In response to yesterday's Zero-Sum Game piece, reader 'John from Boston' asked a very good question: "... With the rise/explosion of e-zine journalism, opportunities for cheap publishing and accessing the audiophile community opened exponentially. You accurately describe how easy access can be. Concomitant with the ease of publication came an increasing number of e-reviewers. A few were known from print, most are unknown quantities to the audiophile community. How are these 'newbies" - the progeny of the print generation writers - to "make their bones", to gain star power and most importantly, to gain respect in a far larger and more diffuse information culture?"

How indeed? How to earn one's spurs? What makes someone's opinion more trustworthy or meaningful than someone else's or your own? That last part is easily answered. You won't have an informed opinion on things you haven't experienced. A reviewer's continuous access to equipment loans means items get covered that you haven't heard - or even heard of. Still, what has the writer done to gain your trust? Have you sat down with him to listen to the same piece of music over the same system? Have you compared notes to find out whether a/ he isn't deaf and b/ whether your respective biases match up enough to make for a useful dialogue?

Though ideal and arguably a prerequisite, such joint listening session aren't possible. Comparing biases and notes isn't easy and foolproof in absentia but definitely possible. However, it very much relies on regularity, consistency and honesty on the writer's part. Equally important perhaps is a writing style that doesn't hide beyond the illusion of objectivity - as though a reviewer could
extricate his personality and proclivities from the process of subjective reviewing. In the end of course, anything written will always say as much about its author as her subject. But it's certainly far less guesswork if the writer makes it clear what he's looking for and expects from a review subject. When a review requires an FBI profiler to search for personality clues, a review is pretty much useless unless you personally know the writer.

The laborious process of gaining trust and respect thus is certainly built on transparency. The clearer the writer's statements, the easier it is for the reader to comprehend and digest, agree and disagree. Clarity of expression and the courage to make statements as though they were factual and unambiguous -- rather than possible takes and thus ambiguous -- come with experience. "It seemed as though perhaps the amp was a shade restrained" reads very differently from "the amp clearly lacked incision and color and failed to impress". Becoming comfortable with the latter's concise matter-of-fact reporting (yet without turning into the infallible judge) is a slippery path. It's one every would-be reviewer must navigate. The clearer our kind is on the bloody subjectiveness of the entire endeavor, the more we hesitate to make ultimate pronouncements. In a way, this respects the process, the reader and the manufacturer. It leaves room for subjective and synergistic discrepancies. But applied too generously by someone too timid to take a stand makes a review completely useless and painful to read. The audience concludes that the writer constantly second-guesses his own judgment and thus has no business being in the business.

Part of a reviewer's maturation process involves progressing from "I thought the component did this" to "It did". It signals faith in one's own perception and makes a clear statement the reader can now work with. But it should be clear too that such gains in clarity always run the risk of becoming rigid and pompous. Anyone who's heard the same system perform wildly differently in two different rooms will agree how dangerous it is to come to any finite conclusions. Part of the art thus is a constant struggle for balance, between timidness and self-doubt in one corner and rigid self confidence and pride in the other. I propose that part of gaining the readers' confidence rests precisely on the transparency of this ongoing struggle. If a reader can sense how the writer is questioning himself but simultaneously puts his foot down for definitive pronouncements, the reader shares in the internal process. The writer then is neither a pompous pope nor a wishy-washy chicken. He is an explorer who asks questions, finds certain answers that could be questioned again tomorrow and thereby invites the reader to remain with him in this exploratory spirit rather than get fixated on a graded and final test score.

The laborious process of gaining trust and respect also involves validation. Validation occurs when you hear a component you've read about. Do the writer's pronouncements gel with your own? Validation can also occur with competing reviews of the same component. In either case, it usually involves time until the same component finds itself reviewed elsewhere or until you can audition this component for yourself. Time plays a huge role for any writer - to gain experience, to gain exposure, to become visible and read, tried and judged. There's no shortcut for this. You gotta put in the time. Most audio reviewers of course are part-time at best. Most have real jobs and families. Audio writing is simply a side hobby that might net a few annual reviews. Even a review a month only makes for 12 over a year. It's clear that years will have to pass before a writer has grown into a somewhat known commodity - and one for whom validation opportunities have presented themselves.

If for the writer, time is one of the arbiters in this game, this also holds true for the publication he associates himself with. An established one that "put in the time" to garner respect and trust will confer some of
it on its own staff . Given enough rope to hang themselves with will naturally allow those so inclined to undermine or even cast off this protection. But choosing who to write for definitely plays into how any particular writer is perceived. It's also true that good and consistent work will speak for itself even if -- or precisely when -- it is surrounded by inferior work.

The laborious process of gaining trust and respect also involves poise under duress. How does a writer deal with public criticism? How does he respond to queries or attacks on procedure and protocol? How does he recover from mistakes? For such tests of character to arise naturally and not as manipulated PR stunts takes time as well. So there's time, consistency and transparency that play into the process of gaining respect and trust. All of that assumes of course that the author is read enough. Producing content and winning a steady audience aren't automatic bed fellows despite the Internet's instant and global access.

The quality of writing for that is arguably less important than its consistency. Nobody expects a Norman Mailer or Clive Barker in the audio reviews pages. If it's an easy, informative and well-edited read, it'll be preferable to a serpentine and pretentious tome. What balance to strike here is usually a function of Editorial policy. Different publications have different views on length, style and approach. Some wish to minimize personality for a streamlined interchangeable effect, others try to maximize personality for color and variety.

In answer to John's opening question, these then seem to be some of the no-bones factors involved in making bones and earning spurs (of course you could cheat and buy yourself some Mexican Chihuahua spurs right here). The relative novelty of audio web publishing -- with SoundStage! as the grand daddy of the genre listing its first archived amplifier review as February 1996 (the Mesa Baron no less) -- simply means that for many who've joined the e-zine ranks as occasional contributors, not enough time has passed yet.

The Internet's accessibility for would-be writers without any formal association, on chat rooms and forums, further blurs the lines. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In
fact, just a few days ago we published a brief cable review by reader Michael Lavorgna who may or may not request to become a permanent addition to our staff. Others who have become regular contributors started out just like Michael - as readers. Since you're reading this right now, what separates you from a formal reviewer (note that I didn't use "professional" to take financial compensation out of the equation)? This goes straight for the jugular of those common chatroom comments that question reviewer authority. "What do they know or hear that we don't?" Indeed, what is it?

I propose that fundamentally, it's the willingness to publicize one's opinions and findings in a formal setting and thereby open oneself to criticism, peer review and public ridicule. Experience naturally becomes a requirement but much of it can only be acquired by doing. You can't stash away experience a priori. From a writing craft perspective, there's Editorial input, grooming, audience feedback and practice, practice, practice. Ditto for the actual format of the review process. All this is earned over time the hard way, in the public eye just like an open kitchen allows patrons to observe how their meal is prepared. The missteps and gradual refinements of the learning curve become an open book and especially at the onset, a career 'phile might observe this unfold and feel more advanced and qualified than the writer. But sitting smirkingly on the invisible sidelines, delivering occasional jabs on the forums, is quite different from taking that first courageous step into the open to declare "my name is Jack, I'm a reviewer, now open your fire and hit me with shit."

This willingness is one of the basic requirements. Another one is the willingness to assume responsibility. Whether you like it or not, your findings will affect the manufacturers. Their livelihood is at stake while for you it's a part-time hobby and perhaps also some ego gratification. Only someone incredibly immature and casual would overlook the very challenging balance inherent in the entire setup and call the associated responsibility an easy burden. Now add responsibility to the reader and potential customer and the burden increases. The juggling skills required to keep all of these balls up in the air grows more advanced still. Again, all of this is learned on the job. Mistakes and errors of judgment are as certain as are disagreements on how something sounds or what it should sound like.

Those ready to throw stones might want to keep these things in mind. Audio reviewing isn't rocket science peopled with MDs and engineers. Still, when approached seriously, it isn't a casual walk in the park either. A great deal of respect and trust is earned by how well an audio writer balances out these various demands, more so perhaps than how polished he writes. One could sum up all the demands which tug on the writer as fairness. Being fair isn't curing cancer but considering how blurred many of the lines in this profession are, being fair to everyone involved is a lot harder than it might seem.

Lastly, we should never forget that this is a hobby and thus about enjoyment. Since it's fun, the writings about it should reflect that. Balance - there's that concept again. How to keep things entertaining yet informative, light-hearted yet serious, fair yet opinionated? It strikes me that the second most important quality a reviewer must have is an honest desire to share - not preach and argue but share. This involves something bi-directional and mutual and means the distinction between audience and writer withers. It means we're all in this together.

Is that it, all of it? How would I know? Even though handcrafted Lucchese boots are my preferred foot ware, I still haven't earned my own spurs (but living in New Mexico, there's at least hope that one fine day, I will)...