Most of the time, on much music, I don't hear a lot of difference, I'm just not aware it of because I don't listen too critically. But then there is a part of my listening that is ruined if the system is not making the music sound like it should. I do have pretty high quality equipment which I worked my way into gradually over 30 years of auditioning gear to find the best-sounding I could afford, and assume high quality sound is there, but sometimes I don't notice it for a while if things are not quite up to par.
Let me just tell you some of my recent experiences though, and see if any of it resonates with anyone.
One system, at one house, started to sound "not Right" to me...wasn't sure why, but things were sounding dull and not up to par.
That system uses an Audio Research LS-26 preamp and Bryston 3BSST amplifier and Vandersteen 3A speakers.
One disc I use as a test when I think things are sounding grungy is "jazz" by Ry Cooder, and another one is the Balalaika orchestra album on Mercury from 1962. Another is the OPUS3 disc "Lars Erstrand's Blue 5" , and there are some classical orchestra and vocal things. There are some others, but you get the idea; all over the place.
Sure enough, when I listened closely to several discs I know really well, the bass was undefined and weak and the crisp clear plucked notes and bass strings on the russian recording and some others were dull and cruddy-sounding. I finally decided it must be the tubes in the preamp, which had 1000 hours on them, when I checked ( the LS26 has a built-in hours meter).
Sure enough, new tubes made everything sound wonderful again; the bass was powerful and well-defined and every pluck of every string was clear as a bell. I suddenly realized how much the sound quality had deteriorated; man did things sound wonderful again.
I have had the LS-26 for 5 years, and before that an LS-16 for a couple, and before that an LS-2B for over 5 years. They all seem to go in the tank after 1000 hours or so and need new tubes to sound good again. AR says their tubes are supposed to go 4000 hours or something and that is a bunch of crap.
One other thing. The LS-26 uses what are called "Dynamicaps' to couple the signal at the output; very expensive. Before I knew that AR was using them I had installed them as input coupling caps on my old Audire amplifier and that was a HUGE improvement in sound quality. Then I installed them as output coupling caps on my old LS2B; also a big improvement. AR has to spend a lot of money for those, and if they are doing that I think that they apparently found out what I had already found out by trial and error; those caps seem to make make a big difference.
Another whole different thing was my new system at my new city house. I started with a Cambridge 40W amp and it was OK, but just not real able to bring out things I knew were there from my familiar system. I went to a NAD 356BEE, which was better except the bass was very poor, wooden-sounding and just mostly not there. Then I bought a Musical Fidelity M3I amplifier and things were suddenly sounding very good; almost as good as the AR/Bryston combo at the other house. Big big improvement.
Last, I decided to see if my speakers were that much different, so I brought my AR/Bryston amp/pre to the new system. OK, the PSB Image T6 speakers at the new house sounded about the same as the Vandersteen 3A speakers at the old house; not too big a difference. The big differences in sound quality that I heard seemed to definitely be due to the differences in the amplifiers.
Even though the Vandersteens were a lot more expensive, the PSB Image T6 speakers were so close in sound quality that I heard little difference.
What does all this prove? I don't know what it proves to anyone else, but if anyone says to ME that amps and preamps (and the quality of the critical coupling capacitors in the signal path) don't make huge differences in the clarity and realistic reproduction of the sound, I would have to say that this is 100% different than my experience. I would say that my experiences over many years of listening prove to me without a doubt that the amplifier (and preamp) is one of the biggest determinants of a system's sound quality, and that the differences between them are often HUGE.
Of my four amps: Bryston 3Bsst/BP25 (amp/pre combo); Peachtree Nova Integrated; NAD C375Bee Integrated, and McIntosh MA6600 Integrated, the best performer was the McIntosh, then the NAD. ..Both the Peachtree and Bryston combo exhibit quite a bit of a,b, and c.
How does your amp perform?[/quote]