"Recommended Components"—the St. Hubbins' Syndrome! Page 2

In some ways, of course, the ratings game really does matter. Even though ratings don't give a true and objective assessment of the quality of institutions, they matter because many people believe they do. As a result, they can powerfully shape public perceptions and behavior. Now I'm working at yet another school touched by scandal. Its law school suddenly dropped in the rankings from (so-called) "second tier" to "third tier." What happened? It turned out that U.S. News & World Report made a computational error: The school should have retained its second-tier ranking. Unfortunately, 225,000 copies of the magazine with the flawed survey results were printed and distributed at the worst time possible: just after the school had sent out its acceptance letters. No doubt some prospective students opened their letters ("Hooray! I got in!") only to be disappointed when they opened the magazine ("Aw, but now it's only a third-tier school..."). Of course, the school didn't drop in quality overnight. But if many prospective students believe it did, or even if they think other people believe it did, they might choose to enroll elsewhere. Ask any financial officer at a college: rankings matter.

A Linn dealer told me a few years back that once the LP12 (in its Cirkus/Trampolin/high-wire/flaming-hoop version) made it into Stereophile's Class A, the real circus began. Demand went way up when audiophiles realized they could buy a Class A 'table at a Class B price. No doubt the rankings climb was due to the new version of the 'table and its improved sonics. But suppose that Stereophile had made a mistake, as did U.S. News. Suppose that the LP12 had not been modified, and that it was accidentally ranked as a Class A turntable. I'm speculating here, but I bet that the effect would have been similar. Sales would have gone up, as if the high priests in Santa Fe had really transformed some Class B water into Class A wine.

Because "Recommended Components" is so powerful, it's handy if you happen to be selling used equipment that's been recommended. Does the following conversation sound familiar?

[ring ring] "Hello. Yes, I still have the transport. Oh, you've never heard of the company? Well, it's a very small company. They're based in North Dakota and they only make 10 or so of these a year. No, it's never been reviewed or recommended by any of the major audio mags, so far as I know. Not many people know about this gem—but let me tell you, they should, because it sounds just gre... Hello? Hello?"

It's much easier to say, "It's a great transport, and a bunch of folks at Stereophile think so too! Look at 'Recommended Components' and call me back if you want to come over and hear it." It works.

If you're buying used equipment, sometimes reviews and rankings are all you have to go on. Hearing a component is one thing; carefully auditioning it is another. True stories: I once checked out an integrated amp while a bratty, noisy three-year-old crawled all over me and the listening chair. ("Don't mind her," said one of those isn't-my-child-just-an-angel? parents.) Then there was the guy who covered the walls and ceiling of his studio apartment with packing foam and egg cartons—the DEDE approach, evidently. My favorite misadventure on the audio front, however, was looking at a pair of MartinLogan Monoliths (yes, the big ones). After driving for more than an hour, I found them set up in the dining nook (not room, nook) of a small condominium, powered by a mid-fi receiver (the seller's mega-amp was broken). If I leaned down under the dining table, I could hear the woofers; if I sat upright, I could hear the electrostatic panels. "They sure are big," I said.

In situations like this, if I hear at least some potential in a component, and if it's been highly rated by reviewers who seem to have their ears on straight, then I'll take the chance and bring it home. (I passed on the Monoliths—they were just a bit too big for my dining nook.) Besides, if the component has been recommended, it'll be that much easier to sell if it doesn't work well in my own system.

Still, none of these factors fully explains how "Recommended Components" can cause St. Hubbins' Syndrome. If you're a regular reader of Stereophile, you're no enemy of subjective reviewing. And if that's true, then you know that reasonable people can disagree over what's hot and what's not in audio. Besides, issues like room-dependence and system-dependence are getting more and more press in these pages. So there's even less reason to be upset if a reviewer or editor thinks that your major purchase (when auditioned in their room and their system) is a major mistake. But the syndrome remains. If I plunked down a year or two's savings on the Sonic Nirvana and then saw it panned, I admit, I'd be disappointed.

Maybe it's just fashion. As my high-school history teacher long ago announced, "If Jackie Kennedy were to stick a fork in her nose, half the women in America would do it too." Maybe John Atkinson, Wes Phillips, and the rest of the crew are taste-makers, as Jackie Kennedy used to be. If so, owning a nonrecommended component would be like wearing a blue polyester leisure suit to a reception at GQ HQ.

Nah...that's not the logic or spirit behind "Recommended Components." It's not a taste-maker, it's a taste-reflector. Most of us suppose, I think, that if the editors prefer the Musical Ecstasy to the Sonic Nirvana, then a lot of other audiophiles—perhaps even all of them—would come to the same conclusion if they were doing the reviewing. If the same goes for all the other components that make the grade, then "Recommended Components" seems to reflect a consensus about what's good and what's great. If so, that's the key to the puzzle: "Recommended Components" is powerful because consensus is a strange and powerful psychological thing.

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