29 January 2009

Pretty Lights: Stereophile's Big Fat Website

Most people who listen to recorded music seriously sooner or later become interested in the stereo equipment that is used to reproduce it. Granted, the interest may be fleeting or tepid, but it is almost always there, and the listener will eventually find himself poking around audiophile magazines. If he has any sense he is astonished at the price tags some people will even consider ($10,000 amplifiers, $50,000 speakers, etc.). Occasionally these magazines will publish an article on a "budget" $1500 cd player or $2500 integrated amplifier, but it's clear these are merely grudging concessions. The serious audiophile, it is implied, will install these components in his "second system" or upgrade to the megabucks components post-haste.

A safer bet is to read the magazines in the same way one reads Car & Driver reviews of Ferraris, AMG Mercedes and 7 Series BMWs, that is to say, vicariously. In the same way that is is fun to read about how these high-dollar cars hug the road and hit speeds near 200 mph, it is enjoyable, at least to me, to read about the "infinite soundstage", "enormous headroom" and "air" that is heard with these systems. Most of my money has stayed firmly in my pocket--or, more accurately, gone to the mortgage and car payments. I did buy a used "super-budget" cd player, and honestly it was a huge improvement over the crap-box I'd been using. This is dangerous--it lends credence to the audio-mags claims that (gasp) some of these stereo thingies are better than some others. A potentially costly revelation, but I am not currently in a financial position to buy any more of this stuff, so I confine myself to the actual pages of the mags, both the paper and internet varieties.

Stereophile Magazine has long been a player in the high-end audio scene, having risen some time ago to 800-lb gorilla status. If you are going to spend a small fortune on electronics, it is comforting to know that someone ostensibly smarter than you has stamped their approval on whatever audio gizmo you've got your eye on, and Stereophile is the audio bible. There are other magazines, too, of course and there are fervent advocates of publications such as The Absolute Sound. Part of the fun of reading all of these are the letters sections, the audio-dweeb battlegrounds where old and old-at-heart white guys trade blistering barbs about the merits of certain speaker cables or cd player modifications.

Somewhat more reliable sources are the blogs and actual music reviews over at Stereophile.
The site is colorful, with a full but not too busy interface. There are articles available from the current print issue available for reading. There are three or four blogs that are updated fairly regularly and a number of reader forums available for free use. It is the best kind of publisher's site, not stingy with the content and clearly both an investment and a labor of love.

There is some nice content over at The Absolute Sound's website, but the site itself still appears to be an afterthought and I'd encourage them to get a redesigned site on a dedicated host online ASAP. They seem to have a relationship with enjoythemusic.com, but it's not clear what that relationship is. There is some information at the enjoy site but it is pretty well buried and you need to click through a passel of menus to find it, not to mention being bounced around new browser pages. The layout is bland, with far too much white space and block ads on either side of the main text.

There are huge and compelling arguments for and against Stereophile's reviewing methods, their close relationship with the companies whose equipment is reviewed, and other topics, none of which I am currently interested in. The magazine is well written and has a nice layout. The website is fun to read and mostly easy to navigate. End of story.

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