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Looking for the Best in High Performance Audio

Paul Wilson tries to define what determines the best audio products…

For most of us, the concept of “The Best” is well founded, easily understood and defined. We have long admired the fastest runner or the strongest weight lifter – this despite the level of admiration we might place on an individual event. For those of us in the US, we can say that a football team (US football, not soccer) that just won a national championship, for instance, is the best, at least for the time being, because it is primarily a US sport and largely unorganized outside of the US. And next year it will all start anew – with a new best to be determined. 

AR-TheBestSmallFormat.pngOftentimes, the concept of “the best” is mostly conditional of something in the moment, like “that was the best meal I ever had.” Likely as not, we have all made such declaratives, or perhaps something similar, on numerous occasions. 

After completing everything in my new audio room I told several friends my system was now “the best it has ever sounded.” I said this with a complete level of confidence since I was the only judge of the degree of sonic quality both before and after. Still, this is a condition that may not be shared by others who heard my system at my previous residence and also at my new one.  Sometimes, “the best” in its most simplistic form is an informed opinion despite how correct, or incorrect, that opinion may actually be. 

Defining the best, as it relates to high performance audio, is a difficult thing to universally accomplish. For one, our hobby is largely and decidedly a matter of personal opinion. While the sonic attributes of a $5000.00 amp will be perceptibly different than that of a $50,000.00 amp, does it therefore follow that the more expensive iteration is necessarily the best? I would ask the question as opposed to what? 

Perhaps the lower cost amp will be preferred by some, even if cost is in no way a deciding factor, as “the best” for their use because it sounds pleasing and no other sonic advancements are needed. Maybe the person buying the more expensive version is looking for an all-out assault of the “best” possible sonics they can reasonably achieve, and deemed the expensive component as required in achieving the desired goal. 

AR-MatterofChoice.jpgI’ve read on numerous occasions where contributors to audio forums talk about their opinion of “the best” component in a particular category. How are these folks qualified to make such declarative statements? It depends on a number of factors, not the least of which the opinions giver’s knowledge of the subject, level of their own equipment, and the person asking for the opinion’s belief in the advice of strangers. If I ask a specific someone for their opinion on which type of amp is the best, then the person to whom I asked the question is qualified to answer because I am essentially asking for their opinion. If I am just asking a general question to the entire Internet that is a completely different kettle of fish. 

For example, were I to state, for the record, that the sonics of a solid state amp were absolutely the best compared to all others, I would be pilloried with comments that I was crazy, that I was not considering some other type of amp, that this or that wasn’t considered, and well, the list would be extensive. Know what? They’d all be correct. Making such comments seldom is worthwhile because we cannot attach a definitive title to most audio related applications. When we say “the best” as it relates to audio a natural question should be; “as compared to what?” Our hobby is far too diverse and in possession of various methodologies that the label “the best” is seldom more than an opinion, however informed it may be. We all know what is commonly said about opinions… 

AR-BestSound.jpgOf course this segues into the various product reviews so many audiophiles read both in print magazines and online.  In most cases reviewers steer clear of making such judgments. They may say this speaker was the “best I’ve heard” in a certain price or product category, or the best they have demo’d. But the best, ever? No, not so much. Audio show reports will very frequently have systems or components that the individual reviewer thought was the best, again, in a certain category, like speakers over $20,000.00 or amps under $10,000.00 and always at that particular show. Whatever the classification there are always boundaries. Of course, boundaries are what we need to define the best – because it is incumbent when attaching a label of the best that we apply some measure of conditional standard. 

Still, our desire for excellence imbues in almost all of us a longing for an absolute – one that is not measured by some tangible definition. We seek, but seldom find, the audio version of the fastest runner or the strongest weight lifter. We want what we can call the best, even if the barometer by which the measure of excellence is known only to ourselves. In that case we generally find no fault. We can happily proclaim that we have reached the pinnacle of whatever yardstick we care to use and we have achieved our goal. We’ve found the sonic equivalent of our own personal fastest runner. 

It is quite likely that a universal, defining, absolute judgement of the best, at least in audio circles, will be particularly difficult to ever achieve. We all have different opinions about what we want sonically and how those desires are best achieved. For some, the pendulum will swing one way, for others, the opposite way. And while each swing may yield a different “best” it is important that each of us finds our own personal best. It doesn’t matter by what yardstick we use to determine our own definition of our choice of “the best” – it only matters that we have a definition and are content in our results.

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