Peter RothFar too many audiophiles get worked up posing and defending arguments about what is the absolute best high-fidelity equipment extant. I suspect that the loudest voices are not particularly objective, tied as they often are to the validation of their own purchases. Check out the blogs -- it can be crazy out there.

Calm down, people. High-performance audio can and should elicit passion, but that passion needs to be grounded in common sense, balance, and a systems-oriented approach. I’ll let you in on a little secret: There is no “best” out there, at least in any absolute or blanket sense.

At its essence, an audio component is a tool -- nothing more, nothing less. What is the best tool? That depends on the job at hand. Analogies abound. Ask Tiger Woods to name the best golf club and he’d almost certainly ask, “To do what?” His answer would be different for a putter than for a driver. Different for a par-5 tee shot than for a par 3. Are there heavy winds, rain, an abundance of sand traps? His answer will be informed by all the variables affecting that game on that day on that course.

Another analogy: A Formula One racecar may be the best tool for a world-class driver to complete 60 laps around a Formula One race track, but not for a couple driving up the California coast. Even within the rarified air of the Formula One circus, different cars may be the optimal tool from week to week, depending on track conditions, environment, driver styles, etc.

On the audio front, we need to determine the job at hand before we seek the tool that will best do that job. The more we know about the job, the closer we can come to narrowing the field. In any specific application, the requirements and objectives can be vastly different, requiring answers to a bevy of questions. Where will the equipment be located? What will the partnering components be? Who will operate and listen to the system? When and how? What sort of music will principally be played? What are the owner’s goals for the system? What is the desired balance of the component’s performance, aesthetic, and operational qualities? Will it be part of a “destination” system or a work in progress? And those questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

As a reviewer, I’m often asked for advice, and the situation of one of my professional colleagues is illustrative. He and his wife are empty nesters who have just moved to a smaller home. They both enjoy music, had a healthy audio budget of a little over $10,000, and wanted guidance. After 30 minutes of probing questions from me, the parameters of a possible system began to firm up: a multipurpose family room with a focus on musicality for two-channel audio, with some degree of movie watching (Home Theater 2.0). No turntable (at least not to begin with). Disc playback (CD, DVD, BD), together with Pandora streaming and a computer audio server. They wanted simple operation from a limited number of components. Full-range speakers with decent bass and a pleasant appearance were desired, yet nothing too big. A set-and-forget, always-on approach would work best for this couple, so tubes were out of the question. An integrated amplifier and universal disc player would fit their needs, and yet leave enough money to buy a pair of high-quality loudspeakers.

Finally, I had enough information and could suggest some components they could audition. My colleague then listened to the gear on a short list of suggestions I provided, and to other products recommended by the dealers he visited. He ended up with some great audio tools that now work in superb balance to satisfy his requirements: Vandersteen Treo loudspeakers, Ayre Acoustics AX-7e integrated amplifier, Oppo BDP-95 universal disc player, a computer server with JRiver Media Center feeding the Oppo via Ethernet, and AudioQuest cables. He and his wife couldn’t be happier, and could now care less what anyone else thinks might be best. The job at hand greatly determined which were the best available tools.

Then again, a high-performance audio system is, first and foremost, a system. Of utmost importance are system objectives, and the balance required to integrate the component tools in a manner that is complementary; that is, the resulting system will be more, not less, than the sum of its parts. Intra-component operability must be assured for a system to satisfy, which is one of the strongest arguments in favor of matched pairings of preamplifier and power amplifier. Another benefit of brand matching is found in integrated control systems; e.g., putting the preamp into standby automatically causes the power amp to follow suit.

What?! Raw performance is only part of what determines the best tool for any audio job? That’s right! Operational considerations, form factors, and aesthetics are equally valid system parameters. So, too, are personal preference and taste. I have three different two-channel audio systems, each with a focus on performance, but with very different ancillary objectives and use requirements. My Decompression Chamber system includes tubes and a turntable. My Compact Reference system boasts some of the best solid-state electronics around, feeding incredibly dynamic full-range speakers. Every component in my Family Room system is hidden except for the disc player, preamp, and speakers, which impose specific integrated-control requirements. Different jobs require different tools.

Finally, choices of audio gear are affected by manufacturer longevity and product upgradability. High-performance components are often expensive, and are separated from lesser consumer electronics, at least in part, by being capital goods with long life spans. These are products one does not discard but repairs. However, if a product breaks but lacks ongoing service support, or if it can’t incorporate running product upgrades, its longevity is diminished. How can any component be the best tool for the job if it doesn’t work, or if it swiftly becomes obsolete? The best of today should be able to produce great sound for years to come.

Developing a high-performance audio system to fit a particular user’s requirements is an exercise in multi-variable analysis. There is no “best” of anything in hi-fi outside the context of a specific system, the balance of a specific listener’s objectives and performance requirements, and that listener’s particular tastes. Let your musical passions be served by your system, not by the protestations of a blogger’s or a reviewer’s fawning praise.

. . . Pete Roth