What is your reference?

What is the reference by which you judge the sound of a component or a system? I see a lot of confused posts here, and listen to a lot of equipment at all price levels that sound phony, which leads me to believe that a lot of manufacturers and consumers don't really know what music sounds like. I am starting to wonder if many buyers of expensive equipment might actually prefer an artificial, hi-fi sound as opposed to something that approaches real music. I know that we are seeking a mere reproduction of the real event, so don't give me that babble about "nothing can duplicate..." That's a cop-out by those who can't hear or have given up trying. What is the aural image you have in mind when auditioning audio equipment? And what recording best represents that image?
Tremendous question. I am not trying to reproduce the "absolute sound" in my living room. I like rock, pop, r&b, jazz, blues and a smattering of classical. For the most part it's amplified music and alot of it is artificially created in the recording studio. My audio system reflects my musical tastes. Faithfulness to the signal input is important, but not paramount. Ultimately I've put together a system that doesn't distract me from listening to the music I like. At times the system even makes the music I like sound good. I acknowledge that this can be considered a form of distortion and/or coloration. I'm very happy with the sonic direction I've taken and for me, it far preferable to a system that sounds fantastic on a limited number of audiophile spectaculars and makes other music (the remaining 99.9%) sound bad. Any system you put together will be an amalgam of sonic compromises.
I have what I would characterize as an internal bell that goes off whenever I cross my personal leap of faith threshold. Live performances/concerts that I have attended are indelibly etched in my brain and hence, serve as my reference. While I don't expect I'll ever come anywhere near to being able to satisfactorily/convincingly recreate in my home, the experience of a live symphony orchestra in a concert hall, I do however find my experiences at intimate jazz club venues, clearly attainable. For example, when I cue up saxophonist Bennie Wallace's, "Someone to Watch Over Me" CD, can I truly/without effort envision that I am sitting there at that front corner table, sipping on that great micro-brew and splurging on that absolutely sublime rib-eye, downstairs at NYC's Jazz Standard. What also helps is that we have a baby grand piano in our home. Though I myself don't play, two of our sons, ages 12 & 7 do, and as a result, I have come to know very well what a live piano sounds like. I'm afraid that many people who do not have the luxury of having an un-amplified instrument (any un-amplified instrument) regularly playing within their home, tend to forget what the real thing is actually supposed to sound like. I find the piano in particular, extremely difficult for many systems, irrespective of their cost, to recreate convincingly. Hence, when my system and/or other systems/components do a convincing enough job in portraying a live piano such that it does not require a leap of faith beyond my personal threshold, then I know I have a keeper! Live, un-amplified music---no better reference as far as I am concerned.
For me, it continues to evolve as I listen to different equipment and learn more about what is possible (as well as what is not). I'm not a musician and don't have classical music in my blood, don't go to symphonies, etc. I have, however, always had recorded music I enjoy in the house and playing, and find that it can enhance almost any mood. Since most of the music I listen to is somewhat arbitrarily recorded (ie, rock/pop and all it's sub-genres), my reference is pretty much how the reproduction makes me feel. I'm not sure I want to recreate what an electric guitar "really" sounds like, or a kick drum, inside my house, though there is no doubt that as the system gets better, it recreates these instruments in progressively more exciting / involving ways. I went to the AC/DC concert the other night and paid attention to the fact that there really isn't a soundstage, and furthermore, the sound is pretty bright and edgy, definitely fatiguing (and no room treatment to boot!) - it was also fabulous, with a really great sound system, energetic instrumentation and vocals. In the end, the grading scale is how much the system / music makes me want to turn it on and listen.
An 1878 Steinway B Grand Piano. I have had it in three different homes--and does it ever sound different depending on the acoustics around it. The harmonics that an actual piano creates (in it's environment) is incredible--and difficult to reproduce very well. I intend to record this piano, but until then, I use Ito Ema's Goldberg Variations (M*A recordings). She plays a similar vintage Steinway, but a D version. This is one of my favorite recordings. Todd Garfunkle deserves a medal for this one.
My ultimate goal is to fool myself that I am either listening to a live performance or listening in on a studio performance. Hearing more detail than was intended or noticed when when preparing the final mix on material is not productive to enjoying the music in my opinion. I have both played and listened to a lot of live music both acoustic and electric and combinations of both. This is the standard that I evaluate my equipment to. I have one CD in our collection that I have had the opportunity to listen to the studio digital master tapes of. This is one of my best references. With other references I just have to give it my best bet, and am probably going for certain colorations to achieve my version of what music sounds like. One of my favorite test CD's is "Celtic Solstice" by Earth Music Productions that was recorded in St. Johns Cathedral, NY. My pet peaves are percussive insruments followed by voice, strings and brass. Due to budget constraints I do not currently deal with the low LF portion of sound. I have not heard any subwoofers in my price range that I consider to be "musical". In another home I would have (on our budget) opted for Zen SET's and large efficient floorstanders, but with five cats and not enough room I have settled for Musical Fidelty amplification and small stand mounted moniters. The cats gave up on the powder coated stands after a couple of days. I now listen to more classical music than ever before and am finding it difficult to balance my system between popular and classical. The recent addition of a new power cord to my CD player just narrowed the gap quite a bit. I know that we are all searching for an individual sound. I was able to listen to the Ah! Tjoeb CD player and am perplexed by the reviews that it is receiving. It was pleasant for the first 10 seconds but as soon as a piano came in on the piece it failed with an "F", yet this is a sound that many people are looking for. I guess that some people are better fooled than others, lucky them.
My ear is my reference. I sing in a professional chorus and subscribe is a major symphony orchestra. I want to come as close to what I hear live in a concert hall. I agree that some people have never heard much live music, so they go with what they are use to hearing. Some folks just have a bad ear. But that said, if you like what you hear in your system, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, no matter what you buy.
My 1992 Steinway M recalibrates my ears daily.
Onhwy61's philosophy re: recorded music pretty much reflects my own in a practical sense. Can I borrow it? Having said that, I have played both acoustic and electric guitars for 40+ years, and am particularly sensitive to the different sounds of guitar amps. BTW tube amps for guitar, eg Fender and Marshall, sound radically different than most solid state. But, having said all that, I live in the boondocks of Oregon, and the sounds I like best are: wind in the trees; surf on the beach; rain on the roof; owls at night; windstorms; thunder; foghorns in the distance; coyotes howling at night etc. Seldom are these recorded very convincingly, but there are places on a couple of CDs that definitely get our cats attention. Cheers. Craig.
Being a musician, I have 30 years experience playing and recording music, so I am very familiar to say the least with what "live" music sounds like. It also helps that I live in NYC, which allows me to attend many concerts of all styles and sizes. I lean towards speakers that have huge soundstage capability, like Avalon, Audio Physic, Aeriel, even though I have B&W Nautilus 805's myself, (an aesthetic compromise). The emotional response to feeling as if you are in the same room or at least in the playback room is what I look for. Even an amplified live situation often allows you to hear some of the original source, instead of hearing only the P.A. system and that is what I like to feel like I am hearing. Funny, I have been giving this some thought myself lately. The DCS upsampled CD's through the Avalons' does it for me. I haven't had the chance to hear a great system using a turntable for a long time, but the superb quality of the SACD format reminded me just how much fun I used to have listening to records.
What a wonderful thread! I too am graced with a Steinway B (1940) to allow my daughter and me wonderful music-making, but find it striking how different it sounds depending upon lid-angle, corner-loading, etc. Repeated voicings for the pianist (instead of for the listeners perpendicular to the lid) has taught me a lot about how malleable a great instrument can be. My tuner/tech, a jazz pianist, prefers a much brighter treble than I do. (I remember how I used to use piano recordings to tweak crossovers in speaker system design BEFORE I got the Steinway. I have to laugh about it when I realize that it takes only a few pinpricks in a key's hammer-felt to change the piano's brightness WAY more than the differences in many excellent recordings of Steinways. I told piano techs that I use piano recordings to evaluate/tweak speaker systems, and they chuckle, knowing full well that "standardizing" a grand piano is like freeze-framing a chameleon: the truths have many colors. Nonetheless it seems that recording engineers more and more have a "reference Steinway" sound they converge upon.... I'm assembling my reference 2 channel system, and have been worried that my new ParsifalEncore/AlephP+2s/RedDawn were too bright, or harsh, or uptilted, y'know...just so much more revealing up top that I now need a new digital source. Time for calibration! Last night I caught Cleveland Symph Orch w/ Dohnanyi in town (Boston's Symphony Hall), where I had back-balcony seats for Tchaikovsky's Fourth. The sound was tremendously dynamic, clear, LEAN, startling in its immediacy (especially considering the distance...although that IS what Symphony Hall is famous for), and with a complex, visually-noncorellated soundstage! Was the performance magnificent? You bet! Was the sound pretty? Nope! Does it get any "better"? CSO/Dohnanyi...what do YOU think? Hmmm...surely I've heard "warmer" orchestras (and prefer the more-intimate Jordan Hall for its warmer acoustic). The leanness was due to some combination of balances involving the instruments, their combined loudnesses as conducted, my listening position, Symphony Hall, the habits learned by the orchestra from playing their normal venue, Severance Hall, etc. The performance garnered 7 curtain calls. A trusted Boston Globe critic referred to the enormous cohesive energy, while still allowing soloists and groups to display their prowess distinctively, albeit the whole sometimes sounding "narrow-bore". I had to laugh when having my morning coffee over those last words. Here I am, like so many audiophiles, chasing the holy grail of "personal" neutrality, honesty of reproduction, "timbral truth", etc., and often forgetting the variances of real music-making. I'm starting to understand the need for high resolution as a prerequisite for (linear frequency response) extension, clarity, ambience, and all the fruits thereof. Warmth and weight are relatively easy compared to a clean, extended top end. Cleveland's "white-hot" exuberance pinned me back: up til now I had been happy with a soft-topped, highly resolved stage that put Diana Krall or Bill Evans AT MY PIANO...and this is wonderful. But can I find an affordable CDP/DAC that will allow CSO's lighning bolts to come through, without tearing my head off, or prohibiting me from enjoying those 80% less-pristinely recorded CDs we all have?.... I've started to use good violin recordings, especially those with lots of partials (check out Didier Lockwood's Tribute to Stephane Grapelli on SONY/FRANCE, or Martin Hayes Live in Seattle) to evaluate resolution and system balance instead of piano, and will invite violinist friends over to help out. (I'm currently trying to decide whether my old Rotel 855 drives my demo Bel Canto better than that Pioneer DV333. Damned if I can tell which is more realistic! All I've figured out so far is that the unscientific substitution of the RedDawn in one leg of the test resulted in a loss of resolution great enough to swamp the differences between the transports. OY! Is the Nordost therefore "hyperactive" or "zippy"? Sure...and certainly way too revealing of upstream artifact for most systems...maybe just as lesser orchestras couldn't have gotten away with CSO's high-energy up top, either! I'm finding the challenge of securing a sufficiently resolving front end for this amazingly transparent system itsself a fatiguing chore. (I have the BelCanto DAC for one more day, and here I am chatting instead of listening!) I suppose I might have to end up choosing a "warm" set of cables or lower rez DAC to reduce fatigue until higher-res software matures in a few years, but I hope not. Thanks for the opportunity to share. Ernie
...a final thought before I hit the hay: I used to consider the Handel & Haydn Society's period instrument concerts at (the smaller) Jordan Hall a supremely wonderful reference, both musically and acoustically. Well, H&H got too successful, needed to sell more seats, and migrated across the street to (the larger) Symphony Hall. All of a sudden the original instuments sound "skinny", harsh, lacking warmth, etc. So much so that I simply stopped going! Concerts by my neighbor Marty Pearlman's Boston Baroque, as well as the Boston Chamber Music Society, both still at the warmer Jordan Hall, now fill my desires for ravishing performances of period instruments; I reserve my outings to Symphony Hall for larger, modern orchestras and choral groups who "fill" the hall better. System references? One dealer's Watt/Puppy6/Levinson setup sounds energetic and full-bodied. Another dealer's Pipedreams/Accuphase/Airtight/SPM system sounds much leaner, yet refreshingly natural. I have a great live recording (Pickwick) of BostonPhilharmonicOrch/Zander of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1990). It sounds "weightier" on the former system, and in some ways more full-bodied, and richer, but I'll be damned if the leaner system doesn't sound more like that orchestra playing in Jordan Hall! Thanks again.
Subaruguru, thanks for comments. They are among the most intelligent and insightful I've come across any Audiogon forum. You obviously have a passion for and have educated yourself about music. The pursuit of sonic accuracy is extremely important to our hobby, but only if it is done to support the music. The recording process is an active process where the artist and engineer conspire to creative an illusion from which musical truth can emerge. Elements in this process are the recording hall, the choice of a specific instrument and its setup, microphone selection, mic placement, EQ, added reverb and/or delay, compression/limiting and post performance editing (good musicians can and do play "bad" notes). When performed by talented people this processing is transparent. As listeners we should also be active. We should consciously tweak our systems such that they positvely contribute to the enjoyment of the musical experience. It's that emoitional (not sonic) truth that I want my system to let through. P.S. I too use Pass electronics (P pre and 5 amp). I think they are a superb product and a great value. I use Discovery interconnects and OCOS cables. The speaker are Monitor Audio 50s w/ REL stereo subs.
Did not describe my own system in original post, so here it is: CAL Icon MkII Power Boss HDCD, Van den Hul The Second, Bryston BP-25 pre, AQ Opal balanced, BAT VK-200 power, VdH silver for highs and AQ for bass, B&W 802's with North Creek Music outboard crossovers. Very warm, tonally precise, open sound with no harshness, no fatigue whatsoever. Sound compares favorably to local symphony in concert, but can still kick out the jams on rock and jazz. Most realistic sound so far is old version (NOT brightly lit remaster) of Philips CD of Beethoven's 3rd by Masur. If an orchestra could be shrunk to fit in my living room, this is what it would sound like.