It is a long-established precept that every facet of an audio system, particularly one’s choice of transducers, as well as the acoustics of the listening environment in which the system is situated, affects its sound to some degree. But simply switching playback from one recording to another often imparts an enormous shift in the sonic signature of any system in any setting – a sudden shift in the overall character of the sound. Whether any particular shift is pleasant or objectionable will depend on both your components and your listening room, but the shift is always readily discernable. By any metrics, the differences among various recordings are readily apparent on even very modest audio systems. Tonal balance, attack and decay characteristics, ambience, etc, can all vary widely from one recording to the next. Productions can sound dry and clinical or lush and romantic. Some are edgy, while others are soft. Tonal balance can shift from an exaggerated bottom end to bass shy, or a subdued top end to shrill after nothing more than cueing up a different album.
Many listeners reject the use of even basic tone controls, much less more sophisticated means of compensating for these presentation shifts, for improving their overall listening enjoyment. Is it that they don’t trust their own ears to adjust playback for the most natural sound from their systems with any given material? Is it because they believe it’s their sacred duty, as audiophiles, to maintain absolute allegiance to each recording, despite sonic annoyances baked into many productions? Regardless of the rationale, why are they compromising their enjoyment of some recordings or limiting their musical choices to avoid the sonic shortcomings and irritations of much source material?
As we are all painfully aware, commercial content production typically involves multiple processes spread across multiple studios at the hands of multiple engineers before arriving at the final product, and many of the decisions made along the way are entirely subjective and capricious. This being the case, why not, at the very least, use the adjustability built into most equipment to make a few adjustments toward enhancing one’s playback enjoyment?
I became immersed in both the production and playback ends of audio nearly fifty years ago, and my journey has taken me through nearly every phase, philosophy, and fad imaginable. I played with tube systems for a while; fell in and out of love with horns. Had similar affairs with planars and electrostatics. But I discovered early on that the “straight wire with gain” approach was singularly unrewarding for me from an enjoyment perspective. There were – and are – simply too many great performances botched during production to fully enjoy them as released.
My personal solution, which will undoubtedly draw intense ridicule from many, was to develop my system as a “playback studio” that would enable me to implement the sonic adjustments that could make each recording sound more natural and enjoyable to me. This solution has now been a work in progress for over forty years, and it will probably never be “done,” but it has resulted in a system imminently capable of providing me with the final say in how any production will sound when played back in my listening environment.
In addition to being able to apply EQ at multiple points to emphasize or reduce certain frequencies, I can adjust the ambience level and acoustic size of the venue, as well as tweak the dynamic range, transient response, and imaging as needed. I can bring soloists forward or push them back on the virtual stage. I can broaden or narrow the L/R spread and extend or reduce stage depth. Basically, I can make any production sound like whatever suits me. In other words, the system enables me to enhance my enjoyment of every recording I own.
Based on postings by a few others that I’ve read, I know I’m not the only one to have adopted this approach, and their comments convey happiness with their results, as well. If you are perpetually disappointed with the sound from your own uber-system, you might give this approach a try. The only way to gauge its merit is to wade into the water. While transitioning to this approach may require an enormous paradigm shift and, perhaps, a steep learning curve for many audiophiles, the software and hardware for creating powerful home playback studios are out there, and availing oneself of them can elevate anyone's listening pleasure by orders of magnitude.
A secondary benefit provided by taking complete control of your listening experience with a home playback studio is extended and enhanced satisfaction with your system’s existing componentry. When you are able to alter the voicing of your system, as desired, to suit your mood swings, match the musical genre, and satisfy your evolving musical tastes, “trading up” to more expensive gear becomes much more an act of vanity than a sonic necessity. When you can wield powerful control over the input-output transfer function of your music, you have no one to blame but yourself if you are unhappy with the sounds that reach your ears.