Regrettably, I spent many years living the typical audiophile lifestyle, caught in the never-ending cycle of money-draining gear upgrades, trying to achieve the ultimate enjoyment. At some point I came to seriously considering very expensive gear, such as this one: http://www.bowers-wilkins.com/display.aspx?infid=1729&sc=hf.
Going up the price ladder with reputable audiophile vendors does indeed bring wider and more accurate frequency response and less distortion. Most importantly, it results in the absence of notes, emphasis, sound sources movements and glueing that weren't there in the original recording. Thus, complex, multi-layered, nuanced music and vocals can be enjoyed for hours and hours without fatigue, and the right emotional impact is felt much more acutely.
Think about the difference between a smooth clear healthy voice of a young woman and a raspy muffled utterances of an old smoking drug-abusing whore (not that I have much experience with the latter :-) This is akin to a difference between the female vocals reproduced by a high fidelity system vs. a run-of-the-mill home audio system.
So yes, in my case I could hear the difference while going up the exponentially more expensive ladder of sound fidelity. At some point the subjective improvements in sound quality started lagging too seriously behind the cost though.
By lucky turn of events, I realized that the basic approaches used in the ultra-expensive consumer audio gear are fundamentally equivalent to the ones used in less expensive mass-produced pro audio equipment. I also realized that I need to learn to catch my own fish - that is, to be able to do basic duties of mixing/recording engineer in order to personalize the sound to my taste.
If you think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense - the best way to experience a record is to reproduce it using the same equipment and techniques used by professionals while recording it. Granted, "exactly the same" could be too complicated and expensive for a hobbyist, yet, luckily, the variability of pro audio gear characteristics is lot less than that of the consumer audio equipment, so even a cheaper simpler pro audio hardware and software can usually convey the original music emotions and ideas pretty well.
So, at that stage of my audiophile evolution, I require two things from my equipment: neutrality and tweakability. By neutrality I mean the proverbial "wire with gain" quality - flat frequency response curve, as well as absence of audible distortions and noise. By tweakability I mean ability to finely adjust the frequency response curve and to introduce controlled distortions (there may be a role for controlled noise, but I haven't found it yet).
Originally Posted by haloxt
What is it audiophiles really want out of audio gear (different for everyone)? How should they go about achieving it? In what ways do higher fidelity, detail, and/or resolution correlate to greater musical enjoyment?
Some may think this doesn't belong in sound science, but I am interested in psychoacoustics explanations here. For example, I think the way low fidelity gear do pianos can be quite pleasing, and some people may not actually like a very high fidelity reproduction of certain piano music.