Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

I love the missives I receive from readers and listeners, and I give every one of them my individual attention. But it has to be said that they tend to fall into a few distinct categories, and some I like better than others. First are the people who disagree with me or have spotted a mistake (or seeming mistake). I truly love and appreciate those.

Then there are those looking for very specific buying advice, because they perhaps have a corner case I didn’t cover in a specific review. These are some of the best because they get right to the heart of why I do what I do.

Practice What You Preach

My absolute favorites, though, fall into a category I like to classify as, “Why don’t you practice what you preach?” And while the following email (from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous) may not have intentionally fallen into that category, it did nonetheless:

Hey Dennis,

I was glad to see the review of the Tangent Ampster on SoundStage! Access. I wasn’t familiar with the brand before (how many Danish hi-fi brands are there?), but it’s certainly very much attainable hi-fi. This is opposed to some other amps that cost almost $2000 but still offer very few features . . . For that kind of money, you could basically get a whole system in the form of the KEF LS50 Wireless II instead. Perhaps active speakers are less popular with reviewers because they offer fewer things and combinations to test, but they are hard to beat in terms of being attainable, in my humble opinion.

Anyway, I always enjoy reading your reviews—they seem to have a good balance between facts and personal opinions, and between lighthearted humor and technical details. Thank you!

My response to this reader cut straight to the heart of the topic I’d like to dig into today:

You’d be surprised, perhaps, but that’s not the reason why I shy away from speakers like the KEF Wireless in my reference system. If I retired tomorrow, I would be eyeing the LS60 Wireless system hard. No joke. It’s 100 percent perfect for my hi-fi needs, since I don’t do vinyl and I rip all my Grateful Dead Dave’s Picks CDs to FLAC.

The problem, though, is that having such speakers in my reference system would make doing amplifier reviews impossible and source component reviews really difficult. Our own Gordon Brockhouse bought an LS60 system a while back, and now it makes reviewing other components a little more difficult at times.

We have to make funny decisions because of our status as reviewers. Personally, I’d really love to go back to a 2.1- or 2.2-channel system in my stereo listening room. Lovely as my Paradigm towers are, I can control the bass in my room better with a bookshelf-and-sub combo and a bit of DSP.

Problem with that is, such systems tend to be so much easier to drive that it would impede my ability to say anything meaningful about whether an integrated amp can handle deeper impedance swings. Which means I would be less equipped to give you the sort of information you really need to help you make your purchasing decisions.

Glad you liked the Tangent review. That was a fun little piece of kit!

All the best,

In most correspondences with readers, that’s as far as it goes. Occasionally, an exchange warrants sharing here for the public to read. But this one, I think, deserves a bit more than that because it underscores something that’s been on my mind a lot here lately: the fact that we reviewers usually can’t have the exact stereo systems we want, and not for the reasons you might believe.

Before you get all misty-eyed—or, conversely, rightly skeptical—allow me to explain. Because the fact of the matter is I actually possess all the gear necessary to assemble exactly the hi-fi system that’s right for me. And a lot of it is either review gear that I couldn’t get the manufacturers to take back or long-term loaners from companies no longer in business. So, technically, I could have exactly the system I want without spending another dime.

The Needs of the Many...

But that’s not the system I can keep permanently installed if I want to be a halfway-decent gear reviewer, because much of the time I spend with my system is spent performing for the public, in a manner of speaking. I mentioned my preference for 2.1-channel systems in the email response above. As has often been said, the optimal spot for stereo speakers in a room is rarely the right spot for a sub or subs (although it can be). And having separate subs and sats makes dialing in room correction so much easier. Plus, offloading the bass duties to a dedicated box takes some strain off your speakers’ woofers, reducing compression, etc.

Simply put, if you’re reading this, I think chances are very good that you would be better served by a 2.1- or 2.2-channel stereo system if you’re not already rocking one. But here’s the crucial thing: I’m in no position to mandate that. And if I did all of my reviews assuming you’re onboard with this recommendation, I’d be doing a disservice to those of you who have less-easy-to-drive tower speakers and still want buying advice for new amps or what have you.

Long story short: Using my big Paradigm towers—or any other speakers with impedance dips below 4 ohms—I can give an amp a more thorough evaluation than I would be able to with bookshelf speakers and a sub or two. I’ll say this, though: I need to do a better job in my reviews of explaining why that’s the case.

I say that because I’ll occasionally get emails from readers like this one, about a review of a product I absolutely adored (and that would be perfect for my purposes if I didn’t need to review other gear), the Emotiva BasX TA1:

Dear Dennis,

Do the limits you noted for TA1 apply to BasX TA2 also?


After a bit of back and forth, it became clear to me that he was asking whether Emotiva’s step-up stereo receiver might similarly struggle to crank out very deep bass at concert listening levels with large three-way tower speakers. Taking a look at the power supply of the TA2, I’d guess that it can deliver a good bit more current than that of the TA1, which is probably of little consequence in a 2.1 setup but potentially significant with larger speakers. And I said as much.

But M thought I was confused. “I’m just asking about the mid-bass performance,” he responded. Which gave me a wonderful opportunity to explain why some amps can sound a little thin with some speakers. And it also gave me the perfect opening to reiterate that the BasX TA1 doesn’t do a damned thing wrong. It’s exactly the right stereo receiver or integrated amp for someone—namely, someone with a subwoofer. And if anything I said in that review made it seem like I see the TA1 as anything less than that, I failed at my job.

It all goes back to something I repeat like a mantra: my job here isn’t to tell you what I like and what I don’t. The highest praise any reader could give me would be to say, “I know you didn’t like it, but you gave me enough information to know I would love it.” Or vice versa. But as I’m sitting here at the start of a new year, reflecting on how I can do a better job of that, it’s becoming clear to me that I need to more thoroughly explain why I test the way I test.

And, perhaps more importantly, I need to remember that most people who read one of my reviews don’t read all of them. And for some reader somewhere, this may be the very first hi-fi review they’ve ever read. So they might not understand why I use the reference gear that I use. Or what reference gear even is.

Window shopping

All of the above is just to say that when you see a reviewer practicing something other than what they preach, there might be a good reason why. Building a good reference review system isn’t about feeding the reviewer’s proclivities. Sometimes it’s about integrating gear that’s good at finding problems with other gear. Sometimes it’s about testing corner cases that might only apply to a handful of readers, but which don’t require us to short-change other readers’ needs.

Ultimately, any product I review here on SoundStage! Access is going to have limitations. My job is to find them. Not to say, “AHA! I found something that this budget-oriented piece of gear doesn’t do perfectly,” but to help you decide how to optimize your budget when purchasing new gear. So, no matter how my system evolves over the years, as long as I’m a working journalist, every piece of gear I install in my system will be chosen because in some way it aids me in finding those limitations.

All of which combines to make picking gear as a reviewer a wholly different endeavor from picking gear as a hi-fi enthusiast.

. . . Dennis Burger