I was recently in the market for a new SUV. The odometer of our family’s 2012 Toyota Highlander had recently rolled over to 200,000, and I was feeling less confident that the car would hold up through a couple of long road trips we’d planned. I began my search as most people do these days: I went online and read reviews. I’d been super happy with the Highlander, so of course my first thought was to buy another one. I scrolled through comparison tests from YouTubers as well as the usual magazines -- Car and Driver and Motor Trend among them -- to see what others thought of the current-model Highlander and its competitors. Having not shopped for a new vehicle since buying the Toyota new in 2012, I had no idea just how much the market in midsize SUVs -- and the pecking order among them -- has changed.
I read review after review, scanned comparison after comparison, watched video after video. A few things became abundantly clear. First, the Toyota Highlander, though still a reliable choice, seems in need of a redesign, and so did not appear in the top half of most reviewers’ rankings of midsize SUVs. Having seen no recent Highlanders on the road that looked much different from our own 2012 model, I guess I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was that one of the highest-ranking recommendations in almost every comparison test I found was a newcomer: the Kia Telluride. Again and again, the Kia beat not only the Highlander but the Ford Explorer, the Honda Pilot, and the Volkswagen Atlas, among others. I’d seen Tellurides around town and liked the look, and late last year a close friend had bought one and raved about it. But until I began reading these reviews, I’d never considered buying one for a single reason: It was a Kia.
I wasn’t strongly considering a more expensive BMW X5 or Audi Q5, and I sure didn’t want to shell out the cash for what I think is the most attractive new SUV: a Land Rover Range Rover Velar SVAutobiography Dynamic, with a list price of over $90,000. But surely, a Toyota or a Ford would be better than a . . . Kia. So I dug deeper into Kia, certain that I’d find a good reason or three not to buy one. And yes, a few problems kept cropping up: Troubles in past years, mainly related to faulty engines, had tarnished the brand’s reputation. But lately, Kia has gained more and more respect.
In 2020, among 32 car makers, Kia tied with Dodge for first place for Overall Initial Quality by J.D. Power. In the same survey, Land Rover came in dead last. I continued my research by test-driving a 2021 Kia Telluride, which confirmed what I’d read about it. Alas, my head vanquished my heart. I bought not only a 2021 Telluride, but was so sold on Kia that, at the same time, I bought a new Kia Soul compact, which my daughter will eventually take to college. The new cars were delivered in September, and now, with a week’s ownership under my belt, I’m very happy with both -- so far, each is what its glowing reviews said it was. For that, I’m thankful, and confident that I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
But all that said, can I honestly say that I wouldn’t be more, um, excited to look out my living-room window and see a Land Rover Velar sitting in my driveway? A Kia will never be a luxury product, and those Land Rover designers sure know how to draw the eye to their SUVs.
When I read Roger Kanno’s review of the NAD Masters M33 integrated amplifier-DAC ($4999) on sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi -- you know, the site where we review more mundane gear (just kidding) -- his conclusion reminded me of my recent car-shopping experience: “The Masters M33’s combination of sound quality and features makes it the current front-runner in the extremely competitive market of $5000 integrated amplifiers.” Or, in SUV terms, the NAD M33 is the Kia Telluride of integrated amps. Based on Purifi Audio’s highly regarded Eigentakt power-amplifier technology, created by Bruno Putzeys and Co., the Masters M33 is the sensible choice for many (most?) audiophiles. It may not be the fanciest or the sexiest, and it definitely isn’t pure luxury -- but it doesn’t cost a fortune, and its implementation of advanced technology and forward-thinking design choices lets it punch way above its weight.
And if the NAD is the Kia Telluride, then Gryphon Audio Designs’ Diablo 300 integrated amplifier-DAC ($17,600 with DAC module) is surely the Land Rover Velar (ignoring the Rover’s poor initial quality rating).
When Hans Wetzel reviewed the Diablo 300 in September 2016, right here on Ultra, he could barely lift the thing. But contrast Roger’s conclusion with Hans’s: “The Diablo 300 is a mad, inimitable masterpiece.” I don’t know which sounds better but I do know that the Gryphon costs more than three times the NAD’s price.
The dilemma is profound. Would you rather own the “current front-runner in the extremely competitive market” or a “mad, inimitable masterpiece”? Heart vs. head? Kia vs. Land Rover? Are there right and wrong answers here?
In “Should You Follow Your Heart or Your Head?,” an article posted on the website of Psychology Today, author Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., writes: “Listening to your heart is something that will more likely hurt you than not, especially if you’re under any kind of time pressure.” And when making a purchasing decision, aren’t we often under some kind of time pressure? On the other hand, I read, in Ed and Deb Shapiro’s article “Listen Up! Why Being In Your Heart Is Better than In Your Head,” on Oprah.com, that “While the mind is the content of who you are, your heart is your essence. Your true heart is not subject to chaos or limited by pain, fear and neuroses, but is joyful, creative and loving. Some believe the heart can be too uncertain and even misguided, but that is the head talking!”
Are you getting the feeling that all of this is unreconcilable?
I’m no Ph.D., but when it comes to high-end hi-fi, here’s my take: In our hobby, some specific factors come into play that may not be present in other buying decisions you’re likely to make in everyday life. First, hi-fi is optional (which is not to say that music itself is optional). If you’ve ever cranked up your car radio with the windows down, you know as well as I do that you can enjoy music over less-than-high-fidelity sources just fine. Hi-fi is also likely subject to the budgetary restrictions we impose on recreational equipment. Though you may intensely desire it, you don’t actually need this stuff to live -- it has to come after the actual necessities of life.
So it comes down to what you value, as I discussed last month. If you want high value, great measurements, lots of features, and ultra-clean sound, the NAD Masters M33 is your ticket to the dance. If you yearn for that dark, unruly, unmistakably masculine presence in your listening room that only the Gryphon Diablo 300 can provide, then only it will do.
Either choice can be the correct one.
I’m perfectly happy with my Kia Telluride. It was the most prudent choice in a family-friendly, three-row SUV with the latest tech, good power and handling for a big vehicle, a solid warranty, and better-than-average reliability.
But damn -- I wish I’d bought the Velar.
. . . Jeff Fritz