I’d say that, month after month, 90% of the correspondence I receive from readers of SoundStage! Ultra asks, in some way or other, the same question: What should I buy? I’m not alone -- look at the letters addressed to publisher Doug Schneider over on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, or to Hans Wetzel at SoundStage! Access. What amp will drive these speakers? Assuming I can get them at the same price, should I buy component A or component B? Which product will sound better in my room? And so on.
When we answer these letters, published in the Feedback section of each SoundStage! publication, we always make sure our replies include two things: 1) an opinion, cursory or detailed, about the component(s) in question; and 2) encouragement to “go hear them for yourself.”
But these days, listening for yourself isn’t so easy to do. The consumer’s options are limited. You have to travel to a dealer, sometimes nowhere close to where you live, and rarely does such a store carry two, let alone all, of the products you want to directly compare. And good luck getting a dealer to lend you expensive products for an in-home demo, unless that dealer feels pretty sure you’re going to make a purchase. You’re even less likely to convince two or three different dealers to simultaneously lend you components to help you make your decision. And who can blame the dealer? From what various industry professionals have told me, I gather that, these days, many dealers are just scraping by. Tying up new stock in this way -- if not purchased, it becomes demo stock -- is costly, particularly when you realize how pricey some high-end gear actually is. In short, hearing apples-with-apples comparisons of high-end gear -- particularly of the sort reviewed on SoundStage! Ultra -- can be nigh-on impossible.
There are exceptions. Goodwin’s High End, in Waltham, Massachusetts, carries many of the brands that I typically write about: Aurender, Boulder Amplifiers, Devialet, Magico, Rockport Technologies, and Simaudio, to name a handful. After my recent review of Rockport’s Cygnus loudspeaker, two readers told me that they’d be making the trip to Goodwin’s to compare the Cygnus with Magico’s S7. I encouraged them to do just that.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that, in a given year, half of the sales of high-end gear are due to actual demonstrations of products, whether at stores like Goodwin’s, audio shows such as Munich’s High End, or in a potential buyer’s home. Let’s say that the other half of units sold is never auditioned. For the latter, buying decisions are made through online research, phone calls to dealers and/or distributors, communications among audiophiles via online audio forums such as Audio Shark and What’s Best Forum, and e-mails to reviewers like yours truly. I’m not sure anyone thinks that the number of well-stocked bricks-and-mortar dealers in North America is increasing. Might it not then be fair to think that, in the future, more and more folks will be buying their audio gear sound unheard?
If you think, as I do, that that’s what’s happening, how will it change the high end? I can think of several ways: Products will no longer be only about the sound -- or even primarily about the sound. Buyers aren’t attracted to a new amplifier they’ve only seen online because of its sound. As much as old-school audiophiles hate to hear it, many buyers these days are, at least at first, attracted to a product because of other factors: How does it look? Who designed it? Are the reviews all positive? Who else has bought one, and what do they think of it? Can I get it serviced easily enough? Manufacturers of high-end audio gear must attend to each of these if their products are to appeal to the customer who can’t visit a dealer and talk to their salesman. It’s just the reality.
I can’t control any of this, of course, but I can do one thing: I can be willing to give an opinion. I must be willing to give an opinion. If not, of what value am I to the audiophile world? I don’t mean just any old opinion about what I think is good. But pertinent opinions about various products and brands in relation to their competitors. I can’t tell you what to buy, but I can tell what I would buy if I were in your shoes. You can then do with that information as you see fit.
In one way, our Feedback sections are almost as valuable as our reviews and columns. It’s there that we directly address whatever’s on the minds of our readers -- who, of course, are all potential audio buyers. Yes, my answers, and those of other reviewers, are just additional data points for the audiophile to consider. But I might be the only person a reader can actually contact who’s heard every one of the products that reader is considering. I take this responsibility very seriously. No, world peace is not at stake, but substantial sums of money are -- and so is the continued health of high-end audio.
. . . Jeff Fritz