What does it mean to be Stereophile‘s Product of the Year? It’s an honor, certainly, and probably helps the winner sell more products, but is there anything more we can say about it?
The PotY competition is the culmination of a whole year of the magazine’s work, starting with the choice of products to review. Only products we review or consider carefully in a column qualify for the competition, and every product we review is eligible for the competition: We only review products we think will have a decent shot at being among the best.
Every product is subjected by the reviewer to a thorough evaluation over a period of weeks or monthsplus, for regular reviews (not columns), a session in John Atkinson’s measurement laboratory. The resulting review documents what’s almost certainly the most thorough evaluation that product will receive outside the manufacturer’s development lab (and sometimes inside it; what the manufacturer does in its laboratory generally stays in its laboratory). That document, thenthe review itselfis a product’s best argument for winning an awardor against it if the review lacks enthusiasm.
Over the course of the reviewing year (which starts with the November issue and ends with the October issue), most reviewers will hear most of the products we reviewat audio shows, dealerships, or the listening rooms of other reviewers. (This took a hit during the pandemic, but it’s recovering now.) Such encounters can be very helpful, even essential, especially if the system the product is heard in is familiar (eg, the system of a good friend you frequently visit), but by itself it’s not enough to form a reliable judgment.
That’s a crucial point, often overlooked: If you think you can walk into a room at an audio show, listen for a few minutes, then render a verdict on the quality of the amplifier or playeror even the loudspeakerthink again. That’s something that can only be determined with extended listening in an intimately familiar system.
Those two things together, thoughan encounter with the product, however brief, plus a trusted reviewer’s thorough reportis sufficient to allow a reviewer voting in this competition (or, for that matter, considering a purchase of said component) to make a sound decision (no pun intended). Plus, it’s about the best anyone can do, since it’s simply not possible to dive sufficiently deeply into every important product released during a year, or even just those reviewed in our pages.
So what does it mean to be Stereophile‘s Product of the Year? It’s the outcome of likely the most rigorous process of recognizing quality in our industry. An honor indeed.
This year’s competitors for Product of the Year range in price from $69.95 (for the AudioQuest JitterBug FMJ) to $163,000 (for a pair of Estelon Forza loudspeakers with an upgraded finish). That’s a wide range, but it doesn’t range as high as last year’s most expensive PotY candidate, the $450,000 TechDas Air Force Zero turntable.
This year’s list is, overall, less expensive than last year’s, with the same number of candidate products under $100 (2) as over $100,000 and almost the same number of products under $2000 (38) as over $10,000 (37). In between those two pricesbetween $2000 and $10,000are 57 competing products.
Some people, of course, will complain about the not-quite-$100,000 amplifiers and $150,000 speakers we reviewed this year, which is fine, but I think this analysis shows that we’re doing a decent job of capturing the whole market, from bottom to top with a focus on the middle.
Above, I wrote that this year’s list was less expensive than the previous year’s. That’s true, but the Finalists are a different story. Excluding the budget and overall categories (for obvious reasons), the average cost of finalists in this contest (using the average price when a range is provided) is $28,334. Hardly cheap.
And the winners? This year, the average price of a category winneragain excluding budget and overallwas an even higher $34,457. That’s a good bit more expensive than the average in the PotY competition’s inaugural year, 1992, when the average price of a category winner was $6259, or $12,200 in today’s dollars. The difference between those two numbers tracks the increase in high-end prices reasonably well, in my subjective estimation.
And what about the overall winner? How does its price compare to those of previous winners? You’ll have to read on to figure that out. You’ll find no spoilers here.
How We Did It
In early September, I compiled and shared with Stereophile‘s audio-equipment reviewers a list of products reviewed in the magazine between the November 2021 and October 2022 issues. In this year’s process, each reviewer was invited to nominate three products in each of seven categories: Amplification Component of the Year, Analog Source Component of the Year, Digital Source Component of the Year, Headphone Product of the Year, Accessory of the Year, Loudspeaker of the Year, and Budget Product of the Year. Reviewers were asked to award three points to their top choice, two points to their second choice, and one point to their third choice. The result of Round One was a list of Finalists comprised of top vote-getters in each category.
The Budget category is, of course, a bit different from the others. Last year, I decided not to put an absolute maximum price on products eligible for the budget category; after all, a $500 amplifier or pair of speakers is obviously budget, but a $1000 phono cartridge might not be. So I played it by ear, conservatively. I did the same thing this year. Prices in Budget ranged from $69.95 for the AudioQuest JitterBug to $2395 for a fully decked-out EAR Phono Classic phono preamp (although the EAR is more obviously “budget” at the low end of its price range, $1695 for the basic, MM-only model; indeed, because its MM stage is its best feature, the cheaper model is by far the better buy). A “budget” component, then, is one that in the judgment of Stereophile‘s editormeis considerably cheaper than most of the products we review in its category.
In addition to qualifying for the second round of voting in their category, every Finalist from every categorynot including Budgetremained in the running for Overall Product of the Year.
In the second round of voting, reviewers were again asked to award three points, two points, or a single point to their favorites in each categorybut this time, the lists were shorter. The highest vote-getter would became the category winner.
The Overall category, though, was a special case: 32 candidates were still in the running for the Overall prize after the first round of voting. I’d thought that a third round of voting would be needed to obtain a clear winner; I had planned to send out a third ballot. That proved unnecessary, though, because the second-round Overall votes concentrated on a small subset of candidate products. Even with so many choices, an obvious winner emerged, along with a shortlist of products that received significant numbers of votes; those “shortlist” products were named Finalists in the Overall category.
Some final notes: The prices listed herein were current at the end of August 2022; some may have changed by the time you read this. Finalists in each category are listed in alphabetical order.
To order back issues mentioned in this article, call (888) 237-0955 or visit shop.stereophile.com. All the reviews are available online, free.
And the winners are …
NEXT: Amplification Component of the Year »
Amplification Component of the Year
Joint Analog Components of the Year
Digital Component of the Year
Headphone Product of the Year
Accessory of the Year
Loudspeaker of the Year
Budget Component of the Year
Component of the Year
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