Fidelity vs. Musicality...........Is there a tug of War?

I lean towards Musicality in systems.
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Musicality is what one settles for when deciding not to elevate a system further. A false dichotomy is created (In premium systems fidelity and musicality are not antithetical) to support one’s budgetary constraints, the decision to accept a certain level of performance. The performance spectrum knows no such distinction as fidelity/musical. It’s an arbitrary distinction usually employed to support one’s decisions on system building. Superior audio systems do not lend themselves to being sliced and diced as having fidelity or being musical. :)

I have a highly analytical background, perhaps lIke many folks that take up high end audio. The attraction to analyze,  compare, and improve the easily heard sound quality characteristics is very high. So, as I learned I optimized the most obvious first: bass, details, overall tonal balance, imaging. It was enjoyable, no question. After about 35 years , I had a great “reference” system. It was not overly analytic… but showed off every detail on the soundstage, mastering… etc. Don’t get me wrong it played music, I stayed clear of harsh totally analytical systems.

But through season tickets to the symphony I realized something was missing: rhythm and pace, and real musicality. I turned and slowly swapped equipment until I have the system I have now, which is musical first. Although it has all the details, it is not as if details are in a spotlight. Had I purchased one of the tube amps I remember hearing 40 years ago I might have figured out musicality quicker and had more satisfying systems along the way… but I have enjoyed the journey.

So the short answer: Musicality!!!
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You sum it up....."Although it has all the details, it is not as if details are in a spotlight."

Hjghly detailed systems for me lose out in musicality.  It is less natural.

To the other poster re dichotomy and budget restraints.....this is the high end audio mentality that lends nothing but bad vibes to the hobby.
Detail is great, precise 3D imaging with huge soundstage, sure why not. These things certainly add to the experience. But the minute you achieved correct timbre of instruments and have very musical system that carries rhythm and makes you engaged. The minute it makes you want to listen to more and more there's no actual need to go any further. As fidelity is concerned you need a certain level of it to achieve the above.
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When you go to a live, unamplified performance, of a small jazz group, or even a symphony orchestra, do you sit there and say to yourself ... "Oh my God! ... listen to that detail?" 

Music first. Fidelity second.


I want to change my response.

 'Musicality' rests (or should I think) in a listener's reaction to a performance, not to his audio system. I offer two examples, Richters live Sofia performance of Mussorgsky's  'Pictures' and Zlata Chovhieva' performance of Chopin's Etudes. The former is in terrible audio yet the performance is by most any standard great(est?). It is dramatic in a way that most are not and it draws you in. Chochieva's Chopin is a different approach, a more lyrical one and in pretty good 'audio' as well. It's a more relaxed experience, one that I like in this music. If I had the best audio system I could not enjoy these performances more!

I could easily improve my audio system, lots of room to grow. But would I like these recording more, I don't think so.


"...A false dichotomy is support one’s budgetary constraints, the decision to accept a certain level of performance..."

Doug. I can't agree with this. I don't have any budget constraints (well compared to most anyway) but I prefer a musical system. Sure a top level system with the right recording can sound amazing but most of the music I listen to is just standard production crap that is unlistenable on a highly analytical system. I'd rather have good sounding playback than 100% perfect playback that sounds terrible. I have my lessor systems on all the time, my big rig mostly sits dormant.  
Listen to some music on instead of inventing brain twisters.
+1 for Russ.
Doug is just reviewing the silly question.

You I think have summed it up.

Well said.

I prefer my musical rig over my analytical one.  And that runs the gamit on music on music inputted. Which is a to z for me.

When you go to a live, unamplified performance, of a small jazz group, or even a symphony orchestra, do you sit there and say to yourself ... "Oh my God! ... listen to that detail?"

Music first. Fidelity second.


I saw Holly Cole live at the Showbox in Seattle. A small venue, 100 to maybe 200. The show began with her singing from off stage. Just her voice, no amp, no nothing. "I Am Calling You" place got quiet real fast. As she walked out on stage everyone realized no mic, just her voice, and it was electric. As I recall she was joined by string bass and piano, also unamplified. Sadly, only for this first number. Well I can understand, people have their expectations. Afterwards however every one of us at our table said it was the best most memorable thing they ever heard at a show, and we all wished she had done the whole show that way.

Another time, Patricia Barber at Jazz Alley in Bellevue. Another very small venue, and this time we were seated close enough to see the glow from the lead guitar tube amp. Pretty sure Barber had her own tube amp as well, but don’t quote me this was many years ago.

Another time, Keb Mo in Seattle at the Paramount. Pretty sure the performance was equally "musical" to the other two, but hard to say for sure due to the painfully piercing treble spike that pretty much ruined the concert for me.

Years later, the Eagles in Seattle, another almost equally bad audio experience however this time so greatly overshadowed by their "musicality" I honestly couldn’t have cared less.

So yes indeed there is a tug of war, but to thoroughly mix the metaphors I would have to say when the chips are down musicality holds all the cards and fidelity takes a back seat or at best rides shotgun.

Musicality is the purview of the musician. It is not the lack of annoying sonic characteristics such as sibilance or bass resonance. 

I have never appreciated a pan-accurate system that sounded bad. There are painfully few accurate systems anyway. I suppose you could say a system either sounds good or it does not. Accurate is very specific. Everything else is relative, relative to that person's experience.  You can't know what something sounds like if you have not heard it.

Every system is different and has a different set of problems and solutions. The permutations are endless which is what makes this an entertaining challenge. 

I remember the first glorious five seconds I heard the JC1s in my system. "I'm really going to like this!" Don't you love those moments? 
The terms are properly seen as synonyms, not antonyms. You are screwing up the endeavor of creating a superior rig and listening experience when you see them as antithetical.  :(

I have worked for years to assemble a system that is musical, and I will gladly live with it until I leave this earth. My system is composed of quality components, not expensive ones. Much of it is built by me, and now all I do is replace or repair what I have to continue my daily enjoyment of the music I love.

Like me, equipment ages and, at some point, it will fail to do what is asked of it. Just keeping evrything working properly is a necessity, and about all I can afford to do these days. I do love it though.

Best regards,
@oregonpapa “When you go to a live, unamplified performance, of a small jazz group, or even a symphony orchestra, do you sit there and say to yourself ... "Oh my God! ... listen to that detail?"

Great way of putting it. That was actually one of my observations… I can hear incredible detail… the wall reflections nuance of the acoustic space… but they are not stuck in your face. 
Oregon Symphony… Oregon PaPa?
douglas_schroeder has it right.  Fidelity IS musicality.  Musicality in this context is more than only the purview of musicians; it is also a component’s ability to more faithfully reproduce the details of what comprises that purview.  Some gear does this better than others.  The closer the sound of a component or system gets to the true sound of music (fidelity), the more musical the sound is. 
Fidelity to what?    There is no definable entity out there to be faithful to.  

Prat, beat, rhythm, foot tapping or whatever to want to call it. If that is not present, it is not musical for me.

After that, as I journey on, I am finding that detail adds to this and makes things even more musical.

Thanks for listening,

Years later, the Eagles in Seattle, another almost equally bad audio experience however this time so greatly overshadowed by their "musicality" I honestly couldn’t have cared less.

Reminds me of John Lennon all those years ago when he said the quality of the recording didn't matter, it was the quality of the performance. Some of those 7" singles sound dreadful especially when played with a worn out stylus on substandard equipment. (He was probably comparing the sound to studio monitors.)

I couldn't agree more, the performance is crucial.

With today's equipment, those days are long gone and poor sound quality ruins any performance. Screwing the volume up to absurd levels so you hear nothing but pain is absurd.

A well produced recording played on a high end system cuts it for me.

Perhaps you could say I like it both ways.
Musicality to me is when my system draws me  unconsciously into the music rather than me trying to decipher all the little parts of the sound I am striving for.  That is the best feeling when you realize you have been totally engulfed into the music for the last hour without ever thinking about what the system sounds like. Musical nirvana, makes it all worth it.
Another vote for musicality. I've learned to be very careful seeking better detail and accuracy. For me, anyway, it doesn't always lead to a more engaging listening experience.

The guys who mix and master good recordings are a little like chefs - it isn't about making every ingredient obvious, it is more about the blend that makes something musical - in my opinion. 

I think it is impossible for anyone to know if their system is reproducing a recording exactly as the recording engineers, mixers and mastering labs intended. There can be just as much "art" in that part of the recording process as the performance. As a matter of fact, I have watched very talented engineers mix a track and it IS a performance.
I forgot to add something to my earlier post. Since my goal for my system is musicality, I see no need to focus on measurements or double blind testing of equipment. I get joy from experiencing the music. I wouldn't get any joy from gathering data to let me know if my system is accurate. That is a complete waste of time for me.

The terms are properly seen as synonyms, not antonyms.
Agree with Douglas and Frogman. Fidelity is musicality.
Musicality is a fine alternative but then you shouldn't use terms like high fidelity. Fidelity implies truth in reproduction and then good recordings will be musical and bad recordings will sound lousy.
"When you go to a live, unamplified performance, of a small jazz group, or even a symphony orchestra, do you sit there and say to yourself ... "Oh my God! ... listen to that detail?"

Music first. Fidelity second."

Frank (@oregonpapa),
There are some really thoughtful responses posted on this thread but you nailed it beautifully! As we both understand that these two characteristics are not mutually exclusive. But given the context and framing of the OP’s question you hit the bullseye.

BTW Frank a few years ago after an enjoyable discussion about our frequent attendance at live jazz venues you took the time to send me CDs of some of your favorite jazz musicians (T. Monk, Cal Tjader, Milt Jackson et al). I still listen to them on a very regular basis. Thanks again my friend 😊.

Hi @frogman,  +1 As usual. I hope that you're still actively playing/performing these days. 
A harmonious balance of both for me please. One should not be at the expense of the other. However, details tend to be much more animated and crystalline with lysergic acid diethylamide.
charles1dad ...

Thanks for your kind comments. And, you are entirely welcome for the CDs. I wish you would post more on this site. As a fellow vibes lover, I miss your input. :-)

As a teenager, I used to go to the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California a lot to hear the Howard Rumsey Lighthouse All-Stars.

Sometimes, I would take a front-row seat that looked up at the drum-set of Stan Levey, who in my opinion, was the greatest jazz drummer of all time.

No matter how loud the band played, or how fast the pace was, there was no "cringe factor" to the sound. Stan just played music on those drums like no one else, while chewing gum with a relaxed look on his face.

That experience was all about musicality and nothing about fidelity.

Take a listen >>>;_ylt=Awr9NVVRrFJhWGMAXkD7w8QF;_ylu=c2VjA3NlYXJjaAR2dGlkA...;_ylt=Awr9NVVRrFJhWGMAXkD7w8QF;_ylu=c2VjA3NlYXJjaAR2dGlkA...;_ylt=Awr9NVVRrFJhWGMAXkD7w8QF;_ylu=c2VjA3NlYXJjaAR2dGlkA...

Hello ishkabibil.  If you can't an oboe from a clarinet, you need more fidelity. If you can't tell a balalaika from a mandolin (Russian music) you need more fidelity. If you can't tell the sopranos from the . . .   Get the message. You can follow the tune on a transistor radio. We spend the $$ in pursuit of MUSICAL ACCURACY, don't we? Keep smiling!

Ishksbibil on Bass @ 18 in '79

Toronto Alberts Hall with Peter Appleyard.

Is that a clarinet in the opening?

Sounds like it on my Galaxy S7 (free phone)

and 3 years old........

Need I spend $$$ for accuracy?

I mixed sound for Patricia Barber a couple of years ago...acoustic piano needs no tube amps (!), just 2 high quality condensers. She asked us to remove the top of the Steinway grand completely which was a pain, and she wanted her own monitor mixing board right next to her. Done...Trio (bass and drums) and man...she's astonishing, one of the greats.
wolf_garcia ...

Who was responsible for all of the digital reverb on the original mastering? 

The audiophile reissue is much better. And by the way, that drum solo on, I believe side two is fantastic.

Hjghly detailed systems for me lose out in musicality. It is less natural.
It might be that at home we got used to certain sound, that is different from live performance and we follow it?  Perhaps we also try to compensate for music compression by adding some noise or distortion (as distorted guitar is more dynamic than clean Jazz guitar at the same level).  I'm trying to get clean reproduction (accuracy), but if sound even with added distortion, noise and harmonics sounds natural/musical then it has fidelity.  Fidelity is not accuracy - cannot be measured, being subjective.


Very few here are interested in fidelity. It was the pinnacle at one time now it's "musicality" whatever the crap that is.

High fidelity (often shortened to Hi-Fi or HiFi) is a term used by listeners, audiophiles, and home audio enthusiasts to refer to high-quality reproduction of sound.[1] This is in contrast to the lower quality sound produced by inexpensive audio equipment, AM radio, or the inferior quality of sound reproduction that can be heard in recordings made until the late 1940s.

Hi-fi speakers are a key component of quality audio reproduction.

Ideally, high-fidelity equipment has inaudible noise and distortion, and a flat (neutral, uncolored) frequency response within the human hearing range.[2]

"It was the pinnacle at one time now it's "musicality" whatever the crap that is."

My belief is that the term "musicality" refers to the tonal correctness of voice and instruments. Once "musicality" is attained in one's system, then disbelief can be suspended, and one can be transported into the actual musical event. Or, in the case of mono recordings, the event can be transported to you. :-)

In order to retrieve the tonal correctness of voice and instruments see above. High fidelity. Inaudible NOISE and DISTORTION and FLAT  UNCOLORED FR.
“Fidelity is Musicality”! Surely one can dissect the sound from an audiophile perspective. But I choose not to “tear apart the flower”.
By doing so, the flower is no longer beautiful.
Admittedly, I do take note of the imaging. But am very fortunate to have a system that is able to create a suspension of disbelief.
And that term brings me to a central element of the difference of a live performance. Amplified or not, disbelieve is not at issue.
THE central element of a live performance is that there are human beings. Not an electronic recreation. No matter how much fidelity/musicality of a system, it cannot recreate a live experience.