Can a great system make a mediocre recording sound good?

I spend a lot of time searching for well produced recordings as they (of course) sound so good on my system (Hegel 160 + Linn Majik 140 speakers).  I can't tolerate poor sounding recordings - regardless of the quality of the performance itself.   I was at a high end audio store yesterday and the sales person took the position that a really high-end system can make even mediocre recordings sound good.  Agree?


Garbage in equals garbage out. I have good vinyl playback now and records I do not like go to the dump.  Bad digital gets deleted from the NAS.


I have found that as your system gets better with better equipment, what you thought was mediocre gets better too.

The problem with the "garbage in = garbage out" argument  is inaccurate  . IE, What happens when you pour pure water into polluted water? The pure becomes polluted also. This is what happens with mediocre systems. how do you know that the mediocre music you hear is a product of a mediocre recording or mediocre system?

The only way to know is if you hear it in a great system. But who takes their mediocre music to a $100K system? Few, if any

@artemus_5 But who takes their mediocre music to a $100K system? Few, if any

If by mediocrity you mean bad mastering, I beg to differ.

Many people bring such music to their mega systems, probably most people. Because as you rightly imply, a better system gives you better sound, so you hear your favourite music as well as is possible under the circumstances. If the musicians have passed away or are not longer recording, that recording is all we have, and a good system makes that living better 😀



the music is what counts, and IMHO any system should br geared towards getting the best out of every recording.. ie the system should be subservient, to the music and not merely a showpiece for demonstration records.

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If accuracy or transparency are the goals, an excellent system will actually show up poor recordings more.  Upgrade at your own risk.

A ’great system’ should not be additive, sound wise, to a recording. What it does do right is not become additive. A bright/harsh CD for instance, a very common thing, can sound better on a well executed system because with a poor system you are just adding more brightness/hash etc. FWIW, with some very careful planning you can get a ’great system’ going without spending ’great’ sums of money. FWIW.

no simple answer.

it depends on why (we think) the recording is bad. a great system can unravel some recordings that a less capable system might interpret as hash or distortion.

a couple years ago, a friend of mine was listening with me, and i suggested we listen to this ’new’ artist, Billie Eilish, that i was really enjoying. my friend mentioned he liked the music but the recording was crap. so i played it.

my system was able to make sense to him of lots of big bass lines that his system could not. in his system it was just a wall of confusion. how can you judge the music, when it is demanding more of the system than the system can deliver?

that’s happened with some large scale classical too.

how able is any system to be able to handle all types of music? with effortless ease and complete authority? can the system stay natural, retain liquidity and continuousness? stay coherent and linear in the low frequencies?

this is why you need headroom in your power grid, your amplification, your resonance control, and your acoustics. it’s not easy to be able to honestly judge a recording.

A not so good recording stays a not so good recording.

How about this... It will sound  more acceptable in the "better" system.

Salesmen always spout what moves product.

Most poor recordings that used to sound quite musical to me no longer do, on any of 7 systems. My ears have evolved. Don’t know about you or your sales person.

Still pretty good on a BT portable however.

The best you can hope for is for the system and any given recording to sound like it did when it took place...good, bad, or indifferent.  


If by mediocrity you mean bad mastering, I beg to differ.

If it is really bad mastering then sure, I agree with you. But how do you know unless its heard and verified by a great system? But even then, I suspect it will still sound better than with a lesser system

Tune your system so it plays 90% of your recordings well. That is the key. If you have a highly critical system, you will only be able to listen to 1% of your collection. Tune your system to satisfy yourself with the music you play. 

considering that the best music (from the one recorded on media) was already sung in the 20th century and hardly anyone can surpass it (now we have a monstrous degradation of performing skills) - I would not look for systems with a very high resolution ... CD is a good format.
With age, you will still come to headphones and YouTube - the content of the song will become the most important factor for you ...


I've owned a CD for years that I could never find listenable on any of the systems I've owned in the nearly twenty years  I've owned the disc,  a Vanguard Classic  recording of J.S. Bach's Brandenberg Concertos,  by the English Chamber Orchestra, Johannes Somary conducing.

I was able to listen to both CD's in the set, and actually enjoy it.

I'm inclined to say the system can have quite an affect on how music sounds on it.



It depends on what you consider a great system. A system that is euphonic makes poor recordings sound better but does not make good recordings sound as good as they can. You may tire of the euphonic distortion (usually boosted second and third harmonics which the ear finds pleasing) over time.

A system that is accurate and transparent while still being musical, not analytical, will let you hear how bad those bad recordings are but will let you hear just how good a good recording can sound. If you listen to a lot of bad recordings you may tire of the accuracy of this type of system.

I find plenty of good recordings in many different genres of music, so finding something to listen to that sounds good and is musically enjoyable is not a problem for me.



The best you can hope for is for the system and any given recording to sound like it did when it took place...good, bad, or indifferent.


I agree.

Otherwise you’d need to dial in different EQ choices for different recordings, and that way OCD lies.

A well tune room with a relatively good system will not transform bad recording in good one ...

But ALL recordings will become interesting acoustically, because you will be able to appreciate all acoustical cues chosen by the recording engineer and now manifested ...Because your susyen/room is able to do it...

I listen to all my music now with pleasure, bad recording or better one...

I dont speak about artificial horrendous studio commercial trafficked sounds here... For listening to that you will need the worst system possible ...

I spoke about jazz, classical and other "naturally" recorded relatively non trafficked  music styles...


I've found the opposite - the better the system, the more it reveals how bad/mediocre the source was.... Good sounding sources sound even better, though.... 

100% yes. Recordings are works of art, some abstract, and a good hifi let’s you soak it all in.


But you have to learn to appreciate recordings as works of art with unique qualities for better or for worse, not that most are deficient in some way or not technically perfect.

The fact that good recording sound way better does not contradict the fact that the less wellrecording begins to be interesting by the way you detect new acoustical cues... it is no more only a mess...

No room system can make bad good...

But a good room /system will make bad interesting no more a mess...

I listened for example now with more pleasure to the very bad recording of Scriabin opus by Michael Ponti a musical marvel in horrible recorded way, but now it is more interesting even if it stay bad recording ...You guess more about the subtle touch and Italian virtuosity of the pianist... you read more between the acoustical cues and line so to speak...

Same phenomenon with the bad recorded Sofronitsky...

I've found the opposite - the better the system, the more it reveals how bad/mediocre the source was.... Good sounding sources sound even better, though.... 

Then you lack something in your acoustic tuning or system tuning...

A balanced room /system must be neutral in a way which will make it able to reveal for the better all there is to be revealed acoustically...

I perfectly distinguish between bad and good recording , but i enjoy listening them all... Sound is no more an obstacle anyway for the music...

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I go for systems that do their best to tell the truth but don't have a distorted hissy fit when a recordinging or pressing ain't perfect. True, nothing can help some of the grindingly bad 1960's 45rpm singles I own. But if the system has the wherewithal to find what is best within the groove/digital stream, I'll forgive the recording's transgressions.

The most important part of your system is the source for Everything starts there good or bad ,the signal once lost cannot be made up down stream,

I personally like Multibit,or R2R dacs  they sound very natural ,vacuum tube Dac also ,good design is what counts most.

digital cables the  Ethernet hub ,as well as Ethernet cables and usb cables can make a Huge difference . I am part of a multi state audio club and have been shocked to find out my AQ Diamond 💎 usb ,and Wireworld platinum 8 are detailed but flat compared to imo Final touch audio Callisto cable best under $1k in naturalness , I own this but moved up to their new reference the Sinope which truly is like Analog for digital cable and I heard too Shunyata , as well as Synergistic research ,those cables are more money and better in a area or two realism i willtake over ultimate detail by a few % points , Ethernet cables very important as well, I have both AQ Diamond 💎 as well as FTA Ethernet cables ,the uptone audio is a excellent Ethernet hub for under $1k ,the synergistic research hub is the best I have heard at $2k it is worth it ,I don’t own it Yet but planning on it. spending $3500 for a few digital cables is a lot of $$ to me but we’ll worth the expense .

we took 2 dacs rom Denafrips ,the dac at 1/2 the price was better sounding with these top cables the better dac had a Wireworld platinum 8 which is pretty respectable ,just to make a point on digital cables. 

I'll go out on a limb and say I prefer some reconding on a much lesser system.  A lot of Led Zep comes to mind.  I find my very good system tends to highlight just how poor a lot of these recording were.  I save them for my car.  



 Otherwise we would only be listening to test records and severely limited in our choices. 

I have found that as my system improved, excellent recordings/masterings sounded better, and the inadequacies of less-than-stellar recordings/masterings became more pronounced.

In general… a better system sounds better. The caveat is that there are two ways of pursuing a great system… really detailed or natural. If you pursue ultra detailed, you quickly makes bad recording sound terrible. If you take the approach to have a relaxed natural sounding system, then most recording sound much better… the better your system is the better the recording sounds.

My perspective on this topic has somewhat changed over the past few months.  I think all of us have recordings that we consider to be stellar, others that we consider to be poor, and others that that don't warrant a strong opinion either way.

If I want to show friend what a truly poor recording is I pull out a couple of my Josh Groban CDs that I simply cannot listen to anymore.  Ironically, one of them was actually one of my test CDs that I used when making my first "audiophile" type of purchase.  I know cringe at the pain that I must have caused the salesman that sat on the couch and listened with me.

In any case, I have a several other CDs that I very much enjoyed with my original gear which was an Integra receiver that I still have along with my current Focal speakers.  They were some of my go to recording for enjoyment.  Every time I made upgrades to my system these recordings always seemed to become a little less enjoyable.  I figured that it was just that they were poor recordings any my system was becoming resolving enough to expose them.

Then with my most recent upgrades that include rolling tubes, upgraded power cables, and upgraded interconnects my system really went to the next level.  What surprised me is that the recordings that seemed to always suffer from upgrades became wonderful to listen to again and are now back to being some of my favorites.  My Josh Groban recordings still sound like junk.

I think my Integra receiver has the edge when it comes to making poor recordings sound good because it has the digital processing capability that really seems to benefit poor recordings.

To summarize, I have had several recordings sound worse and worse as I upgraded and then unexpectedly the magic returned.

I think we all have recordings that we use for testing purposes and I'm thinking that these particular records might be an indicator of system synergy.


An audio system can improved by increasing the details and being more revelatory can make some bad recording worse because the sound shape become better cutted...

It is normal...

But the more improving effect, the ultimate improvement, toward a balance and more neutral impressions all over the frequencies will make the bad recording no more worse but more "interesting" by his abilty to manifest not details in greatest numbers not clarity, but naturalness of timbre experience, a more realistic palette of colors and their shades...

Then all recordings manifested new acoustic cues coming from the recording itself, bad records stay bad but are more listenable...Best recorded albums stay the best but reach a new peak of effortless realism...Best records and bad one gain weight ...

complicated subject, not strictly GI/GO but close enough to it to make finding a happy medium a protracted and almost [but not quite] Sisyphean task.  you need a system [not just a speaker setup but your equipment and room] that accentuates euphony in a useful way. in a large room, properly set-up Vandy 1Ci or 2Ce speakers will make harsh recordings sound markedly less harsh, at not a great cost to ultimate clarity, but NOT in a small room where one can't be at least 10' from those speakers with those speakers not further than 3' from any wall - in this circumstance poor recordings sounded shouty and harsh.  the local mag hifi stores found their vienna acoustics speakers big sellers for a similar reason, folks with money and big listening rooms found them to be mellow but clear enough, with a wide variety of music. these speakers didn't image quite as well as the vandys but had a somewhat wider sweet spot. the speakers i settled with, a pair of thiel cs.5 minitowers, struck a good balance plus are surprisingly forgiving of poor room acoustics/room dimensions, they sound generally on the sweet/mellow side of neutral, and they image excellently no matter what, with minor image width/density differences noted upon their degree of toe-in. my maggie SMGs also were among the more mellow sounding speakers i've had over a wide variety of music. they did not seem to sacrifice a lot of clarity in well-made recordings, on the best recordings they presented "another room within the room" type of reality, like their larger brethren. these speakers also did not require a big room, a typical spare bedroom was enough for them. 

I have to come down strongly as a no on this one. A poor recording is a poor recording. The system can't put anything there that isn't there. It is my belief that the measure of analog is analog. That is you don't really see the value of analog so much from comparing it to digital recordings as in comparing good analog recordings to poor or indifferent ones. I think this is what really makes you appreciate the artistry of producers and engineers in getting sound onto an analog medium. I recently had a general upgrade of my system that particularly improved the analog side, and it is quite the experience to listen to a record you know of old find it sounding better than it ever sounded before. But when played through the same equipment you will find that there are recordings that just fill the room and there are others that lay there like a lump. One thing I've been doing as I revisit my LP collection is listening to the English folk music I love, and I still love the music but by and large they really weren't that well recorded. On the other hand, while it may just be an effect of what's in my record library, what I've been particularly impressed with are record from the Warner/Elektra/Asylum menage, For example, Paradise and Lunch by Ry Cooder, and Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits. Actually, one of my more unusual analog appreciation moments was listening to an old Alan Sherman record and being struck by how good it sounded.

On the digital side, I once tried something I think of as the DAC/CD Death Match, when you take an early digital recording you know to be pretty dire and run it through a good DAC to see if it can be redeemed. My match was a Denafrips Ares II vs. the extraordinarily harsh MCA Broadway Gold digitization of the original cast album of Porgy and Bess circa 1992. I'm afraid the CD won that one.

yes I totally agree garbage in garbage out, I have a $60,000 system which includes a Sim audio p8, Sim audio w8, esoteric P10 transport, Wyred4sound 10th anniversary dac, monarchy audio up sampler, and for the speakers monitor audio platinum 200 Gen 2, a friend of mine brought over some of his CDs that were not so well recorded and boy could you tell the difference from other CDs that were well recorded it wasn't even close.

I've found that most 'poor' recordings only sound poor because the system/room I was hearing them in was not good enough to translate the acoustics of the space the recording was made in. There are much fewer poor recordings than we generally believe exist; and more poor systems/rooms that make us believe the recording was poor. The best sound/room systems accurately allow the decay and reverberation of the recordings to complete what we understand as the soundstage, such that what once sounded like a poor recording was merely an inaccurate or incomplete playback of the uniquely altered sound of instruments and music in the specific venue of the original recording. 


In friendship, kevin.

What I have found is exemplified by my run in with Jimi Hendrix ‘Are you experienced?’.  When I play it on the system I have today (for nostalgia sake) it’s almost unlistenable … harsh, bright, compressed etc … though the music still good.  It just never sounds as good as it did on my parents cheap console system 40 years ago even when my hearing was better.  

The simple truth is a very good system is probably very revealing as well. That said a lousy recording will be lousy !! You can waste your time with room treatment and or the dials only to end up with lousy !! Play a noted well mastered Selection then without touching anything throw on some old Rolling Stones. Their not in the room with you their in that Sony Walkman lol. Pick and choose new and old it’s out there.., turn it up and smile when you find it.

All systems are imperfect.  That is they cannot perfectly reproduce the signal fed into them.  Therefore the sound that comes out will be judged either 'better' or 'worse' at reproducing that signal.  The systems that are 'better' will be improving the sound of the (poor) recording.

Therefore a system could be designed that would process poor recordings to sound like good ones.  But the changes made would render the performance different from the original recording.



A poor recording will always remain as such. What you get with a better balanced system is that even a poor recording would have a meaning. No it will not sound good but it would be easier to follow.

The better your system is, especially imaging, the more it will reveal the great, good, bad, ugly.

The more you experience excellent imaging, the more you are aware of problems.

One category is excellent but needing a slight balance tweak. I use my Chase RLC-1 for the advantage of remote balance from my listening position, in very small steps. It is amazing how much is gained from a small correction.

Another category is weirdly produced imaging, a drummer on the right moving to the center for a solo, same thing with other musicians moving about.

Get thee equipment with a mode switch for Mono.

Next we have playing Mono LP’s. Not only a true mono cartridge ignoring any vertical anything, but again, a mode switch with Mono, or sometimes better: both channels sent to only 1 speaker. That avoids your brain from it’s habit of seeking imaging when in your listening spot. You can move here and there with Mono from one speaker.

Not great music, not great engineering, oddities, BUT great songs, great memories. I keep a MM replaceable stylus cartridge just to play them with, to enjoy as I always did, but not gonna wear out my expensive MC non-replaceable stylus for them.

I often say "I can't hear any difference", but I certainly can hear differences when they are there to hear.

If a high end system is better at at processing the signal ( reducing EMI, RFI etc.) wouldn’t that give a  bad recording the impression of sounding better at least in some aspects? 

My current house of stereo system makes every record sound better. Whether they are well or poorly engineered/mastered. Across the board, all sound better than they did with my older systems in various rooms. I must have done something right this time with both the system and its acoustic setting. But, however a poorly recorded album's sound improves, it still basically sucks 😜

I’ve found the best cure for a bad recording of an otherwise interesting performance, is good beer.  😎

I find it to be opposite. My really good system makes bad recordings almost unlistenable, It will make average recordings some better some average. All worth it for what it does to good recordings that draw me in to my happy place where nothing matters but the music my ears are deciding. One thing to keep in mind that producers have to engineer a recording for all medium. This means compromises. A lot of people are critical of remasters but if you get a recording that is redone to account for a high end system I am all for it. It is not going against the artists original output but it is taking the compromise in the other direction.


100% I have a ton of music mostly metal that I enjoy in car and find unlistenable on reference system. These old recordings were engineered to be broadcast over an analog radio signal. Not digitized and run through a $2000 dac and 10 k speakers.

Step by step my system gets better.  And the poorer records come along with the system, most of the time. When I hear music that I have heard many times in the car or radio then I hear it on my system it is always a pleasant surprise. 

Recordings are rarely left alone i.e. remastering, remixing and even rerecording. Many recordings are muffled, muddy, over-miked, guitar one channel, guitar player on the other or too much effects or gimmicks.  Few times, this really can be all you concentrate on while listening. 

Another problem I run into since streaming:  the volume of the recordings.  This can mean a difference of 9 am to 12pm on the dial.  This happens after remastering or new recordings are recorded that way out of the gate. 

One should not sit there and be obsessed with recordings.  Enjoy.  Now, if you know a recording is well done and you want to evaluate, pick these out, otherwise just play what you like or let you or your streaming service pick out songs. 


Nope. A great system makes a mediocre recording sound mediocre.  There are lots of systems that make everything sound mediocre (and give the illusion that mediocre is somehow good), but that doesn't make them great systems.

If you ask an acoustician he/she will tell you that 80 percent is the room and 20 percent is the system (if not 90/10). Something to think about when you judge a recording being bad. Maybe its you and your system/room that is at fault. I’ve tried to learn the lesson and agree with others that have pointed this out. A good system should make any recording sound interesting. It’s an easy task to make a Steely Dan recording sound sweet.

There is still lots to hear in even a mediocre recording and a better system will do a better job of delivering what’s there.  That means a better listening experience and a better listening experience means the mediocre recording just got better.