[SOUNDSTAGE!] Marc Mickelson is the
Editor-in-Chief of SoundStage!
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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
November 2002

An A+

I'm sure in our pasts we've all had some teachers who gave out A+ grades and others who explained the absurdity of them. Who doesn't want to think that his or her work is better than the best? But some more thought reminds us that there has to be an upper limit, and in terms of grading, A is it.

I could speculate on what in our society has made us strive for hollow betterment at the expense of logic, but doing so is not my point here. Instead, I want to talk about rating systems -- for college football teams or audio equipment. They are really an offshoot of our need to rank and be ranked, and with some things, like movies, they work exceedingly well. Movies are art, and as much as we would like to think that the efficacy of art is in the eye of the beholder, it is not. There are standards that apply as easily to William Shakespeare as William Styron. Yes, there are fans of Turner and Hooch, but Citizen Kane has staying power, so it gets five stars to denote its artistic merit -- that element of a work that reminds us of the meaning and complexity of life. Some movies achieve this less readily than Citizen Kane, so they achieve fewer stars, and at some point, too few stars will denote that a movie is better not seen. The thumbs-up and thumbs-down ratings achieve this in obvious fashion.

But what about audio equipment? The main problem here is that technology keeps moving forward, so a product that's Class A today can easily be Class B -- or lower -- after a length of time has passed. Historical context is missing, or more likely ignored -- there are so many products on the market at any given time. Such ratings also rank equipment very conveniently, and the differences, as the rankings go, often fall into cost categories as neatly as performance categories. And then there is the very nature of audio reviews themselves, which are highly qualitative and thus at odds fundamentally with such quantitative rankings. And with all of this working behind the scenes, how possibly can an A+ rating have any meaning, especially to the people bestowing it?

As some of you are probably screaming right now, we have our own way of singling out products: Reviewers' Choice. I can tell you that we thought and debated long and hard, trying to come up with a ranking scheme that was meaningful, but in the end we just couldn't do it -- even though we knew that readers would probably like it.

Thus our Reviewers' Choice designation is an endorsement from the SoundStage! Network, not a ranking. We award products based on two sets of criteria: that products are either state of the art without regard to price, or that they can be considered bargains because they outperform other similarly priced products -- and even those that cost more. Yes, the state of the art keeps marching forward, but it's still important to recognize where it is at any given time, and we feel confident that we've identified it with Reviewers' Choice, which doesn't try to find a place for every product we review.

I know all of this seems unduly esoteric for the discussion of what is after all a way of reproducing music. But it's part of the audio landscape, and without making some attempt, we do you a disservice by not challenging the thought and methodology behind other rating systems -- some of which deserve A+ grades, with bullets and italics for emphasis.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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