Legacy link:
This new site was launched in July 2010. Visit the older site to access previous articles by clicking above.


Some of you guys might remember Randall Smith, who wrote for the SoundStage! sites from 2006 to 2013. He reviewed a lot of home-theater gear, but also integrated amplifiers from the likes of Simaudio and Boulder, speakers from companies as varied as KEF and Rockport Technologies, subwoofers from JL Audio, and a source component from Esoteric. He accompanied me to Maine to pick up the Rockport Arrakis speakers that formed the heart of The World’s Best Audio System 2009, and has been to Canada to tour the R&D facilities of Paradigm and Axiom Audio. He’s helped schlep countless speakers and amps into my Music Vault listening room, a space he helped construct in 2006. (Randall lives only minutes away from me.) In short, Randall has not only been around the high-end industry, he’s been my friend and accomplice in my own audio adventures.

In my 20 years of reviewing audio equipment, I’ve bought and sold a lot of gear. From the beginning, I took the tried-and-true audiophile path: each upgrade promised better performance than what had preceded it, and usually cost more. Through the years, the total retail value of my system has inched up in price, culminating in my current rig of Magico Q7 Mk.II speakers, Soulution 711 and 560 electronics, Nordost cables, and Torus power conditioner: about $400,000. That doesn’t include my custom listening room, the Music Vault, or all the money and sweat equity I’ve spent moving gear into and out of it.

Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s a lesson that most of us, at some point in life, learn the hard way. Keeping up with the Joneses is expensive, and not just in terms of money. Comparing your kids, your spouse, your income . . . these comparisons, often constant, lead to a life in which gratitude is in short supply and contentment is always just out of reach. Comparison in audio reviews is a different story. Once you buy something, the comparisons can stop. Maybe they should stop. But while you’re shopping, comparisons are critical to making wise buying decisions.

I’m at a point in this audiophile thing where my nonsense meter goes off regularly. That wasn’t always the case. I used to buy into the nonsense: I can remember times when a manufacturer would contact me and tell me about the latest, greatest product they were about to release. They’d send me promotional materials and specs and photos, and I’d get all excited about the thing. And there’s no doubt that, more than once, I’ve been the victim of my own expectation bias.

Readers have a love/hate relationship with the word best. So do reviewers. On the one hand, rarely does a day go by that I don’t receive an e-mail from a reader asking which is better for his or her situation: component A, B, or C? Typically, the reader is someone who is about to make a buying decision but is at an impasse, and wants me to break the tie.

I’m often pitched products for review here on SoundStage! Ultra -- the SoundStage! Network site that covers extreme hi-fi components, and where my writing has primarily appeared for more than a decade. It’s obvious to anyone who reads this site the products we review are often priced far above most audio products. It makes sense: I’ve reviewed lots of expensive electronics and speakers over the years -- it’s what I’m known for in audio circles -- and that writing is the focal point of Ultra.

I’m probably not going to be the most popular guy walking the halls at this year’s High End show in Munich, Germany, because I’m about to reveal something that a growing number of reviewers don’t want you to know.

These days, everyone does the Product of the Year thing, and in that regard, we at SoundStage! are no different. What makes us different is our breadth of coverage. Not only do we review traditional home stereo gear, we also have writers who address home theater, Bluetooth speakers, desktop audio, and portable devices, including the increasingly important headphone and earphone markets. I’m proud of the fact that we at SoundStage! cover so many different product genres, and our awards reflect that breadth. Below are my views on this year’s most spectacular products, with links to our reviews of them.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is right around the corner, in January, and Munich’s High End won’t be long in following. As always at those events, we’ll see new products, and see and hear announcements of products soon to be launched. I’m most interested in components that are unique and/or extreme in some way -- products that fit the Ultra in SoundStage! Ultra. What follows is my wish list, with a caveat: I have zero insider info about whether or not any of this high-end gear is actually in anyone’s pipeline.

I’d love to see the stats: How many audiophiles in 2016 bought parts of their system -- or their entire system -- online or over the phone, without ever having heard the component(s)? I know from the letters I receive that many of you do, if only out of necessity. The number of dealers stocking high-end audio gear has shrunk over the years, and sometimes it’s just not feasible to hear the component you’re considering buying before you actually buy it. And comparing two different brands side by side -- the two specific brands you’re most interested in -- is often next to impossible. Many dealers carry only a few brands, and typically complementary rather than competing brands.