Are Recommended Components Lists Worth Recommending?

A little over twenty years ago, I saw my first copy of The Absolute Sound, and was immediately struck by the candor of its “recommended components” list. No matter what the consequences, here, at least, was a magazine willing to stick its neck out when it came to product evaluations. Moreover, the recommended components list made it very clear which products the magazine liked best. As it turns out, The Absolute Sound was not the only magazine to rank its favorite audio components. J. Gordon Holt, through Stereophile, had been doing it for years, as had Consumer Reports (albeit for a more mainstream audience).
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.”

Consumers Digest's Home Electronics Buying Guide is written by Southern California’s Marc Weilage and Rod Woodcock, both writers with solid audiophile and videophile credentials. Thus, it is no surprise that their Best Buys include a number of products with good reputations in the audiophile community. The upshot of all this is that if you remember that Consumers Digest is just that—i.e., a digest, the Weilage & Woodcock compilation is a good one, and is useful as a guide. Their compilations are normally published every December:

CD Players (single disc) - Pioneer Elite PD-65 (List Price $800; Best Price $625); Marantz CD-63SE (List $500; Best $450); NAD 502 (List $300; Best $240).
CD Players (multiple disc) - JVC XLMC301 (List $1050; Best $750); Pioneer PDF-51 (List $515; Best $410); Onkyo Integra DX-C320 (List $350; Best 298).
Combination CD & Laserdisc Players - Pioneer CLD-704 (List $1235; Best 833); Yamaha CDV-W901 (List $900; Best $765); Pioneer CLD-S104 (Best $300).
AM/FM Tuners - Rotel RT-940AX (List $329; Best $300); Marantz ST-55 (List $300; Best $270).
Stereo Preamplifiers - Parasound P/LD-1500 (List $895; Best $775); NAD 106 (List $599; Best $498).
Stereo Power Amplifiers - Parasound HCA-1200 II (List $975; Best $880); NAD 2100X (List 2100X (List $400; Best $340).
Stereo Integrated Amplifiers - Onkyo A-807 (List $600; Best $510); NAD 304 (List $380; Best $325).
Stereo Receivers - Pioneer SX-303R (List Price $375; Best Price $254); Radio Shack Optimus STA-3190 (Best $250); Onkyo TX-910 (List $245; Best $212).
Home Theater Separate Components - Parasound HCA-606 Amplifier (List $1100; Best $945); Carver CMV-1185 Integrated Amplifier (List $900; Best $795); Parasound P/SP-100 Preamp (List $850; Best $750); NAD 910 Surround-Sound Processor (List $600; Best $510); AudioSource SS-6 Surround-Sound Processor (List $330; Best $270)
Home Theater Receivers - Denon AVR-2500 (List $1000; Best $921); Onkyo SV- 727PRO (List $800; Best $675); Sherwood RV-5050R (List $500; Best $350).
Cassette Recorders - Sony TC-KA3ES (List $850; Best $720); Sony TC-WA8ES (List $500; Best $420); Aiwa AD-S950 (List $500; Best $390); Onkyo TA-6210 (List $300; Best $270).
Stereo Loudspeakers (per pair) - NHT 2.5 (List $1100; Best $916); Snell Type K/III (List $550; Best $500); Paradigm Mini-Mk 3 (List $350; Best $300); Radio Shack Optimus Pro LX-5 (Best $300).
Home Theater Speakers - Atlantic Technology 250HT Satellite-Subwoofer System (List $1500; Best $1175); NHT VT-1a Video Theater System (List $1360; Best $1160); Cambridge Soundworks Ensemble Satellite-Subwoofer System (Best $839).

CONSUMER REPORTS - Audiophiles like to give this magazine a hard time for its attempt to evaluate audio components in the same vein as shampoos and kitchen appliances. In truth, Consumer Reports probably does a more thorough job of comparison testing than any of the other magazines mentioned here. Consider: Most magazines compile recommended components lists from several reviewers, but not a single reviewer has reviewed all of the products on the list. CR has the same panel evaluate all of the components. CR backs up its panel evaluations with controlled, measured testing in their laboratory, which includes an anechoic chamber. Most high end reviews are limited to listening sessions in a person’s living room.

Their principle weaknesses are twofold: One, jumping to early conclusions about what constitutes a virtue (e.g., they initially considered Dolby HX Pro a virtue, but later dropped it as such; Dolby S looks like it will travel the same route) and what doesn’t (they once tested center channel speakers for home theater without underscoring the importance of matching the sound characteristics of the center channel with the sound quality of the front stereo speakers). Two, they are generally unfamiliar with what has been done in the academic field of audio (if CR ever discovers AES papers or Canada’s National Research Council, they could turn into one killer audio evaluation force to reckon with).
Top-Rated Dolby Pro Logic Receiver - Technics SA-GX490 ($290 average price) - a CR Best Buy.

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).

HI-FI 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:

CD Players
- Audio Alchemy DAC in a Box (value), Audio Synthesis DAX (performance), Denon DCD 825 (value), Marantz CD63 SE (value), Meridian 500/563 (performance), Mission Disc/Dacmaster (performance), NAD 502 (value), Orelle CD160 (value), Pioneer PD-S802 (value), Pioneer PD-S901 (value).

- Audion 300B (performance), Audio Research PH1 (performance), Conrad-Johnson PV10AL (both), Musical Fidelity A1 Mk III (value), QED Vector (value).

- ATC SCM10 (both), B&W 600.1 (value), B&W 620.1 (value), Celestion 7 II (value), KEF 105/3 (performance), Magnepan SMGb (both), Monitor Audio MA201 (value), Sequence 30 (value), Tannoy 607 (value), Tannoy D700 (performance).

- Accuphase T108 (performance), Audiolab 8000T (performance), Onix BWD-1 (performance), Quad 66FM (performance).

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.
Recommendations are ranked in six categories. Class A ranking denotes the best attainable for a component of its kind without any practical considerations (“ don’t have to make a leap of faith to believe that you’re hearing the real thing”). Class B constitutes the next best thing to the very best sound reproduction. Class C denotes somewhat lower fidelity, but “far more musically natural than average home-component high fidelity.” Class D, according to Stereophile, still offers satisfying musical sound, but is compromised in one fashion or another. Class E is reserved for loudspeakers and phono cartridges that are inexpensive but much better than most products in their mid-fi price category. Class K is for products not tested (or finished testing) that the magazine has "reason to believe may be excellent performers." [?]
Closer inspection of the Stereophile work reveals, however, that the body of 30 plus reviewers did not review all the products on the list. On the contrary, a component can be placed on the list based on the review of a single person. Consequently, it is possible for a Stereophile reviewer to have recommended placing a component in Class A, for example, without that same reviewer having listened to all the other components that made Class A. The upshot is that the Stereophile list does not represent recommendations based on uniform listening evaluations.
Okay, so Stereophile is not the audiophile equivalent of Consumer Reports when it comes to how it bases its recommendations. Still, the Stereophile list is a good one, and the magazine deserves credit for going through all the trouble of putting together and continually updating a recommended components list that spans some 36 pages (given the small size of the L.A. Audio File bulletin, we respectfully refrain from printing the results of the Stereophile list here).

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 recommendations.
In answer to the question posed in the title of this article: Yes, recommended components lists are worth recommending. None of them are perfect. On the contrary, they are all flawed, and no single list should serve as the final word in determining what should be purchased. Ultimately, that should be left up to the ears of the purchaser. Taken together, however, they serve as a guide in one’s quest toward the purchase of audio components. The more lists there are, the better for the audiophile consumer in composing his or her own shortlist for purchase.

- Roy Nakano

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