played back in a disco than classical music will.

But of course Uppermidfi is correct (and speaks for many of us) when he posits that in the universe of playback systems, there *are* those which are literally 'higher fidelity' than others (and vice-versa), and I think we all take it for granted that, at least in a gross sense if not precisely in every detail, we will for the most part be able to tell - whether or not we are intimately familiar with the source material, as long as it is of high sonic quality - pretty easily just by auditioning where a system falls on this scale, depsite having no 'absolute' reference to work from. Which, when you think about it, is a fairly complete description of why there is even a high end to begin with. And a fairly good defense as to why, no matter what arguments you might be able to come up with in theory about why it should not be so, the degree of fidelity to *some kind* of real acoustic event captured in the source material must be significant for audition purposes, regardless of our not having been present at the original performance. You can hear it, so it must be the case - even though both the recording and the playback system are never going to reproduce reality, in order to even stand a chance of getting any idea how close you might be coming, both aspects of the chain have to first attempt the feat.
"High fidelity" does NOT mean "close to the original event." It means "close to what's on the recording." On a technical level, an audio playback system cannot do better than that.

It can do worse than that however, and still sound good. It's even possible that, by diverging from (i.e., distorting) what's on the recording, we can get a sound that we like better, or even get a sound that gives us a better illusion of a live musical event. But don't confuse "an illusion of a live musical event" with "a reproduction of a live musical event." The latter is impossible. The former is possible, but it might not be high fidelity!
Nrchy, if you tell me your "standard", I will tell you mine. LOL
So it comes to this. I posted the question because I have thought for along time that what is reproduced by a good stereo should sound like instruments playing, not a record playing (or CD, SACD, cassette, or 8-track). Through the years my system has gotten better, but I still find that goal of (to paraphrase (I think) what uppermidfi said) live music in my own room is just as illusive.

So I began to examine my own standards and motivation. I realized that what I want to hear isn't possible, so the question with which I was left was: What standard am I using to judge the quality of my own, or any other system? I' not sure if I've come to a conclusion because I don't think saying "it sounds good enough to me" is a real answer. It would lead to relativism and (can I say it?) anarchy?!?

Frogman, I understand what you are saying, and in a perfect world I would agree with you, but I think it's only wishful thinking to conclude that yours/mine/or any other system sounds like good unamplified music. There are too many unknown variables. When my son plays his Cello in the living room it sounds a lot different than when he plays it in a concert hall. When I play a recording of a Cello, which one of those memories is the right one with which to judge the recording? I know we've been through this before, but there must be an answer. A person can't say that the gerneral sound of a Cello is good enough. If one uses that response, then tonal accuracy is not a desired factor in musical reproduction.

Bomarc, you made a good reply to what I thought was an accurate comment by uppermidfi, until I saw your response. In the long run the recording is probably more important than the reproduction of it. No system, nomatter how good will add back what was not recorded in the first place. But unless the listener was at the recording session accurate reproduction is purely subjective. Is that all this hobby amounts to; subjective accuracy?
I wouldn't use the term "subjective accuracy" at all, or, rather, I wouldn't use the word accuracy to describe the subjective sense that reproduced music sounds more or less like "the real thing." Accuracy is a technical term, and it's measurable, and I'd prefer to leave that word to the engineers.

Which brings us back to your concerns about relativism. What, if I may ask, is so wrong with relativism, in a hobby whose true purpose is providing sensory pleasure? And what's wrong with a little anarchy? Why can't I like something and you like something else, and therefore I prefer System A and you prefer System B? Most of us would agree that there isn't one best system. This is why.

I said earlier that I thought the only true standard is, "Do I like it?" I'd amend that to say that for many audiophiles, part of what they like is an illusion of liveness, but we're each going to have a different sense of what that is. It's subjective, it's relative, its anarchic, and that's part of what makes it interesting.
Nrchy: Anything having to do with human perception is 'subjective'. You can of course measure some aspects of the performance of your gear, to establish some answers as to how faithfully it transmits its input to its output under certain conditions of possibly varying relevence. You can perform some other measurements on the whole system, including the room, that will show a rather marked deviation from the software-encoded input signal. But characterizing the sound quality of different systems will always have to be confirmed, and maybe correlated if you're lucky, by the way they play music to subjectively listening human beings, and all the psychological baggage that goes along with that. But don't misunderestimate :-) what experience and an educated ear can evaluate, or how much your brain can extrapolate to complete the sensual, emotional goal of it all. As an audiophile, your judgements about what constitutes quality sound reproduction will be light-years ahead of most people you could pull in off the street, simply due to practice, interest in the pursuit of accuracy, some knowledge about exactly what that consists of, and having learned a language to describe your impressions. That also applies to technical professionals in the recording industry. We can make subjective judgements that do have some basis in reality, because we have learned and acquired some tools to do it. We're not entirely flailing around in the dark here you know.
It's interesting Nrchy, when I started in this hobby, I began with, and still hold, the assumption that my stereo system will never be able to sound like the real thing. You on the other hand, started with the idea that your stereo should sound like the real thing. This seems to be causing a certain frustration that is quite understandable. Please don't misinterpret my comments, I mean to be respectful; in fact I admire the fact that you care so much about this issue.

I think it would be helpful to forget about the unknown variables and focus instead on the known variables. In your situation, you have resources available that most listeners don't; you are very fortunate. You play the flute and your son plays the cello. Why not make recordings of your son playing the cello in your living room and in a concert hall? You would then have the best possible reference (standard) to use in judging a system's accuracy, since you are obviously very familiar with these sounds.

I am sure that you will arrive at a conclusion to this problem. I admire the fact that your household experiences so much live music making; that is what it is all about.

Nrchy, very nice and interesting post.
Where is your TT fit into the scheme of things (Relativism and subjectivism)?

"When I play a recording of a Cello, which one of those memories is the right one with which to judge the recording?"
- Assume the environments are the same, the Cello (sound) you hear today are not the same as the Cello (sound) tomorrow or yesterday. So, are you telling us there are no "standard"? Thus "subjective"? Is there a thing called "subjective accuracy" ? To whom?

Warning: If you keep thinking like that, you might end up selling all your "Hi-end", quit the merry-go-round, buy Bose, and be content ... :-)
Microphones don't hear sound the same way the human ear/brain does. Once the music enters the mic something, and a large something at that, is lost. It doesn't matter whether it's a purist, unprocessed recording or a 128 channel ProTools mega-extravaganza. Live music is live and it's very different from recorded or electronically assisted music. Music reproduction systems should be compared to other reproduction systems. There's no comparison to the real thing.
Yes Onhwy61, but when we compare systems, should we judge which is superior based on which one most closely approaches 'the real thing', or by which one we find the most subjectively pleasing?... ;^)
Zaikesman, What a loaded question! If one were to respond "subjectively pleasing" you could infer that they didn't care for the sound of the real thing. What person who wants to be respected as a lover of music would ever want to admit that (even if it be true)? Personally I want it to sound as "subjectively" close to the real thing as possible. :-)
Newbee that's kind of what I was getting at from the outset. The average listener does not have enough information to determine if the music they are hearing sounds anything like the event recorded so they have to opt for a subjectively pleasing listen event.

If it all comes down to what I think sounds right then there is no ultimate standard for musical playback! Anything goes and musical anarchy pervades!
So what if there's no ultimate standard for musical playback?
bomarc, then your system sucks!
How so? If "it all comes down to what I think is right," to quote your previous post, then my system is the best on earth!

But seriously, why do we need an ultimate standard? Why isn't the "ultimate" standard whatever each individual consumer wants from his system? Some will want a sound that evokes the sensation of listening to live music (and note that I've worded this very carefully). But since you appear to have agreed already that recreating the actual sound of live music is impossible, that means we're talking about an illusion of live music, and I think it's fair to say that no two people will share the same illusion. And I'm still having trouble understanding why that is such a problem for you.
"No two people will share the same illusion" - Bomarc

"Use your illusion" - Axel Rose

(Offhand, I can think of no more illusion allusions...)

Newbee, I share your outrage at my suggestion that anyone here could prefer something other than the Real Thing, and to make up for it I am buying everyone a round of Coca-Cola's on me.
Zaikesman is right. Only my opinion matters, so Bomarc your system sucks, because it isn't the same as mine. Unless of course there is an objective standard.

I want there to be an objective standard so I have something real with which to measure my progress! But if it isn't real live music, what can the standard be???

It is interesting how many people say "this company is great, while the other company sucks" without having a standard by which to measure the quality of any piece of equipment. Personal preference is not a standard.
Nrchy, Do you really want a standard? You love live music, a field in which there are "standard performance practices", i.e. the manner in which the composer originally intended", which are routinely ignored by performers, even when they composed and orchestrated the music. Some of the most boring music results from endless productions conforming to the standard performance practice. And the converse is true, some of my most favorite music is a long way from what originally was put on paper.

A little anarchy, or independence of expression if you please, is not only a good thing, without it life would be a hugely boring time on earth. :-)
Zaikesman, I'm not sure how anyone would ascertain which system is superior, but I have laid out a workable method for determining whether your system accurately reproduces what is on any disc. Namely, go listen to the music in the studio where it was mastered. Regardless of what the live performance was, it was only at the final mastering phase where the engineers and the artists determined what they actually wanted the disc to sound like. Compare that playback to what your system/room sounds like and you will have a fair standard for performance accuracy.
Oh, I agree Onhwy61, and there have been times that I've recorded or produced in the studio where what I heard when I got home made me sick by comparison. Unfortunately though, unless you're able to afford an unquestionably top-flight studio and engineering, this may not mean as much as you imply. Reason being, if the studio has deficiencies or anomolies that will always skew the final product - and probably the majority of modest-cost studios do - then the deck is stacked mo matter how good your home reference system might be, and you can't use your suggested method to make judgements about its fidelity. Your position assumes that the engineer will have a system at his diposal which enables him to make 'correct' judgements (another subjective area), and this just isn't often the case for most amateur musicians. The result (that the master sounds different, and better, in the studio than it does at home) is not necessarily an indictment of the home system in such cases, and is usually to its credit.
You're right, not all studios are created equal and some studios are without question better than others. But I'm referring to mastering studios and the reality is that the majority of commercial releases are mastered at a small number of studios (Gateway, Georgetown, Capitol, Sterling, etc.). These studios feature professionally designed rooms with top flight equipment. Any number of Audiogon regulars have equipment that equals or exceeds that found at these studios, but how many have custom designed, tuned and built acoustic environments? All I'm suggesting is that listening in the mastering studios will provide a known point of references for judging the performance of your home system. It would be a tough test, but one that some audiophile systems here on Audiogon would pass.

BTW, I actually haven't tried what I'm suggesting, but based upon my experiences I know I like my sound a little less "in your face", more spacious and with slightly hyped low bass than compared to what's actually on the disc.
Onhwy61, what you propose is a very interesting test. I think this would go a long way in judging the difference between the master tape and our choice of playback medium.

The question remains though, how much difference is there between the the original event and the master tape? I am asking, since I have no way of knowing what it is, I have never been in the position to experience this.

Does a flute sound like the flute played in a concert hall, does the cello not only sound like a bow dragged across strings or is all of the resonance there too? There is soo (That spelling is intentional, similar to the use of the word 'too' in conversation) much information available to the ears when an instrument is played that is never reproduced on an LP or CD. I'm not sure where the fault lies, but that is not the issue for this question.

I still want to know if it is possible to have an ultimate standard with which to judge the quality of playback of my, or any other stereo system! Right now, I don't think we do although your test Onhwy61 is a better standard than has been offered before.