Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s a lesson that most of us, at some point in life, learn the hard way. Keeping up with the Joneses is expensive, and not just in terms of money. Comparing your kids, your spouse, your income . . . these comparisons, often constant, lead to a life in which gratitude is in short supply and contentment is always just out of reach. Comparison in audio reviews is a different story. Once you buy something, the comparisons can stop. Maybe they should stop. But while you’re shopping, comparisons are critical to making wise buying decisions.
I’m at a point in this audiophile thing where my nonsense meter goes off regularly. That wasn’t always the case. I used to buy into the nonsense: I can remember times when a manufacturer would contact me and tell me about the latest, greatest product they were about to release. They’d send me promotional materials and specs and photos, and I’d get all excited about the thing. And there’s no doubt that, more than once, I’ve been the victim of my own expectation bias.
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.
I’m often pitched products for review here on SoundStage! Ultra -- the SoundStage! Network site that covers extreme hi-fi components, and where my writing has primarily appeared for more than a decade. It’s obvious to anyone who reads this site the products we review are often priced far above most audio products. It makes sense: I’ve reviewed lots of expensive electronics and speakers over the years -- it’s what I’m known for in audio circles -- and that writing is the focal point of Ultra.
I’m probably not going to be the most popular guy walking the halls at this year’s High End show in Munich, Germany, because I’m about to reveal something that a growing number of reviewers don’t want you to know.
These days, everyone does the Product of the Year thing, and in that regard, we at SoundStage! are no different. What makes us different is our breadth of coverage. Not only do we review traditional home stereo gear, we also have writers who address home theater, Bluetooth speakers, desktop audio, and portable devices, including the increasingly important headphone and earphone markets. I’m proud of the fact that we at SoundStage! cover so many different product genres, and our awards reflect that breadth. Below are my views on this year’s most spectacular products, with links to our reviews of them.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show is right around the corner, in January, and Munich’s High End won’t be long in following. As always at those events, we’ll see new products, and see and hear announcements of products soon to be launched. I’m most interested in components that are unique and/or extreme in some way -- products that fit the Ultra in SoundStage! Ultra. What follows is my wish list, with a caveat: I have zero insider info about whether or not any of this high-end gear is actually in anyone’s pipeline.
I’d love to see the stats: How many audiophiles in 2016 bought parts of their system -- or their entire system -- online or over the phone, without ever having heard the component(s)? I know from the letters I receive that many of you do, if only out of necessity. The number of dealers stocking high-end audio gear has shrunk over the years, and sometimes it’s just not feasible to hear the component you’re considering buying before you actually buy it. And comparing two different brands side by side -- the two specific brands you’re most interested in -- is often next to impossible. Many dealers carry only a few brands, and typically complementary rather than competing brands.
As a longtime audio reviewer, I’ve heard a lot of products in my room -- but not all of them. Nowhere even close to most of them, actually. So when I hear about a new product that I find interesting, I often do what most audiophiles do: I search for it online and see what information I can find. Generally, I come across two types of information: the marketing materials released by the manufacturer, and the reactions to those marketing materials posted by audiophiles on online forums.
Last month, SoundStage! Publisher Doug Schneider wrote an editorial for SoundStage! Hi-Fi titled “Future Sounds -- Sonus Faber’s Sf16 and New Directions in Hi-Fi.” In it, he made some very good points regarding the future of the high-end audio industry, and what it will take for it to thrive into the next generation. In some ways, Doug said, these are bleak times: “Visit as many manufacturers as I do and you’ll hear tale after tale of how sales of traditional hi-fi products -- preamplifiers, amplifiers, standalone speakers (particularly big, boxy ones), etc. -- are way down. These have been -- or were -- the staples of the hi-fi scene for longer than I’ve been part of it; but now, fewer people want them, and no one I’ve talked to seems to think this trend will end. It’s not just a few manufacturers saying this -- it’s almost all of them.”
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