The Best Value in Audio Page 2


Substantial damage?

Editor: It is my opinion that Stereophile's "Recommended Components" is both doing substantial damage to the audio industry and completely misguiding consumers. I feel this is so for the following reasons:

1) There simply is no way, given Stereophile's oft-stated and self-righteous policy of subjective reviewing, that components can be classified according to the startlingly arbitrary, pseudo-objective, five-tier classifications. The editors discussing a reviewer's recommendations before listing the component many months after the component was reviewed by one of the reviewers is silly—even stating that this is done is somewhat insulting to your readers' intellects. Additionally, each reviewer's biases are, axiomatically, subjective, and their systems/rooms/system synergies are necessarily completely different, and will render hierarchical recommendations near worthless.

Also, given the variety of music used by reviewers, some recommendations may have any value at all only with certain types of music. Sam Tellig, for example, listens primarily to classical. Many of his recommendations, therefore, don't really apply to folks who listen to rock/pop/electronica or other rhythmic, beat-driven music. This can be seen in his love for lower-powered tube gear, which is very poorly suited for electronica, for example. So, Sam's frequent and strong use of recommendations need to be taken with two-three truckloads of salt.

The thing is, if you're unaware of the reviewers' listening biases, you're likely to be clueless as to any idea of what the gear can do. The Abso!ute Sound has its reviewers write about their biases and music tastes. One person's junk is another person's treasure—one reviewer's Class A is another reviewer's Class C. It is, beyond any argument, necessarily so.

2) The frequent, and ethically totally inappropriate, contact between reviewers and manufacturers completely mars the impartiality of many of Stereophile's reviews. In the legal world, such intimacy between judge and party or the opposing parties would be frowned severely upon, and is in many instances banned outright. Likewise, doctors may not have sexual relations with patients.

Yes, there are vast differences in importance between stereo reviewing and the legal/medical examples, but you catch my drift. Being wined and dined in the homes of manufacturers, among other types of fraternizing, casts serious clouds of bias over the reviews. Having manufacturers come to reviewers' homes to deliver and set up gear is stunningly inappropriate for all manner of painfully obvious reasons. As is said in the legal field, judges must avoid even the appearance of impropriety, or else recuse themselves from the proceedings. Start thinking more impartially and ethically appropriately. If Stereophile's reviewers were attorneys, they'd be disbarred!

3) There also seems to be a very close relationship between advertisers and the gear included in "Recommended Components." Far too many great, inexpensive, and extremely high-price/performance-ratio components from small manufacturers are noticeably absent from Stereophile's pages, as these guys may not be able to afford big advertising dollars. You like to state that you prefer to review gear from established makers, which policy in itself is hugely damaging to the industry.

Of course, many manufacturers don't like having their gear reviewed by Stereophile precisely because of the facile hierarchy that is "Recommended Components." If a component gets a low classification out of your oh-so-nuanced four-or-five-tier classification system, it can mean ruin for a small manufacturer. And, most likely, a semi-poor review is so completely guided by the factors I mention in point 1 that the review may be meaningless. Nevetheless, the reviewed component gets stuck in Class B/C/D and the damage in done.

Fact is, these guys are, rightly so, afraid of Stereophile and its "Recommended Components" sham. It is the big, established manufacturers that spend lots of advertising dollars who get their gear on the list—sort of like what campaign contributions buy corporate America. It's tough for the little guy to get heard.

4) The end result is that consumers, wrongly, focus far too much on what gear is on the list. This is to the chagrin of the makers of innumerable brands of great gear out there that never see the light in Stereophile's pages. "Recommended Components" is, for many newcomers and otherwise, truly the de facto arbiter of what's good and bad out there. This is a travesty, as it is an extremely poor and unreliable such arbiter.

5) The Abso!ute Sound's policy of purely subjective reviews without rankings is far more appropriate and fair to makers and consumers alike. Their annual Golden Ear Awards, where each reviewer names his or her favorite gear of the year, is far more appropriate than "Recommended Components," as each reviewer is not placing gear they alone reviewed into an overall hierarchy of gear contributed to separately by all reviewers. This is one reason The Abso!ute Sound is becoming a more refined and sophisticated forum for equipment reports than Stereophile (and the gap is growing). Their focus is far more on the emotive performance of a component's performance as opposed to some general and crude classification system.

6) So, if Stereophile had true guts, it would abandon "Recommended Components," return to true subjective reviews, and tighten up those appearances of impropriety. As it is now, your magazine appears to be captured by the power of its own unfortunate invention or wishes. Heed Lord Acton's warning: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

It is ironically contradictory, and indeed almost funny, that Stereophile, while being so adamant about its adherence to subjective reviewing, has built its reputation on a pseudo-objective classification scheme that smacks so much of the old Stereo Review.—Kristian Soholm, Seattle, WA,


Editor: Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing brings to mind that you could spend over $100,000 on a reference system and it still would not sound as good as a $70 seat at the symphony. Put in that perspective, a live performance deserves a "$$$" for value. I would like to urge readers to go out and hear the ultimate reference system: attend a live performance. It is still the best value in audio today.—Brent Trafton, Long Beach, CA,