Audio Research SP9 preamplifier Letters 6/88

More Letters appeared in March and June 1988:

The politics of reviews

Editor: Vol.10 No.8, in particular Alvin Gold's column and the Audio Research SP9 review, raised some questions that I hope you can answer.

Mr. Gold presented the "political" nature of reviewing and the audio business. During his discussion of personalities, philosophies, and priorities, I began to focus on the latter, especially in regard to how a piece of equipment gets to be reviewed. What procedures are involved? And, how are good relations maintained if a subsequent review of another product by that company is not favorable? The SP9 is a case in point. Also, how persistent is Stereophile with companies/marketing agencies that are reluctant to grant reviews, particularly when they have a highly regarded piece of equipment?—Greg Bergin, South Lyon, MI

I reiterate that our reviews accurately reflect the result of our own auditioning. The fact that J. Peter Moncrieff gave the Audio Research SP9 an enthusiastic review had no bearing either on our own findings, nor on Stereophile's opinion of him as a co-worker in the field. I have the highest regard for Mr. Moncrieff both as a listener and as a writer, and on many products he and Stereophile have been in agreement—the Spica TC-50 (more or less), MIT speaker cable, and Audio Research SP11, for example.—John Atkinson

Thumbs up

Editor: This short letter is to let you know how much those of us of the Thumbs Down Audiophile Society enjoy Stereophile. The new direction in which Larry Archibald has steered the magazine is great, and to those whining about changes, we say, let 'em cancel.

JGH's opinion of the ARC SP9 is well-founded. An initial reaction here to the SP9's ability to interpret Philip Glass's The Photographer Act II on CD was as though one was listening with a burlap bag on one's head. Some time ago Mr. Holt asked for casual input on listener history with Spica's TC-50. One of our esteemed members purchased a pair from Orange County's Absolute Audio not long ago, and subsequently blew out the low-frequency driver on one of the speakers. It was being driven by a Yamaha R-9 (certainly a no-slouch receiver) at less than 5W, and has never tackled anything louder than FM 94.7 ("The Wave") at background level. The speaker (s/n 6023) is being serviced by the gang at Absolute...

Double-blind testing? LA's personal orientation to this ongoing debate is probably the most logical some of us here have heard. Has the Stereophile team ever thought about trying to duplicate Stereo Review's methodologies? Hearing is believing; ol' Bill Livingstone's efforts in these testy waters must indeed be taken as milestones by anyone seriously debating sound nuances.

Great magazine! I'm beginning to think the most erstwhile [sic] addition to my system is the next copy of your publication.—Kerry White, Thumbs-Down Audiophile Society, Los Angeles, CA

Blind faith #1Editor:

In your November 1987 issue John Atkinson stated that "proving anything from blind testing is extremely hard—which is why Stereophile does not test equipment in this manner." I wonder if Mr. Atkinson bothered to read the blind tonearm test by Stromeyer and Greenspun in the same issue. They noted that "the fact that [a] test is not blind engenders a risk that prejudices will affect the test results" and that "careful blind subjective tests are valuable." I believe this is true, and I wish Stereophile would subject all products to some form of blind testing. I find blind testing quite revealing.

Of course, lately you have been doing rather poorly in blind tests. The situation with the SP9 was nothing short of a fiasco. JGH confused the sound of the SP9 with the sound of the highly acclaimed SP11 100% of the time. You argue that this result is statistically significant between the preamplifiers. But this argument proves too much. Do you seriously expect me to believe that you were purposefully identifying the best-sounding preamplifier as the SP9...after two of your reviewers had blasted it from one side of the planet to the other?

My rule for purchasing audio equipment is: "If I can't hear the difference, I won't pay the difference." The rule is a bit trite, but I try not to forget that sound quality (not prestige or ego) is what audio equipment is all about. I know my own psychology well enough to realize that what I think I hear can be influenced by the brand name, price, or appearance of a component. That is why I do all of my comparative listening under blind conditions. I would have more faith in your reviewers' adjectives if they did the same. —John Walter, Durham, NC

Blind faith #2

Editor: I was exceedingly amused by your review/postscript of the Audio Research SP9 preamplifier (Vol.10 No.8). You must be commended for your honesty and candor. More specifically, your blind test suggested that, at best, the SP9 ($1700) was sonically indistinguishable from the SP11 ($5000). Even if we admit that the SP11 is a better preamp, are there questionable infinitesimal differences worth $3300? Of course, this is a matter for the rich ears spending the money to decide.

On the subject of blind testing, I suggest that you do this routinely with every product you evaluate. It would be a bold step that would lend so much more credence and objectivity to such evaluations. Furthermore, it would put Julian Hirsch and Stereo Review to rest. Wouldn't it?—Ronald Ambrose, Pittsburgh, PA

The SP9 revisited

Editor: I confess that until about six months ago I was the proud owner of an integrated amplifier. I had on numerous occasions been exposed to hi-fi, but was always so turned off by the arrogance of the owners and clerks that I was never able to hear the music for the BS.

About nine months ago a friend invited me to a listening session, suggesting I bring some of my favorite records. I accepted and the rest is a tale many of you will identify with.

We began the session by cleaning my records with a Nitty Gritty cleaning machine. (A devoted lover of useful gadgets, I remain impressed.) That night a love affair with my own taste in music was renewed and I knew I was hooked on hi-fi. My home, my life, and my savings account will never be the same.

I began my quest almost immediately. I read every back issue of Stereophile I could borrow. My reading convinced me that the preamplifier is the cornerstone of a good system and that no system can sound transparent if the preamplifier clips, distorts, or otherwise colors the sound.

I began with Audio Research because my friend's preamplifier was an SP6. The SP10 was out of my price range, so I began looking at the SP9. The SP9 was in full force in the stores. After some listening in the stores, I came to several conclusions:

1. SP9s did not always sound the same! I listened to SP9s attached to a variety of other equipment and in several listening rooms. My original conclusion was that the SP9 was overly sensitive to its environment. I later discarded that theory when, in a second audition two weeks later, the same SP9 did not sound the same.

2. I could find no signs of ARC discontinuing the SP8. Why would a manufacturer have two models so close in price? Why continue to manufacture an older model for $300 more?

I could never have known that my personal dilemma was about to parallel a heated controversy: so many people so sensitive to the review in Vol.10 No.8. Controversy prevents complacency in consumers and manufacturers. J. Gordon Holt and John Atkinson must have known that a bad review for a manufacturer with the track record of ARC would not set well with many audiophiles. After all, if you can't blindly trust Audio Research, who can you trust? Obviously—trust your own ears, not a review, not a manufacturer.

I must applaud the printing of this review. Audio Research will, I am sure, correct the SP9 and it will be the preamplifier it has the potential to be. I also applaud Audio Research for being gentlemen and continuing to advertise in Stereophile. Audio Research, you are gentlemen and professionals.—Bill Austin, Atlanta, GA

The SP9 Rerevisited

Editor: After reading the SP9 review in Vol.10 No.8 I was tempted to write, but now after reading the decidedly negative letters in response to that review, I feel I must add my comments.

The letters varied from "You must be deaf" to "You must be politically motivated," which in sum really mean that you must not criticize the sacred cow even if it gives sour milk every once in a while. I, for one, would like to congratulate Mr. Holt and Mr. Atkinson for their courage and integrity in printing "How You Hear It."

I found Vol.10 No.8 both stimulating and rewarding in terms of variety and quality of reviews and subjects of interest. It gets my vote for the best Stereophile ever!—Thom Fleming, Yorktown Heights, NY