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American Sound of Canada

Editor's Choice Analyzed: by E. Leopold
If you have followed the experts’ subjective evaluations of audio gear, you may have been impressed or influenced by the accolades for recommended or chosen components featured periodically in publications everywhere. I was intrigued enough to do a little checking and found that a number of audio magazines and web sites featured awards. They are described as Editor’s Choice, Recommended Components, Best Of, Reviewer’s Choice, etc. Well, I think that these awards are good — mostly for those companies that, along with their advertisements, can use them to help market their products. I can’t help but wonder what makes these award-winning components great; who actually selects them and exactly what influences the selection process. Could it be merit alone, business, or is it bias? And why can I not find my favourite audio gear among these recommendations?

The consumer electronics industry offers fabulous components to be sure, but I feel that far too many are chosen for awards. First off, the many low-end components sold to the masses shouldn’t be reviewed at all — they all sound the same, namely POOR. The equipment above the low end — mid-fi — shouldn’t be considered as award-winning material, as most of it is also produced as an alternative to higher-priced equipment produced with technical shortcuts and lower-grade parts.

The serious audio gear — the upper mid-fi, usually priced just below the high-end components — isn’t a guarantee that you get great sound, but does provide better workmanship and parts, thus better performance.
The high-end — read high or higher price — in the audio industry customarily employs a high caliber of engineering, dedicates many hours of R & D, uses superior (expensive) parts and boasts competent assembling work. Most high-end players take pride in their work, often with complete disregard for cost — and, of course, consumers must pay for this. However, even in the high-end categories it is not uncommon to find inferior sound, perhaps because technology alone does not music make. That takes listening skills and ears. Nevertheless, it is the high-end electronics business on which the lower priced equipment is based. This is the segment of the business that can qualify as potential award recipients, although it would be much easier to understand a ranking system such as the one used in sports. Gold, Silver and Bronze medals quickly show what is good, better, best and would clearly point to really good equipment, thus show a mark of distinction, even for the bronze medal recipient.

I’d love to see an understandable, logical method to categorize audio components — how about dividing them into three groups: high-end, mid-fi and mass production. This would appropriately guide consumers to the category of their interest and a short tag could direct them to a complete review.

I hope never to see “affordable high-end” ‘cause it doesn’t exist. Everything we know about good audio originated with people or companies that dedicated much time and loads of money, in so doing producing quality (high-end) equipment that, more often than not, was the inspiration/motivation for mass market companies to build “affordable” gear that employs — and that is another contentious stance that I dislike — trickled-down technology. In my opinion, only those who have established quality are entitled to use trickle-down technology.
I believe that awards and recommendations are good for those who manufacture and sell the goods, but I find the method used to determine the winners confusing, even misleading. I question the value of these awards considering that many are bestowed upon companies with healthy advertising budgets. Is it possible that advertising revenue or business politics influence the decision makers? Maybe not — I don’t know, for many of these awards appear in reputable journals. They are, of course, based on subjective evaluations, though it is interesting to see that they are rarely corroborated. Each reviewer/Editor has his/her favourite audio gear and I’d say that consensus is virtually impossible, likely because most reviewers agree that they disagree. I feel sorry for the potential consumer who may be more confused by some of the recommendations and awards than he/she was before seeing them. Help is likely hard to get hold of as retailers frequently know less about audio than the customer.

I like to read reviews written by reputable (established) Editors and published by reputable journals. They are likely least influenced by advertising revenue and business politics, although as they say: business is business; I’ll say no more.

Before I get off my soapbox, I want to say that I believe there are far too many newbie and part-time reviewers who never had formal (or informal) training of any sorts. Many of them may be audio enthusiasts-come-reviewers with an opinion — and many of them should stay with their daytime job. In many of the reviews I have read, I had the impression that the writer had a predisposition based on the acquaintance with their own gear and its sonic attributes. This is simply wrong reporting. If this wasn’t enough, I also found some web publishers that state that those who actually spend money for the equipment are better qualified to review it. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I know few who will admit that they made (purchasing) mistakes; and one can take it for granted that they bought the equipment because they liked the sound, not because it was the best, or even close to the performance of live music. Well, here I go again! Know what I really think? I think that there aren’t any reviewers who have heard it all, thereby making the choice for awards and recommendations an issue limited to their scope of expertise — and this includes reviewers published in The Inner Ear, of course.

picture: Meadow Song Lab, circa 2006 – This is one of my all-time favourite speakers
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