On August 15, we published a report that highlighted the EISA 2021–2022 award winners for that organization’s Hi-Fi and Home Theatre Audio subgroups. EISA stands for Expert Imaging and Sound Association, a group of 60 websites and print publications spanning 29 countries.
EISA is divided into six subgroups—as well as Hi-Fi and Home Theatre Audio, there are subgroups for Home Theatre Display & Video, In-Car Electronics, Mobile Devices, and Photography. Each member website or print publication can only belong to one subgroup, and can only nominate and vote for products within that subgroup. SoundStage! Hi-Fi is a member of EISA’s Hi-Fi subgroup, so we had a say—along with many other hi-fi publications—in terms of which products won the EISA 2021–2022 Hi-Fi awards.
But belonging to EISA doesn’t preclude us from having our own product awards. In fact, we have three types of awards for products that we review on SoundStage! Access, SoundStage! Simplifi, SoundStage! Solo, SoundStage! Ultra, SoundStage! Xperience, and this site, SoundStage! Hi-Fi. In this article, I’d like to explain what these product awards are, and how we select the winners—and how I think our tiered product awards can help inform your hi-fi buying decisions.
The beginning: Reviewers’ Choice
The first level you need to know about is our Reviewers’ Choice award, which is presented to an exceptional product the date that its review is published—you’ll see the Reviewers’ Choice tag at the very beginning of the review if a product has earned it. We first created this award over 20 years ago. There’s no limit to the number of Reviewers’ Choice product winners each month—so there might be one winner, several winners, or none at all.
For a product to receive a Reviewers’ Choice award, the content of the review must reflect that the product offers exceptional sound quality for its price and/or exceptional sound quality irrespective of price. In other words, great sound for the money or great sound, period. For the most part, products win based on one or other of these criteria, but from time to time, very special products check both boxes—these are the products that exhibit the best possible sound quality, but sell for less than you might think.
What’s also important to know about the Reviewers’ Choice selection process is that it is not an individual’s decision; instead, a team comprised of five to seven of our senior editorial staff, plus the reviewer if that person isn’t already part of the team, vote on whether the product gets the award or not. That’s why the award is the plural-possessive Reviewers’ Choice, not the singular Reviewer’s Choice.
We use this team approach for selection because the Reviewers’ Choice award is fundamental to our entire award process. First and foremost, the award signals to our readers that the product sounds great, or great for its price. But it’s also important because Reviewers’ Choice products are the only ones eligible for our two other awards.
The benchmark: Recommended Reference Component
Our Recommended Reference Component award debuted in September 2010, with the first winner being the Revel Ultima2 Salon2 loudspeaker. While several products could be Reviewers’ Choice award winners each month, only one can be recognized as a Recommended Reference Component. The award winner is published on this site on the first day of each month, and you can find all the winners since 2010 by clicking the References menu near the top of the page. The most recent Recommended Reference Component award recipient is the Paradigm Founder Series 100F loudspeaker, which I originally reviewed on this site in July.
As I mentioned, for a product to be eligible to win a Recommended Reference Component award, it must first have won a Reviewers’ Choice award on any of our sites. So the Salon2 and 100F loudspeakers obviously both received Reviewers’ Choice awards, as did all the Recommended Reference Component winners in between. But the products that become Recommended Reference Component award winners are those that exhibit reference-type sound quality for the price, meaning that they are the benchmarks that other similarly-priced products can be judged against.
As you can imagine, many of our Reviewers’ Choice winners could win a Recommended Reference Component award, but because we only recognize one product per month, it forces us to thoroughly investigate the products we’ve reviewed across the SoundStage! Network to determine which of them can provide benchmark sound now and into the future. The Salon2 and 100F loudspeakers are perfect examples of products that meet that standard we set for this award.
Revel’s Salon2, which is priced at $21,999.98/pair (all prices in USD), was introduced in 2007. It was considered to be at the top of the heap and the speaker to beat for sound quality not long after it was released. And not just for its price, but even when compared with speakers costing several times more. The Salon2’s sonic superiority, then and now, is demonstrated by the fact that it’s still in production today and still holds its own against speakers at its price point and beyond. That’s 14 years after it debuted!
Paradigm’s 100F is built with the latest technology and, at $5199.98/pair, is priced much lower than the Salon2, but it too sets a sonic standard for speakers up to and beyond its selling price. Furthermore, we believe that like the Salon2, the 100F will hold that position for years to come. All told, it’s the class-leading sound quality that the Salon2 and 100F provide that embodies what our Recommended Reference Component award is all about.
The best: Product of the Year
Every year on December 15—a date that coincides with the publication of the final reviews of the year—we announce our SoundStage! Network Products of the Year. This is the highest accolade a product can receive from our organization. In a typical year, just over 20 products receive a Product of the Year award (in 2020, 23 products won), which might sound like a lot, but it’s actually a small number compared to all the products we write about across all of our sites.
Doug Schneider (left) with Focal Naim North America’s Romain Vet. The Focal and Naim Audio brands were both winners in our 2019 SoundStage! Network Products of the Year.
With our Products of the Year, the bulk of the components awarded end up in two main categories: Exceptional Value and Outstanding Performance. It’s no accident that these categories line up nicely with the criteria on which we base the Reviewers’ Choice awards—great sound quality for the money, or great sound quality, period. Within these two categories, only one product of each type can win. So, for example, only one floorstanding speaker, one bookshelf speaker, one digital-to-analog converter, and so on, can be recognized for Exceptional Value and Outstanding Performance.
We also have a limited number of special-recognition awards, which are subcategorized under the main heading of Individual Awards. An example of an Individual Award is Aesthetics and Sound, which is presented to a product that both looks and sounds great. Another is Innovation in Design, presented to a product that is technologically advanced. Typically, these Individual Awards have only one winner per subcategory, but using Innovation in Design as an example, the Buchardt Audio A500 active loudspeakers and the NAD Masters M33 integrated amplifier both took home the award last year.
In order to be eligible to win a Product of the Year award, a product doesn’t need to have been recognized as a Recommended Reference Component, but it must have already won a Reviewers’ Choice award. And once again, the winning products are assessed and voted on by our editorial team.
PSB founder Paul Barton with SoundStage! Network Product of the Year trophies his company won in 2020.
In any given year, there are far more products that could make the final list than the 20-some that win. But, because we restrict the awards to only one of each product type in each of the Exceptional Value and Outstanding Performance categories, this causes our team to dig deep to determine which products are truly superior to their competitors at that time. As a result, the winners of these awards truly represent the best of what we’ve reviewed—the candidates have been culled through the Reviewers’ Choice selection process, then further narrowed down by our team before each winner is named as one of our Products of the Year. Then, to reinforce the importance of the award, we announce the winners to our readers on this site and we present the company responsible for making the product with an engraved trophy.
One, two, or three
Our tiered system begins with the Reviewers’ Choice award, which can then lead to the Recommended Reference Component and Product of the Year awards. So any product we review has the potential to win one, two, or even three awards. For us, this three-award system has been an extremely effective way to recognize products that we feel deserve special attention—and it’s worked just as well for many of our readers when they’re making purchasing decisions. We sincerely hope it also helps you.
. . . Doug Schneider