[SOUNDSTAGE!] Marc Mickelson is the Editor-in-Chief of SoundStage!
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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
November 1998

The High Road

Which of the following tells you more about SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider?

He is a paradox of sorts -- a literate computer guy with an abundance of poised energy. If you see him at a show, you see a blur with a portfolio and a perpetual smile.

He’s contradictory in some ways, but good at what he does. He’s hard-working and has a nice smile.

The difference here is obvious: One is populated with concrete description, the other with words that convey subjective impressions but don’t relate anything tangible. Now, it so happens, both statements are true, but if you really want to know what Doug is about, the first gets you closer to understanding him than the second.

The distinction here has everything to do with writing in general and writing audio reviews in particular. One of the mainstays of college writing courses is the descriptive essay, which is just what you might think, an essay that simply describes something -- a person or place or historical period -- in order to uncover the essential nature of the subject, to paint a picture of the subject in words. Simply put, description shows while commentary tells. Descriptive words are the building blocks of poetry and fiction, and reporters are trained to rely on nouns and action verbs (which show) and shun flowery adjectives (which tell). Good writers adhere to any number of principles, and avoiding vagueness is one of them.

In terms of SoundStage!, we know why you point your browsers to our URL month after month. You read what we write because you want to find out about music, movies and, most of all, audio equipment. You want to discover how it performs and not read vacuous statements that tell how great it is or whether we like it or not (although both of these are certainly byproducts of pointed description). Why are a reviewer’s like and dislikes of little consequence to you? Because they may not be the same as yours, and even if they are, you won’t know it without some description of them.

Now you may think I’m about to take the high road and say that we at SoundStage! are perfect in this regard. We’re not. However, you can consider this editorial the turning of a new leaf -- our 95 theses nailed to the listening-room door. From this point forward, we will endeavor to give you the kind of information that will help you the most -- pointed description of what we hear. Opinions are plentiful these days, especially opinions on audio equipment. In creating SoundStage! every month, we’ll probably have our lapses. We aim to be perfect (impossible as it is), if not immediately then in short order.

Two effective components of good description are comparison and contrast (using the two together is another kind of paper you may have written for an English course), and we’ll incorporate these into our reviews, often to explain how the sound produced with a particular component in place is different from -- or similar to -- that with our like-functioning reference components. Often this is where the meat of the review occurs and where we as writers and listeners have to do our best work. Everyone knows that sounding different doesn’t equate to sounding better, and we’ll keep this in mind as we ferry equipment in and out of our systems and write about the results.

And this brings me to one final but important point. A few months ago we contacted a manufacturer about obtaining a product for review. This company’s speakers have been favorably reviewed in most, if not all, of the well-known print magazines, and we’ve had any number of discussions with him. However, he was still concerned. He wanted to be sure that the reviewer we would assign would "get" his speakers. What did he mean by this? Well, here’s a secret about the high end that few will voice, maybe because they don’t know it: The vast majority of high-end equipment is good, but not all good equipment is good in the same ways. A truly bad product -- one with gritty treble, a thin midrange and flabby bass -- is an oddity (and short-lived due to the forces of the market), and most of the products that the audio press deems as worthy of your money don’t sound or function alike. Some sound more rich in tone, while others exhibit faster transient response or a propensity for midbass fullness. Some work well with most brands of speakers and speaker cables, while others have their definite preferences. This list could go on and on, with numerous distinctions and gradations. The best equipment -- which is often the most expensive -- minimizes these traits, seemingly incorporating them all in various amounts. But equipment that falls further down the ultimate performance and price ladders is built with compromises in mind. However, it can still produce enjoyable sound, especially to listeners who prefer its collection of traits.

So why is the manufacturer with a bevy of positive reviews in other publications worried? Because he doesn’t want to send out his product and have it ruled on by a rash reviewer who missed -- or ignored -- its particular set of characteristics. And there are any number of overeager reviewers, some with friends who lend them equipment because manufacturers won’t. Thus, they don’t have the breadth of listening that will allow them to make good judgments -- which, alas, they are often only interested in. Once again, I won’t proclaim that SoundStage! is the epitome of reviewing temperance. But because we’ll rely on our descriptive abilities, we’ll relegate our opinions to second-class status and give you the kind of information you want and need to make good audition and buying decisions.

So to answer the worried manufacturer officially: We’ll describe the sound we hear in the most tangible way we can. If your speakers reproduce music in a realistic manner, we’ll "get" it, and our readers will too.

...Marc Mickelson

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