If you ask the average "man-on-the-street" to describe the sound of the perfect hi-fi system for you, odds are that what he'll say will be one of just two things: Either he'll tell you that the perfect Hi-Fi would sound "... just like the musicians were right there with you in your listening room" or that it would produce a huge Bose-style and all-encompassing "wall-of-sound". Hi-Fi Crazies like me, on the other hand, would more likely say that, instead of making it sound like the musicians were there with you in your listening room, the perfect system would make it sound like you were right there with them at the recording venue.
Or how about this one: What do violins really sound like? Are they sweet and luscious like Mantovani? Harsh and raspy, like an "original instruments" performance of Vivaldi? Something in-between? Or is their sound something different, altogether?
Or this: What does a classical music concert actually sound like? Does it really image? Is the soundstage clearly defined? At a live performance, can you really, as one reviewer said of a particular set of speakers' rendering of a recording of "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall", hear the texture of the back wall? With your eyes closed, can you truly count the instruments? Or even the number of rows of violins?
What about the bass? Is it truly audible above all else? Or is it simply there as a sense of power and weight underlying the rest of the music? Does it -- should it – vary with the hall and with the music being played?
The truth is that any of those questions or, in fact, any question at all of "what's good" or "what's it supposed to sound like" really has no single answer, but may have as many answers as there are people asked. Most importantly, every one of those answers will be correct and unchallengeable!
The old Hi-Fi clichés of "true to the music" or even the late Harry Pearson's standard of live music as "the absolute sound" don't and never did really define anything, and never will as long as it remains reasonable to ask "True to which music; played in which room; with how many other people in it acting as sound diffusers and absorbers; and as heard from which position, how far from the instruments in general, and from this instrument in particular, and on, and on, and on, until the most microscopic detail of positioning and environment has been specified, and possibly not even then: Even such a thing as whether you're sitting or standing while listening, and whether or not you're holding still to listen can all affect the sound – either live or from a recording, so what are you supposed to be true to?
Which Standard Of Good Is Good?
And that was what Tom and I came up with as our own "absolute standard" for judging Hi-Fi. The fact is that every sound – music, speech, or even random noise, recorded or otherwise – is changed by its environment: A "hard" room may change its tonal balance, and will certainly add echo and reverberation, and a "soft" room may certainly do the opposite. Distance will change it, too, as will barriers of whatever kind, so there is no one single sound of a "real" sound; it will always be modified, distorted, restricted, augmented, or diminished by its environment, and all of those manifestations of it will be real. And that puts us right back to that same original question in a slightly different form: "Which real is real"?
The way that Tom Miiller and I found to answer that question was essentially a variation on the "Turing Test" that cyberneticist Alan Turing came up with back in 1950 to answer the question "Can machines think?" The essence of that test was that if you ask a series of written questions to both a human being and an Artificial Intelligence (a computer), without knowing which is which, and if you can't tell, just by their written answers, which is the human being and which is the computer, then the only conclusion you can reasonably come up with is that both must be regarded as intelligent. That's what Tom and I decided, too: If you hear music and it's so believably "real" that you can't tell, just by listening, if it's "live" or a recording, then, for all reasonable intents and purposes, it is real and can be regarded as such.
Some of that may have to do with the distortions to the sound being heard by us being consistent with the distortion (pitch or timbre changes or additions of echo) to natural sounds heard in the listening room, so that everything we hear "sounds wrong in the right way" or it may be something else, entirely. Whatever it is, if I can believe it, I'm satisfied; I'm contented with my system; and I can put on a record, sit back, close my eyes, and...
Enjoy the music!