Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXI: Me, Myself and I, the Audio Reviewer
(August 2011)

Would you believe me if I told you that I recently went for two years without reading a single audio magazine?

It's true. When I moved to Texas and sold the bulk of my reference system, I focused my energy elsewhere for a while. I let my subscriptions--some of which I maintained since the '80's--lapse. But in the last few months I've re-immersed myself in the audio industry with a vengeance, and I grabbed a few months' worth of my old audio mags and feasted on reviews of the latest gear. I came away thinking that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Computer audio has definitely changed the hi-fi landscape; most of these reviews contained the words "USB," "192 Hz" and "FLAC" in nearly every other sentence. Then again, a quick survey of introductory paragraphs yielded the same old same old: I still watched reviewer after reviewer discuss getting the assignment from the editor (was this ever an interesting way to begin an article?), and I witnessed the same well-worn discussions of tubes vs. transistors, direct drive vs. belt drive and floorstanding speakers vs. bookshelf monitors. I decided that despite my self-imposed hiatus from all things audio, I hadn't really missed much.

I'm certainly not trying to diss the audio scribes. These are, after all, tough days for reviewers. A perfunctory glance through Internet discussion groups reveals that these poor souls don't get any love from users, hobbyists, music lovers and old-fashioned audio guys. If you were an alien who landed on earth and tried, from a few discussion threads, to gage the usefulness of audio journalism, you'd come away from your interplanetary visit thinking that most of these guys are crooked, misinformedů or both. I should know, since I did it for several years and took my share of scathing critiques.

Yes, Virginia, there is some hanky-panky when it comes to audio reviews. For instance, I know of one online mag that published reviews (usually touted as "World's First Review!" or something equally hyperbolic) that were written from a chair in a room at an audio trade show. I know another that is basically a one-man show that fleshes out its masthead with pseudonyms to give the impression of a huge, distinguished staff of audio writers. But to be honest, that's the distinct minority, and most audio journalists are knowledgeable, honest writers who know how to evaluate audio equipment.

All of this came to a head, however, when I heard one of these print reviewers trash his cyber-colleagues by dismissing online audio publications as a whole. "These guys are writing about themselves more than they are writing about the product. It's 'me, me, me.'" It's just bad writing." Originally I was offended by this statement because I've been accused once or twice of doing the same thing (just check MY introductory paragraph above for a nice example). I was even more offended when I read the latest review from this individual and counted four "I"s and two "my"s in the first two sentences alone. In another review, I watched this same person insert an excited comment about being recognized at a concert, which had absolutely nothing to do with the product being reviewed. But I started thinking about what he said, and how it reflects the art of writing about audio.

When I wrote for audio magazines, I was often called--much to my dismay--a journalist. I didn't like the moniker because it suggested a certain objectivity about the review process. To a certain extent, reviewers are journalists when they're discussing what a product does and doesn't do. When you're talking about features, the history of the manufacturer or the technology involved, you have to get your facts straight (the vast majority of print publications have a fact-checking and editing department just as diligent as any magazine). But once you start talking about the sound of a product, it's all about perception. Remember, our brains are wired different. Every person does not hear in exactly the same way. We all have different tastes in music reproduction as well. That's when strict journalism flees from the room and op-ed makes its grand appearance.

I remember being told that when I wrote one column, I could talk about anything I wanted. When I wrote a review, however, I had to stick to the facts. "Listen and report only what you hear," was the mantra. But what if I had hooked up the product improperly? What if it wasn't designed to work well with the other components in my system? What if I had just spent the afternoon mowing the lawn before I decided to listen to a product--with my utterly compromised hearing? Like I said, it's hard to remain a journalist sometimes.

As I learned from my perusal of recent articles, the formula has remained the same when it comes to equipment reviews. Audio reviewers are presumed to be experts once they get past that introductory paragraph. Their personalities are no longer required. I'm not sure I agree with that. I want to know more about the person reviewing, such as their personal tastes in music or gear. Am I on the same page when it comes to expectations? There's no way to know unless these writers drop the pretense of absolute objectivity and start inserting a little of themselves into the review. That's when they become truly useful to their audience. They're not robots, after all.

The best audio reviewers in my opinion--Corey Greenberg, Art Dudley, Sam Tellig and Michael Fremer--always include a little of themselves into every sentence. John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile, approaches his reviews with a foundation of technical knowledge and still manages to be entertaining and informative. So does Robert Harley of The Absolute Sound, as well as many, many others. A reviewer simply cannot remove themselves from the review process and still connect with the readers. They have to use a few me's, myself's and I's in order to be honest. I know one reviewer who insists on using a second person narrative in his reviews--everything is "you place the needle on the record" and "you set the anti-skating." But you are not doing anything, he is. It comes off as stilted and bizarre.

I know that most of the writers I listed come from Stereophile, which makes me sound a little biased toward the publication. Frankly, there are some online publications--Positive Feedback Online and 6Moons for example--that exercise the same high standards of writing. But Stereophile (along with The Absolute Sound and most of the British hi-fi magazines) has always been at the top of the heap when it comes to audio reviews, and therefore, they're not as worried about making the advertisers in their magazine happy. If you don't believe me, then check out the fireworks in the Manufacturer's Comments section in a few selected issues. If you see a rave review of a product, and an advertisement of that same product on the next page--something you do see on some online publications--then you probably should be a little suspicious.

For the most part, audio reviewers do get it right. They're not all dishonest hacks, like they're portrayed on the audio forums. But they are not--in the strictest definition of the word--journalists. They're human beings just like you. Like I mentioned in my column, Listen for Yourself, an audio review should be a starting point for your own search for the perfect audio component. It should, and never will be, the final word. It's all about you, yourself and yours.

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