Allow me to step in to make some comments on the whole audio quality and components issue. I've experienced the same thing that Jodo has when I stepped up my audio equipment. Hearing a well-recorded piece of music on a top-of-the-line stereo system that is thoughtfully set up can be a consciousness-altering experience. You can hear every component in perfect balance, and the music becomes much more involving. It's a moment that can leave you speechless, and cause you to wonder, "Where did THAT come from? THIS is how good music can sound?" Some people may not have that sort of an emotional moment, but I did.
Unfortunately, if you have a musical experience like this, it presents a problem. You then spend the rest of your life trying to reproduce that effect. Even if you get great equipment, a fair number of your favorite albums will be poorly recorded, and there is nothing you can do about it. When you listen to these albums, you will not get the same feeling of satisfaction, and it will bother you.
Think about it this way: let's say that the recording quality of a piece can range from 1 to 10, but the system you use to play it back maxes out at 5. Anything from 5 to 10 will sound good relative to everything else. Now, if you step up to a more revealing system, the difference between a 5 and a 10 will be striking. If your favorite album had a recording quality of 6, and you play it back on an top-of-the-line system, you are going to be disappointed. However, when you hear an album with a recording quality of 10 on that same system, you will be awestruck. Some music scales up better than others as the equipment gets better.
Yes, it is sad that some of your favorite music sounds relatively worse on better equipment. But the trade-off is that some music sounds so much better. It's a trade-off I am willing to make.
Just quoting this whole paragraph because I agree with it. If you start on low-end equipment and never improve it, you don't have those type of issues. My problem is I've gone through so many phases where I just think I should stop listening to music altogether because it seems like I'm not enjoying it and I'm thinking the issue is my hearing and then, more out of desperation than anything else, I upgrade either my files or equipment and then *BOOM* world of difference.
My main listening was originally done on a Sony Discman that I bought around 1998. From what I understand, the DAC (digital to analog converter) in those things was quite powerful (which probably explained the craptastic battery life) and that was more or less the standard for what I did my serious music listening on. Sometime in 2003, I had to buy another model (when Discman had become Walkman). It got nearly 30 hours of battery life, but the sound was really inferior. Like, horrible. No warmth, harsh highs, the polar opposite for what I had before. I put up with it for about a year, missing my old Discman and ended up buying another CD player, but again, while an improvement was really inferior to the Discman. I was reading an article recently that explained the more powerful DAC in the Discman players (and funny thing, the one I had bought in 1998 was rated as fairly below average, sound quality-wise) and it validated that it wasn't just my imagination. I would like to find a place to sample the Marantz player that Jodo keeps referencing (CD5003, although the CD5004 seems to be the main player from the brand now). I am debating between buying an audiophile-grade CD player or an external DAC to run my current CD player through (a Sony 300-CD carousel...it's the one that Best Buy sells).
Currently, because much of my music listening is done at work, the most important thing is earphones. I have never liked the iPod buds and have never understood how people can listen to those things for more than 10 minutes at a time (and the sound leaks anyway, so they're doubly useless for my purposes). I have mostly used bass-heavy IEM's from Futuresonics, but recently have switched to Brainwavz, which has more emphasis on higher range detail and being more analytical than warm. Both are a totally different experience.
As for recording quality, I think this comes from experience as well as equipment. I was never truly aware of the loudness wars until a few years ago, so I didn't realize I was listening to compressed music. There was stuff like Guilty Gear XX or the Iron Maiden/Judas Priest remasters, where I loved the underlying music, but it became annoying to listen to it. Same for Legend of Mana, which is not super loud per se, but the music itself is compressed (something I've found in quite a few PS1 games. For the soundtracks, they probably used the compressed audio directly from the game discs). But there were albums like Grandia 1's OST, a lot of early-mid 90's JPOP (anime OP/ED's and image songs) and a lot of the SNES Square soundtracks that were just a pleasure to listen to, even some of the more average tracks and I couldn't quite put my finger on why. Dynamic range is something you have to experience firsthand, as well as have it explained. The separation and clarity of the layers is the main thing I listen for. In the 70's, 80's and early part of the 90's, albums with great dynamic range (especially vinyl...a lot of early CD's were recorded too thin) were the standard, not the exception like nowadays. Once I learned what to listen and look** for, it became fairly easy to shift my attention to albums that had good dynamic range and forget about the ones that didn't. Thankfully, most of my favorite VGM is from the early to mid 90's.
Over the past year, FLAC vs high quality mp3 has taken a backseat to the recording quality of albums. Having a compressed album in FLAC isn't going to sound better than one with great dynamic range in mp3. Obviously the best scenario is great dynamic range in FLAC, but I've moved away from the FLAC-or-nothing mentality for albums that I have to grab from somewhere else.
* (If I mp3gain or wavgain something and the decibel level is above 95 or 96, very good chance it's a loudness war casualty...This includes just about every pop/rock CD in the past 10-15 years right now and unfortunately, includes a lot of modern VGM which shouldn't be recorded as loud and compressed as it is.).
Oh yeah, recently I bought this monster to upgrade my phono setup (I also want to run my soundcard through it, but haven't experimented with that yet). The difference in sound quality between this and my old receiver is not something I'm imagining:
http://www.ebay.com/itm/Rare-Kenwood-KR … 3a719d7c9d