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Jeff FritzNot a week goes by that I don’t hear an audiophile complain about the “audio dealer situation” in his or her area. The story is always the same: There’s nowhere to hear a particular model, or the ones that compete against it. More and more, audiophiles face an hours-long road trip -- or, more likely, two or three such trips -- or even air travel, for what amounts to a three-day investment of time. Who has time and money for all that? This is a hobby.

What I see more and more of are e-mails asking what I would buy if I were in the e-mailer’s shoes. I happily give my advice, often with the disclaimer “Go hear it for yourself” -- even though I know full well that if they could go hear it for themselves, they probably wouldn’t be contacting me!

Jeff FritzThis year’s Consumer Electronics Show seemed a tad subdued. Most people blamed the new Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule, which replaced the traditional long weekend -- after all, many industry professionals have retail jobs. Nonetheless, there were a hardy number of new products at CES 2013, and we covered them in detail in our SoundStage! Global show report.

CES 2013 revealed some things that transcend any single product introduction. Here are the eight you must know about -- not only if you plan to shop for a component any time soon, but even if you just enjoy keeping up with industry doings.

Jeff FritzJanuary marks an exciting time for us at the SoundStage! Network. We like to look back at the year just past and highlight each component we’ve named a Product of the Year. I think you’ll agree that 2012 gave us a very strong crop indeed, and Doug Schneider has done a fine job of summarizing it over at SoundStage! Hi-Fi. We’re also just days away from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, Nevada (January 8-11). That means a whole slew of new products will soon be finding their ways to dealers and customers, and hopefully some of them will be very good. Our coverage of CES will be available at www.SoundStageGlobal.com beginning January 7, so judge for yourself.

Jeff FritzI made the transition from a living/listening room to a dedicated listening room in late 2005 and early 2006. The move was made primarily due to the increasing mobility of my daughter, who was then one year old, and my realization that no review sample would be safe from her ever-more-curious fingers. Of course, as any audiophile worth his salt would do, I took the opportunity to upgrade the sound of my audio system and, while I was at it, give it a vastly better acoustic environment -- one designed by Terry Montlick, of Terry Montlick Labs.

By the time the new room -- the Music Vault -- was completed in early 2006, I’d reported on the entire project in a series of articles on Ultra Audio, beginning the previous September: “Building the Music Vault -- Part One,” “Part Two,” and “Part Three.” The Vault then remained unchanged for six years -- until this past spring, when I put the finishing touches on The World’s Best Audio System 2012, my third cost-no-object dream-system project for the SoundStage! Network, extensively written about on SoundStage! Global. Each of the two changes I made was designed to improve the performance of the Vault. First, the polycylindrical diffusors that line the room’s walls were further damped by being stuffed and put under tension with fiberglass insulation, then capped with panels of 2"-thick polyethylene. The purpose of this was to damp their large surface areas and thereby reduce any resonances that might occur.

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.

KEF R500Last month I wrote about the super products that I’d buy without hesitation. Those wallet-busting components ranged from $15,000 to $165,000 USD -- not chump change to anyone I know. But put them in your listening room and you’ll be rewarded with the best sound that money can presently buy. But even when their prices are set aside, they aren’t the most practical audio components. Each Magico Q7 loudspeaker weighs 750 pounds, and the Gryphon Mephisto amplifier isn’t exactly light at 250 pounds.

Thank goodness you can get great sound without having to spend huge sums of money and/or housing a multi-ton system.

So assuming that cost is an object -- as it is for most of us -- here are some of the products I’d buy today. It might surprise you to see just how little compromise you need to make in high-value, high-end audio gear. These products aren’t necessarily cheap, but each offers huge value within its product genre; and their prices fall below -- sometimes far below -- those listed in last month’s column.

Jeff FritzThe longer I review high-end audio gear -- I’ve been doing it going on 15 years now -- the less inclined I am to buy it. You’d think it would be the opposite. After all, I’m exposed to an endless supply of the best products available. Do I cherry-pick review samples for myself? Of course. Being the editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network has its privileges, and I regularly exercise them when it comes to selecting products for my own use. It helps to have at my disposal the Music Vault listening room, a sonically neutral lab in which to audition the best components extant. So, yes, I get the best stuff, and it’s a blast to do this “job.” (I should also mention that I see my fair share of mediocre products, and the occasional real dog that doesn’t deserve the time it would take to pan it. But that’s another story for another time.)

Objectivist or Subjectivist?The July/August issue of Positive Feedback Online includes an article by Teresa Goodwin titled "Why I’m a Subjectivist." She begins by proclaiming, "In our world of music enjoyment there are subjectivists and objectivists. I’m a subjectivist." Her definitions are thus: "Objectivists believe in a dictatorial unyielding totalitarianism of science over human interaction with music. Subjectivists believe in total freedom to enjoy music however one chooses, without any scientific validation."

Rockport TechnologiesIt was December of 2006. I’d flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport from Wilmington, North Carolina, and got stuck there for what seemed like days (but was actually only half a day). I was on my way to visit Andrew Payor, of Rockport Technologies, in Rockport, Maine, who would give me a tour of his facilities. I would then listen to his current line of loudspeakers. I would then have the most pivotal experience of my audiophile life.

An enticing prelude

Simeon SandifordFor me, The World’s Best Audio System 2012 began when I met Howard Gladstone, president and CEO of Plitron Manufacturing, parent company of Torus Power, who was responsible for supplying power-conditioning equipment for the megasystem. We became instant friends, exchanging pleasantries as we traveled for 20 minutes in the courtesy shuttle from ILM airport to the Holiday Inn in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.