What's In Home Theater's Top Picks?

I’ve given a lot of thought lately to our Top Picks list and what it should take for a product to achieve Top Picks status. This is no small matter. Most of us on the edit staff have counted on magazines just like this one to help direct our purchases, so we take the responsibility seriously. Home Theater’s list of best products needs to reflect the highest standards we can apply—and to be presented in a fashion that’s intuitive and useful.

One of the challenges we face in maintaining a list like this is that we almost never review a stinker. Being unable to test but a small sample of what’s out there, we try to select products we think have a good shot at being recommendable in their given category and price range. The vast majority of what we review each year never makes it to Top Picks, but if the primary criterion for a product making the cut is that it’s better than average, you can end up with a long list that begs the question: “Yeah, but which one should I buy?”

What this means in practice is that selecting a product for an honor like Top Picks should really come down to delineating the distinctions between those that are merely very good, or even excellent, and those that are truly great—those which, by virtue of performance or value, have risen like cream and genuinely wowed the jaded reviewer, who presumably has seen and heard enough to easily distinguish the real gems from “just another good one.” While it’s true that we do review a lot of products favorably, the reality is that only a few in each category are really exceptional.

So, as of our November issue, we’re limiting our Top Picks list to three (or in some cases, four) currently available models we’ve tested in each of a category’s price segments. To add a Top Pick, our reviewers must now make their case as to why the product deserves to displace another to make room, subject to internal debate. Within the ranks of each price segment, you’ll find a small mix of items to research, from which we expect you to select the product that’s right for you personally, although you can feel absolutely confident about buying anything on the list. These should truly be among the best of the best in each price range.

Products that come off the list, either because they’re no longer available or have been displaced by those we like a little better, will be designated on our Website with a Former Top Picks logo. If these former Top Picks remain on the market, they’re still highly worthy of consideration but just not among our current top three or four favorites at the moment. You can always see our most up-to-date list of Top Picks by clicking on our Website’s new Top Picks link in the navigation bar. You can expect the list to be in a constant state of flux as we review new items each month and swap things in as needed. Hopefully this policy will absolutely assure that everything on the Top Picks list is something that we would own ourselves or would be among the very first we’d recommend to family and friends in today’s market. This is the ultimate litmus test for any product recommendation.

Concurrent with this change, you may notice going forward that we’ll also be applying our ratings more judiciously across all of our reviews. You’ll see fewer five-star “Reference” rankings, among other things. To learn more about our ratings and how we administer them you can read my associated blog on this subject, "How Home Theater Plays the Ratings Game."

etrochez's picture

Why the Pioneer VSX-1021 A/V Receiver got Top Pick is something I don't understand. It's the perfect example of how the industry is moving away from its core values. How can a 3.5 stars receiver get Top Pick? Is it because it's loaded with useless features? I personally don't care if it has AirPlay or any of the tons of irrelevant features being jammed inside equipment nowadays by manufacturers. Hell, I don't care if this thing will make me breakfast, if it doesn't deliver top quality sound, it cannot be a Top Pick. Period.

Scott Wilkinson's picture
Actually, the VSX-1021 was supposed to have a Performance rating of 4, not 3.5. This was correctly reflected on the Top Picks page, but not in the review itself. It has now been corrected.