Readers have a love/hate relationship with the word best. So do reviewers. On the one hand, rarely does a day go by that I don’t receive an e-mail from a reader asking which is better for his or her situation: component A, B, or C? Typically, the reader is someone who is about to make a buying decision but is at an impasse, and wants me to break the tie.
On the other hand, best is bandied about by plenty of reviewers in another context: absolute terms. In rare circumstances I’ve done this myself, when I’ve felt extremely confident that I can call something the best, period. These days, however, I try to avoid such judgments altogether -- I’ve learned over the years that no reviewer can set aside his or her own taste and biases in order to account for the very different tastes and biases of every other audiophile out there. Accurately assessing which product is best in a given component category is impossible.
In 20 years of reviewing I’ve amassed a lot of experience. And while I can’t define what’s best for you all, I can tell you what, in those two decades, some of my personal bests have been. In this article I address many of the peripheral qualities that can add value to a high-end-audio buying or ownership experience. I’m well aware that, for all the hundreds of products I’ve reviewed, my sample set is still very limited -- so do write in with your own personal bests. Of the responses I receive, I’ll be happy to publish the, um, best.
Best attention to detail for value-priced products: Oppo Digital. I’m constantly impressed with Oppo’s product line. With each product they release -- and Oppo’s product line is filling out quickly -- it’s apparent that the company pays attention to their customers’ wants and needs, and tries hard to give buyers more than they expect for the money. An example is their new Sonica DAC ($799 USD). Who would have thought that the new ESS Technology ES9038PRO Sabre DAC chip could find its way into an $800 DAC? Add to that a fully balanced circuit design and toroidal power supply, and the feature list starts to look like something found in a DAC costing $10,000.
Best long-term investment: McIntosh Laboratory. OK, sure -- no audio purchase should be made as an “investment” in anything other than the buyer’s future listening pleasure. But when you combine real-world asking prices with great reliability, solid customer service, and brand recognition that is perhaps unparalleled in the industry, you can be sure that, if you’re writing a check for something you intend to keep for the next 25 years, buying a big Mac is a solid decision. Just go look at the prices demanded for, say, used McIntosh MC2205 power amps. This model, manufactured between 1975 and 1979, sold for a retail list price of $1649. Currently, Audiogon offers one MC2205 in 7/10 condition for $1889. Doesn’t get better than that in this industry, investment-wise.
Best build quality for cost-no-object audio: Magico and Boulder Amplifiers. These were easy picks. Recently, a manufacturer supplied footers for the review samples of their expensive loudspeakers: aluminum discs with a Delrin base, designed to fit under the speakers’ spikes. Well, I’d just reviewed Magico’s MPods ($8400/eight), and the differences in machining quality, assembly tolerances, and overall fit’n’finish, were night-and-day -- like the difference between a new Rolex and a watch you’d pick up in a convenience store while waiting to pay for your gas. Boulder is on an equal level with Magico. A pet peeve of mine is solder flux on circuit boards -- when I see this yellowish goop dripped onto boards and not cleaned off, I wonder what else has been neglected. You don’t see such nonsense inside a Boulder.
Best one-on-one customer service: Aerial Acoustics and Rockport Technologies. Maybe there are others, but it’s typical to call either of these companies and have none other than Michael Kelly (Aerial) or Andy Payor (Rockport) pick up the phone. As high-end audio grows ever more corporate, this sort of thing becomes rarer and rarer. I’ve never spoken to Michael Kelly (though I know many audiophiles who have), but I’ve called Andy Payor many times. I know from others’ stories that I’m not alone in having Payor answer not only questions about his designs, but technical speaker-engineering questions that help to educate the consumer. I’ve heard that Kelly does the same.
Best marketing: Wilson Audio Specialties. Wilson Audio uses a combination of social media and their website, original videos, and extensive product brochures to weave a story around a product that speaks to its potential buyers. Their marketing methods have created a brand cachet that is the envy of its rivals, and a loyal fan base that sticks with the company for decades on end. Sort of like Harley-Davidson.
A few additional industry bests . . .
Best audio show: Munich’s High End. This is the event in high-end audio.
Best audio comeback: Dan D’Agostino. After departing Krell, Dan has made Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems successful in an astonishingly short time.
Best music-player software: Roon. Once you get used to the interface, everything else seems rudimentary by comparison.
Best video quality in high-end audio: SoundStage! Network. OK, yes, I’m biased. But watch our SoundStage! InSight series of videos and judge for yourself.
If your favorite brands didn’t make the lists above, don’t get too bent out of shape -- no science was involved in my picks. These are just personal observations, submitted only for entertainment value. Have fun with them -- and be sure to send me your own lists of bests.
. . . Jeff Fritz