Are Recommended Components Lists Worth Recommending?
In contrast, magazines like Stereo Review and (the late) High Fidelity never seemed to print any bad reviews of products. Consequently, it was hard to determine which products they favored and which ones they really didn’t care for. By never really printing anything bad about a product, these publications may have unwittingly served to maintain a certain level of product mediocrity during the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, by identifying a pecking order for quality, Stereophile, The Absolute Sound and Consumer Reports have probably done as much as any publication can to advance the quality of audio products in this country. Despite the inherent flaws in recommending certain components over others (and there are many, as will be explained later on), there is a need for someone to do it—and the more that do it, the better for all of us. Certainly, some do it better than others; some do it more frequently than others. What follows is an overview of who recommends components, what they've recommended, and how they arrived at the recommendations:
THE ABSOLUTE SOUND - Stereophile may have preceded The Absolute Sound, but it was the latter that set the trend over twenty years by candidly identifying what it considered to be the best sounding audio components that money could buy. TAS still does that, but instead of having a "Recommended Components" list, it has “Editor’s Choice”—in recognition that the opinions are really ultimately those of its editor, Harry Pearson. Recently, there have been fewer sightings of the Editor's Choice in the pages of TAS. I suspect it's due to the increasing difficulty of conducting ratings, given the proliferation of audio products these days. Oftentimes, however, the component recommendations will be buried in the reviews of a single audio product.
THE AUDIO CRITIC - This publication used to regularly list its recommendations for audio components. But, like the magazine publication schedule itself, such recommendations have become few and far between - particularly after it adopted the position that many electronic components (amplifiers, preamplifiers, and CD players) shouldn't and don't sound significantly different from each other so long as the products are designed with similar design criteria and quality of parts. Accordingly, its most recent recommendations for amplifiers, preamplifiers and CD players have focused on construction quality and design based on proven principles.
CONSUMERS DIGEST - The best critique of the product recommendations by Consumers Digest was found, of all places, in the editorial column of the July 1996 issue of Consumer Reports. Consumers Digest states that its Best Buy recommendations are based on criteria derived from at least three of the following sources: (1) Independent testing and research studies by others; (2) Consumer Digest reader and other surveys; (3) Previously published evaluations in other sources; (4) Retail dealers; (5) Other independent sources; and (6) Personal (hands) on evaluations by the authors. Thus, it is entirely possible for the magazine to award a Best Buy designation to a product without ever having seen (let alone used) the product. On the other hand, the magazine is a digest, in the sense that their Best Buys tend to be based on a consensus of secondary sources. Still, Consumer Reports takes the Digest to task for awarding Best Buy designations to products such as the Dodge Neon, which CR considers noisy and unreliable. CR also rakes CD over the coals for charging companies as much as $25,000 to advertise a “Best Buy.”
Dolby Pro Logic Receiver - Technics SA-GX490 ($290 average price) - a CR Best
Top-Rated Stereo-Only Receiver - Technics SA-GX190 ($180 average price) - a CR Best Buy.
Top-Rated Budget Speaker - Altec Lansing Model 85 ($200/pair average price).
CR Best Buy Budget Speaker - Yamaha NS-A636 ($120/pair average price). CR’s March 1995 findings, updated in February 1996, are as follows:
Top-Rated Mid-Priced Speakers (in order of overall quality) - Phase Technology 7T ($600/pair average price), RA Labs F-1 ($580/pair), Bose Acoustimass 5 Series II ($725), Signet SL-280 B/U ($700/pair), Yamaha NS-A325/YST-SW120 ($500/pair), and Miller & Kreisel SX- 7/VX-7 ($745/pair).
CD Players - Sony CDP-C445 (excellent; one of the best for making tapes; $260 average price), JVC XL-V261TN (excellent; $160), Onkyo DX-C220 (predecessor was excellent performer but not the most convenient for making tapes; $280), Denon DCM-340 (excellent overall, but not the best for making tapes; brand a bit more trouble prone than most; $280), Technics SL-PD1010 (predecessor was excellent; $290).
Top Rated Cassette Deck (Single Deck) - Sony TC-K615S (excellent overall; $350 average price).
Top Rated Cassette Deck (Dual Deck) - Sony TC-WR665S (predecessor was excellent overall; $260).
For a more detailed critique of Consumer Reports testing of audio equipment, see Issue No. 67 of L.A. Audio File (Winter-Spring 1995).
NEWS & RECORD REVIEW - This magazine publishes two items that fit the description
of a recommended components list. Reviewers Recommend answers the two-part
question: What do the reviewers listen to themselves? And what would they pick
as the best audio buys? In Reviewers Recommend, HFN&RR will focus
on a particular component (e.g., CD player), and the reviews will reveal what
they use and pick their favorites in various price categories. The second recommended
components item published by HFN&RR is called The Good Hi- Fi Guide
(not to be confused with The Good CD Guide published by Gramophone,
in association with Quad). Like most recommended components lists, The Good
Hi-Fi Guide is a compilation based on the recommendations of the magazine’s
reviewers. The method of ranking, however, is not revealed (is it a straight one-reviewer,
one-vote ballot, or do reviewers get to submit weighted votes?). The date the
product was reviewed is revealed, to give readers an idea of how recently the
product was tested. Stars are awarded to products proving to be exceptional in
performance or value (up to three stars in each category are awarded). As of June
1995, the following products earned three stars in either performance or value:
THE SENSIBLE SOUND - This magazine recently brought back its list entitled Sensible Choice. It's a list similar to Stereophile's, in that it compiles the recommendations of its reviewing staff. The major difference is that the focus is on affordable products.
STEREOPHILE - The mother of all recommended components lists
is contained in the pages of Stereophile magazine. Stereophile’s
list is culled from the recommendations of over 30 reviewers. It’s almost staggering
in its magnitude, covering turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, phono accessories,
CD players, digital processors, CD transports, CD player accessories, preamplifiers,
passive control units, moving-coil step-up devices, power amplifiers, loudspeaker
systems, subwoofers & crossovers, complete audio systems, home theater components,
headphones, FM tuners, FM antennae, recording equipment, test equipment, power-line
accessories, stands, spikes, feet and racks, room treatments, interconnects, loudspeaker
cables, digital data interconnects, books and computer software, and miscellaneous
accessories. There is no doubt that the Stereophile list took a monumental
amount of time to compile.
STEREOPHILE GUIDE TO HOME THEATER
- The first issue of Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (Vol. 1, No. 1,
1995) remains the best primer on home theater that I’ve seen. That particular
issue contained six recommended home theater systems, ranging from a sleeper $5,000
set up, to a “Cinema Paradiso” system priced at just under $200,000. Subsequent
issues of the Guide have periodically contained updates for the system
- Roy Nakano
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