Before I contributed to GoodSound! and the SoundStage! Network of sites, I noticed that many of the reviews earned awards -- such as the Great Buy award here on GoodSound!, or SoundStage! Hi-Fi’s Reviewers’ Choice award. I was a jaded audiophile, convinced that the reviewers were somehow in cahoots with manufacturers. There’s no freaking way that a $1500/pair of minimonitors could be as crazy good as the writer says they are, or that some guy -- and it’s always a guy, isn’t it? -- got good sound by driving $10,000/pair speakers with a $1000 integrated amp. Did anyone actually believe this stuff? When I began writing for the SoundStage! Network, I resolved to be different -- a voice of candor and reason, pregnant with integrity. After all, any product that wins an award should be something special.
Two years and more than 20 equipment reviews later, I’m beginning to feel that I’ve let myself down. I’ve given Great Buy awards to quite a few products recently, and I’m sure more are to come. It wasn’t intentional, and I’m sure as hell not deriving any personal benefit from doling out awards with reckless abandon, but I do feel compelled to explain.
There is no magic in high-end audio. Some may say that certain types of amps, or DAC chips, or driver designs are the best. But, really, almost anything, if designed with the proper engineering principles in mind, can sound really good. It’s just a matter of winnowing down the list of products we review to those made by companies who know what they’re doing. For speaker designers, it’s those who can explain to you what a baffle step is, or the consideration paid to minimizing distortion in a given driver architecture. Amplifier manufacturers may harp on damping factors or harmonic distortion across the entire range of human hearing, aka the audioband, as opposed to the obligatory rating at 1kHz. These kinds of engineering-heavy discussions may induce torpor, but the best audio products are the ones with the most able and innovative engineers behind them.
Which is why you don’t see many reviews on GoodSound! from companies you’ve never heard of before. Sure, there will be some folks who’ll go out and buy some random loon’s Lowther-style speakers and proclaim them to be crazy musical, with properly airy highs, as if they were musically motivated missionaries. More power to them -- buy what you like. This is, after all, a pretty subjective, eternal pilgrimage that most of us are on. Who am I to tell you any differently? But don’t tell me that they’re objectively better than all of these other speakers that I know firsthand to be top-rate.
How do I know they’re all top-rate? Because they’re all designed according to roughly the same design principles, ones that have been established as a result of decades of testing in anechoic chambers, testing via blind listening tests, and, most important, by people buying them and enjoying them. It’s been a lengthy, iterative process of trial and error. When a company appears seemingly from nowhere and proclaims that they know what they’re doing, cast a jaded eye. Odds are, others have trod the same ground before and discovered, for one reason or another, that there’s little reason to return.
So with the product list vetted to ensure that no garbage winds up in a reviewer’s hands, what someone like me is left with is a collection of, at the very least, well-designed gear. Without question, there are differences in sound -- some more dramatic than others, some better than others. But at the end of the day, when I return home from being a desk jockey, I’m going to be listening to gear that’s pretty good, whether it’s a $299 pair of computer speakers, such as PSB’s Alpha PS1 powered loudspeakers, or a $7500 pair of Vivid Audio Oval V1.5s.
Finding differences between those two models couldn’t be easier, but what about finding differences between two pairs of bookshelf speakers of similar prices and sizes -- say, Amphion Audio’s Ion+ ($1395/pair) and Sonus Faber’s Venere 1.5 ($1198/pair)? The smaller Amphion looks like an ice queen compared to the sensually curved baffles of the Sonus Faber. These personae extend to the speakers’ sounds -- the Ion+ is terrifically precise, while the Sonus Faber sounds more cultured and full-bodied, if a little less detailed. Offsetting the latter is the Venere’s deeper bass output. Depending on the person, I’d be happy suggesting either speaker to potential buyers -- each has strong points in different areas. And this leads to the amorphousness of it all. Weighing the pros and cons of a product in a vacuum, then weighing the aggregate in relation to other, similar products, is kind of troubling.
On further reflection, however, this approach is not nearly as troubling as what some other publications do: In their pages, everything is awesome, with one product just slightly more so than another. This normalization of product quality means that the consumer is left with little other than a collection of flowery adjectives and adverbs. There’s certainly something to this from a literary perspective, but as far as the consumer’s wallet is concerned, I think there’s less merit to this approach.
Which brings me back to my own reviews and product endorsements. It probably shouldn’t trouble me that I’ve been more liberal with handing out awards than I’d planned on being. It’s because the products have called for it. I’ve seen and heard enough garbage at audio shows to know that most of what I have in for review is really quite good. Even products that don’t earn an award may well be excellent in several areas, but with one or two substantial shortcomings.
If I were you, I’d be highly suspicious of my awarding so many product commendations these days. The danger, of course, is that if everything is so good, then there’s really no point in reviewing any of this crap, because I’d just be vomiting nonsense. But as someone who has been and continues to be both a reader and a writer of audio reviews, I can say that there aren’t many other products I’d rather be reviewing, and I’d be happy living permanently with just about all of them.
So, in conclusion . . . never mind. I don’t have one. Just go play some of your favorite music. I’ll meet you there.
. . . Hans Wetzel