Thursday, September 30, 2010

The reviewer's deceit

At the heart of audiophile magazines rests a claim that is difficult if not impossible to sustain. Namely, all reviews and all product rankings carry with them a statement, implied or explicit, that you should not rely on the reviewer's impressions but instead, should seek out these products and hear them for yourself to determine if they are truly as good as reported. On top of this, we are reminded of system synergies, that your mileage may vary, and no two rooms are the same etc. In other words, the reviewers can report what they like, defended against objections by an appeal to subjective experience and unreproducible context.

Sadly, most reviewers must know that not only are the contextual variables impossible to replicate in any reader's situation, but worse, most readers can never anticipate being able to hear these products, even in a dealership. Consequently, even though review after review reminds people not to take the experiences of one as a guide, the reality is interested parties must rely on the advice given if they are to form a sense of what might be good and not so good in the world of audio products. Since reviewers won't submit themselves to blind tests to confirm that they actually can hear what they report hearing without recourse to sight, the reviewing literature is always questionable.

Now there are positives here that should not be overlooked. One can, over time, learn to identify the reviewing biases and preferences of some reviewers and then calibrate one's own tastes accordingly. I have done this so that I now know, if a well known reviewer raves about a certain digital front-end, I probably will not be able to hear what he hears, but if another finds no problems with a certain speaker, then I will likely enjoy that product too. But this is a less than precise or efficient process, and it still requires experience listening to products that have been reviewed. And this is the nub of the problem: contemporary audiophile product selling does not reflect the world in which reviewers reside and from which they advise.

Nowhere is this clearer than in trying to purchase speakers. Here's a component that you really have to hear before making a decision to buy but tell me, where can a typical purchaser hear most of the loudspeaker products reviewed in a typical issue of TAS or Stereophile? I put this to the test a couple of years ago when I wanted to learn what I could hear locally. In a relatively large, well-populated part of the US, within 25 miles of my home I could hear in a dealer's showroom the following $10-20k models:

Wilson Sophia
Eggleston Andra
Martin Logan Summits
B&W 802D

And to have even this many, I consider myself lucky. No Thiel, no Von Schweikert, no Magico, no Verity, no Quad, no Avalon, etc. Go through the top ranked speakers in the recommended components list of S'phile, or the increasingly frequent award winning listings in TAS and try to find some of these models. Not round here fella!
Leaving aside the fact that only one of these models was supported by a dealer who would consider a home trial, I wondered how I could even lay eyes on some of the highly touted products in this competitive price range, never mind hear them.

Contacting manufacturers directly resulted in some insightful responses. Avalon told me to contact a dealer over 1200 miles away, who subsequently told me I'd love the product and he'd work with me if I bought them. But no, I could not hear them anywhere but his dealership first. A Legacy dealer told me to fly to Illinois and he'd reimburse my flight if I bought them. The editor of a leading mag told me to attend an audio show and make a choice from there. Wow.....this is how one spends $20k on audio then. Oh, and by the way, don't pay too much attention to reviews! And heaven help you if you want to buy a turntable of any quality.

The disconnect between mainstream reviewing, the industry, and how real people get to purchase gear explains why Audiogon thrives, why there are so many forums for people to share experiences, and why so many times we end up arguing about reliability and objectivity of reviews. I don't think the reviewers in the mainstream mags are to blame, but I sure wish they would wake up to the reality of ordinary purchaser's opportunities to hear equipment, and in so doing, review in a manner that helps rather than hides behind vague endorsement and the convenient defense of 'hear it yourself to decide'. When you cannot hear it for yourself, we need reviewers who can be more than generally positive about everything while hiding behind the standard caveats, and we need an audio press that works on a realistic appreciation of how people get to know audio equipment then campaigns to have manufacturers make this process easier. A little honesty about the audio purchasing experience would go a long way.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Haden and Jarrett -- as good as it gets

I've listened intensely for a couple of months now to Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden's Jasmine It really is something beautiful and confirmation, if any were needed, that these guys are special. Too much to note here, I think I need to start a set of review pages for great music and this will be on it. From what I could learn, this recording resulted somewhat spontaneously and with little if any rehearsal, once they'd agreed some changes. I recall Charlie Haden saying on NPR earlier this year that he was visiting Jarrett's house as part of a film project and he only took his bass along at his wife's insistence that he'd likely want to play when he got there. Well, he did, then they played, and that set in motion a series of events that produced this result, for which we can all be thankful. The music is very accessible but nuanced, and you can get a real sense of your system by listening closely to this and then making a component change - once familiar with this recording, differences are revealed, but that's a bonus; the music here is enough. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

HiFi Zine second issue now out

I am pleased to note that despite the nay-sayers who claimed it would fade, issue 2 of HiFi 'Zine is out today, replete with good articles including an interview with James Tanner of Bryston. I contributed a less than serious piece on audiophilia neurosis (though from some folks' reaction I wonder if it is being taken literally) We are thinking through how a mag like this might break down the issue model that ties back to paper publication and might explore some options going forward since many contributors and manufacturers want the article published as soon as they read a draft! Ideas welcomed. Meanwhile, if you have something you'd like to see reviewed or audio insider you'd like interviewed by HiFi 'Zine, drop me a line.

Monday, September 6, 2010

New reviews and music on the way

Labor Day -- must mean it's the end of summer. I just spent a couple of very interesting months with the Digital Amp Co's Cherry Jr power amp. Oodles of power, no shortage of finesse and bass power that never runs out. $2k worth of Class D that is a good as I've heard near the price, makes one wonder just how good their top of the range amps might be. The full review will be in Sept 2010's Affordable Audio [and check the review archive on this page where all reviews eventually are added]. Kudos to DAC for engaging with us - you'd be surprised how many companies decline our invitation yet complain about difficulty obtaining decent reviews. DAC stepped up quickly when I offered the opening. Good products, good people.

Next up is an Eastern Electric DAC, which is a bit of a step for me (not sure if that's back or forward) since I gave up on DACs a few years back (still have that Parasound DAC 2000) before they came back into fashion with the move to computer audio. Bill O'Connell also sent a wonderful (and I mean that literally) Japanese product that 'treats' your CDs with magical light which it is claimed improves sonics. So far I've been making people listen to CDs before and after without telling them what is happening, asking them what they hear. It can be hilarious. More in due course.

The whole CD player future is intriguing. I wonder if anyone other than Oppo are selling many SACD players these days given the firesale prices I see on other lines. Sony might sell a few of their well-regarded XA5400ES model if they actually made some! It's hard for me to think about spending much on any digital front end at the moment, but Sony's thinking on this model is difficult to follow. PS Audio's PerfectWave combo seems to be a genuine attempt to develop a futureproof audiophile solution but even with the current discount, you need to lay out $4k, so I don't think we'll be getting any in for review, unfortunately. If you have one, feel free to drop me a line.