Return to Recommended Components

"Let's face it, we recommend way too many components."

The speaker was Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt, at an early 1990s writers' conference. In those days before e-mail, the magazine's scribes and editors used to gather in person to discuss the products in the forthcoming "Recommended Components." And if there is one thing that Stereophile does that benefits its readers but equally antagonizes nonreaders, it is our biannual publication of "Recommended Components," the latest installment of which, fully revised and updated, appears in this issue (footnote 1). Whether you surf the Internet newsgroups or visit audio-enthusiast websites such as the Audio Asylum, it is difficult to avoid the impression that many people agree with the venerable JGH: that our components listing is too all-inclusive to be of practical use.

So why are there so many products in "Recommended Components"?

First, many more products are available to audiophiles than there were in the 1970s. And of those products, the average level of attainment is very much higher.

Second, some commentators have complained that almost all of the products reviewed by Stereophile find their way into "Recommended Components." "If everything is recommended," they grump, "what's the point of publishing the list? Or even reviews?"

Not only do products today offer more performance for less money than at any time in audio history, as I have explained in the past (in "The Five Dealer Rule," January 2003), this happens because, like all magazines, Stereophile has only finite space available in which to publish reviews. Given that we can only scratch the surface of the universe of products offered audiophiles, the goal of our reviews is not to try to review a representative selection of all the audio components that exist (footnote 2). Instead, we do our best to preselect components for coverage that have the best chance of performing well. (Once the review process is underway, however, a full description of a product's performance is published, warts and all.) If we do that job well, not only will everything we review eventually appear in "Recommended Components," but the listing will be skewed toward the higher grades, which it is.

Third, in the early days of Stereophile (the first listing appeared in issue No.5, in 1963), "Recommended Components" represented just one man's choices, as JGH himself wrote almost all of the equipment reviews back in the 1960s and '70s. But as the magazine's writing team expanded in the 1980s, the listing inevitably grew as it accommodated more than one person's recommendations. "Recommended Components" has thus become the central depository of the collective wisdom of Stereophile's writers. It's the only place where the experiences of all of those reviewers are taken into account when I determine the ultimate value judgment on a component, whether it be the mighty Class A+ or the affordable Class D or E. (Remember that we highly recommend all components listed. There are no "failing grades": Class D and E products offer good, musically satisfying sound at very affordable prices.)

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.

This is a fundamentally important point: I like dark chocolate, whereas you prefer your chocolate sweetened with milk. That doesn't mean that dark chocolate is "better" in any absolute sense than milk, or that, were this magazine named Chocolaphile rather than Stereophile, the ultimate dark chocolate would be rated Class A but the best milk kind relegated to Class B. Chocolaphile would rate both Class A, but the accompanying description would make it very clear that the bitterness of dark chocolate or the sweetness of milk would not align with the tastes of many of those looking for a recommendation.

Every one of my writers would therefore come up with a different list of recommended products. Take the $350,000/pair Wavac amplifier, which Mikey Fremer reviewed in July. It would be on the top of his personal list, but not even in sight of being on my list. Readers must, therefore, read the blurbs that accompany each entry. Stereophile's judgments are not to be taken as received truth. Instead, as I wrote 10 years ago, "Recommended Components" is sonic triage—it helps readers develop a short list of products that they should consider. Our conclusions about components may be informed opinion, but they are still opinion: If you adopt a reviewer's value judgment as your own without ever questioning whether it truly fits your needs or matches your own preferences, it's unlikely that you'll get a sound from your system that will be satisfying in the long term.

I am not saying that the list is perfect, or that it won't change. A few years back, I introduced a symbol—$$$—for components that offered much better sound quality than you'd expect for the price. In an e-mail Art Dudley sent me while I was compiling this issue's listing, he wished we had a symbol for poor value for money. "I'm only talking through my hat, since I haven't heard it," he wrote, "but it seems to me such a thing would be good for that $350k Wavac amp, which I'm sure is brilliant, 'but...!' "

Also on Art's wish list was a modifying symbol to denote "for special tastes" or "for special systems." "[This] would be great for speakers that have imperfect amplitude response but superb dynamics and sensitivity, or battery-powered devices that need constant adjustment," he wrote. "This would be the hardware equivalent of a 'conditional rave' for music aimed at special tastes—Captain Beefheart, say. The Spotlight Kid is without a doubt a Class A album, but it sure isn't for everybody!"

Food for thought. Thanks, Art.

Oh, and my response to Gordon at that writers' conference was to ask him to point out specific products that didn't deserve to be recommended. He couldn't do so. I rest my case.

Footnote 1: At the time of publication in 2004, we were offering past listings as PDF files on this website, a year's worth at a time, for $9.95 each. As of 2013, the biannual listings are available free of charge here.

Footnote 2: Doomsayers may question the health of high-end audio, but every Consumer Electronics or Home Entertainment Show witnesses an increasing number of new manufacturers and an even larger number of new products. Surely, all that activity is a sign of vigor—unless more and more companies are selling more and more models each in fewer and fewer numbers to fewer and fewer customers.