Interesting conversation, fellas!
Like anything, when you do this long enough, you eventually manage to cut through all the hyperbole, extremes of view and misinformation to collect a set of opinions that you just end up keeping to yourself, because you'd rather make music than argue endlessly and pointlessly on the Internet.
That's basically the view I took quite a while ago. When I realised that discussing what does and doesn't "make a difference" is by and large context dependent.
As Boz so eloquently put it:
I remember Brandon using the term "political quantization" when describing the way that people who express a certain view on one thing are then automatically assumed to hold certain views on a whole range of other things. I've seen the gear debate descend into that type of "taking sides" mentality time and again. Personally, when I see a poster act that way, it's a signal to me to take what they say with a grain of salt.
If you watch/read/listen to interviews with vastly experienced individuals in the audio industry (and I do this at every opportunity) you quickly realize that even the snobbiest gear hounds are basically pragmatic in their approach to this subject. The general sense you get is that, if you have the high end gear and it suits the project and the other time & monetary constraints, then why not use it? On the other hand they are doing this for a living, they have deadlines and unexpected situations popping up all the time, but lack of the ideal situation or gear never holds them back from completing a top notch sounding end result. SO many great engineers/producers/mixers never let lack of ideal gear hold them back from making music.
One big realization I had that there is value in high end gear was in the infamous analogue summing debate. My curiosity was aroused by how hotly it was debated here, and by reading Mixerman's book, so I decided to explore it in the only way I could afford - by trying it out with Slate's then-new VCC plugin. I immediately knew this was what I was looking for to take my mixes to the next step. I even posted a blind test on RR - to confirm to myself, mainly - that I was not just swallowing the hype. The responses made it clear that other people could hear the difference very clearly too. It was easily incorporated into my workflow, so to this day, I use VTM and VCC on all my mixes.
Other people may not like it, think it's too subtle and/or a waste of time, but I'm secure enough at this point in time to not really care - it works for me... and since VCC/VTM are modelling the behavior of big format consoles/tape, then I am satisfied to conclude in my own mind that there is veracity to the views of those who espouse analogue summing and/or the value of subtle euphonic saturation.
On balance, is it "night & day"? No. Could I do a great sounding mix without it? Most definitely yes!
Personally, I've reached a point where I have all the gear I want/need to get the results I want/need. Still, I want to be informed about things that are coming out. I'm interested in different views on gear. I refuse to hold to the "quantized" views of one "side" or the other. I just refuse to let those views stop me from making music.