We often talk, particularly here in this publication, about enjoying the music. I wonder, though, if you've ever stopped to think that "the music" – unless you're listening to it "live", at a club or a concert or playing your own instrument, either by yourself or with others – is far more than just something that someone improvised (as with Jazz or certain kinds of Folk Music) or that some composer wrote for others to perform. Unless you're listening "on-site" to a "live" performance, what you're hearing is not just any one thing, but a whole chorus of ideas and a compilation of compromises made by what might have been a vast number of people along the way to your ears.
And even if it is a live performance that you're listening to, what you're hearing is at least some series of compromises – with the composer compromising what he hears in his mind with what the instrument or instruments he's writing for and their players are capable of doing and with his ability to transform the sounds in his head to marks on paper.
For recorded music, the string of compromises is even longer: Not even considering the selection of performing artists – which can, between finding or settling-on necessary skills, interpretation, cost, and compatibility with the other players, involve huge compromises, just in itself – finding the right venue can be a compromise; as can choosing the medium or media for recording (tape, digital, direct-to-disc, two channel, multi-channel) and the mode (stereo , binaural, or both) and – for everything except binaural – what kind of microphones to use (omni, cardioid, bidirectional) ; and how many of them (one stereo mic, a a spaced pair, multiple and/or "spot" mics)/ placed how? (X/Y, Blumlein, spaced omnis, spaced cardioids, a centered or suspended Calrec, etc.), whether or not to use equalization or other effects, and on, and on, and on, including (again, with the likely but not certain exception of binaural) all of the very many level, balance, EQ, editing, and effects decisions and compromises involved in most recordings of most kinds of music.
After the recording has finally been made and you go to buy it, where should you buy it? From your local record shop? (Do you still have one?), On-line? At your local friendly hi-fi shop? Somewhere else? And, which should you buy? An analog disc? A reel-to-reel master tape copy? (The popular singer, Lyn Stanley, as just one example, is offering these, and they're pricey but wonderful!) A CD? A computer download? If so, of which kind? And all of those decisions will be subject to compromise, depending on what's best, what's available, what's affordable, and (as audiophiles will certainly understand) what you choose to spend, whether it's affordable or not.
And, of course, once you've got the recording to play, you'll be faced with the same sorts of decisions and compromises: What should you play it on? Whatever you already have? Are you satisfied with it? Should you buy something new? What new thing should you get? And it all comes down to the same questions: What's best? What's available? What's affordable? And What are you willing to spend? And the key to making the right choices will always come down to just one thing: In making your choices, you need to understand and work from the knowledge that, in any system, there are really only two kinds of things: those that are supposed to contribute to the sound and those that are not, and that neither will ever do its job perfectly.
Source components, like phono cartridges) or CD players, tuners, computer streaming devices and tape recorders are obviously things that are supposed to contribute to the sound. They (and their electronic ancillary components, DACs, for example) either provide the sound that our systems produce, store and decode it, or just decode the recorded material from our recordings or downloads, and with them, as with all of the other elements of our systems that are supposed to contribute to the sound, what we want them to do is to deliver all of what's on or in the recording, without either losing any of it, adding anything (like hum, noise, or distortion) to it, changing it by creating internal phase delays.
The same thing applies to amplification and control components, like input transformers, pre-preamps, preamps, power amplifiers, and combination devices like integrated amplifiers and receivers, and even to speakers, which are supposed to convert the signal from the component driving them into sound, following, as closely as possible, the driving signal, and doing nothing, either more or less. All are supposed to do all and only what they're intended to.
Non-contributing components, too – things like turntables and tonearms, equipment racks, the enclosures that our speakers' drivers are mounted in, and even the room that we listen in – are just supposed to do what they're supposed to do, and nothing else.
The problem is that nothing – not any source component or any amplifier or any speaker (either the whole system, or just its drivers and crossover or just its enclosure) or any rack or any room or anything else at all does all and only what it's supposed to do. Everything vibrates or transmits vibration, has frequency response limitations, or shifts phase, or adds hum and noise, or (like cables) adds capacitive discharge artifacts to cancel elements of the incoming signal. Everything in your entire system either does something that it's not supposed to or doesn't do something that it should!
Everything varies from perfection in some way or another, and, because perfection is never really possible, we must always find ways and compromises for getting what we want in a form that we're willing to settle with and – even though each step closer to the ideal seems to be proportionally much more expensive – at a price we can afford and are willing to pay. What that will be will always vary from person-to-person, but, with any luck or effort at all, there always seems to come a point where we can just put on our favorite recording, sit back, close our eyes, and...
Enjoy the music!