Welcome to our annual Buyer's Guide. In this issue you'll find capsule reviews of those products that we recommend most highly, in every category and price range. This year's product listing includes a whopping 650+ components, ranging from $6 accessories to state-of-the-art mega-speakers, and everything in between. Whatever your budget, lifestyle, or level of engagement with quality audio, you'll find exactly the right components for you in this special issue.
This year's product recommendations reflect a growing trend in the industry—a price escalation at the very top of the market coupled with the proliferation of outstanding gear at the entry level. Today's budget products offer stunning sound quality and value; technology keeps improving and economies of scale bring prices down. In this guide you'll find more than 65 components that cost less than a thousand dollars each—and that's not including headphones, cables, accessories—all of which are capable of delivering outstanding sound quality and providing immense musical enjoyment.
The staggeringly wide price spectrum of products in this issue, from the $99 AudioQuest DragonFly DAC to the quarter-million-dollar Magico Q7, can give some music lovers pause. In this issue's Letters, reader Joseph Cardoni cites some extreme examples of high-end audio pricing in our coverage of the Munich High-End Show, concluding that TAS writers have gone off the deep end: "You guys are all crazy, and out of touch with the real world."
It's true that the prices of some high-end audio products are breathtaking by any measure. But that fact shouldn't be cause for consternation. The existence of ultra-high-end components benefits anyone who loves music and wants good sound, no matter what their budget.
First, the market for cost-no-object gear—which is surprisingly robust, incidentally—funds manufacturers' research- and-development laboratories. Many design techniques developed for flagship products trickle down to more moderately priced equipment. The wealthy end up subsidizing this R&D, with everyone else realizing the benefits.
Second, it's not just the R&D that the flagship products support, but the high-end audio industry in general. The revenue stream to high-end manufacturers from cost-no-object gear allows them to stay in business and offer products at every price level. And that's good for anyone who appreciates quality audio.
Third, I've never understood the objection to the very existence of ultra-high-end gear. In my view, the market demand for those often heroic products provides the world's most talented designers with a foundation upon which they can advance the state of the art in music reproduction. Buyers of flagship components are almost like patrons of the arts, providing creators with the means to realize their highest ideals. And from my perspective, it's thrilling to discover new frontiers in sound quality, even if the products that push those frontiers are priced beyond the means of all but a few. One may look askance at some of the things on which the ultra-rich spend their money, but a state-of-the-art music-reproduction system shouldn't be one of them.
Fourth, Mr. Cardoni forgets that value is relative. He says in his letter that he owns Electrocompaniet monoblock amplifiers and Sonus faber speakers. To someone who thinks that a Bose table radio is just fine, Mr. Cardoni is the one who is "crazy and out of touch with the real world."
Finally, as for Mr. Cardoni's ire at The Absolute Sound I must point out that we're just the messengers, reporting on the audio world as we find it. Granted, the Munich show is stacked with flagship-level products; what amplifier manufacturer would bring his entry-level integrated amp to the world's most prestigious showcase rather than demonstrate his biggest monoblocks? And if TAS doesn't report on such products, who will? Our mission has been right there in our name since Day One: The Absolute Sound.
When it comes down to it, how much you spend on a hi-fi system isn't important. What matters is how deeply you engage with music. And all the recommended products featured in this year's Buyer's Guide can deliver that engagement. It's up to you to set your priorities in life and then to choose from among the vast diversity of products, at all price levels, that today's high-end industry offers.