Recommended Components: If It Works, Don't Change It

"There, that's where you should put the microphone, 5' from the end of my bow."

Holding his bow up at an angle, violinist Pinchas Zukerman was helping me set up my mikes to record the final concert from the 1998 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where he was to lead an ensemble in a performance of the Mozart G-Minor Piano Quartet. (The resultant CD is scheduled for release in spring 1999.) Faced with an uncooperative acoustic at this year's event in the form of airconditioning noise, I was forced to abandon my usual purist, distant technique in favor of close-miking, multitracking, and artificial reverberation. (As Wes Phillips consoled me when I told him of this decision, "At least selling out everything you believe in will give you something to write about!")

Pinchas Zukerman has been recording for 30 years, so I'd asked him if there was a mike position he'd recommend. He has found that the best position for a microphone to capture the sound of his violin is always the same: "If it works, why change it?"

"If it works, why change it?" is the philosophy we apply to Stereophile's humongous "Recommended Components" listing, the latest version of which appears in this issue. However, I constantly receive letters and e-mails that are critical of "Recommended Components" or suggest improvements. The most common question: Why is the list is split into classes A through D? With memories of schoolwork grades vivid in the correspondents' memories, they point out that a component rated in Class D must surely have received a failing grade.

Well, it doesn't. the class system and definitions were devised more than 30 years ago by Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt. Other than the addition of a Class E for very inexpensive components that can be used as the basis of an affordable system that still make music, we have left well enough alone.

Gordon's original list, of course, was the work of one man, and was a tiny fraction in length of this issue's "Recommended Components." The second most common question: Why are so many components included? Surely they can't all be worth buying?

Well, yes, they are all recommended. Each component listed is there because of the advocacy of one or more of the magazine's 20-strong reviewing team. The only way to reduce the number of components is to reduce the number of our reviewing staff, and I don't want to do that. Each writer has a unique combination of tastes and skills to bring to bear on behalf of Stereophile. It strikes me as arbitrary and unfair to list, say, just the "Editor's Choice," as some other magazines do. In a sense, Stereophile's "Recommended Components" is the editor's choice, in that I commission the reviews and recommendations from the writers, and I have the final say on what class each component belongs in and whether or not it stays in the list.

I do drop products from "Recommended Components" that are no longer distributed in the US or that have been significantly redesigned but not yet reauditioned. I also drop components from the list when they have not been reviewed in more than three years, and no one on the staff has listened to them in that time. The pace of progress is sufficiently rapid in some areas of the world of high-end audio that three years is a long time. Inevitably, this results in the disappearance of worthy but long-lived products. We do try to reaudition the classics and components that have been redesigned, but inevitably this is somewhat of a patchwork process.

What upsets most correspondents is when their favorite component is not included in "Recommended Components." Sometimes this is because a Stereophile reviewer was not impressed by its sound when he did the review. But most often it is just because we have not reviewed the component in question. And if we haven't reviewed it, we have no opinion either way.

Readers are also upset when products that were once in a high class have dropped down a rating in the current listing. Progress in product design inevitably leads to a raising of expectations. The introduction of products that either push forward the subjective frontiers at the cost-no-object front, or redefine what is expected at a particular price level, inevitably means that it is unusual for a Class A recommendation from five years ago to still be listed in Class A.

But whether components don't make an appearance, are deleted, or have just slipped down a class in the "Recommended Components" ladder, none of this invalidates a buying decision you have made. What counts is that you continue to enjoy your music with the system you have assembled according to your tastes. That enjoyment should not be spoiled by our opinions, or by those of other audiophiles.