1990s Awards and the birth of the What Hi-Fi? test rooms

Back issues. Awards 1998 and 94
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

One of the dawning realisations of getting older, I have discovered, is finding that clichés became clichés for a reason. So here we go: it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the What Hi-Fi? Awards creep up on me every year. Tempus fugit and all that. 

But here we are. All the What Hi-Fi? Best Buy Award winners for 2023 are available for your perusal on this very website right now, so it seemed the ideal time for me to take a look at some Awards issues of the magazine from a quarter of a century and more ago. 

As is the way of this column, I didn’t have to search for too long to find plenty of interest. The first mag I happened upon was our 1998 Awards issue; I was struck by the simplicity of the cover – straightforward and to the point, but with no products on it. So I went back a year or four and opened up our bound copies of the magazine from 1994, to see what contrast there might be. Well, there’s certainly a contrast in one way – I wasn’t expecting to see a vibrant yellow selling our Awards – red and/or gold has traditionally been the way to go for What Hi-Fi?. But the simplicity of the cover was still there – as was the lack of product. Must have been a ‘90s thing, I suppose. Not sure; I fear I’m too old to remember…

Before the tables had turned

Awards 1994 turntables spread

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Delve just a bit deeper into both magazines though and things become more interesting. Each of these issues gave up some real gems that highlighted some milestones both of the hi-fi and home entertainment industry, and What Hi-Fi? the brand.  

Flicking through the 1994 Awards pages themselves, I happened upon the turntables category – and I genuinely laughed out loud (I might have lol’d, but of course nobody in 1994 would have had any clue what I was going on about had I done so). 

The standfirst (magazine-speak for introduction or sub-heading) to the piece states: “It’s looking like 1994 might be the last time turntables appear in the What Hi-Fi? Awards…” 

Take a look at the turntables section for 2023, and you will see that that prediction was along the lines of Alan Hansen’s (also mid-90s) “you can’t win anything with kids” Premier League howler. These days, turntables is one of our larger categories, and both vinyl records and record players are still enjoying a resurgence we hadn't thought possible.

And so it goes

Awards 1994 tuners category

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

That standfirst is, of course, a sign of the times; the mid ‘90s, it turned out, was the nadir for the turntable. The compact disc had been dominating the stereo music software market for more than a decade, and things (clearly) didn’t look like changing any time soon. But take a look at the once mighty CD player category in 2023… Of course, dear reader, the wizardry of the Apple iPod, music streaming and so on was still a fair few years in the future, so how could we have known? 

In a sobering contrast to the above, the tuners category in 1994 was an impressive five strong – that’s hi-fi tuners, to go in a system, rather than simple radios (which are still chugging along rather nicely in 2023). Where one mighty branch of the hi-fi tree has prospered against all expectations, another has withered to almost nothingness. And so it goes.

A modern reviewing process

Awards 1998 test room feature

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The other notable – and more personal to me and to the brand – thing to stand out from flicking through these two more than 25-year-old issues was the coincidence that each of them had a feature on the new listening rooms that had been built at the time; 1994 being the first of its kind for the brand, 1998 (above) being an upgrade and expansion to three rooms. Precisely four years apart, but this was the birth of the What Hi-Fi? in-house reviewing process that, for the vast majority of products, we adhere to to this day. As we said in ’94, up to that time, the brand had done what all other magazines did, and most still do: use external, freelance reviewers to produce the necessary verdicts and copy. 

Since then, What Hi-Fi? has taken great care to ensure that none of our reviews is the opinion of one person, but of two, three or even four team members. Every single product that comes through our (new listening rooms') doors is always listened to by multiple people, with final star ratings decided as a team. It’s the best way we have found to remove any personal bias or blind spots from an individual and is one of the brand’s great strengths.

29 years and counting…

What Hi-Fi? Awards 1994 test room feature

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Having said that, what jumped out at me most, being the nostalgic chap that I am, was the photo illustrating the 1994 room. Besides the good old CRT television and that wonderfully rustic Apple computer, what drew my eye was the two human models in the shot. 

One has gone over, as so many ex What Hi-Fi? staffers have, to the dark side and is now a respected hi-fi industry PR (hi, Tim).

Ah, but the other though… The other is none other than our esteemed technical editor (and the physics teacher I wish I’d had at school) Ketan Bharadia. With hair! 

Ketan had joined the team just a handful of weeks before this shot was taken. Tempus fugit, indeed.


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Jonathan Evans
Editor, What Hi-Fi? magazine

Jonathan Evans is the editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine, and has been with the title for 17 years or so. He has been a journalist for getting on for three decades now, working on a variety of technology and motoring titles, including Stuff, Autocar and Jaguar. With his background in sub-editing and magazine production, he likes nothing more than a discussion on the finer points of grammar. And golf.