It's who you know. Sounds familiar? True or not -- or only some of the time -- it's the standard reply for anyone asking how to make it in Hollywood. If you turn that question's emphasis on who you know, it's suddenly relevant to readers of audio reviews. Making it in audio as a consumer simply means enjoyment. Many readers live in audiophile waste lands. What they read about and can actually hear are at cross purposes. One tantalizes, the other frustrates because access to dealers -- at least dealers with the kind of products they'd like to sample -- is virtually non-existent.

That's when audio reviews and their writers can become the nearly sole means of deciding how to best pursue personal system building and optimization to arrive at that enjoyment. The relevant question then is, do you know the reviewer? Most likely, that'll never be literally true. Even having followed someone's writing for a while may not become a workable substitute if you've never had the opportunity to verify what's descibed by personal listening sessions. True, you might have a good notion of what the reviewer fancies and doesn't. However, you may still not be sure how exactly that relates to what you fancy and don't.

The best tactic then is personal contact by e-mail or phone. Write the guys and gals you trust or sympathize with. Very important here is to describe, as clearly as you can, what you like about your personal system, what you hope to improve, what you've experimented with already, what you've owned in the past to define your audiophile persona and what influenced it. Remote advice is always bedeviled by communication barriers. To diagnose anything with half a fighting change of accuracy usually requires hands-on inspection. Since that's impossible, what subsitutes here is a sharing of notes. Be mindful then of the vagaries of language.

It's quite common that what you mean by a certain term and what the recipient understands by it don't match up. To minimize that possiblity, the more you share about your past experiences and impressions (trade show visits, dealer demos, what you've owned before and why you sold it), the less chances remain that you and your correspondent will talk in different directions and past each other. For example, f you've heard the smallest Vandersteen speaker and describe it as bright and edgy, that'll be an important clue to the reviewer. It's the opposite of what most people would say about that design. That doesn't make you wrong but it's an important clue to what you listen for.

I routinely get e-mails or even phone calls where I'm grilled - in a nice fashion for sure (or else I hang up) but the caller is cleary intent on eliminating any possible misunderstanding. That's the way to do it. Of course, not every writer/reviewer will have the time or inclination to always be that approachable to perform free consultations. Still, you might be surprised how many of us share quite freely and willingly. After all, we're all in the same boat. We love this shit, we care about little things, we obsess and we always doubt and suspect - that better is possible, that some unknown thing might be the cat's meow.

One truly useless thing to ask? What's best. For one, it assumes Vatican-sponsored infallibility. Most mature reviewers will vehemently reject it as a matter of (misguided) principle. Here's what to do instead. To get the most out of remote advice from strangers means ask less and share more. The more back story you provide, the more anecdotes about what music you like and don't like (and why), the clearer of a picture emerges. It's this picture and not your direct questions that will prompt the most appropriate responses. It's very much like a chat with a friend. You don't start by asking for marital advice. You simply share what's going on in your relationship -- your issues, fears, hopes -- and voila, when your friend has absorbed it all, he or she will eventually say something that resonates with you. It turns out to be the thing you needed to hear.

Since you can't really know your favorite audio writers, make sure you go the extra mile and develop a personal relationship. That goes beyond reading. It involves active participation. Over time, all of these exchanges will have established enough common ground to where the occasional request for advice won't be like shooting blanks in the dark. That becomes especially true if you've already had an opportunity to verify your advisor's opinion with a little purchase that did exactly what was claimed and predicted. The best test of them all? Music. It's also the cheapest. If a reviewer recommends some music and you end up loving it for the exact reasons predicted, the verification process will have cost you a mere 20 bucks (or multiples thereof if you want to pursue this line of cross-checking further). Now you've established common ground. Subsequent hardware discussions will now be solidly rooted in what matters - a shared appreciation for the same kind of music. It's also one of the most satisfying fringe benefits of being a reviewer. Exchanging music recos, broadening one's tastes, getting to know strangers who share our personal idiosyncracies of taste - that's massive fun and deeply rewarding. For today's discussion, it even serves a double purpose. It builds relationships that come in handy when you need solid advice on a financially significant decision like buying a new amplifier or speaker...