Inspired by Peter Jay Smith's recent Asylum queries to professional reviewers which he then published separately on his own website, I compiled a list of questions I thought might net interesting answers for our readers. I sent 'em off to our team and here's what came back. I've merely rearranged things such that each question is now followed by all of the individual answers before moving on to the next question. With 18 questions and 20 writers, Part 1 starts out with our first quintet of writers to keep things manageable. Their questions were:
|Since starting to review, what have you learned and how has it affected your appreciation of the hobby pro or con?
Edgar Kramer: I've learned far more about the disciplines and struggles of expression and the writing process in general than about hifi itself. Regarding the hobby, I am still happy that I can turn the "reviewer" mode on and off so I can immerse myself in the musical experience to just enjoy it in a non-critical way.
|John Potis: The most important thing I've learned is that most gear is actually pretty good! I've learned that when auditioning gear in dealer showrooms, it's very difficult to get a true measure of a component's worth. This accounts for some of the wildly varying opinions out there. But when you bring a piece into your home and your system, you find that the general level of quality is very good though components certainly don't all sound the same. It just comes down to finding the piece with the most synergy for one's system.
Jules Coleman: I have learned a lot, most of it positive. I have an appreciation of the manufacturer's and designer's plight. I have less respect than ever for audiophiles who are incredibly demanding but give very little back to the hobby. I am especially down on some who "contribute" to the Audio Asylum. As a group, they are unforgiving of any shortcomings of high-priced products while completely forgiving of nearly every failing of less costly equipment. They exhibit a near disdain for people trying to make a living from making and selling high-end equipment. They think all high pricing reflects greed rather than investment in research and development, production, distribution and the costs of backing a product. For any commercial product, they believe that a DIYer could do it better and produce it at less cost. There is often great information on the forums that you cannot find easily elsewhere and for that I remain extreme grateful. However, too much is embarrassing sniping that cannot possibly contribute to net social value and I have no patience for it anymore.
I have also learned how not to put a system together. Until I reviewed in a serious way, I was a follower of the general 'menu' formula: a preamp from column A, an amp from column B, speakers from column C and so on. It's incredibly difficult to put a system together this way and all sorts of perfectly good products get discarded quickly as a result. It's very hard to mix and match. And it is impossible to review by throwing a component in a system voiced one way and expect it to perform well. I am now a 'one voice' system man. If some general designer's approach touches you -- whether it be Kondo or Shindo on the one hand or Krell or Meridian on the other -- go for it. It was designed to work together and normally it does.
I have also learned that you can get really excellent sound at reasonable prices but wringing the last bit of potential from a system is not only expensive but addictive. I have learned to respect many other reviewers but also to hold others in disdain. I think many are nearly deaf, not particularly honest in their appraisals and some are shady and childish. Were I a manufacturer or designer, I would have a lot of difficulty trusting my product to most reviewers. Were I a consumer, the only thing I would trust less than a reviewer are too many dealers; and the thing I would trust least are my own ears.
I have learned that the thing we reviewers could most usefully do is teach people how to listen and what to listen for; how to appreciate music reproduction the way my music teachers have taught me and others on how to appreciate music. On the other hand, I have learned that it is damn hard to write a critical review and harder still for a manufacturer to take even the slightest criticisms well. The audio world is filled with more conspiracy theorists than the Warren Commission Report spawned.
|Michael Healey: I have learned that there is no way around ABA testing. I also recently learned that double-blind testing proves that most people are deaf. You would be too if you had to sit through a double-blind test. I have really enjoyed meeting and corresponding with manufacturers, distributors and other people in the business. Reviewing has also made me acutely aware of price-point snobbery (including myself sometimes) and how each product must be judged on its own merits.
Marja & Henk: The most important lesson learned from reviewing is that you can only trust your own ears. That lesson has been learned the hard way. Reviewers of name and standing sometimes did not even open the boxes of equipment they had to review. Still, many readers think of them as gods. Moreover, many of the reviewers who do open the boxes and give the gear a good listen have never seen a concert hall from the inside for many years, let alone been in a recording studio. A second lesson learned is related to the manufacturers. Many brands have a reputation that is built by reviewers, not quality. Remember Philip's slogan "Let's make things better"? Well, start by making things good in the first place.
|What were some of your gravest assumptions or areas of ignorance which the review process has helped you to address?
Edgar Kramer: Hopefully without sounding pretentious, having been in this hobby for over 20 years one would expect that major areas of ignorance have been nulled out a long time ago. Having said that, I come across small surprises from time to time. My general outlook on life, not just hifi, is very open-minded. So when it comes to hifi, I've always been receptive to changes, different opinions -- unlike some audiophiles I've come across -- and have remained non- judgemental about unusual design philosophies, brand stereotypes etc. This non ego-driven outlook opens the door to learning and wisdom.
|John Potis: After years of reading the mainstream audio press (High Fidelity, Stereo Review and some others that don't deserve mention), I was of the opinion that there was very little bang for the buck in changing electronics - preamps and power amplification mainly. But once you get your room working for you and you match it with a good pair of speakers, electronics are the next step in tuning your system. As compared to speakers and rooms, their effects may be relatively small but they are very important.
|Jules Coleman: That I knew what I was talking about! Worse, how because I was a professional writer penning nearly a dozen books and more than a hundred academic articles, writing reviews would be relatively straightforward and simple. Wrong. Now I do think it is easy to write formulaic reviews but much harder to address issues in music reproduction in the context of writing a review. And I have had personal difficulty striking the right balance between the two -- overwriting and getting windy on the first at the expense of the second from time to time. It's a craft and it takes time to develop it. Some people do a great job of talking about the product without it sounding plain vanilla or boring but to be honest, most such reviews are very boring over the long haul. Our own John Potis is, I think, a master of the direct, informative yet engaging review. As to equipment itself, reviewing speakers as I have has really helped me get a handle on what matters to me most in a transducer. I can admire in ways I never could before a Wilson loudspeaker but I realize I could never own one again.
|Michael Healey: My review experiences keep reminding me to do away with preconceived notions. It isn't easy but it really helps the review process by keeping opinions out unless they can be supported by listening experiences. I also learned how to ask better questions about transmission-line loudspeakers.
Marja & Henk: Never put a new kid on the block just like that. When adding or replacing a component, take the time to voice the whole chain back to the preferred quality. Your graphical representation of the chain with its plus and minus values was the spot-on formula in this respect.
|Of all your discoveries, what were some of the most surprising or profound to you, either because they came in an area you had never before considered or because their impact on your system's overall performance went far beyond what you expected?
Edgar Kramer: In my current system, profound changes have come from an area I didn't expect: cabling. I've always experimented with cables and in the past have found differences to be noticeable yet in the scheme of things, subtle. Not any more. My system seems so revealing now that cable differences have become substantial and can change the balance of the system from being excellent to rather mediocre and everything in-between. My technical side screams in horror. "Why should this be?" Having a finely tuned system, another discovery I find most frustrating is this nebulous area where a system's sound degrades for no particular reason and no explanation or concise theory exists to explain why.
|John Potis: Power cords and their effect on my system were my single biggest surprise. It turns out that once everything else is in place, power cords are the place to go for final system tuning.
Jules Coleman: High-end turntables. I have always had turntables and good ones at that. I had long ago come to view that the entry price to get the magic with TT was very low compared to digital. For $500 you can understand why people feel the way they do about TT. The price of competent digital has come way down but once you hear a decent TT set up correctly with a decent arm and cartridge, you realize it's still digital. What I hadn't realized until I started reviewing the very best TT was just how extraordinary analog is. The Brinkmann Balance opened my eyes to a level of overall performance far above what I had been able to extract from even the best Welltempered, which was itself so much better than any digital I had ever heard and so much better than high-priced but I thought quite mediocre analogue. Then the Shindo-Garrard -- which is very different from the Brinkmann and adopts a completely different view about analog -- just floored me. If I had an unlimited budget, I would own a handful of turntables, arms and cartridges and damn the rest. I would surely own the Brinkmann in addition to the Shindo-Garrard, and I would own a Verdier and spend the next five years listening to other tables to find two more to fill out my collection. And I'd own 10 cartridges with proper step up transformers for each. I was shocked by how much better a state-of-the-art turntable is than all sorts of quite excellent tables.
|Michael Healey: Power cables make a difference even on average equipment. Interconnects are more subtle but can be significant on a highly resolving music system.
Marja & Henk: To paraphrase Frank Zappa, "the bigger the cushion, the better the pushin" is not valid any more. With the latest developments in cables and wires, a whole paradigm is shifting. And that's only our most recent discovery. Before that, we were introduced to the possibilities which the convergence of computers and audio brought to the table. Eliminating the shiny disc altogether or using the computer's processing power to enhance its qualities are possibilities that did not exist 5 years ago. Before that, it was reading and later meeting Harvey Rosenberg. Behind his sometimes clownesque façade, there was a brilliant mind with interests in a wide spectrum of subjects. Life is what you make of it - just like music.
|Conversely, give us some examples of specific products or general categories that ended up delivering far less than expected.
Edgar Kramer: I think that almost all contemporary equipment is pretty good. It can be uninspiring or unsuitable to individual tastes but I haven't come across something outright poor. I think that when something stinks, it has more to do with system synergy. It may not work in your system but it will work in someone else's. I've found that in my case, AC filtering equipment delivers less than I expected
|John Potis: To the degree that they don't deliver performance gains commensurate with the hyperbole used to sell them, I'd have to say cables in general. That's not to say that they don't make a difference - they can but in my experience, they are seldom of the revelatory nature that is claimed for them.
Jules Coleman: Power line conditioners, absolutely no question. The very best all do their Mr. Clean act and after that, the vast majority cause more harm than good.
|Michael Healey: I was disappointed when a pair of modified monoblock amps didn't offer the gains in clarity I was expecting. With lots of headroom, the sound was ultimately not satisfying in my system. The gains in raw power resulted in a loss of refinement. Of course, this also indicates the need to dispel preconceived notions. Let's just say that one of my bubbles certainly went bust on this occasion.
|Marja & Henk: In general all products that are only produced to make money and for that purpose are proprietary. Yes, SACD is a fine example just like multi-channel. Record companies fall in the same category. They complain their (!) products are illegally copied so they raise the prices. Here in Holland, a CD sets you back E 23, the equivalent of $31. If you're lucky, there is more than one worthwhile song on it.
|Has what to listen for and/or how to listen been affected by the review process? If so, in what ways?
Edgar Kramer: Definitely. During a "reviewing" session, your mode of listening changes. The dynamics of the experience changes. Examination of soundstage width, depth, imaging, top-end extension etc. detaches one from the total immersion and involvement in the music. To a large extent and more with some that others, your analysis is focused on the sound while your emotions aren't given free reign to enjoy the music.
|John Potis: Unfortunately, yes. The downside to reviewing is that it's difficult to get out of reviewer's mode even when listening to my own gear for enjoyment. In some ways, the loss of naivety I once had about my own system is lamentable but in other ways, a greater understanding of what's going on makes the victories all the sweeter. Also -- as one could guess -- once I started reviewing, it became a little bit less about the music and more about the gear. I don't explore new music like I once did. But that's okay. It's not a zero-sum game. A shifting of one's central focus isn't a bad thing as long as at the end of the day, it's still fun. And it is.
Jules Coleman: Absolutely. I started out adopting the menu approach: bass, mid-bass, midrange, upper-mid, treble etc. And most people like reviews written that way. I hate them. I don't listen to music that way. If the music being reproduced is unpersuasive as a whole, then I look to identify where the defect lies. Shy of that, I listen holistically and I listen more for musically accurate timing, resolution and integration than I ever have before.
|Michael Healey: Yes, because I have learned that there are many different takes on what makes up a Hifi music system. Just because a component doesn't work in my system does not mean that it won't sound splendid in a system that plays to its strengths.
Marja & Henk: Nope. When the endorphin rush is there, it's all okay.
|What is most important to you in terms of determining whether to recommend a component or not?
Edgar Kramer: The build quality, reliability, aesthetics, value for money and obviously the sound.
|John Potis: That's easy. It must come down to a question of value. There's no greater pleasure than in recommending an affordable piece to someone who has yet to lose their sanity and just wants good sound for as small an investment as they can afford. That's not to say that there isn't value in higher-priced gear. Different people find value and pride of ownership in different things and as no piece of gear will appeal to everyone, it's important to identify those who will be most inclined to find the value in the piece under review.
Jules Coleman: I try to only recommend products conditionally. The reader has to be on the same page I'm on in terms of what matters most in musical reproduction. Otherwise my recommendation is of no value. Recently, I've had a couple of products through my system which I would never own myself. I have been working to see what systems they would work well in and what kind of listener they'd serve. But even with a product that is not doing it for me, it still has to get a number of musical values correct: tone, timbre and timing. I only get enthusiastic about components that have all this and life, energy and a capacity to allow you to connect emotionally to the music
|Michael Healey: Music should always be a moving and mood-altering experience. Our editor calls it luv. As long as the music encourages a happy vibe, then the playback equipment is performing just fine. If a new component can make the experience even better, I will give it a recommendation. If the component does this in different systems, I will give it a wild recommendation.
Marja & Henk: First it should voice well in the reference system and without too much trouble. This means Joe Musiclover should be able to set up the component to satisfaction within a reasonable amount of time. Audiophiles are another species. They are never satisfied and fed by reviewers, they always want something new. Look at the successful marketplaces where their secondhand -- no aural orgasm inducing -- stuff ends up. Sometimes you wonder what went wrong in their childhood that prohibits them to be -- or get -- satisfied.