"Recommended Components"—the St. Hubbins' Syndrome!
A week later the new issue of Stereophile arrives, its cover boldly announcing that biannual ritual, "Recommended Components." Naturally, you wonder how your new preamp fared in the new rankings. Class B? Maybe even Class A? ("It cost enough!") You tear the plastic off the magazine, pull out those (#*!) subscription cards, and thumb through to the section on preamps. There it is—"Sonic Nirvana Special"—down in the corner of the page. "What!? Deleted? Are they crazy? They must be oxygen-deprived up there in Santa Fe!"
But it gets worse: What do they think of the Musical Ecstasy? "It can't be recommended if the Sonic Nirvana isn't," you think. "In the store, the Musical Ecstasy just wasn't as transparent. And it wasn't nearly as quiet." You scan the page and spot the words that cut like knives:
Musical Ecstasy 1000: The preamp to beat. Sets new standards of transparency, said WP. (MC demurs.) The quietest preamp we've ever not heard. Trounces the Sonic Nirvana Special, no longer recommended because it sounds like [beep beep beep beep...
...beep beep beep—] What a relief! The alarm is going off. It was all just a bad dream.
Why do we care so much about Stereophile's "Recommended Components"? It's meant to be only a guide, a selective snapshot of the hardware industry's better efforts. Everyone knows that. Still, we take it to be much more. That's why John Atkinson routinely fends off angry readers with this emphatic disclaimer: "Deletion of a component from this list does not invalidate a buying decision you have made."
"Sure, sure," we all agree. "Just don't go deleting any of my recommended components."
The ratings game is not unique to audio. For years now, U.S. News & World Report and a few other magazines have been publishing rankings of the nation's colleges and universities. This business can get pretty controversial, at least because academic rivalries can be so intense.
Years ago, while a graduate student at a major midwestern university (I'll call it University "C"), I gave a lecture at a similar university nearby (University "N"). Both are fine institutions, but everyone knows that UC has the intellectual edge: It has more Nobel prize winners; it has more students and faculty with abnormally large skulls; and if you hear the word "sports" at UC, phrases like "bizarre sociological phenomenon" are not far behind. Eggheads, through and through.
Well, the day I drove up to UN, my host escorted me across the quads through the middle of a pep rally. The students were yelling and blowing horns and making a commotion like ordinary 18-year-olds overdosing on hormones. I didn't think twice about it, honestly. But my host soon revealed that the UC vs UN intellectual rivalry was alive and well. "This sort of thing," he commented, "is really very odd." These students, he explained, are normally just as studious and serious about their intellectual development as they are at UC. I almost asked, "So they got those tans in the library?" but wisely kept my mouth shut.
About two years later, the tables turned. Out of the blue, and for the first time ever, U.S. News & World Report ranked UN above UC. And it wasn't ranked higher on scales like "amount of beer consumed per undergraduate" or "number of Camaros in student parking lots." It was higher in the final ranking of overall quality and reputation. Campus papers and the local media buzzed with headlines like "UN finally steals the show" and "Is UC slipping?" For the tweed-jacket academic set, this was almost scandalous. You would have thought Adcom had trounced Goldmund.
It's hard to say who gets more worked up about their rankings, audiophiles or academics. One thing is for sure: when the rankings are published, too many people come down with St. Hubbins' Syndrome—named after the leader of Spinal Tap who boasted, "I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me a more selective human than someone who doesn't believe anything."
Academics know better. They know that the best biology department, for example, could be at a college with a miserable chemistry department. Yet differences like this are lost when whole institutions are ranked. Other scales are just plain ambiguous. How can you measure the quality of life in a large city (UC) against the quality of life in a suburb (UN)? Is breathing cleaner air more or less desirable than being next door to some great bookstores? Any individual will have their preference, but rankings are supposed to offer some objective, true-for-me-and-true-for-you measurements. But they don't, and most academics know it. They'll insist that the questionnaires, telephone polls, and interviews that go into these rankings don't say much about what people believe or what's really true. When the news broke that UN's star had risen, the university President even announced publicly that he was "not all that fond of the whole ratings game in higher education." (But I'm sure he was grinning from ear to ear.)