The asylum's A ward

Awards. What they are; or not. In our hifi space they might be five stars, 100/100 across multiple assessor categories, an Editor's Choice, stand tall in a Year's End feature, occupy a class like a Hindu caste, be porcine, medieval or lunatic treats; and much more. They're means of distinction. One or multiple writers honour discoveries that performed above and beyond on price or current gatekeeper competition. Wherein rumbles the rub. We can only reference what we know or better, have personal experience with. No matter the individual, that's a very narrow aperture against the enormity of what's out there; far out there. Another equalizer is general competitiveness. Designers and engineers don't operate in a vacuum. They are—or bloody well should be—aware of what their competition is up to. Whenever the bigger industry bows new parts or processes, whenever software updates add features in simulation and measurement programs to either do new things altogether or much improve existing things, everyone paying attention is aware.

Don't build your home on a bridge or mistake an even extra-wide movie for reality.

In the not very long run, the pack at large moves forward, together. That minimizes differences that would happen stood everyone still and only one outlier ventured boldly where none went before. A reviewer's first exposure to the next great thing is invariably down to just one. Which one is by sheer happenstance. If that seemingly singular next great thing is sufficiently greater than what our individual knows of, it'll get an award. Had its brother from another mother shown up first, the award would have gone to it. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.

Once the next great thing's novelty factor wears off because it set a new status quo, others which meet it too no longer stand out. They become also runs. You see the mechanics at work. Timing is everything. Whatever popped a reviewer's cherry makes all the noise. Equally deserving kit missed out because it didn't luck the draw. In that sense, awards are nothing but autobiographical stepping stones which map a reviewer's career. They're most meaningful to that individual so personal markers, not universal absolutes. To append universal relevance or status to an award overlooks this roulette mechanism. In fact, that mechanism has its own life expectancy. It wears out. Say a reviewer's favoured speaker type is a floorstanding passive 3-way. Should his/her first exposure to a monitor/sub setup thereafter make a very big impression, it could blow up this passive 3-way fascination. Our reviewer discovered something that gives far better results. He stops covering the thing it replaced. Door closed. If a writer never experimented with stereo 2.1 or active speakers, how much credibility do his/her findings really have in the speaker sector?

That goes for everything. We can't praise transistor amps unfamiliar with tube amps. We can't gush about a speaker's bass performance if we have no credible headfi comparator to subtract our room's influence from the equation. We can't go gonzo on expensive stuff ignorant over what the best of the budgeteers can do. And so forth. It's all grist for the mill and a function of ongoing experience based on exposure stimulated by curiosity limited by access. Not everyone can get everything they might like to or really should review. Awards are thus tempered not only on principle—no one individual has heard it all—but split out farther. Some individuals have heard a helluva lot more than others. Awards from the red-eared contingent ought to carry gravitas with more gravy.

Still, even if a busy reviewer published one review a week so 52 per annum, what a pathetically narrow representation is that against the number of new product introductions across that same year? If our writer bagged her proud 52 in just one component class like switching amplifiers or DACs, reports on stand-out performance or value would carry exponential extra weight. But whose focus is this narrow? The intended takeaway is to not let any has-it-or-not myopia muddy the waters. You won't hear or touch an award once you welcome your next new thing home. It'll bed into your room and system. It'll play to your ears, taste, music, SPL and expectations; or not. How high is the chance that a reviewer's sound plus their very personal response to it will resurrect in su casa in perfect likeness? So yeah, shopping on awards can miss big. The best an award can do is signal how a particular writer got excited. If you're familiar with that writer's biases, their system, room, music tastes and general hardware exposure—which must ask, have you already vetted their opinion against your own experience at least a few times over before?—it becomes useful. It can help populate your private shortlist with candidates you ought to investigate. That's it. That's as far as awards can possibly go. Proper investigation and all that entails is up to you now. Stereo Sherlock and Wattage Watson. Just in case any of it was news to you. Probably wasn't. There goes another miss. Never mind, the moons keep revolving around the hopes of making even a tiny bit of difference, somewhere. Elsewhere? If they do, it was another good day.

And yes, that review. Big noise. A very good day. Asylum breakout