Sometimes there's a difference without a distinction. In my experience when it's noticeably better there is no ambiguity about it- it grabs you by the collar
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I'm not familiar with your components, but have definitely had both types of experiences: 1) "gear changes" that made my system sound different but not necessarily better and 2) "upgrades" that have unambiguously improved the system.
Unless a system is unbalanced, with a glaring "Achilles heel", it would seem that real improvement more often that not requires a substantial leap up the food chain.
What is the expression -- "go big or don't go at all" ?