Imagine that there is a path from the most basic system that you might like to the most extravagent, perfect system.

All along this path lies systems that you like at their price – you pay a little more, you get closer to your perfect system.

This path is multi-dimensional, in that there are systems that you like that are slightly off the path, for example in the direction of having a little more bass than that which that point, that price, on the path requires. This wiggle off the path in one direction requires a wiggle away from one or more other directions, for example more bass might entail less microdynamics.

It is my beleif that the Path is the same for everyone but that the acceptable wiggles, deviations, from the path are personal, different for each person.

It is also my belief that large deviations from the path, systems that over-emphasize a particular sonic feature at the significant sacrifice of one or more others, are folly.

Examples of such follies are legion, but in abstract terms, this includes the following, common, systems characteristics:

* Over emphasis of detail at the expense of harmonics – very common in less epxensive solidstate and digital sounding systems
* Over emphasis of dynamics at the expense of continuousness and balance – very common in horn-speaker-based systems
* Over emphasis of smoothness at the expense of detail and dynamics – very common with less expensive tube amps, usually on hard to drive speakers

Our Best of Show categories in the CES 2006 show report are fuzzy descriptions of way stations along this path – every stop along the path, every category, should include all the capabilites of the previois categories. This fails for the ‘Impressive’ category because of the energy, design, and room requirements of large amounts of bass.

Our Best of Show systems list systems that seem to be along the Path, deviating, perhaps, from the path in ways that are acceptable, from our point of view.

To illustrate these points, I will describe a few syatems that we like but did not make the Best Of list, and why.

The Oskar Heil speaker system – I love the Oskar Heil speakers; for $6K or less you get a massive amount of musical detail in a very easy to drive load. The only problem is that the bass is not very detailed or all that well integrated with the rest of the frequency spectrum. This is still almost squarely on the path because of the low cost – all the extra ability to render massive amounts of detail of the Heil driver are ‘thrown in for free’.

This year, however, the amp used, presumably in order to control the bass a little better, had a little less harmonic content and continuousness/flow in the midrange – so all the detail revealed by the speakers did not provide the vision into the music that I know the speakers are capable of.

For me, this was a wggle, a deviation too far from the path in the direction of bass control at the expense of harmonics and continuousness and smoothness. But it didn’t wiggle very far so it was a difficult decision whether to put it on the Best Of Show list or not – and I am STILL pondering it.

Another example is both the Lamm / Wilson and Kharma / ASR systems:

At these price points we are very far down the path. There are a lot more stringent requirements to be on the Path at this level. Some of these are the ability to handle complex passages while maintaining separation of the individual notes (it doesn’t just collapse into a molassus of noise) and image stability (two or more instruments playing at the same time should have as solid and cohernet of an image as when they were playing solo). These two systems failed in this way.

These systems apparently traded scale and bass and impressiveness for these capabilities. But I feel these capabilities are necessary to be on the path at this level (and even at somewhat lower levels). The restriction that only simple music can be played, or that one must close one’s mental ears during complex passages is not acceptable at this level, and that to get back on the Path these capabilies need to be restored, perhaps at the expense of a little bass or adding a few more $ (for example adding vibration control platforms underneath the components or trying different combinations of cables, perhaps even the same brands, and seeing if this might do the trick).

Well, this is getting long. Hope this helps answer a few questions…