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The audio reviewers dilemma: Can they predict what you'd like?

Reviewers have opinions, just like everybody else. The difference is audio critics have listened to a vast range of products.

I worked in the high-end audio business for 16 years before I started writing about home theater and high-end audio. I've heard literally thousands of products, and while I've forgotten most of them, there were lots of standouts. I remember the first time I heard a high-end turntable, a Linn LP-12, and was shocked not only by its sound quality, but how it somehow hushed record surface noise, pops, and clicks. Yes, they were still there, but the noises didn't intrude as much as they do with lesser turntables.

When I was selling hi-fis, some of my customers would ask me to recommend a speaker or some other product for them. They'd say, "What do you like?" or "What's your favorite $500 speaker." Fair questions, but my answers wouldn't be all that useful. Personal taste, music preferences, room size, aesthetics, and other factors all play their roles, so my favorites wouldn't likely match my customer's needs. My role as a salesman was to help them find just the right speaker, amplifier, or turntable to fit their exact needs, not mine. It's like asking someone to pick a color for a couch or an ice cream flavor.

Magnepan 3.6 speakers are among my favorites, but they're not right for everybody. Magnepan

John Atkinson's very positive review of the Harbeth P3ESR speaker in the August 2010 issue of Stereophile magazine put me on this line of thought. The very first line of the review, "Everyone wants something different from a loudspeaker." sums up the situation nicely. Atkinson went on to point out that some listeners crave accuracy, some dynamic punch or deep, room-shaking bass, while others prize precisely focused stereo imaging. And unless you're very rich, you can't have it all, you have to prioritize the things that get your juices flowing, and downplay other aspects of sound.

Audiophiliac readers and friends query me about this all the time. "What's the best .....?" or they want a recommendation and the plain fact is, there are no simple answers to those questions. You have to listen for yourself, but brick-and-mortar stores, where you can actually compare A vs. B vs. C speakers are fading fast. People shop online to get the best deal, and rely to some degree on reviews to point them in the right direction.

That's why I try to avoid saying a product is "good" or "great" without saying why. For example, I love Magnepan speakers for their open, unboxy sound and excellent resolution of fine detail that rivals speakers that sell for two to three times the price of Magnepans. Are they right for you? Maybe, but their strengths don't shine for home theater. Dynamic punch and bass oomph are in short supply, and Magnepans are big, flat panel speakers, they need gobs of power, and they're very fussy about where they're placed in the room. There's no such thing as a speaker that everybody likes. And that's true for mega-buck speakers; everybody needs something different. No wonder there are hundreds of speaker companies.

Aperion makes nice speakers and I've written quite a few very positive Aperion reviews for CNET. But Klipsch speakers are more dynamic and have punchier bass impact. Which one's right for you? I can't say. I don't know what you're looking for from a speaker. Wanting something "good' isn't enough; it has to be good for you.