I talk a lot about quality differences in stereo equipment and about the many ways we listen to our music in modern times. But this only represents half of the music chain, albeit an important half for anyone seeking to maximize his or her music listening experience.
Today, I want to talk a bit about the other half of the audio chain. We could discuss speakers and Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs) all day, but the massive fuchsia elephant in the room would be the quality of the source material itself. The excellence of the original recording — what the mastering engineer signed off on — plays as big a role as any other element in a sound system.
We can start by thinking of the quality of a recording as being analogous to ingredients in cooking. I've had the good fortune of knowing a few chefs who have worked for Michelin-starred restaurants, and I learned early from these guys that the first step of high-end cooking is the search for high-end ingredients.
Biology and genetics are so complex and magical that even a highly trained chef can struggle to create a memorable dish from pedestrian ingredients. But with ingredients of a higher quality, a chef can take those elements to a much higher level than otherwise possible.
The point is, if you want to hear bass out of a song that just doesn't have it, you never will get a satisfying result even if you jack up the bass on your amplifier. There's only so much you can do to tweak badly recorded music, and that's made much more apparent once you hear very well-recorded music in contrast.
Along the same lines, whatever is lost in the source music either from compression or "resizing" of the file can never be regained or re-established by your amp and speakers on the back end.
All this is to say that the source is very important when you want to fully enjoy your music experience. File type is part of it, but even more important to me is the way the music was recorded and mastered.
So, what do I mean about a good recording, and what are my qualifications? Good recordings, or even moments of good sound in a bad recording, are marked by an effortlessness. When everything is right, you don't have to turn up the volume as loud to enjoy a good recording. When you do turn it up, nothing changes and the instruments still sound like instruments. The music stays together and the cymbals don't make you want to die. Things like that.
Another for me is honesty to the real sound of instruments. Hang around actual live instruments long enough and you get a feel for what, for example, a piano sounds like from a big stage. Or what a mandolin sounds like when you're 10 inches away from it while it's being played. You know it when you hear it, and in a good recording, that sense of realism of a sound can surprise you.