In Issue 268, Mark Lehman (TAS' Music Editor and proofreader 2004–2014) wrote a guest editorial ("The 'Relative' Sound") positing that sound quality isn't vital to conveying music's meaning. Mark wrote, in part, "Sure, when I first settle into Jonathan Valin's listening room with its array of ultra-high-end speakers and components, I'm stunned by the astonishing detail, transparency, air, imaging, dynamic extension, timbral richness, and rock-solid authority. But my listening quickly adjusts to the 'sound' and soon all I hear is the music. Of course better sonic fidelity improves, often greatly, my appreciation of the music's meaning. But that improvement is for the most part subliminally felt, and by no means always crucial."
That may be true for Mark, but in my experience the better the sound, the greater the musical communication, all else being equal. Musical expression is conveyed through the physical properties of sound itself. Alter those properties, as all audio systems do to varying degrees, and you alter the musicians' intent.
Let's contrast conveying musical intent through sound and conveying ideas through the written word. With written words, the meaning is entirely independent of the transmission medium. The style and color of the type, paper quality, and whether the words are formed by pixels on screen or by ink on paper have no effect on the message's meaning. The type could be faded, distorted, and barely legible, but the meaning of the words would still be clear and unambiguous. Conveying meaning with words is binary; the words can be read or not.
Music's meaning, by contrast, exists along a continuum; the meaning is inextricably embedded in the infinitely variable air-pressure fluctuations that we experience as sound. Take just one aspect of musical communication: dynamic expression. Musicians convey meaning through variations in soft and loud, from grand orchestral crescendos to a vocalist's subtlest inflection on a certain syllable to a drummer's emphasis on a particular beat that defines the music's rhythmic flow. If an audio system alters music's dynamic structure in any way — as all invariably do — the musician's intent is diluted. Not only that, but on a macro scale, the more realistic the reproduction, the less hard the brain has to work deciphering the sound, freeing it to more deeply engage with the artistic expression.
Because I disagree with Mark doesn't make him wrong. In fact, Mark's view is consistent with that of many musicians, who are notorious for owning low-fi playback systems. Mark is himself a musician — a composer of classical music. My theory of why musicians are less concerned about sound quality than most non-musicians is that they don't require the cues carried by the sound to understand the music's meaning. It's as though the sound is merely the trigger for "playback" of the music in the musician-listener's head. Non-musicians lack this ability and thus require more information about the music's meaning from the sound itself.
An extreme example of the ability to realize a musical performance in one's head is the case of ragtime pianist Bob Milne. Milne was put in an MRI chamber and studied by Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. Milne had the astonishing ability to "play" four symphonies in his mind simultaneously. With the four symphonies playing on CDs in the control room (which Milne couldn't hear) in synchrony with Milne's internal "playback," Bettermann told him to stop at arbitrary points. Milne could then sing the passage from the precise stopping point in each symphony. Milne reported that all four symphonies were completely intelligible in his mind, and that he could shift his attention between them. (For more on this fascinating experiment, listen to the Radiolab segment "A Symphony in His Head" at radiolab.org.)
It's entirely likely some people can extrapolate musical expression from less-than-complete information. But for me, when I change a component in my system and hear greater timbral realism, more fine detail, increased clarity of a previously obscured instrumental line, more lifelike transient reproduction, wider dynamic range, and fewer artifacts to remind me I'm listening to an electro-mechanical contrivance, I not only more easily drop into a state of "willing suspension of disbelief," but I also hear specific performance elements that increase my appreciation for the musicians' artistry.
I can and do enjoy music anytime, anywhere, through any system. But it's a whole lot better when sitting in front of a great high-end system.