201012_jeffOver the next few of months I’ll be conducting an audio experiment far removed from The World’s Best Audio System 2009. That event, widely publicized and read about, was audiophile fantasy taken to the extreme -- and for an audio nut like me, there is nothing more fun. But it wasn’t all that relevant to the real world. No one I know could afford the system I wrote about. I couldn’t afford it. Dang it.

Pondering this recently, I got to thinking about what I could do that would keep audio reviewing exciting for me while also being useful and interesting to the majority of our readership. I concluded that no single review or series of reviews could paint the big picture that audiophiles sometimes ask reviewers to come up with.

Then it hit me. What a reviewer needs in order to have a comprehensive command of the audio landscape is a solid set of system benchmarks. The word benchmark is defined by Dictionary.com as “a standard of excellence, achievement, etc., against which similar things must be measured or judged.” Wouldn’t it be helpful to spell out just what, specifically, audiophiles should expect to get for their money at different price points? Wouldn’t that be a useful guide in buying and auditioning components? “Well, reviewers do have references, right?” I hear you ask. Yes, but those references are typically limited to the narrow confines of a certain price point. What I have in mind is something more comprehensive and more widely applicable.

So I decided to set price points for each of three different but complete stereo systems, then assemble those systems, one by one, in my Music Vault listening room. I would choose components that would work together as systems that could serve as benchmarks for my future reviews. The components of each system might not be the absolute best when judged against every single competitor out there, but they should achieve a “standard of excellence” that would make them useful to me, and hopefully be no-brainer audition subjects for those looking to take the guesswork out of putting together a high-end music system within a set budget.

My criteria for the system components are:

1.   They must be good values. Value can be determined by the relative performance of each component vs. the field. But the cost of the component must also be realistically related to how much it costs to make, and not be inflated in any artificial way. Your money should buy you a solid piece of gear, in terms of both sound and build quality -- in short, a fair deal.

2.   They must be well engineered. Their performance should meet their published specifications, and they should perform reliably over time. They should be robust in use and do well in objective measurements, too.

3.   They should be made by companies with track records of providing good service and being available when you need them. If it breaks, you should be able to get it fixed.

4.   These products should display little compromise in performance when judged against their peers. They may not be the best, but each should have no obvious performance faults that would lead to poor sound in the context of most of the systems and rooms they might be used with.

Next month I’ll lay out the price points I’ve chosen for each of the three systems, and tell you how I arrived at each. I’ll also define what level of performance should be expected from each system.

In the months after that, I’ll introduce you to each system and the components comprising it, and tell you how each sounds. You might be surprised by some of the results.

. . . Jeff Fritz