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Volume 4 No. 3
By Paul Messenger


HIFICRITIC Volume 4 No. 3  My reviewing activities have mainly specialized in loudspeakers over the past thirty years, a situation that has its pluses and its minuses. The positives are  that speakers are inherently very interesting and varied, and there are always plenty of new models to keep me busy.

The down side is that in several important respects at least, the loudspeaker is only as good as the signal with which it is fed. That in turn presents several paradoxes and poses a number of dilemmas.

In general and in principle I believe one should attempt to feed any review speaker with as good a signal as possible. But does it really make any sort of sense to review a pair of speakers costing a few hundred pounds on the end of a system costing tens of thousands? Or even (as high-end prices continue to escalate) hundreds of thousands of pounds?

There’s no easy answer to this dilemma. The inexpensive speaker will almost certainly end up being fed from a relatively modest system. And since all such systems are bound to have significant performance compromises, these flaws will inevitably be transferred to the speakers. But they’re going to vary from one system (and indeed location) to another, and they’re not going to be the fault of the speaker.

It’s therefore simply not possible to set up a ‘representative’ low cost system in order to review low cost speakers, because the only outcome will be that the low cost speaker gets blamed for the limitations of whatever system is used to drive it. For admittedly understandable reasons, the review will simply be ‘wrong’, at least in absolute terms.

One might argue that one shouldn’t even try to review individual components, especially loudspeakers, and focus instead on complete systems. But that’s nonsense, since the hi-fi business grew up on separate components; they’re what manufacturers make, distributors market, and customers buy and want to read about. The complete system has its place, but that’s mainly in the dealer’s and customer’s listening rooms. There aren’t any easy answers to the reviewer’s dilemma, and I wouldn’t have the arrogance to assume that I always get it right. Like most of my peers, I try to do my best, and am only as good as my last review. But there’s no denying that the experience of the costly speaker cable I write about in Subjective Sounds provided a salutary wake-up call, with rather worrying implications.

One major difficulty is that the price tags of high-end hi-fi equipment have been escalating for some years, and there’s no sign of that growth slowing down. While I don’t regard price per se as a particularly accurate guide to sound quality, and reckon I can get close-to-impeccable performance at less-than-stratospheric prices, simply by applying nous and know-how, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up.

It’s not difficult for the well established reviewer to borrow high-end components on an extended loan, and to some extent I’m happy enough to do this, for some components at least. (For example, it wouldn’t make sense to spend serious money on loudspeakers that I only got to enjoy occasionally because of reviewing commitments.) The true irony is that the components I really want to keep long term are, more often than not, those that I actually have to pay for!


Paul Messenger



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