Distortion or Resolution: What cues do you use to determine what you're hearing?

How do you know whether or not an unsavory sound of what you might be hearing comes from your system revealing a poor recording, or your system falling short of an accurate reproduction of the music?

Last night I listened to a CD of something that I knew was intentionally recorded and mixed with quite a bit of distortion. Today, however, it was so much easier to listen to using Apple Music and some $60 Klipsh earbuds. While listening to my setup at home, the sounds that were recorded “too hot” or distorted were very obvious, where using the headphones and playing the ripped tracks from my work computer made everything sound nice, homogenized and unoffensive.

While it might be easy to assume it’s the headphones and Apple processing cleaning up the dirt, I think we all can agree that some things sound better on our systems than others. And because something doesn’t sound great on your setup, it doesn’t mean it was poorly recorded or mixed, but perhaps it falls out of scope of how your system was tailored to your liking.

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I only use recordings I know intimately and have heard on many systems to judge my system (or any other.) With a handful of such recordings that I’ve played in many systems over time I can quickly check a new system for various features with just a few seconds of each track. This is a very practical way to assess a system if you have such a set of discs (or tracks.)

One impractical way I’ve used is to buy another quality setup: in my case when I lost faith in my main system I got some Audeze LCD-3 headphones and an Oppo HA-1 headphone amplifier. It indeed sounded exactly like my main system with the same inputs. That was the good part. The bad part was that the crap I was experiencing was hearing loss related along with tinnitus.

A track I often use to see if distortion is being handled faithfully is “Summertime” on the “Cheap Thrills” album by Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin). When the very distorted guitar comes in (at about 2:15) it should be in its correct position and have its characteristic distortion, but everything else should continue with their own timbres and soundstage positions. I.e. the distorted guitar should be completely independent from the rest of the recording and not interfere at all with listening to any other instrument or voice. I’ve heard systems where the whole recording ended up sounding distorted, speakers breaking up, etc. when the distorted guitar comes in and the rest of the track was unlistenable.


An excellent question.
I hardly ever hear distortion with CDs.
But with vinyl, it’s a bit of a battle. When there is distortion, it most often presents itself with acoustic piano. And the first thing I do is use my 5X eye loupe while the record is playing. Even a little fuzz or dirt will distort the sound with my cartridge with “micro ridge” stylus…
But if cleaning the record and stylus doesn’t clean up the sound, I try a record that I’m familiar with that has clear, clean sound.
Assuming nothing has changed from the stylus thru the rest of the chain, it’s the recording.

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@tedsmith hit on one of the things that tends to be most important to my tastes - timbre. It seems simple enough that a guitar should sound like a guitar, and violin like a violin, etc - but when you compare systems it really can be quite amazing how much the timbre in one recording can come out so different.

I think this was the thing that caught me the very first time I heard a great system

Because of timber, I often avoided listening to songs that I really liked, because whatever I found myself listening to them on reproduced the sounds of the Instruments so poorly. Yes, I know that sounds extremely counterintuitive.

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