In this issue we present our first-ever Recommended Products
feature — the extensive, collective experience of TAS editors and writers distilled into
17 pages of component recommendations at all price levels, in every product category.
Making any list—the best films, wine, cities—is bound to generate
controversy, particularly in the case of something like music-reproduction components. High-performance audio offers a vast spectrum of approaches to
connecting a listener with the music he or she loves. From three-watt single-ended
triode amplifiers coupled to horn loudspeakers to 750-watt solid-state monoblocks driving electrostatic panels, the high end’s singular goal finds
manifold valid expressions.
Those of us who contributed to Recommended Products brought our own
biases, musical priorities, and personal favorites to the endeavor. That’s part of
what makes our list so interesting. Just as our writers disagreed over which products to include and in what class they ranked, you are sure to find products
and rankings with which you take issue. For example, some would argue that a slight tonal imbalance disqualifies a loudspeaker from Class I status, but not a
restriction of music’s dynamic range. But what makes one form of distortion
— departure from flat frequency response — tolerable, and another — a reduction in
music’s dynamic expression — not? Or vice versa?
Some would argue that an audio component’s quality can be “proved”
through the application of scientific method. But such objective” analysis is doomed to failure because it rejects, astonishingly, the human brain’s contribution to the miracle of musical communication. After all, it’s the mind that
converts mere fluctuations in air pressure into the sweeping grandeur of Mahler’s
Sixth Symphony or the emotional stab of a Joni Mitchell lyric. No measurement
device or theoretical model can put a value on the musical impact of the technical achievements and tradeoffs inherent in every high-end audio component.
That’s why audio-equipment evaluation is performed by human beings listening to music rather than by machines measuring test tones. And that’s why
our Recommended Products list will be controversial (particularly to manufacturers unhappy with the result). The list represents our diverse listening tastes,
our musical sensibilities, and ultimately, our humanity. It contains many close calls about which class to rank a product in—remember that component quality
generally falls along a continuum; we had to decide where to put the class markers. Creating a list isn’t an exact science, but it’s our best effort at compiling in
one place the formidable listening experience of our staff.
Consequently, it is imperative that you consider the components in
Recommended Products as a starting point for your own auditioning, not as some revealed truth. There are many paths to musical enjoyment; it is more
satisfying to discover your own way than to simply follow in another's footsteps.
We can illuminate the paths we’ve taken, tell you what we’ve experienced on our
own journeys, and point you in the right directions. But ultimately, you’re the
one who will spend night after night with your system. Learn from our experience, but trust your own ears.