How high do you want your fi?

Would you really want a perfect hi-fi?

Indulge my fantasy for a second—I'm talking about a system with DC-to-light bandwidth, zero noise and distortion, and unlimited dynamic range and resolution. It's an audiophile conundrum: When output precisely matches input, have we attained nirvana?

Maybe not. Most CDs and LPs aren't all that transparent, so I'm wondering if our obsession with transparency is misplaced. Soundstaging? Not if you listen to rock or jazz—the music's spatial depth, low-level ambience, dimensionality, and reverberation are all fabricated in the mix. Dynamics? Sorry, pal—compression, and lots of it, is an integral part of the recording, mixing, and mastering of most of the music you buy.

I blame my Magnepan 3.6R loudspeakers for this latest round of audiophile soul-searching. The Maggies tell me more about the music embedded in bits, pits, or grooves than any other speaker I've had in my home system. The panels' 55"-tall ribbon tweeters resolve differences between recordings with uncanny precision.

That said, a perfect speaker, amplifier, turntable, or CD player wouldn't automatically make every recording sound lifelike. At that point, the gear wouldn't have a "sound" per se; rather, the gear would lay bare the sound of each recording. I'm guessing that such a system would reveal the best recordings' innate musicality and that the middle-range recordings would still sound revelatory, but also that a significant percentage of your music would sound pretty ratty. Contrasting a pure audiophile recording like Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt's A Meeting by the River (CD, Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-29-CD) with Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run (CD, Columbia CK 33795) would be a mind-warping experience.

The Boss's album instantly transforms my MG 3.6Rs into a pair of 6'-tall AM radios. Yuck. Born to Run sounds all kinds of awful—grainy, harsh, spatially flat, dynamically crushed, with truly nasty-sounding reverberation—and I still love the music. This record suffers from what I call the Humpty Dumpty Effect: once the sound is broken, a system comprising gear rated Class A in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" won't undo such sonic mutilations, only reveal them with greater clarity. But I can turn off the analytical, audio-critic side of my brain and just let it be. No matter what, Springsteen rocks.

A Meeting by the River is breathtakingly gorgeous—it sounds you-are-there spectacular. Cooder's bottleneck guitar all but materializes between the MG 3.6Rs—I hear it and Cooder's band filling the acoustic space of Christ the King Chapel. That's no accident; the album was produced and recorded by a master engineer, Kavi Alexander, whose recording chain—microphones, mike preamps, analog tape deck, and analog-to-digital converter—were all designed and built by Tim de Paravicini. When you're listening to this album, you're hearing it through the audiophile-grade gear with which it was produced.

I think/hope that most of us put together hi-fi systems that reflect our sonic preferences. We like what we like: tubes, solid-state, analog, digital, electrostatics, horns, whatever. Considered purely objectively, tube electronics are less "accurate" than solid-state; the same can be said of CD vs vinyl. But if vinyl, or tubes, or both are what raise the hairs on the back of your neck, so be it. At the end of the day, what we crave is good old musicality. Music moves us more than sound. A lot more.

I think the age-old analog/digital divide is the least of it. The musicians do their thing, and the microphones, their positions relative to the instruments, and the skill and imagination brought to bear by the engineer, producer, and masterer in their use of equalization, compression, processing, etc., create the sound we hear. Analog tape, if used at all, is a mere flavor; today, virtually no one mixes or edits in analog; tape just about always gets bumped to digital before the recording date is complete. Pop or rock music is rarely played and sung live in the studio by the entire band. Out-of-tune singers and players are pitch-corrected, and drummers' off-kilter rhythms are tweaked. There's not a lot of there there.

Audiophile recordings, however, are almost always recorded "live," with the entire group playing in real time, and with minimal EQ, compression, and processing. But even these efforts never truly sound like the real thing. The very best high-end speakers and electronics are still a long way from perfect sound reproduction. Here, I define perfect as "indistinguishable from the sound of live music"; whether it's symphony orchestras, jazz combos, or rock'n'roll bands, we're still not even close. Some solo instruments fare better; guitars, flutes, voices—you can almost get a glimpse of their actual sounds. But a drum kit? An acoustic piano? No way.

One of the reasons we're not yet even in the ballpark is that we're still stuck in two-channel mode. Don't get me wrong—I love stereo—but if I could get the whole enchilada of a 360° virtual-reality experience, I'd plunk down serious cash. However, I've yet to hear a multichannel mix, whether on SACD, DVD-Audio, or Blu-ray, that's appreciably better than two-channel sound. We still await a holographically convincing recording technique to get us there.

The fantasy of perfect-fi is further complicated by the acoustics of the listening room. If you placed a perfect speaker system in an average room, you still wouldn't have perfect sound. The very best room-correction systems are a beginning, but they can't make your room disappear. We won't see that for a long, long time.

Which brings me to my final point: Does any of this matter? Most of my music collection hews closer to Springsteen's sound than to Cooder's. We've grown so accustomed to hearing heavily processed music that we now accept it as at least plausibly realistic.

The music is what we're here for. If it were perfectly reproduced, would we enjoy it any more? Or would we be happier if our speakers and/or electronics smoothed over the sound's rougher edges? Mark Levinson observed years ago that one of the worst symptoms of the audiophile "disease" is playing only music that sounds good through your system, to the exclusion of the music you love because the latter sounds less good through your system. I've been there; I know firsthand how absurd that is. Listen to music, not your hi-fi.—Steve Guttenberg