Quoted from Gary Krakow's article on msnbc.com
The sound of Don’s system, while not as overtly hi-fi as my home system, did one thing really well — it made music. Voices sounded real. Music sounded right. His system may not have reproduced the lowest bass notes or high-pitched sounds only heard by dogs, but it did make you forget that music was being reproduced by electronics and mechanical devices and just let you concentrate on the music.
I'm going to buy an amp and a pair of speakers some day. The amp(s) will be tube of course and the speakers will probably be horn type. I do have a surround sound system consisting of a Denon 1802 Receiver and the Energy Take 5.2 system. This system works great for movies but not really music hence the expensive headphone systems.
At this point, I am pretty much a headphone only guy – and I love it. Until a couple of months ago, I had a pair of old Infinity Reference Standard 4.5, bi-amped by two Electrocompaniet 50W Class A solid state stereo power amps. But approaching twenty years of age, the speakers died. That’s about when I bought my speaker-based system: twenty years ago. If I had to choose another speaker set-up, it wouldn’t be like the one I owned. Those 4.5s were huge, power-hungry, had extremely deep and tight bass response and a huge and deeeep soundstage, due to their EMIM dipole midrange drivers. The Electrocompaniet power amps were some of the first SS amps to offer something like musicality and transparency (Electrocompaniet designers were among the first to worry about TID figures in SS amps).
But, and this is a big but: the whole set-up wasn’t all that life-like. It was very nice to listen to, but it drew a little bit too much attention to itself. In retrospect, it possessed virtues I am not all that interested in anymore. It sounded a bit like hi-fi is supposed to sound. Nowadays I can live without a huge soundstage and pinpoint imaging, as long as there is captivating music coming out of the transducer. All I am interested in now is musical pleasure. In my mind, those are polar opposites: if you want hi-fi, you listen for the sound, for specifics of the reproduction, if you want pleasure, you listen for the music as a whole, and not for the equipment. It’s just as Krakow says: the equipment is supposed to get out of the way. And that’s all it’s supposed to do. One has to be aware of this paradox: truly great equipment doesn’t add to the experience, it takes away less from it, it’s simply less damaging to the musical signal.
If I had to buy another speaker-based system today, it would likely have high-efficiency speakers. Inefficient speakers have one very basic flaw: they are unable to handle low-level signal content. It’s a bit like the tube vs. SS argument. Tubes shine at low signal levels, transistors hate them, the same is true for analog vs. digital comparisons by the way.
Speakers I am impressed with nowadays tend to be single-driver or two-way speakers with high efficiency. There have been open-baffle single-driver speakers I enjoyed listening to, but there have been two-way horn designs as well. Add to this the simplicity of a single-ended, low-powered tube amp (without multiple gain stages, lots of negative feedback or push-pull topologies) and there is a high likelihood of me enjoying the music.
That’s my rule of thumb. However, there are exceptions. At the recent “High End” exhibit in Frankfurt (the largest show of high-end audio gear in Europe), I have listened to the new (and rather inefficient) Bösendorfer speakers, with an Electrocompaniet system behind them (Electrocompaniet CDP, SS preamp and SS power amp), and the ugly truth is: I loved it. An utterly musical system. I liked it as much as the vinyl-based Audi Note UK system I listened to that day or the CDP-based Kondo Japan system (and to my ears, that means a lot) or any other 100,000+ US-Dollar system I listened to on that day.
But now for the good part: none of the speaker-based systems I heard that day gave me more musical satisfaction than my EMP/W100 combo. None.
Do I like headphones? Am I a resolution freak? Am I sick?
Somehow I find more of the music coming through with headphones as well, though that's not the result I want to hear. I want to hear expensive speaker systems sounding clearly better because that means that there's something for me to work up to once I'm out of college, have a good job, and have my own home. But listening to the B&W 803s driven by Classe Omega amplification fed by a Classe CD player, I found the sound less involving and immediate than with headphones. Even worse, I found the soundstaging/imaging not to be better to a great enough degree that I would think it worth spending the $10,000 or so I would need to get that system. My current headphone system cost me just over $1000 and I greatly prefer it...
Sure the Classe/B&W system that DanG and I heard sounded a bit fake and overdone, but it also had good qualities. The soundstage was unreal with insane imaging, and had a rich midrange that is just an ease to listen to. It was a little too weighty for my tastes though. I believe you can still get imediacy with a speaker system, the Vandersteen 3A Signatures I feel are very at one with the music and given a chance can sound magically intimate, even with the ****ty ass source amp and room at my local "hi-fi" store that sells them. I sure would love to hear them with the Classe CA-201 amp and a nice tubed pre, of course the Cary CD-303/200 as the source.
DanG's system sounds marvelous, very natural tone, body and decay, however, I still craved a more open sound. It could improve, but ultimately I think I can only truely get that with a speaker system. Hell even the Orpheus would not completely fill my goals...
And I thought you said you preferred musicality over details?
With your preferences I would have thought speakers would be a no-brainer for you.
I believe that's the sign of a truly accurate system: having so much resolution that you don't notice the details anymore, having so much resolution that the sonic picture becomes seamless, that all 100 instruments in your symphonic orchestra play together. And violins for example are supposed to blend sonically, it's a goal better orchestras are able to achieve: playing together and in unison. I know there are some systems that are so good at doing their hifi-stuff and that have such a busy sonic character that one is just overwhelmed by their ability to subjectively double the number of musicians to 200. But as I said: I believe the goal of audio systems is to disappear. I don't want to be impressed by what they do with the signal, by the effects and sonic fireworks they generate, I want to impressed by the fact how little I hear them, how immersive the musical experience is they allow. And it is possible to get this in one package: resolution, transparency and musicality. I honestly believe that these things are closely related. I want detail, absolutely, but I want all those details properly connected. And I believe headphones are capable of doing both: reproducing the musical performance as a whole while resolving subtle nuances at the same time.