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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
August 2005

A Mixed-Up Message

The Internet has democratized the delivery of information, making it possible for more people's ideas and opinions to reach a mass audience. This is a very good thing in theory, especially if the theory you believe in is free speech, but it has its wobbly moments in practice. Misinformation is as abundant as pornography on the Internet and has created a situation where the spirit of caveat emptor applies to every Internet search.

In the realm of high-end audio, the Internet has had a profound impact, not only changing the way people buy and sell products but also giving rise to publications like SoundStage! and the other SoundStage! Network sites. Online discussion of high-end audio has become a growth industry, and consequently there are more audio reviewers than ever before.

Audio reviewing is a rather straightforward endeavor. Readers want to know what we're hearing, and this, in my view, obliges us to tell them. However, human nature being what it is, one byproduct of a glut of audio reviewers is the need of some to stand out in a thick crowd. This takes many subtle and obvious forms, but one of the most apparent is when a reviewer has a change of heart and begins questioning, even denouncing, some principle or opinion he or she has previously stated and believed.

Perhaps the about-face that raises the most eyebrows occurs when a reviewer who has trumpeted loudly the audio system he has built decides to renovate it, or even demolish it and start over, often claiming that some new belief system has taken hold and provides the motivation. I'm not referring here to swapping out a piece of one's reference system. This happens as a matter of course in order to keep up with current technology or changing requirements. It is a byproduct of writing about audio equipment. I'm also not referring to upgrading -- making one's system better by replacing a component that's less than satisfying. Instead, I'm talking about a sweeping, source-to-speakers transformation, the sort of thing that a reviewer's access to equipment makes possible, even easy. Sometimes it is billed as an "epiphany," even with all the eye-rolling that such a word entails.

But this editorial is not about epiphanies, audio or otherwise. Instead I want to call attention to the message that such wholesale changes send to audiophiles, and the harm of this message.

As I've mentioned, the buying and selling of audio equipment on the Internet is brisk, so much so that many audiophiles are, in effect, small-scale dealers -- buying, using and selling lots of gear, if not for profit then certainly as a pastime. This may be good for eBay and Audiogon, which make money from every sale, but it's a step backwards for music lovers who became audiophiles for a very different reason.

Thus, when an audio writer decides to "start over," no matter how he spins the issue for readers, he sends the message that being an audiophile is about playing with equipment, and listening to great music is secondary. An audio system can and should be dismantled and rebuilt -- again and again if desired. For many audiophiles -- far more than will admit it -- building an audio system has become the point of being an audiophile. A couple of months ago in this space I discussed how listening to an iPod is antithetical to the "experience" of high-end audio. However, my premise was based on the assumption that the "experience" involved music, not just shuffling components in and out of an equipment rack.

What's wrong with being an equipment jockey? Nothing in an abstract sense, but everything if you are an audio writer who claims to have readers' interests and a love of music as your motivations. It's easy to take for granted those things we love, especially if they're always there for us, and I blame this for the roaming eye that some of my colleagues possess regarding their audio systems (although stories of financial gain from buying and selling review equipment sadly abound). If you're going to take the word of an audio reviewer on the epiphany in store when you decide to redo your entire system, also consider the word of a writer who doesn't get nearly enough time to listen to music for pleasure: Build your audio system carefully, then use it every chance you can. I guarantee that more epiphanies will come your way from music than from audio equipment.

And caveat emptor regarding the hobby of building an audio system perpetually. With your new purchases you may be buying something you're not aware of -- a ticket away from the heart of your hobby and the experience that drew you in in the first place.

...Marc Mickelson

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