"Recommended Components"—the St. Hubbins' Syndrome!

Suppose you've put aside some cash for a new preamp. You survey the field and zero in on the Musical Ecstasy 1000 and the Sonic Nirvana Special. Both got good reviews in all the magazines, they look great, and each will set you back about the same number of mortgage payments. So you visit your dealer and camp out for a weekend or two. You listen, you think, you walk around the store, you listen some more, you recalculate your tax return. You listen some more. Finally, you have a winner. "I want that one," you tell your dealer; "the Sonic Nirvana."

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:

Preamplifiers: A
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.)

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COMMENTS
Doctor Fine's picture

I have worked and sold high end equipment back to the beginning when tube Macs ruled the "Mac Clinic" world.  Probably owned hundreds of components and sold literally thousands of others to customers.

So I wanted a new pair of mid-sized monitor accurate box speakers so that I could use them in different applications.  Perhaps add sealed box mid-bass and some Velodyne 15 subs in stereo to flesh them out.  Other times take them on the road as true monitors.  In general just give them a good thrashing and NEVER question if it was THEM or the ROOM that was the problem.  It would all ways be the ROOM as they would be perfect.

Trouble is I had never owned of heard a medium size box speaker that was considered quite that cup of tea.  But the reviewers had.  EVERYONE I mean EVERYONE in the hi-fi business stated at one time or another that Harbeth monitors were the real deal and boringly wonderful and easy to live with and accurate and musical and blah blah blah.

So never having heard them I bought a pair of Monitor 30s for $4000.

The point of the story is that by not even trying to guess I merely dialed in the requirements and went looking for a solid consensus.  And once having found that consensus I simply plunked down my dough and moved on.

Oh by the way they are doing everything I wanted.  Absolutely ZERO interest in changing for anything i have heard yet.  They work well as a centerpiece in a $30,000 home stereo playback system.  They work in a mastering situation.  They work well alone in small setups.  They are perfect.

I bet I never would have found them by "testing" stuff.  True story.

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