Book Review: "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio"

The Complete Guide to High-End Audio
by Robert Harley
450+xxiv pp., $29.95 softcover, $39.95 signed hardcover. Published by Acapella Publishing, P.O. Box 80805, Albuquerque, NM 87198-0805. Credit-card orders: (800) 848-5099.

When Robert Harley's book, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, was published, I had a pretty puzzle facing me: Should Stereophile review a book written by one of its three (J. Gordon Holt, Thomas J. Norton, and Robert Harley) full-time equipment reviewers? Ultimately, I decided that we should publish a review. To get opinions of the book from the two ends of the spectrum of its potential readership, I commissioned reviews from Martin Colloms, a senior reviewer for Stereophile and the UK magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, and author of High Performance Loudspeakers, the influential textbook on loudspeaker design; and from Kristen Weitz, whose quarterly "Getting Real" column in Stereophile describes the trials and tribulations of the neophyte audiophile. We start with Martin.—John Atkinson

Over the years, the term "High Fidelity" has become debased. Today, the legend "Hi-Fi" can even be found on portable, battery-powered, "suitcase"-style radios. In its true sense, however, "high fidelity" describes genuinely high-quality audio reproduction in the home. This is a specific consumer area distinct from the purchase of audio music centers, rack systems, mid-fi, or mini stacks. The quality audio market is a surprisingly discerning and discriminating one; the fine differences in sound quality that are compared and valued are comparable to those encountered in the search for and enjoyment of fine wines.

As in any specialist area, the products in high-end audio are not always readily available in multiple outlets; a degree of commitment and enthusiasm is required of customers seeking audio reproducers of such quality. They must be prepared to locate and assess key hi-fi outlets, gain an overview of the various merits of the available brands and technologies, and evaluate their expectations of quality and the potential and flexibility of their listening-room arrangements. With the majority of quality audio systems costing between $5000 and $15,000—the median value for systems owned by Stereophile readers is $11,000—customers who conduct such research will be well-rewarded by a system appropriate to their specific needs and requirements.

The word "Guide" in the title of Robert Harley's Complete Guide to High-End Audio implies that the book is meant to be a fairly easy read, with restricted technical content—certainly no audio design-manual or textbook.

A monthly magazine like Stereophile often devotes space to introductory articles, buying tips, or features on systems and listening rooms; but it could never put together the material in such a structured and consistent way as Robert Harley has achieved in The Complete Guide. Still, "Complete" implies comprehensive coverage of the entire field—a tall order, and one, by definition, almost impossible to achieve. In its current usage, "High-End" applies to high-quality audio systems built from carefully chosen separates beginning at genuinely good reproduction levels, and continuing up to the best available. So—does The Complete Guide live up to its title?