Recommended Components: Really Recommended

The very first "Recommended Components" listing appeared in Vol.1 No.5; this is the 16th time I've put the listing together since I took over the task from J. Gordon Holt in the November 1986 'phile. No other Stereophile feature seems to be as popular, or as misunderstood. While it might inform, it never fails to offend, particularly when it involves the dropping, or—horrors!—the not listing at all, of components that the magazine's readers own.

The listing is intended to be the central depository of the collective wisdom of Stereophile's industrious team of equipment reviewers—16 at last count. It's the only place where the experiences of all of those reviewers are taken into account when deciding on the ultimate value judgment for a component, whether it be the mighty Class A or the affordable Classes D and E (footnote 1).

But only if those components have been reviewed in Stereophile. "Recommended Components" can only be concerned with equipment that one or more Stereophile reviewers have used in their own systems. It seems self-evident that when no one on the magazine's reviewing staff has had any ears-on experience of a product, we have no opinion of its sound quality.

Obviously, not every component we review makes its way into "Recommended Components." Someone has to decide, therefore, whether a component lives on or dies in print. That someone is me. When I compile the new listing—about 20% of the components change from one listing to the next—I re-read the original reviews, and consult all the writers to find out whether they still stand by their findings, whether they've had further experience of a product they've reviewed, whether they've used a component reviewed by another writer and have something to add, and to indicate what Class they think is appropriate for each contender. I also ask them to comment on products currently listed, to let me know if they think we should drop or continue our recommendation. Meanwhile, Copy Editor Kristen Weitz contacts every manufacturer whose product is mentioned or might be mentioned to check its availability and current price.

I then gather the reams of information, brew several pots of coffee, and retire to my listening room. A week later, I emerge with the text of the new listing. I also wear several new worry lines on my forehead, because I know that a good percentage of my work will provoke angry letters from "audiochondriacs."

While most products generate an easy consensus among Stereophile's writers, you will notice that a few show up sharp schisms: the Crown Macro Reference and Boulder 500AE amplifiers, for example. While I tend to give such products the benefit of the doubt and include them in the list, I suspect that, while they have great virtues, they also tend to have significant flaws. Some listeners will only hear the virtues; some will only hear the flaws. All will agree that everyone else is out to lunch.

The second problem people have with "Recommended Components" concerns products that are still current, but have been dropped. I feel that, given the rapid rate of change and product development in the High End, and without continued auditioning, it's generally not appropriate to continue our original review's recommendation for more than three years. Unfortunately, this means that, without renewed reviewer experience or enthusiasm, excellent but older products tend to be dropped from "Recommended Components." This does not invalidate the buying decisions and tastes of those who own these components.

The third criticism concerns the Class rating given a component. Despite people's need for a simple index to define a component's goodness, it's actually impossible to fully describe a product in this way. Take loudspeakers: You can't have perfection in a loudspeaker at any price; all you can do is balance flaws. To put two speakers into Class B, or even Class A, for example, does not mean that they sound similar. It means that their different balances of flaws and virtues were judged to be similarly close to—or, more realistically, far away from—the real thing.

Anyone who wants to make use of "Recommended Components" must audition products for themselves, therefore. It's even more important for them to define what they want or need in music reproduction so that they can weed out unsuitable contenders from the list. If you adopt our value judgments as your own without questioning whether the product truly fits your needs, it's unlikely that you will get a sound from your system that will satisfy you in the long term. Too many times I have seen audiophiles trying to ignore how much they dislike the sound of their systems, and how little they enjoy their music, because the components they bought were all highly praised by reviewers.

"Recommended Components," therefore, should be regarded as sonic triage—it helps you sort out a short list of products you should consider. But if you like a component and we hated it, or vice versa, what really counts is how the component sounds in your room and system with your music. The time to judge a component's true worth is when you listen to it under familiar circumstances with familiar ancillary equipment and recordings. We can accept that our tastes and desires are not the same as yours. But if you buy a product that's wrong for you, you have to live with sound that fails to satisfy. And that can be the real tragedy of High End.—John Atkinson