Quality of recordings vs quality of equipment -which side are you on?

Bowers & Wilkins Signature Diamond

Bowers & Wilkins Signature Diamond

We recently invited B&W customers to ask us  questions.  We’ve had an overwhelming response and we’ve tried to answer as many as we can.

Several of the questions will be answered in depth and posted in the Lab area of SoS later on this year but we thought you might have some opinions on the one below:

Dear B&W,

I am frustrated by the way I can listen to one album and enjoy the tonal balance and quality of the recording, then another album changes the whole balance and sounds awful.

I have always ‘listened’ to the equipment more than the music, but now I just want to listen to good music. I am starting to think that listening through quality equipment only enhances the inadequacies of the recordings themselves?

I’d like to know what others think? Do they sometimes get frustrated and turn off their good systems and revert to listening to lesser quality systems (I have two systems in my home) which aren’t so musically correct, but sound more listenable and relaxed.

I am 51 and have been ‘listening ‘ to HiFi for ~ 40 years.



  • Jeff says:

    The problem is that badly recorded music sounds worse on good hi-fi. I don’t have two set-ups so I just have to change the CD!

  • John says:

    Sometimes we have to understand the equipment the initial recording was made on may be a fraction of the
    quality to that which we are listening to it on.
    There is also the knowledge/experience of the sound engineers/producers that worked with the artist on te recording experience levels varie hugely and up and coming artists may not be able to afford the engineers/producers that understand all the fine details that pulls a quality recording together.
    Especially with the digital recording age and more and more artists making tracks on their home computer.

    A common saying garbage in garbage out!

  • Malcolm says:

    The most frustrating and anoying thing is the varied recording qualities on dvd including some blue rays ……/will somebody sort it out!!/ cd on the other hand i normally play the best quality first, then just ease into the afternoon cranking up the volume. i cant ever see myself backsliding away from quality equipment!

  • Harry says:

    I’ve found the issue especially prevalent using digital media, where I have not ripped music at Apple Lossless quality.

    Even worse when listened through a decent pair of headphones.

    That said, I probably deserve to be in this situation

  • Dylan says:

    Hi David

    Good question – and agree poor recordings are a big issue. But I would still opt for a better sounding system every time. I think that while a great system does show up faults in recordings, I still feel it sounds better than if you listen on a bad system.

    When I bought my first proper hi-fi system I was into Oasis, which as we all know sounds terrible. I took Definitely Maybe on CD along as one of my test discs while auditioning kit. On the Arcam and B&W system that I eventually bought it sounded a million times better than the AIWA system i was using before that.

    It was a big leap i know, but if it works for Oasis, it’s almost certainly going to work for pretty much everything else.

    Perhaps a bigger question, is how do you stroe digital copies that are compatible with an iPod, but good enough for replaying via a hard-drive based hi-fi?


  • Martin says:

    Thinking about bad recording first. This seems to be a problem that is getting worse. Lots of people are now mastering music specifically to be played at MP3 level. Surely any self-respecting engineer would want to produce music of the best quality that he/she can. So if MP3 is the new benchmark then it’s going to sound terrible on anything. Bad equipment isn’t go to help either so you really have to buy the best the you can afford and try and avoid the truly bad recordings.

  • Mot says:

    As a Taoist, I try to find balance, or harmony, in all things. This includes my audio equipment. We all want to enjoy fabulous sounding music; and that can mean a lifelong pursuit to find the right mix of equipment to reproduce it accurately. But at some point there is the diminishing marginal return on investment, when you can’t enjoy all the music you have. So I shoot for the top of that curve—I use a mid-range system ($6k to $8k total). This allows me to enjoy the not-so-good recordings, while really letting a quality recording shine.

    Having said that, I do find myself listening to the high quality recordings far more than the rest, simply because of the clarity and beauty of the music. Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’, and Damien Rice’s ‘Live at Fingerprints – Warts and all EP’ are two favorites. SOS is a lifesaver (pun intended) for music lovers as well. It provides me a larger breadth of quality recordings, combined with amazing music. I’m grateful. :-)


  • Dave Cochrane says:

    I have to say, I have downloaded three albums from this site and deleted every one of them because they all sounded so awful. Everywhere you look, this site claims that these are high quality recordings. But they are certainly not mastered in high quality. The ones I heard were obviously mastered to sound good on little computer speakers (far too compressed and in-your-face, far too bassy – and I love bass, but natural, not over-boomy bass).
    How about maybe mastering albums twice? In the old days (before my birth) we had stereo and mono mixes/masters. Nowadays you could offer iPod-friendly masters for the mp3s, and audiophile masters for the FLACS, maybe mastered to analogue reel with only tasteful valve compression/limiting to sound gorgeous! Two masters per album… Just a thought…

  • Dave Cochrane says:

    Dylan asked “How do you store digital copies that are compatible with an iPod, but good enough for replaying via a hard-drive based hi-fi?”
    Simple answer – don’t use iPod! Use a media player that can play FLACs. I happen to use a Sansa Fuze but there are others. Incidentally, it can only handle 16-bit FLACs, not 24 bit. So if you download 24bit music you will need able software to dither it down to 16 bit for your player.

  • Allan says:

    I used to have a high end system in my car, and low end in my home. Much easier to boom in a car on the road than disturb the neighbors. Having given up driving I made a substantial investment(not neccessary by B&W standards, yet) in the home, this led to upgrading my music collection by purchasing many of the cd’s and ripping them to replace music I had downloaded; because, the new system was much more capable of revealing flaws. I wouldn’t go back, but I’ve a smaller music collection because I deleated all of my downloads. You might want to try searching for a ps2 to play your bad cd’s on, I’ve read it is lower rez than cd standard, but may sound better by hiding the flaws, or using a cheap ground loop isolator from a car stereo shop for that ‘tube’ sound, again removing some detail because of transformers inside. I think shopping for a forgiving source would both be cheaper and allow you to enjoy your sub par recordings without loosing the joy of your good recordings.. If your source device has alternative outputs, try them. When I ripped my older cd’s, I equalized the bass to match newer cd’s which helped a lot. Seems when the cd showed up, people mastered it tinny, like a record.

Add a comment

We welcome debate within Society of Sound, but please keep it friendly, respectful and relevant. We have a few house rules which we ask you to abide by to keep the debate intelligent. Read more.
Product enquiry or support issue? Please click here.

Related Posts

CM10 uncovered: Senior Product Manager Mike Gough on the science behind the best CM yet

We asked Senior Product Manager Mike Gough about the technology used within the new CM10 speaker starting off with the all-important …

Bowers & Wilkins video factory tour: final assembly

In the fifth of our exclusive series of video tours around the Bowers & Wilkins UK factory, we look at the amazing amount of …

The iPod: a decade that changed the way we listen to music

The iPod is now 10 years old, and during that decade this little device has instigated a massive shift in the way that many of us …