Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Ron DoeringI’ve just read the latest issue of one of the audio-rag survivors in which every component received a positive review. The preamp? "Just sounds right." Turntables priced $5000 and $6000? "Damn good record player . . . [can’t] go wrong buying one." Low-priced minimonitor-sub combo? "Recommended." A $15,000 loudspeaker? "I loved what it did!" The USB D/A converter was an "easy recommendation." I’ve left a bunch out -- various phono preamps, a handful of CD receivers -- also generally given the thumbs up. This wasn’t just a one-off for this magazine, either, and its few remaining competitors engage in more or less the same editorial behavior. If you look at my own scribbles, you could say I’m also guilty (so far) of not writing a negative review. And while we’re at it, just try to find negative reviews in the car mags or boat glossies.

Is there nothing out there that stinks? Doesn’t all this prove that reviewers are firmly in bed with the industries whose products they judge? How long can critics do this before someone cries foul? I’ll answer the first question first.

Is there nothing out there that stinks? Yes, there is audio equipment now on the market that is shoddily made, measures poorly, and sounds terrible. But the fact that dreck exists, even if there were a lot of it about, can’t be the only reason to pay someone like me good money to review it.

It’s no accident that the components that are reviewed by the established audio media get reviewed. From the perspective of my own little world, I review equipment that I or my editor, Jeff Fritz, may have heard and liked. Hi-fi and electronics shows are great for this sort of thing. Sometimes I seek out equipment that has gotten a strong positive buzz in the audio chat rooms. In short, rather than employ some sort of randomized lottery system, the equipment that tends to get reviewed has already demonstrated at least a potential for good sound.

Is this unfair? To whom? To the manufacturer of dreck thus spared a scathing review? To the reader with a prurient need to see a product and its manufacturer savaged in print?

Doesn’t all this prove that reviewers are firmly in bed with the industries whose products they judge? When paid at all, reviewers are paid the same amount whether they rave about a product or have severe reservations about its performance. The question then becomes: How useful is the review to the reader, or, more specifically, to the person planning an audio purchase? (We’re all planning on buying something at some point, right?) But while the negative review may be read only once, it may have an unintended result: that the reader will no longer consider any product offered by that company, or, at the very least, will now always harbor some doubt about it. And the reviewer might reasonably count that negative review as his last formal association with any product from that manufacturer. Do that too often and you’ll run out of things to review, or you’ll become an unofficial spokesman of companies x, y, and maybe z.

On the other hand, I submit that it is reasonable to imagine the potential audio purchaser collecting and referring repeatedly to positive reviews of products in his or her category of interest. A positive review is not necessarily an uncritical review, nor should it be. No product is perfect, whether it is held to the subjective or objective. What makes a review useful is attention to design details, construction methods, performance quirks, and any number of attributes that reveal themselves only during a lengthy audition, which is usually not possible under typical consumer return policies. Here is where the responsible reviewer can be helpful without being actively destructive.

The take-home message from all of this is that if you do not see a review of something that has been on the market for a reasonable amount of time, proceed with caution. Of course, the manufacturer may have a policy of not loaning out samples for review, which is not unheard of, and some of the smaller companies may simply have nothing in stock to lend. And never underestimate the ability of an incompetent marketing department to simply fail to send products out to be auditioned. If none of the above applies, chances are that reviewers have indeed experienced the product already, and their silence has spoken.

Another factor is at work. Discounting those companies that purposely market their products outside the high-end mainstream, these days you have to look long and hard to find a product in any category that is simply and utterly terrible. After all, we live in a time when the giants of electronic and transducer design and engineering have already walked the earth, and most of today’s respected audio manufacturers are, to paraphrase Bernard of Chartres, simply standing on their shoulders. Of course there continues to be room for improvement, but the basic design concepts leading to good-sounding and reliable equipment were worked out decades ago. Indeed, over the last 30 years both truly revolutionary and successful designs and techniques have been as rare as lips on chickens. This is not to say that good equipment produced now is no better than good equipment produced then. Steady improvements in materials and techniques of assembly have paid off handsomely. And as much as I find this to be a difficult statement to make in this economy, really good high-end equipment has never been less expensive or more reliable.

So it should come as no surprise that the components I’ve reviewed here thus far have been pretty solid performers or better, yet also quite conservative in design. Exceptions? The Atlantic Technologies AT-1 loudspeaker and its H-PAS bass-enhancing technology is a standout with real potential for moving speaker performance forward. I’ve also reviewed a number of components designed to take advantage of the promise of computer-based audio that are groundbreaking in the sense that, in one fell swoop, the experience of music listening and music acquisition has become faster, cheaper, richer -- in a word, better. Regardless of what so many iTunes listeners settle for, the seeds of extraordinary high-fidelity music reproduction have been well and surely planted by talented people working in both hardware and software design.

Of this be sure: Truly obtainable hi-fi has never sounded better. And, through the thoughtful melding of computer technology, the quality of source material is potentially freed from previous constraints, whether technological or arbitrarily self-imposed.

I also promise to keep on the lookout for lousy hi-fi. Just don’t expect me to write about it.

. . . Ron Doering