What Did He Have?

There is an old hi-fi joke that goes thus:

First audiophile: "I hear Joe died."

Second audiophile: "I didn't know that. What did he have?"

First audiophile: "Oh, Marantz, Linn, Krell, Vandersteen."

This, was in effect, the information gleaned from Stereophile's readership survey forms returned last summer. Question 18 on the form, which was published in June 1988, asked readers to list their components and rate each one on the following basis: "Yes, I would buy again," "Maybe, I don't have an opinion," and "No, not if you paid me." We had hoped that an analysis of the results, when summed, would give indicators concerning the reliability of each brand. Unfortunately, however, it became apparent that reliability was only one of the factors taken into consideration by readers when deciding upon a rating. The "Reliability Survey" aspect of the analysis, which we had hoped to publish in this issue, therefore had to be aborted.

All was not lost, however, as the statistics concerning how many people owned how many of each brand still proved fascinating. Instead of looking at reliability, we have, in effect, examined in great detail the subject of brand loyalty, a rather different, and all-embracing, aspect of hi-fi ownership.

The table elsewhere in this issue displays the results for the 217 brands to get the most entries, each being owned by 0.6% or more of the magazine's readers. (Another 89 brands were mentioned between 10 and 24 times, and 444 brands were mentioned between one and 9 times.) Regarding the reliability of the data, we received just over 9000 forms from Stereophile's approximately 45,000 readers. Of those 9000, the answers to Question 18 from 8250 forms, involving 50,168 individual components, were entered into a database by the hardworking team of Laurie Evans, Anne Peacocke, and Wendy Feldman through the months of October and November 1988. (They would have liked to have entered the data from all the forms, but they ran out of time, even given an extended deadline for this article.) However, I am sure that we have included the information from a sufficiently wide sample of the magazine's readers to be confident about the trustworthiness of the data.

One of the columns in the Table probably requires some comment. The figure quoted is the percentage of those mentioning the brand who said that they would buy it again. You might well ask why I didn't just subtract the percentage of those who would not buy again from 100%, therefore including those who were noncommittal in their reply. The answer is that I felt that counting just those who opted in would be a more rigorous pointer toward brand loyalty. We are talking enthusiasm here. You will see that I only calculated this percentage for those brands mentioned 50 times or more. Less than that figure and my gut feeling is that the sample is not sufficiently large to be reliable. If you disagree, then there is nothing to stop you working it out for yourself, of course, but I don't think it will be reliable to better than 2 percentage points.

The results are published for your interest rather than to make any serious points. However, there are one or two aspects to which I would like to draw your attention. The first is that even the widest-owned brand, Sony, was mentioned in only 5% of the total replies. (This does mean, however, that almost one in three Stereophile readers owns some item made by Sony.) On the other hand, 198 brands were mentioned just once, with 444 brands being mentioned nine times or less. The wide distributions of such American companies as Adcom, NAD, AR, Carver, Shure, Hafler, Monster Cable, and Grado are noteworthy, as are the high positions achieved by Audio Research, Linn Products, McIntosh, and Conrad-Johnson, all companies who can hardly be said to be competing in the "affordable" arena. The popularity of the MIT interconnect and loudspeaker cable is somewhat surprising, though, considering its high cost.

A clear correlation that can be drawn from the data is that, in the main, Japanese manufacturers feature a lower level of brand loyalty than do the specialist manufacturers. I am sure that this is due to the fact that the Asian products are often more alike than they are different when it comes to sound quality. The figures in this survey also reflect the fact that a significant proportion of the Japanese hardware mentioned were video products, where there is very little to discriminate between one brand and another on quality grounds (in my opinion). It can also be discerned that brands which are marketed through in-depth advertising campaigns do less well in inciting loyalty in their customers than those which are sold through retailers who have a strong commitment to the brand.

A large number of brands achieved a "loyalty index" of 80% or more. I feel, however, that those scoring even higher than that should be picked out for a special mention. This "90% Club" consists of B&K, Celestion, Krell, Magnepan, Quicksilver, Rowland Research (now called the Jeff Rowland Design Group), Stax, Spectral, Spendor, Thiel, Threshold, Vandersteen, and Well-Tempered Lab. All had nine out of ten of their owners (or more) sufficiently satisfied that they would buy the same brand again. This, in my opinion, is what buying a "high-end" component should be about.

It will be possible to draw "Top 40"–type lists for individual product categories from the Table. It is obvious, of course, that Nakamichi, even taking into account the popularity of their "Stasis" receivers, leads the field in cassette decks. To conclude, therefore, I'll extract a list of the top 30 loudspeakers, from companies specializing in that most taxing of disciplines, in order of their popularity among Stereophile's readers. The list is presented below.

Top 30 Loudspeaker brands

Brand / Percentage of Stereophile readership owning brand

Magnepan   6.9%
Infinity   5.0%
Vandersteen   4.6%
Polk   3.8%
KEF   3.7%
JBL   3.6%
B&W   3.5%
Acoustat   3.3%
Thiel   3.0%
Bose   3.0%
Klipsch   2.8%
Advent   2.7%
Dahlquist   2.5%
Boston Acoustic   2.4%
Apogee   2.0%
Spica   1.7%
Snell   1.6%
Celestion   1.4%
Miller & Kreisel   1.3%
DCM   1.3%
Martin-Logan   1.2%
Rogers   1.1%
Ohm   1.1%
Altec Lansing   1.1%
KLH   1.0%
Spendor   1.0%
Allison   1.0%
Epicure   1.0%
VMPS   1.0%
Siefert Research   0.8%

Footnote: Although they make loudspeakers, Acoustic Research had a very high profile in the full table of results, due to their Legend and its relatives being the most popular turntable among Stereophile's readers. I felt it fair, therefore, not to include them here. Similarly for Eminent Technology, whose high number of mentions was primarily due to their excellent ET2 tonearm, and Quad; we have no idea how the latter's score should be divided between their electronics and the ESL-63 loudspeaker.