My reviewing activities have mainly
specialized in loudspeakers over the past thirty years, a situation that has its pluses and its minuses. The positives are
that speakers are inherently very interesting and varied, and there are always
plenty of new models to keep me busy.
The down side is that in several important respects at least, the loudspeaker is only as
good as the signal with which it is fed. That in turn presents several paradoxes and
poses a number of dilemmas.
In general and in principle I believe one should attempt to feed any review speaker
with as good a signal as possible. But does it really make any sort of sense to review a
pair of speakers costing a few hundred pounds on the end of a system costing tens of
thousands? Or even (as high-end prices continue to escalate) hundreds of thousands of
There’s no easy answer to this dilemma. The inexpensive speaker will almost certainly
end up being fed from a relatively modest system. And since all such systems are bound
to have significant performance compromises, these flaws will inevitably be transferred
to the speakers. But they’re going to vary from one system (and indeed location) to
another, and they’re not going to be the fault of the speaker.
It’s therefore simply not possible to set up a ‘representative’ low cost system in order
to review low cost speakers, because the only outcome will be that the low cost speaker
gets blamed for the limitations of whatever system is used to drive it. For admittedly
understandable reasons, the review will simply be ‘wrong’, at least in absolute terms.
One might argue that one shouldn’t even try to review individual components,
especially loudspeakers, and focus instead on complete systems. But that’s nonsense,
since the hi-fi business grew up on separate components; they’re what manufacturers
make, distributors market, and customers buy and want to read about. The complete
system has its place, but that’s mainly in the dealer’s and customer’s listening rooms.
There aren’t any easy answers to the reviewer’s dilemma, and I wouldn’t have the
arrogance to assume that I always get it right. Like most of my peers, I try to do my
best, and am only as good as my last review. But there’s no denying that the experience
of the costly speaker cable I write about in Subjective Sounds provided a salutary wake-up
call, with rather worrying implications.
One major difficulty is that the price tags of high-end hi-fi equipment have been
escalating for some years, and there’s no sign of that growth slowing down. While I don’t
regard price per se as a particularly accurate guide to sound quality, and reckon I can get
close-to-impeccable performance at less-than-stratospheric prices, simply by applying
nous and know-how, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up.
It’s not difficult for the well established reviewer to borrow high-end components
on an extended loan, and to some extent I’m happy enough to do this, for some
components at least. (For example, it wouldn’t make sense to spend serious money on
loudspeakers that I only got to enjoy occasionally because of reviewing commitments.)
The true irony is that the components I really want to keep long term are, more often
than not, those that I actually have to pay for!
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