Although the scene has certainly improved over the past decade, there remains still quite a lot of FUD and snake oil in the hobby, and I think we all, at one point or another, have tried to cut through the noise to find some real signals that we can believe in. I sympathize with the fact that informational SINAD in audiophilia is especially poor, and I see this post as yet one more person trying to make sense of it all. I love that the responses so far haven’t been condescending, which is unlike some other forums I know of, because frankly we’ve all been here, and I think it merits some thoughtful discussion.
One article that is related to this that I found helpful many years ago when I was buying my first DACs, amplifiers, and headphones is: How Should I Buy an Audio System? - Benchmark Media Systems
To succinctly answer your question: All three camps are fine and they aren’t mutually exclusive.
The single objective truth in your question is that transducers factor into the sound you’ll experience by several orders of magnitude more than the source components. That’s where the objective truth stops. Everything else, then, is dependent on what one values and the means or access one may have to a wider variety of equipment. Some people index towards transparency—the accurate reproduction of a recording as faithfully as possible to both what it sounded like when it was recorded and how it was recorded. Other people index more towards simply wanting their music to sound as nice to their ears as possible, regardless of how it sounded when it was recorded or how it was recorded, and this may require euphonic distortions from the source to the transducer itself. Then there are those who have the means to have a variety of equipment because they want different degrees of both. So, I hope this illustrates that neither preference is objectively wrong, and that they’re not even mutually exclusive.
If I may, I’d like to use display technology as an analog (pun intended) to the audio world. Both colors and sound are analog signals to our brain, and there is a similar relationship between what was recorded in either medium and how that is reproduced back to us.
When it comes to displays, I think we can all agree we would like our display devices to accurately reproduce the colors of how a movie or visual media was mastered. EOTF, color gamuts, calibration profiles, etc.—we are much more comfortable with saying that noticeably “inaccurate” colors (i.e. reds appearing orange) on a TV or monitor is simply and objectively bad. However, even in the TV space, you will find that, for example, Samsung oversaturates the colors on their TVs (even in their most accurate display mode) to make their units pop more in retail stores. A customer browsing for a new TV might see a unit and go, “Wow look at those colors! They pop more than the TV next to it. I’ll take it.”
Sound is even more tricky because, relative to visuals, our brains can translate a much wider spectrum of “inaccurate” data into pleasure. The interplay between air waves with what our brains eventually perceive as “pleasurable sound” is highly complex, but it’s fair to say that the human species is much less aurally “resolving” than we are visually, and hence we’re far less picky with sound than with sight. You can see this play out by mere fact that even though we have the Harman target, which is the closest thing we have in wearable audio to a well researched calibration target, Audeze is still doing quite well as a company.
So, in the end, all camps are fine, and by virtue of the limitations of our ears, there is much more subjectivity in this space than I think many of us are initially comfortable with.
The bigger problem is that more 99.9% of us in the audio world don’t have the technical foundation to understand the technology that drives our preferences, yet we’re confident enough to have strong opinions of it on forums, but that’s another story entirely…