Reflections on What’s Best

Reflections on What’s Best

What is the best speaker? What is the best amplifier? What is the best preamplifier, phonostage, turntable/tonearm/cartridge?

I can tell you what I think I is best for me, given my taste in and experience with live music, my taste in and experience with canned music, my taste in and experience with hi-fi systems, my listenting room and ancillary equipment, etc. But that is only what I think under very specific conditions. For instance, the current generation of dCS players are "the best" I've heard. (Note: Neither of the current-generation dCS players, the dCS Puccini and the dCS Scalatti, were part of the blind-listening shoot-out that the chap on Audiogon conducted.) Does that make dCS indisputably "best?" Indisputably no. For one thing, I haven't heard every contender for top honors in digital playback (and given the speed with which new products are introduced, how could I?); for another, I have a very specific bias when it comes to what I consider the lifelike presentation of any recorded media, what could be called (somewhat unfairly, since I consider it "realistic") an analog bias. While I attempt to make allowances for those who don't have these same biases in my review of the dCS gear, it is a fact that I prefer CD players that combine some of the salient qualities of LP playback with the salient qualities of digital playback. Now, if your taste and experience in music and gear run parallel to mine, and my track record of picking "worthwhile" products strikes you as reasonably good, then what I think may matter to this extent and this extent only: It gives you a reasonable direction to look in.

To put this flatly, I don't want or trust ten or twelve strangers telling me what is "the best" audio gear for me on the basis of blind listening tests. I want to figure that one out for myself after very, very careful listening and cross-comparison (although, as noted, I wouldn't turn down some expert direction-pointing along the way from listeners who like the music I like and hear equipment the way I hear it). Just as essentially, what is "best" for me almost always amounts to a group of products in which one or two or three stand out a bit more than the others at various price points and, often, at the same price points. On any given day, given a certain very high level of fidelity, I might reasonably prefer the set of virtues of "Best Product B" to the slightly (or wholly) different set of virtues of "Best Product A" or "Best Product C." The point being that sonic virtues are sets of qualities, and which set I prefer depends to an extent on the kind of music I'm listening to, the other equipment I'm listening with, and, frankly, the state of mind I'm in. This isn't willy-nilly, of course. If I couldn't make a persuasive musical case for each of these products, I would be a very poor and capricious listener.

No shoot-out, blinded or sighted, is going to give you one indisputable winner that does everything you want a product of its kind to do and that fits your listening biases on every kind of music. I just don't think that's possible or even reasonable to expect. I do think that there are, on rare occasions, exceptional products that stand out from others of their type (in dynamic two-ways, the Magico Mini II, for instance). Does that make these stand-outs "the best of all?" Absolutely not. Given the right amplification, preamplification, and front end, I would prefer the Magico Mini IIs on Joan Baez singing "Matty Groves" or Heifetz playing the Kreutzer Sonata ahead of just about everything else I've yet listened to (save, perhaps, for the huge and ultra-expensive and ultra-unobtainable Symposium Acoustics Panorams), but I wouldn't prefer them to the MBL 101 Es on most rock 'n' roll and a fair amount of large-scale classical. Does that make the Magico Mini IIs less "best"?

The way this tiny section of the world works is pretty much the same way the entire world works: It gives you choices, often very good choices, but all of them somehow limited. What you want to do--and what you can do (at least for yourself and others like you)--is weed out the bad or less good ones. Then, always and forever and insolubly (blinded or sighted), you're going to have to pick what makes best sense to you.