The state of one's audio system in many ways parallels school, graduation and subsequent job hunting. As we progress through the school grades, our general education soon becomes more specialized to eventually turn into job preparation. We pick and reject courses and subjects to hone in on emerging areas of interest. Personal talents come to the fore, weaknesses in other areas become apparent. This defines career options and choices. Graduation no longer means sending into the world well-rounded renaissance men and women. Rather, graduation dispatches people into the world who enjoy a -- hopefully comprehensive -- grasp on general basics but more realistically, people who have focused on advanced modules in sharply defined fields of interest. What career or deeper learning one subsequently embarks on has in many important ways been predestined by this education and the many choices that were made to exclude or cut short certain subjects in favor of others.
Should the chosen professional field turn out a disappointment -- or oneself unsuited to it -- the need for evening school, advanced courses or on-the-job training usually present themselves. To cast off a prior mold and reinvent oneself by scuttling a commenced career means dealing with feeling ignorant and insecure. Somehow, one must acquire the lacking tools and training. Quickly and comprehensively. This routinely occurs in far less formalized, more challenging and time-pressed circumstances than school and college afforded. For everyone who embraces jumping into the unfamiliar where you feel like a fish out of water, vulnerable and like an idiot, there are thousands who'd rather stick out the old. Even if it's become a bore and oppressive. Even if it is leeching the very marrow out of their bones.
When reviewers talk about their reference system, the innocent reader could misread this to mean 'reference grade'; as though it referred to a universally accepted standard of excellence. Far from it. All it means is that which is used to reference review components against. Certain reviewers might like you to believe that this simple yardstick for comparison equates to a universal standard of rare accomplishment. In their case. And perhaps some audio writers are indeed in possession of a system that the majority of readers would agree to call exalted, worthy of aspiration and of reference grade once they heard it.
Still, what led up to the creation of such a system is a chain of choices. They predetermined the outcome. Like a family tree without descendents in certain branches, such choices didn't pursue specific directions which henceforth lie forever barren. The only way out of that dilemma is to build separate systems and to deliberately pursue directions quite in opposition to predestined tendencies. The likelihood remains of course that personal tastes and priorities will interfere to really end up pursuing the same goal simply via disparate venues. Ideally though, one would arrive at two very different -- though equally enjoyable and valid -- presentations. Vanilla and chocolate.
Two systems equally used would mean two separate rooms. Therein lies a major reason why most reviewers simply can't pursue deliberate duality. The necessary space doesn't exist. Even if it did, the requisite budget to outfit an available second room with a 'reference level' system will be another factor where reality bites.
If it be one room and one system, how many reviewers do you know who have deliberately uprooted their system just to reinvent it? Who have rebuild it just to try something completely different (and not because there was anything wrong with it in the first place)? Most likely, very few. As a result, many so-called experts are university graduates. They are highly trained in a very narrow sector. They lack the comprehensive vision of having gone down many different roads; of having pursued them each to the logical conclusion and each with a strong conviction of achievement; of having first-hand and long-term experience with many different flavors of sound.
When next you stumble across the term reference system, ask yourself, in reference to what? What kind of prior experiences and choices determined this system? What do they say about the author? How much or how little of that is relevant to your own station in life, your own needs and desires? How much information does the author provide about himself to help you answer these question? What does a review really mean if these questions aren't answered?
To be truly well-rounded in this metier and enjoy a top-of-the-mountain perspective requires a lot of experience and curiosity. That equates to open-mindedness, time and money. Open-mindedness to appreciate one's own limitations; time to have amassed the divergent experiences; and money to have funded the many component acquisitions required to have had the experiences in the controlled environment of one's own home. There's nothing wrong with living in a valley whose scenery one enjoys. It's simply unrealistic to present this perspective as though it were more all-inclusive than it really is. The trouble is, for many this wake-up call never comes. Getting a handful of review loaners per year which are inserted one at a time into the so-called reference system likely won't make for a complete encounter with something truly novel and different. Usually, that requires addressing far more than just one component at a time.
Though reviewers get to hear new stuff all the time so they should know -- so you'd like to believe -- our kind really operates far more in a tunnel than is apparent. That tunnel is our present reference system and our own failure to know what it really is in reference to. Friends' systems? Show systems? Dealer systems? Live performances? What's possible? With systems heard elsewhere, the different physical environments remain the great variable and equalizer. What's relevant for review purposes must occur within one's own four walls. So what do we really know? A lot less than we should to be called or considered true experts. That's just my opinion of course...