Why does my laptop annoy me less than my rig?

I listen to a lot of music from the two itty bitty speakers in my PowerBook G4. And it gives me a lot of pleasure, even though it's distorted, there's no bass, and I'm missing most of the detail. Same goes for my clock radio. I like to wake up to rap. For some reason, it's amusing to greet the day with rhymed obscenities distorted and enclosed in a little piece of plastic. I also wake up to classical, and sometimes spend half an hour listening to a concerto through the clock radio before taking a shower.

Other times, of course, I listen to my main system. It's not a great system. It's called "midfi purgatory" for a reason: purgatory isn't forever, and I'm determined to buy and tweak my way into paradise. But it's still cost me a fair chunk of cash. Retail value is, um, let's see... close to $5K with stands and cables included. My clock radio was $10. So I could have bought 500 clock radios for the price of my system. (Thank God -- or Ebay -- I didn't pay retail!) And my system isn't bad for the money in any particular dimension of evaluation. It's very dynamic, bass is crisp, and pianos, as well as narrators, sound real. Certainly in any way of comparing audio system, my rig whips my clock radio (and laptop) by a ridiculous margin.

And yet... My clock radio never annoys me. Neither does my laptop. My system annoys the hell out of me! Strings can be thin and metallic, complex passages get muddled, cabinets resonate at certain frequencies if the volume is up, most music is fatiguing when played at realistic levels, and so on. I'm trying different things, of course, room treatment, swapping components, and so on. And the annoyance gets a little better, but it's still there.

I have a theory. The theory is that the clock radio is so far from realism, we just don't expect it. So there's no annoyance factor in its falling short of realism. But my system is just close enough that we really notice what's missing... that gap between our simulated acoustic instruments and those very instruments, live. Hence, the annoyance.

Analogy: HDTV on a big plasma or LCD is really cool. But I notice moving edges, and they really annoy me. In fact, in all such systems, I always notice something that isn't quite right and annoys me. The picture is much closer to just looking with the naked eye than a standard TV set is. And yet, standard TV sets don't annoy me for their lack of realism. I take them for what they are. Automatically.

I'm not about to give up on getting out of purgatory. But I wonder if my annoyance is an inevitable result of getting closer, but not quite arriving, at auditory realism. Any thoughts?
Ive been thru the same thing,now im very happy with how my system is sounding,not perfect ,but pretty darn good!Before i got into this hobby,my 200.00 boom box sounded great and never bothered me,im guessing that if i paid 5,000.00 for that boombox id be picking the sound apart,the only expectations i had with that boombox ,was that it work.Hmmm, good question!
Hey Qualia8,
Your post was quite funny and well written. Thanks for the nice read.
I know exactly what you mean. I can listen to a cd on my crappy cd player in my crappy 96 Jetta and smile continously never noticing how bad it sounds. When that same cd is playing on the stereo, although it sounds very nice, I am constantly aware of the imperfections. Hmmm.
This is a great question and I bet the price that goes into our Hi-fi rig is part of the problem cause thats the best we have. And the what we have is'nt good enough-never is. But I also bet that the cheapo stuff we have does not bother us because it's cheap and not a reflection of our ability to put together a great sounding system. It's not representative of our personal taste either so who cares how it sounds. It bothers me though that mabe we just are not that good at knowing what we really value in an expensive system and don't get the best bang for the buck as we could otherwise. I used to think I knew what I wanted in a system until I got smarter and now I know that I really did'nt know that much to begin with. If history repeats, I'm in trouble again. Ignorance is bliss.
I think the expectation factor hits the nail on the head. I have the reverse effect, It is sometimes annoying to listen to music on anything but my rig. I have crossed the point where my system can be listened to for hours and it is just really fun to enjoy the music. Although it is far from perfect, it is so much better then any other music source I have. I have put a total bithead and a nice set of headphones on my x-mas list so I can hopefully get some decent sound from my laptop while at work.
The cure:
Stop listening to the rig or powerbook or clock radio.
Start listening music.
I think your own explanation is dead on. The brain has an uncanny ability to fill in whatever is missing when listening to something thats sounds like a cheap radio. When your system starts to approach the sound of the real musical event it seems your brain starts to focus on whatever is not quite right. The only thing we can do is try to put together something with shortcomings that we find least offensive and we can enjoy. This can be very frustrating...but mostly fun. I hope.
I have noticed the same thing. And I don't think it's funny. I think part of it is what you mention - whether your expectations are being fulfilled. But there's more.

Maybe a good clock radio doesn't attempt much, so doesn't fail. It has no tweeter, so can't generate bad high frequencies. It can't gneerate booming bass. A system that aspires to do more may do more, but not very well, which becomes annoying.

You also probably play your big rig louder, which also makes it more likely to annoy.

There is also the trend in high-end to have a trade-off between resolution and musicality. The more highly resolving systems tend to sound more irritating. I hope this isn't an absolute rule. My goal is to put together a system thqt is both highly resolving and musical. It is not easy.

I don't know if any of this applies to your system. It looks like you have chosen good musical components.
Since the main rig will never be sonically perfect and it never is, maybe we can stop agonizing and live happily ever after with the purchase of the all inspiring Bose Wave radio with the CD option?
Thanks everyone for your thoughts. It's nice to know I'm not alone in this, and that if I keep tinkering, I might get over the hump and really enjoy music again, and not just on my laptop.

My sanity has never been more in question than of late, as I run around my room placing cushions, blankets, coats, and styrofoam-filled boxes around the room... using a mirror and flashlight to find the first reflection points. And then I waltz around clapping my hands and listening to the slap echo. Wouldn't you know, it's at its worst right where my speakers are, and where they have to be, given the room setup.

Even more disturbing, I've taken to rapping the walls with my knuckles, exclaiming: "Did you hear that? You hear that ringing?" My walls have steel studs, rather than the usual wooden 2x4's, and I am convinced I can hear them ringing out when sonic pressure waves hit the drywall. (Honest1: you're right, my clock radio can't ring those studs.)

I've also been listening in the cold, because the heater has a fan that really bugs me. I bundle up and enjoy the blacker audio blacks with a cup of hot tea.

When the fridge is running, I also get stressed out, trying to discern details in the music. I pause my playback until it cycles off -- which makes me quite conscious of making the most of each time I open the fridge door.

Part of the problem is that I have had some truly rapturous listening experiences, where I was just trasported out my ordinary day-to-day life. Typically, these happen late at night, when my own audiotory system is hyper sensitive and the background -- electrical and sonic -- is silent. Once I listened to the "Tuba Mirum" from Mozart's Requiem (Netherlands Bach Society SACD) and felt more immediacy, more emotional response, than I have at live performances of the same piece. Evgeny Kissin's Rachmaninoff Etudes, Murray Periah's Chopin Etudes, van Cliburn's Tschaikovsky Concerto. I have thrilled to each of these. And it's hard to have that kind of glorious experience again and again. You acclimate, and demand better.

Well, I am getting some new Revels soon, and also moving to a new apartment, hopefully with better acoustics. Everthing sounds bad in my current place; I can hardly listen to my own voice. If those things don't work, I'm going to try tube gear, and mabye vinyl. If that doesn't work either, I'll be back on Audiogon asking for your help. If need be, I'll hire the Rives Audio people to advise on treating my place. I'm not giving up. And if I ever buy anything with a Bose name on it, so help me...
This is disturbing; my advice to you would be to get back to basics. Purchase something that’s not too expensive that you can just listen to music on and not have to worry about the other variables.

Suggested system...

Pair of two-way floor-stander (Totem Staff, Arro, etc.)
Integrated (Sim I-5, MF, Plinius, etc.)
Source (Arcam, Jolida)

There has been a disconnection with you and the music, you care more about you’re gear than you do the music. There are effective ways to treat you’re room and it does help, but when you reach a point where the obsessive compulsiveness of you’re gear reaches the point where it’s not even about the music, you need to rearrange your priorities.
Yeah, I am OCD. Big time! It's not just audio. Whatever I get into -- golf, stocks, chess, piano, running -- I get *way* into it. I've got mixed feelings about it, because I know it's borderline crazy, but it's how I got where I am, career-wise. I teach philosophy and you have to be OCD to keep thinking through questions where everyone else gets bored and moves on.

But I like the process of making things better, even if I'm frustrated throughout.

My only problem is that sometimes the OCD gets out of hand and I will spend a week doing nothing but one activity -- say, chess -- and will realize only a week later that all that time has passed and I've missed appointments, haven't answered emails, etc. Also, not all women are cool with it...

I have the same problem and after going through several amps, preamps, and speakers I am becoming convinced that the problem lies in the software.

If all I listened to was Diana Krall and similar great recordings I would be thrilled. But,95% of my favorites including easy listening and classic rock sound hard and bright compared to the same music played on a car stereo or an old vintage vinyl system.

Its hard to keep that old system running and reliable even if you have room for 2 or 3 systems.

Some of the tube components I have tried were even worse in the upper midrange.

Unfortunately, I have not found the answer, but I am open to suggestions.

Qualia8, I hope you don't believe that by my above post I'm promoting a Bose radio, far from it, I was being a bit sarcastic. I've never owned a Bose product however I was more or less agreeing with you & understand the concept of your comparison of a table top radio which is accepted as is, to your main rig which falls on more critical ears.

Dred, I too have gone through preamps & power amps trying to get a desired sound. It is also true that all recordings are not created equal. To switch in different components that do well with soft music & then change to components that will do rock is not practical. My solution was to use a quality preamp with tone controls, they are used sparingly. I can now play any music I want & enjoy it by adjusting the tone with my remote from my seat. Maybe not the ultimate audiophile solution but a practical one. I still have my mega-buck preamp as well but it has been put up in my closet for the time being.
Dred: I have had the same experience with classic rock. I did most of my classic rock listening on my college roomate's cheap vintage setup, and it sounded great. We actually did what college roomates do and started a band doing classic rock covers. We both had massive Fender tube amps for our instruments, and naturally, that sounded great when reproduced through a tube amp. Distortion didn't really detract. It was just more of the same.

But now that I've got a really accurate setup, my classic rock stuff actually sounds worse: sterile and emotionally detached. (Current recordings by classic rock artists excepted. They sound pretty good, but still the magic is typically gone from the music. The best classic rock was made decades ago.)

And classical music recorded in the 80's seems to be thin as well. My 60's recordings are much better. Yes, there is only so much we can do on the reproduction end. A lot of the problems are on the recording end. And a versatile system, one where I could switch systems, or at least have tone controls (yikes!) would go a long way towards solving the problem.

I gotcha. One of the things that got me interested in hi-end audio was a visit to a Bose store when I was vacationing in New Hampshire/Maine and stopped in a little town for dinner with some time to kill.

An upleasant experience all around. The worst part was the in-store theatre demo. You walk into a smallish theatre. The speakers are covered with black cloth. They play a preset program, where you're supposed to hear "dramatic" and "natural" sounds. And then they lift off the black cloths to reveal tiny cube speakers. "Whoa!" you're supposed to say. All that big sound from those itty bitty speakers?

Except that I was covering my bleeding ears by that point. The sound was too bright at the top, edgy, and bulging in the lower-mid, without any real rock-solid bottom end. I was highly irritable on walking out. God, how could anyone see that demo and walk away with the system? It *was* loud, but not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination.

Knowing nothing about high-end audio, and having only positive impressions of Bose, as "an engineering company" that spent a lot on R&D, [they do have a cool electrical suspension coming out for autos] I expected really great sound. But walking out of there, I knew something was up. Marketing was way too slick. And I had no way to compare Bose to other systems, similarly priced. This got me thinking...

I still don't know how to react when friends brag to me about their recent Bose purchase. "Yeah, I got the Acoustimass blah blah blah." I try to find the positive: "Well, they do have a nice digital eq for room compensation." But I'm just dying to tell them how much better they could have done for the money, especially buying used on A'gon.
Hi Qualia8, it is true that some folks are satisfied with a Bose system maybe because the importance of the ultimate two channel system don't appeal to them. Or in our way of thinking they just don't know what they are missing.

True audiophiles actually represent a small segment of the population & it is difficult for them to understand why the majority of Americans can be satisfied with a Circuit City system, & why they don't put alot of emphasis here. I have a local friend here that is a videophile. He has come over to my house & listened to my two channel system & thought it sounded spectacular but because he loves his movies, that is where he puts his money. I hear things like when can we get together & watch a good movie, there is nothing like a good movie to take your troubles away. I will never get it although I do like to watch movies on occasions but music first.

Further my current use of a preamp with equalization I know is not an audiophile thing. Most preamps with tone controls are considered midfi or less. But I have recognized there are some pretty good ones out there that incorporate tone controls that have a limited effect on the overall sound quality. How long I can live with this setup I don't know but I will still keep my state of the art preamp just in case.
If you don't mind my asking, Phd, what sort of preamp (with controls) are you using?
Qualia8, I am using a B&K PT3 MKII about 2003 model.There are no mechanical knobs on this preamp. All settings including balance, bass, & treble can all be adjusted with the remote. Can't remember the reviewers name but he said that he had prefered the PT3 over B&Ks reference preamp. In addition the PT3 gets alot right when compared to much more expensive preamps. Another preamp to consider with equalization is the newer McIntosh.
Sounds to me like you have the wrong components. You need to do more experimenting to find something you like. I know Classe and Paradigm Reference series well - I sugguest you give McIntosh a try.

My typical complaint is that a lot of hifi gear is too lean to be natural. Once I tried McIntosh, I basically quit searching although I will try different things now and then to be sure I am not missing anything.

I have a C42 preamp with tone controls and I can correct recording problems very effectively with it. Now, even music from the early 1900s sounds good! I have also corrected my room modes with it to get a flat response so I know what the recording should sound like instead of "thinking" I know what it sounds like.

You can check out my System page if you want more details. Good luck! Arthur
Looks like you have a beautiful setup. I just ordered a Behringer digital eq to check my room out, and maybe correct it even. Also, I have a pair of Revels on the way.

Would love to try Mac gear, as I hear only good things, but it's just a tad pricey, especially for separates like yours.