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The Absolute Sound
Issue 207 Spring Buyer's Guide 2011
Time Machine
Editorial By Robert Harley


The Absolute Sound Issue 207 Spring Buyer's Guide 2011  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 audio. Enjoy.




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