Recommended Components: the Stars

Though it's Stereophile's most popular single feature, "Recommended Components" has many problems. The biggest is that you readers use it—but then, if I didn't want that, why would we publish it? More accurately, problems come from uncritical use, as if only products that "make" "Recommended Components" are worth buying. Alternatively, it's concluded that products which drop out have somehow been consigned to an outer darkness.

Even hedging RC with every warning we can, many people look only to it for buying advice. The commercial importance of "Recommended Components" has gotten so great that now manufacturers are calling us ahead of its publication to see whether they're in, to see if they can get a product to us in time for inclusion! (Rest assured, manufacturers don't see the listing before you do; they are alerted that a component may be included somewhere, but only so we can verify the price and see if the product is still made!)

This is not to say we don't stand behind our recommendations—far from it. The problem is that "Recommended Components" just scratches the surface. I could easily put together an assemblage of Class B components (not to mention Class C or D) that you couldn't stand to hear, just because all their tendencies went in the same direction. So much depends on setup, your room, and the music you like—choosing good components only gets you halfway there. This is one reason why good dealers are worth their 40 points of margin. If they can take a pile of acrylic, plastic, steel, aluminum, silicon, and diamond, and turn it into music, this is not insignificant!

Equally strong exceptions occur in the realm of products not recommended. One product is in, another out. Frequently it hinges on an unresolvable dispute over sound quality, or just a few bad experiences a contributor has had—a question of three out of five breaking instead of just two out of five—or a particularly fussy system-matching characteristic. This is not arbitrary, but we are finnicky. We try to include all worthy candidates, while avoiding anything that might lead you and your money astray.

And look at the products unreviewed! Amplifiers from Rowland, Audio Research, Threshold, not to mention the more mid-fi companies; uncounted CD players from Yamaha, Sony, Denon, etc.—all somewhat different, some jewels, much trash; hundreds of speakers, some good; possibly significant inexpensive turntables; cables that no one could review, even working full time; whole categories we don't cover, such as cassette decks or high-quality car stereos. Yet much of what you will buy, and probably most of what you already own, is made up of just this kind of stuff that we, in our only-too-human inadequacy, can say nothing about.

When it's all finished I figure you'll just do the best you can with the best we've been able to provide. But be cautious: Read the original review! Listen for yourself! Listen to your dealer's advice! Listen to what your friends say! Follow Sam Tellig's advice and pretend you bought the product—see how it sits in your imagination over time! Listen again!

As an hors d'oeuvre (or a dessert, depending on when you read this "Final Word essay"), here are a few private recommendations of mine as of the summer of 1989. These are products I don't think you can go wrong with within their price ranges (and usually far above), unless your karma clashes with theirs: the Versa Dynamics 2.0 turntable; the Well Tempered Turntable; the Rega RB300 tonearm; the Grado ZTE+1; the van den Hul MC-One; the Ortofon MC-3000; the Thiel CS1.2; the Magnepan MG2.5; the Vandersteen 2Ci; the Spica TC-50; the Mirage M-1; the Mark Levinson No.26; the Vendetta Research SCP-2A (most outright stunning component, along with the Versa Dynamics, I've heard); The Mod Squad Line Drive Deluxe; the Levinson 20.5; the VTL 300; a 1970 or '71 Mercedes Benz 300SEL 6.3.; the Kimber Kable 4AG (but the price is ridiculous); the CAL Tempest II.

As you can see, most of these for-sure products are expensive, but some are not (the Mercedes costs only $14,000 or so—and it goes really fast). And not only are they all really good, but you could use any of the above with any of the others and get good sound.

Now that I've done it, I'd like to see the other Stereophile writers put out their list of "can't lose" components. Sure, they'll all be different, but you'll not only hear about more equipment, you'll know more about the reviewers.—Larry Archibald

jimtavegia's picture

It still depends upon you and what you do.

Et Quelle's picture

Not everyone can make it. Just worry about the Raven, Charger, Broncos, Seahawks, etc.'s picture

I have always wondered why people ask what kind of music do I listen in order to make a recommendation. I do not listen to just only one genre of music.
Is it really hard to make studio reference speakers without the narrow angle of positioning for perfect listening?!
I come from a visual background, so beside my english, forgive me for my narrow point of view.
How hard would it be to make some audio components calibrated for perfect sound reproduction, but also considering typical rooms, usually made for living, but occasionally (more often) used for listening?!
For wines and coffee, I might understand inconsistency, even for d.o.c., or origin type of coffees since they are both agricultural products. But when it comes to sound why so much colouring or genre specific speakers or components?!

My questions posted here do not take in the account the issue mentioned of discontinued products.

Naimdude's picture

When the recommended components was a list, and not a volume of encyclopedias? You know, 4 amps, 2 speakers, 1 turntable, etc.

Now, you have 6000 or more pieces of equipment on the recommended list; most of them in Class A!

Azaudio's picture

Actually its the issues I avoid. Reading simply like a phone book of past issues, impossible to make any real sense out of it.....few reviews anymore even compare similar priced competitors in the same article. Many are simply sales ad pieces for the manufacturers.