Reality Bytes: Behind the Best of the Best

MAKE NO MISTAKE: The equipment reviewers at Sound & Vision aren't nice people. Without naming names, I'll just mention the following: three restraining orders, steel-cage death-match champion, and a lifetime ban from the National Hockey League. And that's just one of the reviewers. Frankly, they're curmudgeonly, tough SOBs.

But when our reviewers are asked to perform, they dig deep, and they deliver. They audition, scrutinize, nitpick, manhandle, rough up, and shake, rattle & roll the products. And they aren't bashful about giving their expert testimony. Occasionally, a reader asks: "If the reviewers are so tough, why do I rarely see really bad reviews?" Easy. We don't review bad products. We don't want to waste perfectly good pages, or your time, on pitiable technology. The editors prescreen everything, allowing only the good stuff to flow to the reviewers. You wouldn't pay Wolfgang Puck to review Tuna in a Pouch, would you? If it's in the magazine or on the Web site, it's pretty good stuff. The real question is: How good?

Along those lines, in each February/March issue, we select the best products of the preceding year for our Editors' Choice Awards. Three primary criteria are considered.

PERFORMANCE We're truly knocked out only by products that are visually or audibly better than our reference equipment - which usually consists of the products that were formerly the best. Price is irrelevant here. We're looking for technology that clearly surpasses everything that came before it. For example, we might give the thumbs-up to a speaker with a natural sound quality that strips away the varnish from the sound of previously "great" speakers.

INNOVATION The same old thing doesn't turn any heads. We're more excited by breakthroughs, original thinking - by gear that we don't even know how to classify. The first of anything often doesn't perform as well as the old stuff, but good reviewers can spot the Next Big Thing and will acknowledge it. For example, our wired world was rocked by the first wireless music servers. Now we could hear music anywhere in our house, courtesy of Wi-Fi. Brilliant.

VALUE Money-is-no-object products are great - but what about the real world? Here, price is indeed relevant. If a friend asked me to rec­ommend a good mini stereo for her office, I'd look like a jerk telling her to buy a $5,000 product. Instead, I need to point her to a surprisingly kick-ass system for $399. Also, I might add that I personally perform the Arms-Outstretched, Hold-It-High Drop Test on all of the products I review. (I'm just joking - sort of.)

The best products of the year have to balance all three of those criteria. One might outweigh the other; for example, performance might be so stunning that we're willing to pay extra for it.

Or it might be revolutionary, but with a small flaw.

Whichever way they get sorted out for a particular year, the best products are undoubtedly ones that impressed experts who are not easily impressed. But our reviewers know excellence when they see and hear it.

On the other hand ... don't invite them over for dinner. I'm not joking. Trust me on that.

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