500 Components. Recommended.
Twice each year, however, in Stereophile's April and October issues, the battle on the newsstands is intensified by the publication of "Recommended Components," the latest installment of which awaits you within this bumper issue's pages. Although I sometimes feel I'm running out of ways to use the words "Recommended" and "Components" when I write the blurbs for the April and October covers, sales reports reveal that these issues continue to be our best sellers.
This is the 75th "Recommended Components" since it was first published, in the fifth issue of Stereophile, cover-dated May–June 1963. It is also the 41st time I have compiled the list since the first time I did so, in November 1986, though these days I have the invaluable help of assistant editor Stephen Mejias, who writes the text for the new entries, and our summer intern Kristina Roman, who checks the price and availability of each and every entry. But the task remains the same: condensing the review opinions of our writers that have been published over the previous six months and coming up with a ranking for the products to be included in the new list. Reading the results of this process, of course, is when readers' sunny dispositions turn cloudy, their tempers are irked, their emotions riled, and when Microsoft Outlook is fired up to send STletters@Primediamags.com a metaphorical missile of a message. (No, she did not wear army boots.)
There are three criticisms of "Recommended Components" that crop up every time. The first involves our dropping someone's favorite product from the listing. As I write in the introduction to "Recommended Components," my policy is both to delete models that have been discontinued, and not to list a component for more than three years following the original publication of its review unless at least one of the magazine's writers and editors has had continued experience with it. I chose three years because I can't be wholeheartedly sure of the rating after that long a time without further auditioning, and because this is pretty much the median lifetime of the products we review. But deletion of a component does not invalidate a buying decision someone has made. If it was a good buy when purchased and it's still making music, what's the problem?
The second criticism concerns the Classes themselves. "With a list split into Classes A+ through E, doesn't that mean that a component rated in Class D or Class E received a failing grade?"
No. We recommend every component listed. Each is included because of the advocacy of one or more of the magazine's reviewing team. Every one will make music in a satisfying manner when used with a synergistic system.
The final criticism, and perhaps the most important, is, at first reading, more serious: If we recommended so many products—between 500 and 700 in a typical list—doesn't this alone invalidate the list's usefulness?
I wrote about this in the October 2004 issue's "As We See It": "It is important to note that not only does more than one person's opinion contribute to 'Recommended Components,' so do their individual tastes in both sound reproduction and music. While all products strive to reach the goal of high fidelity, even the best fail in different areas, which in turn means that there cannot be an absolute sound rating, only one that reflects the individual preferences of a specific reviewer." I also wrote about this subject in the October 1998 issue: "The listing...is intended to be the central depository of the collective wisdom of the magazine's team of equipment reviewers. It's the only place where the experiences of all of those reviewers are taken into account when determining the ultimate value of a component, whether it be the heights of Class A or the value-for-money Classes D and E."
This third criticism stems from a far too limited view of what "Recommended Components" is and what it is to be used for. It is not—repeat, not—a list of the single best component in each category. How can there even be a single "winner"? While all products have as a goal the highest fidelity, even the best fail in different areas. In addition, audiophiles have different needs, tastes, rooms, and systems. As we have said since almost the beginning, "Recommended Components" will not tell you what to buy any more than Consumer Reports would presume to tell you whom to marry. Instead, it is intended to be used as sonic triage, to enable readers to match Stephen Mejias's paraphrase of the review findings for each component against their own needs and tastes so that they can come up with a shortlist of products to audition.
Take Class B (Full-Range) of the "Loudspeakers" category. As in every other category of "Recommended Components," the individual performances of products listed in this class cover a wide range of achievement. At one end is the Merlin VSM Millennium. Michael Fremer lobbied hard to list it in Class A, but I remain unconvinced until I have had the chance to hear it for myself. At the other end is the Revel Concerta F12, which I gave the benefit of the doubt because I share Kalman Rubinson's opinion that this is a better-sounding, better-engineered speaker than any of the Class C contenders, enough so to push over the line into Class B.
Class B also covers a wide range of price, from the Revel F12 at $1498/pair and the Paradigm Reference Studio/60 v.3 at $1700/pair, to the Shahinian Hawk at $10,500/pair and the AudioNote AN-E Lexus Signature at $12,200/pair. I have my own favorites among the 22 models listed—take a bow, Sonus Faber Cremona, Totem Forest, and Paradigm Studio/100 v.3—but a musically satisfying system can be constructed around every one of these speakers. Which is why all of them are listed. Which is why omitting some would be doing our readers a disservice.
So enjoy "Recommended Components" for what it is. But if you're thinking of buying a component, also read the original reviews, almost all of which are reprinted in the free online archives at www.stereophile.com. Those archives are where the real component recommendations are to be found.