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.”
I’ve owned three BMWs over the past 15 years. I had a 5-series car (can’t remember which one), a 128i, and, between those two, a 328i with the Performance Package that I bought brand new oh, maybe 12 years ago. I had only about 500 miles on the 328i when, one morning, I pulled out of my driveway, put the car in drive, and . . . nothing. About 30 seconds later, the transmission finally engaged. Nor was this an anomaly -- later that day, the same thing happened. I got on the phone with the BMW dealership I’d bought the car from. Sure enough, they knew about the problem -- it had reared its head all over the country. Turns out the transmission in this model was actually built by . . . wait for it . . . General Motors.
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. -- Lao Tzu
There was a period of about ten years when I just couldn’t sit still -- in audio terms. About every two years, I’d upgrade -- or, in many cases, just change for change’s sake -- my entire stereo system. This wasn’t about steadily improving my system’s sound quality. The components I was switching out were already part of any discussion of the state of the audio art. I wanted new. I wanted exciting. I wanted the buzz-creating latest thing.
If you’ve followed my writing over the 20 years that I’ve been covering high-end audio, you no doubt know about my column “The World’s Best Audio System” (“TWBAS” for short). The last one was published in January 2014, but honestly, by then “TWBAS” had, to a large degree, petered out. I officially shut down the series in September 2014, with “Closing the Curtain on TWBAS.”
It should go without saying that the best way to choose a high-end stereo component is to listen to it. In a store is fine, in your home is better. To know if it’s really right for you, you need to hear it in the context closest to how you will actually use it. You also need to see its features, feel its controls, and closely examine its build quality. Listening to music through a high-end system is, by definition, experiential. You can do tons of research online before making a buying decision, but if you haven’t actually seen, touched, and heard an audio component in a context that’s relevant to you, you lack the most important and necessary information.
Has this happened to you? You go to sleep on Friday night with a potential audio purchase on your mind -- as you drift off, you find yourself comparing two products. Then, the first thing you think of on waking Saturday morning are those two shiny new speakers you were thinking about the night before. The natural thing to do -- after making a cup of coffee -- is to get online and pore over the details of the models you’re enamored with. This exercise is especially common for audiophiles. Yes, we do the same thing with cars, but usually it’s relatively convenient to stop by the dealer to have a look, and maybe take a test drive. For audiophiles, that’s often not feasible -- unless you live in a big city that still has high-end audio dealers inhabiting actual buildings.