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Is There a Best Hi-Fi System?

11-28-2023 | By Roger Skoff | Issue 130

Roger Skoff tells it like it is, and why

When I recently Googled the question, "What is the best HiFi system in the world," I found that American Songwriter magazine had published the following (HERE).

Quick Summary of the Best Home Stereo Systems

  1. Denon D-M41 (Best Overall)
  2. Bose Wave SoundTouch Music System IV (Best Compact Home Stereo System)
  3. KEF LS50 Wireless Music System (Best High-End Home Stereo System)
  4. Sharp XL-BH250 (Best Cost-Effective Home Stereo System)
  5. Sony CMTSBT100 (Best Mid-Range Home Stereo System)
  6. Yamaha Audio YHT-4950U (Best Connectivity-Optimized Home Stereo System)
  7. Sharp CD-BH950 (Best Multimedia Playback Home Stereo System)
  8. Panasonic CD Stereo System SC-PM250-S (Best Budget Home Stereo System)

The answer from, What HiFi, a major British publication (HERE), was different, as was the one from ZD NET (HERE), and there were others, too, all of which were different.

The one thing that they all had in common was that none of them was anything at all like what I had expected. Despite the mention of KEF (wireless), there was not even one recognizably "High-End" product on any of the lists. In fact, unless I am wrong about this (which possibility I cheerfully admit), there was not even one of what audiophiles would call a "component" system.

Oh, sure, they're all systems of components, meaning that they all consist of separate boxes to perform separate functions, (as opposed to the HiFi consoles of yore, that included everything—speakers and all—in a single cabinet), but all of the boxes are from the same manufacturer, designed to be used together, and to be sold as a single purchase, all at once. "Package" systems.

That's not how we think in high-end high-fidelity audio. Yes, of course it all started that way; in the beginning, it was all consoles—"HiFi sets," we called them, but, even by the 1950s, enthusiast designers and early HiFi hobbyists had recognized that separate, specialized components—an amplifier from a company that manufactured only amplifiers, for example—was the better way to go, and that, for the most part, is how it's been ever since.

Audiophiles do tend to buy the same brand of preamp and amplifier, and to buy speaker cables and interconnects from the same manufacturer but, in general, the rest of their systems tend to be from multiple specialist manufacturers whose products are—as seen by the people who buy them—the best sounding, the best priced, the most prestigious, the best reviewed, the most highly recommended by their audiophile friends, or, for whatever other reason, the best available.

Even where companies, like McIntosh, for example, make the whole setup, from record player through speakers (the same sort of thing, in short, as those magazines tout as "the best"), most people still choose speakers from a speakers-only manufacturer instead of keeping it a one-brand system. And there are reasons for that—some speakers, (as with every other component), are simply better than others, and—most importantly—different people like different things and have different rooms with different acoustics that they listen in. It's that simple.

In fact, there are good reasons for all of the system-building approaches just described. A manufacturer who wanted to could build a one-piece (for the electronics) system where everything was all on one chassis, used, therefore, only a single power supply for everything, and purposely designed or equalized everything to sound good with everything else. Theoretically, that could—given a proper level of knowledge and commitment in all of the necessary areas—save on power supply, sheet metal, and labor costs, give good sound, and eliminate the need and expense for any cables at all, other than for the speakers.

An all-separate component system, of which each part is made by the best specialist manufacturers in that field, would probably sound even better than that, but likely at greater (and possibly even very much greater) expense.

And the mixed (all one manufacturer for everything but the speakers) approach can also work very well.

What troubles me about this whole thing is not the configuration or source of any of the system types just listed or named in the magazines, but the fact that the magazines have apparently taken it upon themselves to re-define the word "system" to mean only one thing—the one-brand "package" kind of system that they all chose to write about. Doing that and ignoring completely the kinds of specialist component that most of us either have or aspire to can only hurt our industry and cheat many potential audiophiles out of the opportunity to have the very best sound possible.

Think about it: Who (other than me, for purposes of this article) would be most likely to go to Google (or directly to one of those magazines) to ask what's the best HiFi system in the world? Certainly not just someone asking out of curiosity—it's too far out of the mainstream to be of just casual interest. It's probably more like someone asking what's the best lens for a camera. Although it could be just curiosity, it's more likely that that person is at least open to the idea of buying or eventually needing one, either for himself or as a gift. And, just as only someone interested in cameras would be likely to ever want the best lens for one, only a person interested in music or its high fidelity reproduction would ever be likely to ask about the best HiFi system. And when they add "…in the world" to the question, you can be pretty certain that they've got money and are willing to spend it on whatever they buy.

To tell an affluent music lover or a person who really does want "the best HiFi system in the world" that the only choices are the kinds of things listed in those publications is to do them and our industry—and even the music, itself—a disservice. And, considering that each person's listening tastes, preferred kind of music, budget, and listening room can vary, and that there are literally thousands or tens of thousands of speakers, amplifiers, preamps, source components, cables, and other HiFi products now on the market or available used, that can be combined into, without exaggeration (do the math yourself), tens or hundreds of billions of home high fidelity sound systems, which quite absolutely no one could ever, even in multiple lifetimes, hear all of to compare, it becomes obvious that no one will ever know for certain what the best HiFi system in the world is.

All you can do is to go out and listen and choose for yourself which one best serves your needs.