Audio reviewers just love car analogies, the perfect shorthand for the cost/performance/benefits curve. Often it’s just laziness or a mistaken impression that they’re actually audio’s answer to Jeremy Clarkson (same shape, just without the audience figures or the money) but there’s one area in which the parallels are too close to ignore. Motorsport and audio are all about the same thing: performance – and how to achieve it. When it comes to trying to build a decent hi-fi system, the conceptual challenges are surprisingly similar to building a sports car – just without the comfort blanket of meaningful, empirical performance indicators.
Buy a car with a published performance that includes a sub-four second 0-62mph figure and you probably think you know what you are getting. But do you? It’s undoubtedly quick and it definitely takes off from the lights, but to actually reach a mile-a-minute in less than four seconds, you need a professional driver, slick tyres, perfect weather, and a perfectly manicured drag strip – not a weekend warrior on the Clapham High Road. More to the point, there’s actually no guarantee that if you race a car with a 4.2 second 0-62 figure away from the lights, you are actually going to achieve that target. It’s all down to the conditions and the vehicle that’s best suited to them. When it comes to actually going under the four-second barrier, it’s all about creating the conditions for optimum performance – or realizing potential – and hi-fi systems are just the same. Get the right car, the right driver, the right mechanic, fuel, tyres, and track – and you’ll see that car at its best. Bolt together an engine from one source, a chassis from another, add a bunch of tuning parts and fill it with something you found in a can at the back of the garage, and you’ll be lucky if it even starts – yet that’s exactly what a lot of people do with audio equipment. Then they wonder why they’ve stopped listening to it. Most end users spend too much time agonizing over the equipment choices and not nearly enough worrying about giving that equipment a fighting chance. The boxes might well be the sexy bits, but they quickly lose their allure if you can’t hear what they’re doing – and that’s definitely down to the operational environment.
The enduring popularity of What Hi-Fi and the Stereophile Recommended Components listings rests on the buyer’s need for answers. But we all know (including the people handing out those Five-Star reviews and Class A ratings) that simply assembling a system made from those prize-winning components is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that, even leaving matching and set-up issues aside, picking products off somebody else’s short list is like letting a total stranger choose your meal in a restaurant – somebody who has never met you and has no idea that you suffer from violent food allergies!