[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article
August 1999

Music Lovers and Reviewers

by Srajan Ebaen

If you want to become a millionaire, talk to a millionaire. Don’t trust a telemarketer who promises a direct elevator ride to the top floor of success overnight.

Sounds reasonable, no?

If you want to end up with a great-sounding system, read as many reviews as you can and buy the stuff that averages the highest marks by the most writers.

Pretty compelling too, yes?

This month, I want to explore the difference between what a music lover listens to and what a reviewer listens for. The reviewer’s comments are not necessarily as useful as you may think, especially if you believe that you must first learn to listen like a reviewer to find musical truth.

Note, first, the qualitative differences between "listening to" and "listening for." To "listen for" implies a motif, an agenda, having a flashlight or microscope to focus in on whatever you’re looking for. "Listening to" is entirely non-selective, concerned with the big picture, not the details. In a nutshell, this is the difference between listening for pleasure and listening as a reviewer.

The choice of words here is deliberate. A reviewer is supposed to resist enjoying himself, to avoid pleasure. He remains on the periphery -- calm, aloof, distanced, the objective observer who analyses, measures and compares his findings against a personal reference. Should he get swept up by the music, drowned in some rapture or carried away tapping his feet and swinging his bottom, he has lost his objectivity. By definition, a reviewer is supposed to maintain his objectivity at all cost, so his report remains scientific -- like the printout of a piece of test gear. Since no machine is as yet as sensitive as the human ear in these matters, reviewers have to stand in for the machines. They’re expected to behave like them, too. The additional oxymoron, of course, is that music is first and foremost an emotional experience. Applying cold, hard, levelheaded science to so subjective a thing as emotion is like dissecting a rose in search of beauty. Trimming away microscopic layer upon layer of cells with a scalpel until there’s nothing left but rose dust, beauty mysteriously evaporates in this process of analysis, dissection and objectivity.

That’s why the bulk of the lingo of audio reviewing is concerned with sound, not music. Sound can be measured, whereas music cannot. Don’t take this lightly! This distinction is the root cause, the base dilemma that turns natural-born music lovers into audiophiles. How so, you ask?

Most greenhorn music lovers, when first chancing upon this hobby of ours, are bamboozled by our strange terminology.

Truth of timbre
Depth of stage
Microdynamics
MOSFET mist
Speed
Harmonic convergence
A tonal balance slightly on the yin side of things

Embellish this list in your mind. You know what I’m talking about. It’s a kind of culture shock when it happens to you, akin to the first read of a wine review that waxes poetic about bizarre qualities you’ve never tasted before even though you’ve uncorked plenty a bottle over the years -- and enjoyed them just fine too, thank you very much.

Here’s the problem: shocked by this encounter with the new and baffling, we somehow assume we’ve been missing half the fun. I’m not hearing the wonders reviewers and retailers and other audiophiles are hearing. To make matters worse, in all likelihood their systems do sound better than yours at the time. This automatically lends credence to your assumption that they know -- and consequently hear -- something you don’t. If you could but acquire it, your listening enjoyment would grow by leaps and bounds. Or so you believe.

Now we begin the long and arduous journey of initiation. Sitting down to listen, the mentor begins to point out what to listen for. Notice that three-letter word "for" again. We’re being poisoned, slowly but surely, to adopt an agenda each time we sit down for music. Depending on our mentor’s personal biases, we may start hunting down any number of audiophile adjectives that so alluringly promise thrilling discoveries -- bass extension or impact maybe, or how about following the decay trail of a cymbal that lasts for about three seconds and is musically as significant as a fly’s fart? Perhaps we strain to make out the second-order harmonic distortion our mentor insists is plaguing the system. You get the picture. We’re losing our spontaneous appreciation for simply the music. We’re metamorphosing from music lovers into audiophiles, and we are exhilarated, sensing a vast broadening of our horizon and an entry into a new secret society of insiders.

The Greek word philo means love. Audio means "the transmission, reception or reproduction of sound." Becoming audiophiles, we turn into lovers of sound. Having spent years studying classical clarinet at a conservatory, I never considered myself an audioist or soundician. Audio and music aren’t bedfellows by a long shot!

Within the cabin of this train of thought, it’s fair to say that the transition from music lover to audiophile isn’t equitable for the music lover -- more is lost than gained. This holds true only for those who convert entirely. It’s possible to take off the audiophile cap and revert back to listening for fun, but experience suggests that for many this doesn’t come easy, even though they sorely wish it did.

We reviewers must shoulder some of the blame. Since the dawn of The Abso!ute Sound, a methodology has been developed which attempts, via novel terminology, to analyze, measure and describe sonic characteristics in the reproduction of music in the home. Under the guise of science, this enterprise, in the hands of Stereophile, has added to the vocabulary graphic measurements that confound most readers. Nonetheless, they remain impressed by what they don’t understand and influenced by the reviewer’s -- sorely needed though not verifiable -- interpretation of said graphs. It’s refreshing then when famous designers occasionally admit that if a component sounds good but measures bad, the wrong things have been measured.

Clearly, the audio press is a major force within the industry. Hardware reviews influence both retailers and consumers. Positive reviews make manufacturers highlight key passages in their replies as though readers might have missed the essentials the first time around. Permission is obtained to use excerpts in future ads. Retailers wield a good review during a demo to clinch a sale, or rescue one that’s going south. Some won’t even consider a brand until it has appeared in Recommended Components.

Negative reviews prompt manufacturer replies spanning the gamut. There are downright excuses of parts mysteriously out of spec on the review sample, or savvy spin jobs that extricate whatever laudable comments did appear in print while downplaying the criticisms. Bad reviews can also bring sales of a perfectly viable product to a grinding halt. Worse even, they can put a smaller or start-up manufacturer out of business entirely, as has happened on more than one occasion.

Reviewers, it seems, shoulder a grave responsibility -- or at least they should. But things are more complicated. The more serious a reviewer’s or his magazine’s desire to appear unbiased, the more he or they feel bound to dole out negative or lukewarm reviews at least once in a while. This accomplishes a few perceived things. It elevates the reviewer’s reputation by raising his personal standard so that little measures up. It underscores his ability to hear differences where others cannot. It proves he is independent from bribes, ad policies or other political influences. By extension, he and his magazine are serious and professional, a world apart from hobbyists and amateurs.

Truthfully, it’s pretty rare these days to come across truly mediocre or terrible gear. It certainly would be a serious magazine’s responsibility to warn its readers about outright lemons or overpriced underachievers, but seeing that outright warnings need rarely be issued, why not restrict content to components that deserve to be read about? The more objective a reviewer seems to be, the more credibility he enjoys. Unfortunately, objectivity and the enjoyment of music have nothing to do with each other.

What to do? When a blatantly subjective reviewer like Stereophile’s Jonathan Scull inks whole paragraphs of poetry to describe his experiences, the serious school of proper reviewing etiquette derides him as unscientific -- a blabbering buffoon to be ridiculed. But J-10 so obviously had a totally indulgent ball during his review instead of remaining a sterile objectivist on the sidelines. Shouldn’t that endear him to music lovers? Those who expect their listening sessions to be magical journeys into emotional landscapes rather than track-hopping attribute hunts for sonic bombast and artifice?

A loaded question, n'est-ce pas? It’s one with which I’m struggling myself. I’m afraid that at the end of the day, my hope that a passionate music lover such as myself would make a decent reviewer is one of those self-serving illusions.

We’re now full circle to my beginning disclaimer that reviews are less useful than one might wish. You see, a reviewer like Jonathan Scull does what music lovers are supposed to do -- get off on the music. Whether his written comments pertain more to his gift for enjoyment and less to the gear at hand is debatable. We all remember the faraway days of our aural deflowering when even an ancient car radio with piss-poor reception could make us swoon. Juxtapose this to the caricature of the troubled audiophile who, two weeks after his last upgrade, is once again worried that things still aren’t right. He listens like a reviewer now. Reviews have become part of his religion. While he doesn’t write reviews, he conducts his listening sessions as if he did, mental pencil sharpened and at the ready to jot down comments and criticisms.

Reviews, of course, are one of the prime mechanisms whereby our industry rejuvenates and reinvents itself. Reviews, by design, sow seeds of doubt -- about yesterday’s performers -- and incite lust for the new, the novel and, it is hoped, the better. There are only two ways to grow the high-end-audio business. Either increase the count of converts or keep reselling the established audience. In either case, one thing remains unacceptable: for a music lover: to be unhappy with what he has. Reviews are both dangling lollipops and concealed weapons -- first they taunt and seduce, then they take away. For the sake of fairness, I have to add that the latter is purely self-inflicted. A Bobby McFerrin song comes to mind….

...Srajan Ebaen
srajan@soundstage.com

 

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