How we test and review products on What Hi-Fi?

What Hi-Fi? test room
(Image credit: Future)

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our mission is and has always been for everyone to own the very best audio and video kit they can afford, so they can enjoy music and movies to their fullest. 

That is why every year, and for the past 47 years, we test hundreds of products and publish comprehensive reviews to help you, our readers, buy the best tech products for your money, from speakers to TVs, turntables to headphones.

How we test

We put more AV and hi-fi kit through its paces than any other publication, and review everything from small portable speakers to large home cinema systems. If it plays audio or video, then we're interested.

All products that pass through our test room doors are tested in comparison with rival products in the same price category, so that everything we review is in the context of other products in that sector of the market. We keep a stockroom full of kit so that we always have benchmark products to hand when we need them.

All our review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole – not an individual reviewer. Each product will be listened to or viewed by several members of the review team, who will then discuss the final verdict before it appears in the magazine or on the website. This ensures we reach a consensus verdict. 

No manufacturer or PR is ever shown a review prior to publication, and our advertising department never knows what the test verdicts are before the review is published.

It’s how we have done things for more than 45 years, and how we plan to continue doing them for the next 45 and more – to ensure our readers are always on the receiving end of top-quality buying advice, and to uphold our unrivalled reputation in the industry.

If you want to learn more about how What Hi-Fi? tests, you can find the reviewing process explained and discussed in the following video...

Our experienced in-house reviewers

We are the only UK-based brand to have a dedicated team of in-house reviewers, all working in the same acoustically treated test rooms. This gives us complete control over how products are tested and the environment in which they are reviewed, to ensure each product is given a fair test. 

The team has more than 100 years of collective experience reviewing, testing and writing about consumer electronics. So you can rest assured that all What Hi-Fi? reviews are fair, honest and accurate, and brought to you by the most experienced team in the business.

You can learn more about us – both as a brand and as individuals – in our ‘About Us’ page.

Our dedicated state-of-the-art test rooms

What Hi-Fi? test rooms

(Image credit: Future)

Everything is reviewed in our four custom-built, state-of-the-art test rooms in London, Reading and Bath. There are two listening rooms for hi-fi, one for Home Cinema and another devoted to televisions. These give us controlled and consistent environments in which to test equipment. Portable products aside, everything we test is reviewed in these rooms.

The two hi-fi rooms are reasonably sized, typical of the kind of spaces many readers could have. The main room is 3m x 7m x 5m (hwd) while the second room is 3m x 4m x 7m (hwd). Both rooms have been acoustically treated to have a reasonably flat reverb response over the audio frequency range. We have been careful to avoid an overdamped, studio feel to either, because that isn’t typical for the kinds of environments we think our readers have.

Every decision as regards the type and placement of the acoustic panels and bass traps has been informed by a combination of measurement and listening, with the listening usually taking priority.

Initially, we had planned to have speakers firing lengthways down our main room, as is conventional, but careful measurements showed that we would get more even results firing across the shorter dimension. This also means that we end up listening to speakers at a mid-field distance (around 2.3m) where we get more direct sound and less influence from the room. Another bonus of having the speakers fire across the shorter dimension is that the side walls are further away, which gives us the possibility of getting a wide soundstage. We want to maximise the stereo imaging of the speakers we are testing, so we have also made the test room as symmetrical as possible to optimise the results.

The second hi-fi room follows a similar philosophy but fires lengthways to allow us to listen to speakers from further away. This is useful for certain designs that need a longer distance to the listener in order to integrate properly.

In order to minimise external influences we have our own dedicated test network that is separate from the one used for the rest of the office. Why is this important? An office environment with hundreds of computers and devices using the same network (and corporate firewalls) isn’t typical of what happens in a home, so a dedicated network makes sense. Conversely, we intentionally haven’t specified a separate mains feed to the room because we wanted give those components with better quality power supplies the chance to shine.

The Home Cinema test room follows similar principles to the hi-fi rooms but is, of course, optimised for surround speaker systems. It is larger at 2.3m x 6.3 x 7.3m (hwd) and is suitable for testing some of the biggest speaker packages around. We have been fairly light with the acoustic treatment in the room with a view to getting close to the balance of a conventional living space. This room is designed so that we can test the full range of home cinema equipment from projectors, 4K video sources, soundbars and speaker packages

Our main hi-fi test room (pictured top):

The main hi-fi test room is used for all separates stereo components such as CD players, turntables, amplifiers and stereo speakers. Our current hi-fi reference system includes (but is not limited to):

Naim ND555/555 PS DR music streamer (£20,000)

Naim Uniti Core (£1900)

Technics SL-1000R/Kiseki Purple Heart turntable (£17,000)

Cyrus Phono Signature/PSX-R2 phono stage (£1900)

Burmester 088/911Mk3 pre/power (£36,150)

ATC SCM50 speakers (£10,000)

Analogue, digital and speaker cables from Chord Company and Vertere Acoustics

Note: products are also tested alongside price-compatible kit, allowing us to gauge how they perform with the kit with which they are most likely to be paired.

Our AV test room (pictured above):

The main home cinema room is used for testing AV products such as projectors, home cinema amplifiers, Blu-ray players and soundbars. Our current AV reference system includes (but is not limited to):

Pioneer UDP-LX500 UHD 4K Blu-ray player 

Oppo UDP-203 UHD 4K Blu-ray player 

JBL Synthesis SDR-35 Dolby Atmos home cinema amplifier 

Epson EH-TW9400 projector 

Stewart projector screen 102inch

PMC Twenty5.23 surround speaker package with KEF R50 Dolby Atmos speakers

Chord Company cables

Sky Q, 4K streaming and Freeview HD

TV room:

Our multi-purpose TV room is mainly used for testing – you guessed it – TVs. It is here we put TVs through their paces and line two, three or sometimes even four sets next to one another for optimum comparison purposes.

Our star rating system

What Hi-Fi?'s star rating system

(Image credit: Future)

Complementing every single one of What Hi-Fi?’s reviews, whether published in the monthly magazine or on the What Hi-Fi? website, is a star-rating system with a scale of one (1) to five (5) stars. These review scores represent our opinion of the overall performance of the product and, as printed in every issue of the magazine, are as follows:

Five stars - One of the best at the price

Four stars - A serious contender

Three stars - Worth a look

Two stars - Disappointing

One star - Awful

While this may seem simple enough, we have expanded on these star rating descriptions in a separate What Hi-Fi? star ratings explained article which explains the logic (and subtleties) behind the system we have been using for over 40 years.

If, however, you land on a product review on the What Hi-Fi? website that doesn't have a star rating, it will either be a hands-on review or a review from one of What Hi-Fi?'s two sister publications.

Hands-on reviews, which will be clearly marked as such in the headline of the review, are not final product reviews. These are first impressions of a product, typically a newly launched one, and often by a single member of the team who has had the opportunity to attend a briefing or demo session ahead of the full launch. 

We don't attach star ratings to these hands-on reviews because they haven't been through the full What Hi-Fi? review procedure in our test rooms. But these hands-on reviews are typically followed by a full review of that product, complete with a star rating and final verdict.

You may also see reviews that originally appeared in Australian Hi-Fi or Sound + Image magazine. Again, they will be clearly marked as such in the Author section and introduction of the review. These are two of What Hi-Fi?’s sister titles in Australia, so do not carry the What Hi-Fi? star rating. Click here for more information about Australian Hi-Fi and Sound + Image

What Hi-Fi? Awards

What Hi-Fi? Awards 2021 issue

(Image credit: Future)

For almost 40 years, the What Hi-Fi? Awards has been the ‘Oscars’ of the hi-fi and home cinema industry; a celebration of the very best hi-fi and home cinema products on the market.

Every October, we decorate around 100 products with Best Buy awards, spread across a huge range of product categories and price points. We then pick one stand-out product in each of those categories to receive the ultimate ‘Product of the Year’ gong at the What Hi-Fi? Awards ceremony in November. It is then we also announce some special awards too, including Innovation of the Year, Outstanding Contribution and the Readers' Award, as voted for by the readers of What Hi-Fi?

The Product of the Year and Best Buy winners represent the best-value products on the market at that time. And rest assured that we cover every corner of the market – every product that has already received a five-star review is automatically considered in the What Hi-Fi? Awards judging process, and we also give manufacturers the chance to submit brand new products especially for the Awards. Decisions on winners follow weeks of testing, discussion and debate. 

Every year we also publish a special Awards issue of the magazine, with both print and digital editions going on sale on the same date as the What Hi-Fi? Awards ceremony.

So how can you find latest award-winning products? We have a dedicated What Hi-Fi? Awards website with all the latest winners, as well as those from previous years. Individual reviews of winning products are also flagged as Award winners. 

You will also find the best products in every category listed in our Best Buys guides, which are constantly updated throughout the year so you have the very latest buying advice.