In the context of music reproduction, the "high end" refers to the equipment used for optimum resolution of recorded music and sometimes also to those listeners who use that equipment for listening to music.
With the arrival of digitally recorded music on CD in the early 1980s, the promise was made that we would have "perfect recordings of music forever." That claim later proved to be wildly inflated. The quality of early digital recordings on CD, particularly of classical music, to most ears was demonstrably inferior to the quality of the best recordings on traditional vinyl LP records.
The auditory gap between digital recordings and analogue recordings on vinyl has narrowed considerably, particularly with respect to recordings in new formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio, although CD still wins for convenience hands down. None of these new digital "high-rez" formats shows any sign of replacing traditional CDs, at least not any time soon.
Conversely, there is a resurgence of interest in high-quality vinyl recordings, mostly reissues of classic recordings. Download formats such as MP3 remain inferior in quality to CDs for most discriminating listeners of classical music.
Sometimes lost in the competition among formats for recorded music is precisely the objective sought to be achieved. It is assumed that the goal of recorded music is to reproduce as nearly as possible the experience of live performance (except, of course, for rock and pop, where virtually all recordings are made in the studio).
But how realistic is that goal? To achieve any semblance of the experience of live performance presupposes first, a superior recording by producers and engineers made with technical skill and musical sensitivity. Second, the listener must have a home reproduction system that can extract all the musical content from the recording and then reproduce it in a way that mimics the original performance but in a vastly different acoustic environment. To put it another way, can any recording played at home, no matter how skillfully recorded, ever convincingly correspond to the experience of hearing the performance live at Carnegie Hall?
Even to approach the live experience requires expensive, sometimes prohibitively expensive equipment. Afficionados of the high end think nothing of owning amplifiers, turntables, and speakers costing tens of thousands of dollars. A well-designed and properly configured sound reproduction system can produce a very satisfying experience for any music lover.
But even if the acoustical properties of the listening environment are optimized, does the experience truly mimic the experience of attending a concert performance live? The listener, after all, is at home, not at the Met or at La scala, two venues that differ radically from each other in almost every respect. Does a great recording of Joshua Bell played through a superior stereo system in a professionally prepared listening room really bring Joshua Bell into the room?
Some systems do an astoundingly good job of recreating the sound of Joshua Bell's performance–the quality of the sound of his violin, his phrasing, the nuances of his musical interpretation. But still, it is not like hearing him live, nor can it ever be, since the live performance is bound up so intimately with the occasion and the venue in which he performs.
Moreover, virtually every professionally made recording enables the performer to "touch up" the performance to his and the producer's satisfaction. An element of artificiality is inherently present in a recording. Still, many listeners prefer the convenience of having a recording always available for pleasure or study.
While I enjoy recordings, I still miss the sense of occasion, that frisson of tension and excitement that always precedes the curtain going up at the opera. So even though I am a devotee of the high end, it will never be equivalent to the experience of live performance. A live performance is always a bit of a hire-wire act. Hearing a performance live almost always means hearing wrong notes, but as one astute listener commented on hearing Arthur Rubinstein live, "But what wrong notes!"