Issue 207 Spring Buyer's Guide 2011
Editorial By Robert Harley
My friend Mike was at a hi-fi show
with the manufacturer of an expensive turntable when a showgoer asked the
manufacturer how much the turntable cost. When he was told it was $75,000, the
showgoer replied in shock, “That’s a lot of money for a turntable.” Mike
instantly shot back, “Yes, but it’s cheap for a time machine.”
My friend’s view, in addition to being a brilliant
witticism, is dead-on perfect; audio components are not things to be
possessed, but facilitators for connecting with music. A turntable doesn’t
spin records; it transports you across time and space to those magical moments
when extraordinary music-making occurred. It lets us in on the exuberance,
tenderness, joy, and despair that can be felt by human beings.
This perspective on what high-end audio is really about is
desperately needed right now. It’s no secret that high-end audio has
suffered along with the rest of the economy. The recent announcement that New
York retailer Sound by Singer has closed its doors created quite a shock in
the high-end audio community. Sound by Singer was a veritable Manhattan
institution; its demise doesn’t bode well for high-end audio’s future.
(Sound by Singer says that it will re-emerge in a new, less pricey location.)
Retailers are an essential link in exposing more people to the pleasures of
high-quality music reproduction in the home. Our passion cannot be explained
through words; you have to experience the magic of a great system for yourself
to know that you want it. With fewer high-end dealers, we have fewer
opportunities to reach music lovers, who will otherwise turn to the mass
market for their gear.
It’s easy to blame the current economy and the concomitant
seismic shifts in spending behavior for the downturn in the high end. When
people have less money to spend, high-end audio isn’t a priority. Moreover,
there’s been a large-scale societal move away from consumption and
materialism toward frugality and a return to life’s simple pleasures. In the
general public’s mind, high-end audio is an epitome of last-decade attitudes
of lavish spending, elitism, and status-seeking.
I see high-end audio from my friend Mike’s perspective.
Quality audio equipment isn’t about consumption and materialism, but about
experiencing and enjoying one of life’s fundamental pleasures. Sitting at
home listening to music (and sharing it with others) is as much a return to
simplicity, basic ideals, and valuing experience over possessions as I can
imagine. A high-quality audio system isn’t a shrine to technology or wealth,
but a vehicle for exploring the world of music.
With that different view of high-end audio, the contemporary
trend toward experience over possessions, of nourishing our core needs rather
than indulging in mindless consumption, should embrace what high-end audio
brings to the table — hearing your favorite music wonderfully reproduced
night after night. Whether a turntable (of any price) is a thing on your
equipment rack or a time machine isn’t determined by the turntable (the
object) or by its owner (the subject), but rather by the relationship between
the two. The message from us as a community needs to be more about time
machines and less about gear.
I hope you’ll keep this approach in mind as you peruse our
annual Buyer’s Guide issue. It’s packed with our top recommendations in
every product category and at every price. We’ve carefully selected the crème
de la crème from the vast array of products on the market and then written
mini-reviews of each component. The number at the end of each entry indicates
the issue of The Absolute Sound in which the full review appeared.
You’ll also find a new category in this year’s Buyer’s
Guide — headphones. Our top picks in headphones were culled from the dozens
of headphone reviews conducted by Chris Martens and Tom Martin. With choices
ranging from ear buds to high-end home ’phones to noise-canceling models,
you’re sure to find one that fits your needs. Our features include a lexicon
of listening terms, an explanation of how loudspeakers work, an essay on how
new technologies have democratized high-end audio, thoughts about the role of
the demo disc, and a music feature in which our writers describe their
reference recordings for equipment evaluation. Finally, on the Back Page
you’ll find what we consider to be the 30 greatest bargains in high-end
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