Recommended Components: the Stereophile Way

It's a beautiful drive, considering you're on a freeway. You take I-25 north out of Albuquerque, Sandia Peak to your right and the Jemez Caldera and Mount Taylor dimly visible in the distance to your left. As you broach La Bajada hill south of Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo range—the "Blood of Christ Mountains" described by Paul Simon in "Hearts & Bones"—appears before your windshield. You take the Old Pecos Trail exit to the City Different, but before you reach town you bear to the left, then take another left opposite St. Vincent Hospital. There, in a cul-de-sac, you peer up at the street sign: "Stereophile Way," it says (footnote 1). "Not just a street, but a philosophy," I kidded Larry Archibald when the city told him that he could name the road where the magazine's headquarters would one day be situated.

Of course, our new office is still to be built (footnote 2), and the vacant Stereophile Way is acquiring a local reputation as a rendevous for lovesick teenagers. But, as do all publications, Stereophile does have a "way"—a corporate ethos, if you will—that permeates everything we do. We believe that a good magazine is written and edited to fulfill the needs of those who pay money every month to read our opinions; this magazine was founded in 1962 by J. Gordon Holt in the belief that its readers would be best served by being told how audio components actually sound. And that simple statement carries with it a responsibility for reporting the truth about that sound—not what someone thinks a component should sound like, or what a manufacturer would like us to say about how his or her component sounds.

Working with our team of writers to achieve this goal is a major part of Equipment Reports Editor Wes Phillips' role at the magazine (footnote 3). Wes demands from our writers that their reviews accurately reflect their auditioning so that readers, listening to the same components under the same conditions, will share the same experience. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, "If you work in either journalism or will be flogged for being right and flogged for being wrong." A reviewer for this magazine is obliged to be right if he is not to be flogged.

Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in 1925 that "The little things are infinitely the most important." And Wes ensures that Stereophile's reviewers make available to readers all the little things in their reviews—the details of equipment and recordings used in their evaluations—so that their prejudices, tastes, methodologies, and biases are laid out for inspection.

Stereophile doesn't hand down almighty judgments to be taken as received truth. Instead, our reviews are intended to be used by readers in conjunction with their own tastes and auditioning of components to reach buying decisions. Our conclusions about components may be informed opinion—even very well 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 what you think, it's unlikely that you'll get a sound from your system that will be satisfying in the long term.

This issue features the 58th "Recommended Components" since Stereophile was founded; it is also the 24th that I have been responsible for compiling. The listing—sometimes copied, never equaled—is intended to be the central depository of the collective wisdom of the magazine's team of equipment reviewers. It's the only place where the experiences of all of those reviewers are taken into account when determining the ultimate value of a component, whether it be the heights of Class A or the value-for-money Classes D and E.

And with "Recommended Components," the rubber really hits the freeway. Despite our best intentions and cautions to the contrary, some readers drink by the label, substituting our thoughts and opinions for their own. They use the "Recommended Components" listing as a buying guide, selecting components purely on the basis of their Class rankings. And they deride the lower classes as being somehow unfit to be associated with true blueblooded audiophiles.

In previous editorials I've thundered that readers were not to behave like this, that they were obliged to listen for themselves. To no avail. In any case, who gave me the power to mandate behavior? So this time around, I'll let you in on a secret—the "Recommended Components" Class rankings in themselves are meaningless!! In fact, there is little correlation between the Class in which a component is recommended and the actual musical worth of a system in which that component might be used. I've heard systems featuring Class A components that have driven me screaming from the room. I've heard inexpensive systems with Class C and D components that I could happily live with. (The combination of the Rega Planet CD player and a Creek integrated amplifier driving B&W DM302 speakers comes to mind—true high-end sound for less than $2000, including stands and cables!)

The Class rankings are about potential for sound quality. Think about it—what sound does a Class A-rated amplifier make on its own? Maybe a small hum. It needs to be fed a signal; it needs to drive loudspeakers. And in its interactions with the other components in the system—described in the original reviews—is where the musical magic is generated.

Take two of the speakers I've reviewed for Stereophile: the B&W John Bowers Silver Signature and the Thiel CS6. Both are in "Recommended Components," but while the B&W is in "Class A—Limited LF," the Thiel is in "Class B." Not because I don't like the full-range Thiel as much the B&W, but because my review noted a veiled quality in its midrange, whereas the B&W just doesn't have any low bass. A loss of absolute quantity doesn't keep the Silver Siggie from Class A; a slight loss in absolute quality does keep the CS6 out.

But the reality is that this differentiation doesn't matter a whit: I could live with either speaker because, in the right system context, each can make the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Paul Simon's "Hearts & Bones" glow the shade of red you see only in New Mexico sunsets. And that's what high-end audio is all about. Not "Recommended Components."

Footnote 1: Actually, as the photo shows, the City of Santa Fe dropped the ball when it came to actually spelling "Stereophile."

Footnote 2: Sadly, it never was built, the plan being dropped when the magazine was sold to Petersen Publishing in June 1998. Since July 2000, Stereophile has been based in Manhattan.

Footnote 3: Although Wes Phillips left Stereophile's full-time employ in January 1999, he still writes for the magazine and for its eNewsletter. He also copy-edits the news stories you read on this website and provides a daily blog of interesting websites.