An Embarrassment Of Riches
Editorial By Robert Harley
Welcome to this special Buyers' Guide edition of
The Absolute Sound. In what has become an annual tradition, we deviate from our usual menu of product and music reviews to bring you a wrap-up of the very best products in every category and at every price. You'll find mini-reviews of the approximately 200 high-end products we think deliver the best sound quality, value, or both. These mini-reviews include caveats about the products, as well as system-matching suggestions. We've also included a number of special features to help you make the best decisions for choosing a music system or upgrading your current setup. A high-end audio system isn't much good without music, so we've selected our top picks of those CDs, LPs, and SACDs that combine great music with terrific sound.
As Jonathan Valin, Neil Gader, and I worked on the 56-page section of mini-reviews, it struck us that great sound has never been more affordable. Although it's possible to spend a small fortune on a top-flight audio system, the performance available from today's entry-level and mid-priced products is staggeringly good. With careful component selection, expert system-matching, and skillful setup, today's $5000 system will easily outperform a package costing four times that much just 20 years ago. But where can you find the expert component selection, system-matching, and setup I mentioned? At your local high-end audio retailer. Although this Buyers' Guide will point you in the right direction, there's no substitute for the value added by a skilled and caring dealer, as well as your own auditioning.
Getting back to the value of today's gear, high-end-product designers have made enormous strides in discovering circuits, parts, and techniques for delivering great sound at lower prices. The modern high-end audio industry really came into its own in the 1970s, having evolved from the "hi-fi movement" of the 50s and 60s. Consequently, many of today's great designers have been refining their craft for several decades. There's also a new breed of young engineers who stand on the shoulders of high-end's founders. Technology advancements have also brought better sound to all price levels. These include improvements in materials that deliver lighter and stiffer loudspeaker diaphragms, more inert speaker cabinets, sophisticated digital filters in CD players, and capacitors with lower coloration, to name a few.
Another factor driving the trend toward better sound at lower prices is the increase in manufacturing efficiency realized by high-end companies over the last decade. Some of these companies started as high-end boutique manufacturers and have grown to significant size. They are able to offer products designed with high-end goals but built in relatively large quantity. Their economy of scale has resulted in some of the greatest bargains in high-end audio today. As all these trends work toward better sound for less money, the marketplace has become more competitive. The performance bar is continually being raised at every price level, resulting in manufacturers striving to deliver the best-sounding product at a given price.
It's an exciting time for high-end audio-not just because of the high value today's products offer, but because of some genuine technological breakthroughs. These breakthroughs, available now only in ultra-expensive gear, will inevitably find their way into more affordable products. A good example is Meridian Audio's unique "apodising" digital filter, which removes a particularly nasty form of distortion we associate with "CD sound." It makes poor-sounding CDs sound like audiophile remasterings. This filter is only available now in the $16,995 Meridian 808.2 CD player, but I can envision the day when this technology will be found in mid-priced CD players. High-resolution digital audio is another exciting area. Although the record companies and hardware giants have abandoned any attempt to deliver high-res audio on disc, we can bypass physical packaging with high-res downloads to music servers. High-resolution digital, done right, is breathtaking. And let's not forget the absolutely stunning performance of today's LP-playback systems. Designers seem to keep pushing the performance envelope in turntables, tonearms, and cartridges, resulting in LP playback that is far beyond what I would have thought possible just ten years ago.
The bottom line is that there's never been a better time to enjoy the tremendous pleasures of owning a high-quality music system. We hope that this special edition of The Absolute Sound helps you do just that.
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