November
2021

Getting to grips with the Grzyb

That would be Dawid, co-principal of Polish review site HifiKnights and routine contributor to these pages. When I met him at a Warsaw show many moons ago, he still wrote for a Polish IT blog's hifi section so mostly on mobile and headfi kit. I encouraged him to launch his own venture. Jörg Dames & Ralph Werner had done it successfully as fairaudio.de in Berlin; John Darko as darko.audio also out of Berlin; Joël Chevassus as Audiophile Magazine in France; Edgar Kramer as headman of SoundStage's Australian arm; Michael Lavorgna as Twittering Machines in the US. I felt that we could use another good independent in Warsaw. Not long after, Dawid and his friend Marek Dyba became the two hifi knights. Today we learn how life has been treating Dawid in his new gig, what some of the in'n'outs of it are and perhaps even challenges or shadow sides he still struggles with. After all, can anything really be all bed of roses without at least a few thorns? For what came before, there's this. Today is about what's happened since.

To switch things up, at the very end of our chat I asked Dawid what he'd say to hifi manufacturers 'round the globe if they were part of our Zoom feed just then. "Just one thing. Reply! I'm perfectly fine with a 'no' or 'not interested' or 'perhaps later' – but a response of some kind would be nice." That makes the perfect segue since respond he did, to all my questions:

"How long did it take you to grow HifiKnights until it became self-sufficient?

"About a year. During the first year I helped a friend with his business to supplement my income."

"Do you have any sense of your audience's makeup relative to age, income, education and country?"

"Our server has many of these statistics but I've not really looked into them. I already have more work than I can handle. Knock on wood, that's been consistent. I haven't felt the need to formulate any specific strategy that would be based on web traffic stats. About received vs. self-generated review solicits, about 80% of what I write up was requested by the manufacturers."

"Do you have different listening modes for reviewing and pleasure?"

"It can happen that I start critically to evaluate certain performance aspects only to find myself soon forgetful of that investigative stance by simply enjoying the music. So there are different ways that I listen and it's fair to say that critical listening is about a certain focus which by its very action narrows down and excludes. The other mode lets go and opens up wide. Ultimately it becomes fully inclusive. But you can't really report from that perspective or say anything meaningful about that place. You can only say that you were gone, noticed it and are back now. But that's not a review. That's just spacing out."

"Do you work with a self-imposed ceiling that sets how much components can cost before you decline to review them?"

"My primary concerns are size and weight. I don't really exceed 40kg. That's about the limit of what I can manage. I don't review at home but have a special off-site room where I listen. There's always somebody nearby who could help but I much prefer to deal with all the gear myself. So I must be able to unpack and repack it safely without hurting myself or it. As to price, not really. What I've published so far reflects what I've been asked to review."

"What's the hardest part of the job?"

"Getting better at it and not ending up in a rut. It's a solitary business not team work. All the learning, maturing and improving we must generate ourselves. That can be hard but it's certainly not for lack of desire or trying. It's more for a lack of outside opportunity and stimulus. Sometimes the writing comes easy, sometimes it takes me a lot longer. Then it's more of a struggle."

"What's been one of your favorite product discoveries across your first five years as a knighted reviewer?"

"The tiny Bakoon. That amp has been the most surprising and most extreme performer."

"If you weren't a reviewer but Joe Private, what kind of system would you have?"

"For sure something far cheaper and simpler. My equipment today is for work. It's the tools of my trade like the cameras, lenses and lights I use for my photography. I use the best I can afford because it gives me the best results. If I didn't do this for a living, I'd have something far more modest."

"If you retired tomorrow after your career of reviewing—let's face it, you can't really go back to Joe Private and erase all the audio experiences you've already had—what kind of system would you want to end up with?"

"Ideally two. One would be compact and built around the Bakoon and a pair of the small sound|kaos monitors in the nearfield. For the bigger system I'd undoubtedly run active speakers. I currently don't do vinyl because I know nothing about it. Still, I would very much like to sample it one day. So with some of the CDs I've bought, I've also bought the LP versions to have around when that time comes."

"Did you have to grow any thick skin to deal with forum negativity relative to your published work?"

"Not any more. When I still worked for the IT blog, it was one of Europe's biggest. We received many hundreds of emails every single day. That was my time to grow heavy leather. Today hate and negativity, ridicule and jealousy are just static noise. I tune it out. Plus, I don't go and seek it out in the first place. I'm also really not high-profile or popular enough to attract that kind of attention. I'm just one of the many guys who do this kind of work."

"Did you ever have to struggle with a manufacturer who challenged your review findings and wanted them changed?"

"Just once and that was because of a technical error I made. Once that was corrected, all was fine."

"What's been one of the stranger discoveries of the job?"

"Selective trust. Some readers praise and even quote you for speaker or amplifier reviews, then call you a shill with an Ethernet switch or coaxial cable assignment. I'd like to know by what measure they decide how to apply their trust. They weren't there listening with me for either review. If they can discern things from afar, why read my reviews at all? To this day I can't wrap my head around this psychology. I understand trusting or not trusting someone. Trust must be earned. But partial trust doled out selectively based on the reader's belief system about hifi hardware is just weird. 'I believe your DAC but not your DDC reviews.' To me that's bizarre."

"Was it difficult to transition from being a freelancer compensated by other publications to running your own business handling your own finances?"

"Initially yes. But it really had nothing do with sponsorships per se and all with my own mentality. Once I felt really confident in the value of my work, my attitude shifted. That changed how I handled the initial interaction with prospective review clients. I'm very happy to say that the vast majority understands perfectly well that I do this to support my family and put food on the table. They've been generous in their support not stingy. And of course a few can be terribly cheap but they're the exception albeit usually the type that's very well off. Also, let me repeat that I live in Poland. Our cost of living is lower than it is for example in Germany. My wife has her own job. Together we really manage fine. If I lived in Germany and did the same work there, I'd expect it to be far more stressful to make ends meet or be comfortable."

"What kind of advice would you give a young audiophile who wants to become a professional reviewer?"

"That's easy. Take your time and above all else, listen to yourself. All the important answers are there. They're not outside of you."

"Is it difficult to write in a language that's not your native tongue?"

"Today, not really. I've been doing it long enough though when I write in Polish, it still takes me less time. But it's actually been a true asset to work in Poland then publish in English particularly for our domestic makers. They don't really need coverage inside Poland. For that we have good shows and dealers. They need coverage outside Poland. That's where English is the global currency. To have someone in Warsaw who can trade in that to not involve costly shipping and potential exports and re-imports makes a big difference."

"How much new music do you still buy each month if any at all?"

"I haven't bought much in a while. I don't stream at all though my wife loves Spotify. I only listen to locally hosted files and buy CDs. To review I rely on the same core albums I've used since the very beginning. It's what makes for a consistent musical reference and creates real personal confidence in my observations."

"What do you think about written vs. video reviews? There are ever more people trying the latter. Are we a dying breed?"

"You and I seem to have similar opinions on that. As you pointed out, unless video reviews are fully scripted then read verbatim off a teleprompter like Hans Beekhuyzen does it for his YouTube channel, they're never as informative, concise or deep as a properly written review. If however I watch a deep video review that's read off a cheat sheet, I'd rather read the same text myself. John Darko is different. He's a real pleasure to watch, entertaining, has the right personality and delivery for the job—I wouldn't have—and his production values are high. But again, I think that we can go deeper in our written reviews across the same twenty-five minutes it takes to read them versus spending that time on a video. Videos are a different form of entertainment and for beginners, probably ideal. Relative to depth though, I generally find them more shallow. Frankly, it takes me long enough to produce a written review. I couldn't even guess at how much longer it would take me to do it as a video which I'd be happy to upload. Seeing how busy I am, I don't think we're doomed for extinction quite yet."

"If instead of looking back over the past five years you now look forward, where do you see yourself five years from now?"

"Still doing the same thing. Having been completely self-reliant for these many years, I somehow doubt that I could ever go back and work for someone else. I just have to pace myself correctly and do this job in a way that generates ongoing satisfaction. If I may ask, what's that thing for you?"

"It's very basic and probably exactly the same as it is for you: still getting better. It matters naught whether others see or notice it or even agree. It's a purely personal matter and metric. It's an intent which generates a motivation. That becomes a focus and driving force. The desire to improve creates regenerative constancy. It's the grease which keeps my wheels turning. It's really not the work per se. It's honing the craft from which the work springs. That struggle creates real satisfaction – for that day. Then it starts all over again the next day. Routinely it will find little things here and there that seemed final the day prior. Then comes the next assignment or finding a still better piece of music to embed which illustrates a special quality of the item under consideration. That means listening to a lot of different music chasing either timbre or structure, rhythmic drive or layering, dynamics or flow – whatever I want to highlight. It could mean reading up on a tech issue to finally understand it in a new light and explain it better. It could mean canvassing show reports for interesting new companies or tech. Without that constant reset and renewal of effort at the onset of each day, this gig would soon get repetitive as I imagine any other job would. So I think that the basic trick is to set ourselves a perfectly open-ended hence unachievable goal. If our goal is to, say win an Olympic gold medal, we're finished the moment we achieve it. If instead our goal is just to get better, we shall never run out of road. Our gig becomes a never-ending story, no heroics or unnatural talents involved. It's the perfect antidote to nothing failing like success. Success is always an end. If we don't want something to end, final achievement must remain out of reach. I call that the simple desire to get better then making the effort; nothing more. Of course one must like the thing one wants to get better at in the first place. But if one didn't, why would one care to improve? And as one gets better, one enjoys doing that thing ever more. It's a mutually reinforcing action. If after twenty years on the job I have any useful 'trick' to share, that'd be the one."

Dawid's work-desk system includes an AMR Signature Edition DAC, Goldmund-inspired Nuforce integrated and Boenicke W5 speakers.

And there you have it, a bit of remote shop talk between two reviewers still doing this for a full-time living…