Real or Surreal. Do you throw accuracy out the window for "better" sound?

I visited a friend recently who has an estimated $150,000 system. At first listen it sounded wonderful, airy, hyper detailed, with an excellent well delineated image, an audiophile's dream. Then we put on a jazz quartet album I am extremely familiar with, an excellent recording from the analog days. There was something wrong. On closing my eyes it stood out immediately. The cymbals were way out in front of everything. The drummer would have needed at least 10 foot arms to get to them. I had him put on a female vocalist I know and sure enough there was sibilance with her voice, same with violins. These are all signs that the systems frequency response is sloped upwards as the frequency rises resulting in more air and detail.  This is a system that sounds right at low volumes except my friend listens with gusto. This is like someone who watches TV with the color controls all the way up. 

I have always tried to recreate the live performance. Admittedly, this might not result in the most attractive sound. Most systems are seriously compromised in terms of bass power and output. Maybe this is a way of compensating. 

There is no right or wrong. This is purely a matter of preference accuracy be damn.  What would you rather, real or surreal?



Very good. Several points. Euphonic can be clean as in low distortion levels. That says nothing about amplitude response which is generally where the euphonic comes from. As you pointed out most distortion comes in the form of loudspeakers. There are speakers which are uniquely better in this regard, true ribbons and ESLs. Rooms effect amplitude response, clarity and imaging. 

As you suggest where the eyes go goes the hearing, if it looks good it must sound better. Just the way we are wired. The more expensive the better the sound, expectation bias. False beliefs, again expectation bias. We are ruled by our minds whether we like it or not. Being aware of this is the first step in countering it. 

If your speakers are anyone of Thiels, Dunlavys, Vandersteens, etc.,  with first-order crossovers and time/phase aligned, then you cannot throw away accuracy. These speakers give an accurate reproduction of music. So, you have to throw away the speakers. If you are going to do such a thing, please contact me ahead of time, I have a dumpster near my house that will accept any one of the above speakers. But do please call me ahead of time (LOL).

The perennial question for audiophiles (assuming by "surreal" the OP meant something like "super-real"; I doubt any but the oddest of us would prefer our systems to sound "unreal," "bizarre," "freakish" or any of the other synonyms of "surreal," which originally designates visual art like that of Salvador Dali). No, you don't want reproduced music to be the acoustic equivalent of clocks melting over table tops! So: do you want your system to sound like "real instruments at a live (acoustic) concert"...or do you want MORE than that? This, I presume, is what the OP meant to ask.

Mahgister always brings us back to the fact that perception of sound is a complicated thing involving a lot more than the straightforwardly measurable (that is, the "undistorted"). If that were not true, we'd all like the same equipment—and the same music, too, probably. If measurable accuracy were the gold standard, everyone would prefer solid state to tubes; tubes add distortion. But we often like the "right" kinds of distortion; don't be misled by the seemingly pejorative character of the word. 

Having said that, I'll admit to being fond of various kinds of "distortion," despite the fact that I play cello and guitar, my wife plays piano, my daughter violin, and we all play here in our home in the same environment where I also listen to piano, violin and cello as recorded music on my system. Yes, getting timbre right is important. Yes, conveying the scale of the instrument, and its position in space in relation to other instruments in an ensemble—all that is important. But finally, a kind of "super-realism" is often desirable in reproduced sound. Perhaps it compensates somehow for the displacement effect created by the domestic space, which inevitably reminds the brain that it is not actually listening to live music.

Here's a possible analogy to make this point. I used to be a photographer, back in the pre-digital days. I've won awards at juried shows, had my photographs published, etc. I knew what I was doing with a camera. Now, however, I find that I rarely can resist using one or another post-production retouching program for my digital images. I can not only correct for an out-of-true horizon, or crop the image easily; I can actually enhance the color contrast in ways that make the image "pop." Whether you know it or not, most, if not all, published images have been manipulated in such ways. Is that "realistic," "true" to the "original"? Strictly speaking: No. But we often like it better. There's nothing wrong with that. A photograph of, say, an Alpine vista simply cannot capture all the features that make the "original experience" so compelling: the freshness of the air, the sense of grandeur that comes with the sheer physical scale, and so on. So tweaking the photo a bit may trick the brain into supplying some of that missing visceral excitement. The photo is a simulacrum, not a substitute. So with reproduced music.

Despite all this, I agree with tvrgeek about the relative importance of the different elements in the audio chain, no matter what final effect one is striving for: "In order:  Source ( fixed, stuck with it). Room (we can do [adjust] within limits). Speakers (pay to play [not sure what this means here]). Electronics (small differences, even ss to tube is small in relation). Tweaks (tiny tiny tiny)."

I've got two systems, both built over many years, both excellent (to my ears), both in acoustically sympathetic rooms. One is "more accurate": I've had PSB Synchrony Ones in there, which measure extremely well; then Von Schweikerts, which sounded a little "better"; now Magneplanar 1.6 QRs, which are the "best" yet. That's my second system. My favorite rig has speakers you've probably never heard of (Scientific Fidelity "Teslas"), which were very badly reviewed by Stereophile when they were made in the 1990s, which pretty much killed them on the market. So be it. They create a more compelling simulacrum of piano, violin, cello—to my ears, which hear these same real instruments in this same acoustic environment daily. They also are more exciting for jazz and rock: better imaging (more than "realistic"), more bass punch, etc. Are they more "accurate"? Draw your own conclusions....

The original recording is an acoustic perspective or take resulting from trade-off choices  conveyed by the gear system to another acoustic perspective ,where they will be translated  in our room  for specific ears/head...

The subjectivity and variables in recorded music is inherent in the entire creation process from the capture to the audio engineer’s bias to the equipment used to listen to it to the ears and brain of the listener. 

I'm with these folks.

The word "real" should be abolished from everyone's lexicon. 

It does no work, sheds no light, though it does permit a lot of flatus vocis*

* [A mere name, word, or sound without a corresponding objective reality —used by the nominalists of universals. -- Merriam-Webster's]

"Real" as "flatus vocis"; me like! But then, to some degree, ALL language is flatus vocis, since words are not the things they stand in for. On the other hand, Webster says that words should not be, but "correspond" to, some "objective reality" in order to be more than (or other than) mere flatus vocis. If that's the standard, then the word "real" used in the audio evaluation context surely is NOT a mere flatus vocis. The "real" here which is to serve as the "corresponding objective reality" is the sound of a piano, violin, cello, guitar, voice produced not by one's audio system, but by the things themselves.

Unless, of course, you want to insist (as Mahgister always does) that "perception" is not "reality." Granted; I'm a Kantian, too. But then, we're back to my first disclaimer here: that ALL language is flatus vocis

The point: if we can't use the word "real" in discussing a "reproduction" of something—if it is a "mere sound without a corresponding reality"—then there is no way to evaluate the "re" in "reproduction," and we must just shut up altogether. "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen."