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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
June 2004

Everyone's a Critic, Unfortunately

I met a woman a few years ago who told me in detail about the "all-time best movie." It has a big-name dramatic star in a role that allows him to be funny. It has lots of action, but it is touching, too. It even has a great performance by a non-human actor.

"Have you seen it?" she asked.

"No," I said. I lied, not wanting to fan the flames of this discussion.

The movie? Turner & Hooch.

Opinions are below cheap these days -- everybody has them, many of them, and expresses them freely. The Internet has given a voice to people, and their opinions, who would otherwise be silent. We all know someone who is deeply knowledgeable but a little quiet, shy. We want to draw that person out of his shell so he can not only let his very worthy voice be heard, but also help others by imparting what he knows.

This isn't what's happening on an immense scale on the Internet, and you only have to visit a few of the forums and chat sites that concern themselves with high-end audio to realize this. Here, opinion is mixed with conjecture and some useful advice to form a stew of words that's so thick you can't discern any of its ingredients easily. So those who frequent are treated to all manner of information, some of it valid, most of it not.

What this creates is a climate in which opinion is overvalued and often leads to faulty logic and a general decay of discourse. In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell discussed how misuse of the English language ultimately leads to political conformity. He's lucky that he doesn't have to witness what's done to the our language and our ability to discern truth on the Internet. A friend of mine summed it up well: People confuse information with experience and knowledge.

"But so what?" I can imagine some of you saying. "People who frequent forums don't take everything they read seriously." I'm not so sure about that -- I am asked questions all the time that originate from a comment made by someone online -- but for the sake of this argument, I won't go there. What troubles me is how insidious the decline of critical thought is, making its way from those who don't claim to be critics to those who do.

As readers know, we publish measurements, darned good ones. I will argue that no publication in print or online publishes more accurate objective data. We know that some readers pay strict attention to our measurements, while others don't look at them at all. To each his own. We publish measurements along with our subjective critiques to give you more information about the products we review -- present you with objective facts and subjective impressions.

In such a climate, the reviews we produce are comprehensive enough to convey a deep understanding of the products under review. Even in the case of products that we don't measure, I am confident that our reviews, and our reviewers, are informed by the measurement process, its implied rigor, as they form their impressions and do their writing.

But then I'll read a review published elsewhere. Here, a speaker we measured, which shows, for example, a nearly 10dB dip in the midrange, is described as "sounding very pleasing" or some such euphemism for "I, the reviewer, liked what I heard, even with its deficiencies." I could accept this second statement, which is far more honest and telling than the first, but it's the first that prevails in the review, primarily because a climate of opinion exists, and deficiencies (a 10dB midrange dip is more than a deficiency for a loudspeaker) are a matter of opinion, even if their existence is proven. Orwell argued that "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." I would argue that today the enemy is unrestrained opinion. One very low point recently brought to my attention is a review in which the writer cites the woofers in his reference speakers as evidence that he knows what a certain very low bass frequency sounds like. No explanation needed here.

I am loath to echo the platitude that reviews should only be a starting point in your search for fine audio equipment when I know that some of them belong in the Windows Recycle Bin. Others are truly useful, however, and these are the ones we should all seek out, not only for what they tell us about the products under consideration, but also for what they teach us about how to think.

I hope that just as Tom Hanks progressed from Turner & Hooch to his Oscar-winning roles, these dark days for reason and discourse will lead to something better. If you've read "Politics and the English Language," you know that the alternative is truly frightening.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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