The publisher chimes in while waiting for further contributions from his stable.
Since starting to review, what have you learned and how has it affected your appreciation of the hobby pro or con?

Srajan Ebaen: I used to be a massage therapist. You quickly learn that while every client is unique, everyone also has the same problem spots, the same areas in the musculature that tend to be tight. Perhaps you come up with a few different general body types or disturbance patterns - but that's it. Ditto for audio. The more of it you do, the more everything becomes the same. You know what to look for, check into the usual problem spots. You recognize which of your personal few categories a component belongs into just as quickly as the beginning of a massage session tells you about your client. You apply the same combination of intuition and feedback -- feeling inquiry -- while the analytical thought process recedes into the background. The review process then massages these initial impressions to detail them out. Just as giving a massage teaches respect for the humanity uniting everyone who comes to see you, audio components all have a base level of competence. A mass murderer likely won't make an appointment to get a massage. Truly bad components tend to not make appointments for reviews either. The most important thing reviewing accomplishes is to define the map and its outer reaches. A newcomer will be fascinated by whatever is unknown and esoteric. He'll assume things. After a few years of regular reviewing, many of the formerly blank spots on the map will be filled in. One now knows or at least has a working approximation for what's ultimately possible, for how little really separates the middle of the field from the front runners. That's the great equalizer. You get to look behind and beyond advertising hype, technology hype, personality hype and meet these components naked just like a massage client on your table. This quickly undermines the kid-in-the-candystore syndrome which many non-reviewing audiophiles can sustain forever by swapping components, always chasing the rainbow. You could say that becoming a reviewer is like a potent dose of reality medicine. Depending on what got you into and keeps you in the hobby, this could be very good or bad.

What were some of your gravest assumptions or areas of ignorance which the review process has helped you to address?

Srajan Ebaen: Two things which feed each other though they seem to be contradictory - how everything matters and how very small the individual contributions can often be. The higher up the mountain you climb, the clearer your view and the smaller of a misstep can become fatal i.e. audibly very obvious and counterproductive. A truly dialed system is a high-maintenance affair. It's something I don't recommend for ownership unless you're willing to pay the piper. From one day to the next, things can fall apart even though you haven't touched anything. Where a less resolving system might not telegraph environmental influences as loudly or at all (moisture content, ambient temperature, powerline conditions, whatever other mysterious influences we're not aware of but suffer), a dialed rig becomes ultra-responsive and always demands your attention. If you're purely into the music, this could become cumbersome and you might wish to return to the innocence of ignorance and simplicity. But if you want gripping music and audiophile perfection, it's an endless obsession that requires paying attention and constantly learning.

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?

Srajan Ebaen: I didn't realize just how potent comprehensive solutions for resonance attenuation can be especially in the context of superior, highly resolving components. Cables, cords and conditioners don't even come close. I believe scientifically done resonance attenuation is one of the frontiers even many fellow reviewers haven't explored to the extent the potential rewards would justify. In my case, it's been the work of Alvin Lloyd at Grand Prix Audio I discovered first and have since bought into. There are others and investigating this subject is mandatory if you really wish to hear what your components can do.

Conversely, give us some examples of specific products or general categories that ended up delivering far less than expected.

Srajan Ebaen: I try to enter each assignment without expectations so no single category has really been a let-down yet. Once the wide-eyed excitement factor has been replaced by a more realistic assessment of what's possible, you don't expect miracles but you appreciate how each small forward step is a hard-earned, vital and viable victory. Assigning value to what it might cost you for each small forward step is a completely different matter.

Has what to listen for and/or how to listen been affected by the review process? If so, in what ways?

Srajan Ebaen: Not really. I still listen holistically. I do this on such a consistent and regular basis that most of the information I need to write a review presents itself in a semi-intuitive sense of knowing. Sitting down to write is when the analytical mind kicks in to process the impressions that have collected. Thankfully I don't have to analyze while I listen. If I did, I might as well pack up and proclaim the reviewer has pulled a Cain who killed his music-loving brother Abel.

What is most important to you in terms of determining whether to recommend a component or not?

Srajan Ebaen: As someone who expects from music listening a transporting effect into realms of feelings, I will respond more strongly to components that somehow facilitate that. If something leaves me cold, my lack of enthusiasm will reflect in how I write about it. I'm also a visual animal so cosmetics and fit'n'finish are important. As an ex audio sales manager, I'm sensitive to features and user friendliness and approach a component with questions about what's included, what's missing, how easy it is to operate. In general, I'm not terrible concerned over value. That's something for the consumer to determine. When I recognize something as offering superior value, I start gushing because it's obvious. But otherwise, I don't sweat this consideration too much. I'm not spending your money, you are. You put a value on what's important to you, not me.

What do you think an audio review should accomplish? List your answers in sequence of importance. Since starting to review, has any "insider" information changed your views on that and if so, has it affected how you prioritize what a review should accomplish?

Srajan Ebaen: I fall strongly into the camp of writers who assume that the vast majority of their readers are highly intelligent discriminating folks who think for themselves and know what they like. They look to me not to tell them what to do and buy but for information that's presented in an entertaining fashion to remain "in the loop". If they're in the market to acquire a new component, they will use my reviews to compile a list of contenders or perhaps cross off a few but otherwise assume full responsibility for their own decisions. I'm not their sales associate, I'm just a fellow enthusiast with ongoing war stories. Because of our connection as enthusiasts, I look for products that I think are interesting and perhaps more on the fringes of the mainstream. As an industry insider, I'm responsible to use my connections and the information that comes my way to sort through the offerings and make decisions that will net interesting reviews. In sequence of importance, I thus look at reviews as providing entertainment, information and personal opinion. As far as this information goes, I believe in the caricature that overdraws key qualifiers for effect and doesn't worry about the tiny things which will change from system to system. My personal ideal is the Venice Beach caricaturist whose drawings will have every onlooker pick out the subject from a hundred because the artist captured the essence by not working as a photo realist. Inside information includes reports about customer abuse, lack of service, unethical practices in the market place, false advertising etc. If I can confirm such reports to my satisfaction, it will preclude a review. Determining what to review and why is part of the process but not one readers are privy to.

Based on your interactions with manufacturers, what do you consider to be areas most in need of attention?

Srajan Ebaen: To not design in a vacuum but constantly remain on the edge of what the competition offers. To do their home work with extensive beta testing rather than use the review process or the first generation of buyers. To run their business as a business and not a hobby. To farm out marketing skills if the necessary know-how doesn't exist in-house. To practice good communication and service skills.

What do you think is the weakest part of your present system? If money or practicality were no issue, what would you change and why?

Srajan Ebaen: Unless a room is custom-designed, the room is the weakest link. If I owned rather than rented, a room designed or optimized by the professionals at Rives Audio would be my #1 priority and the most important tool I could contribute to the review process from my end.

Have you made upgrade changes you regret in hindsight? If so, what components stand out in memory as some you wish you had kept - and why?

Srajan Ebaen: No regrets. I've worked in the industry for long enough to always have had plenty of try-before-you-buy opportunities to avoid disappointments.

What is your favorite acquisition in recent memory?

Srajan Ebaen: The Audiopax Model 5 solid-state preamp. It's tubes without tubes. I hold high hopes that Eduardo will design a solid-state power amp that pulls the same stunt. The moment he does, I'll abandon power tubes for good. I love what tubes do and wouldn't live without them but I dislike their aging process. It's so gradual that you never know how much below par your system operates. If I could find a transistor power amp that gave me everything my Model 88s do, I'd jump off the thermionic wagon in a heart beat and proclaim "good riddance" with a beatific grin.

What do you consider to be your particular strengths and weaknesses as a reviewer? What are some of the writers you admire or try to emulate, and for what specific qualities?

Srajan Ebaen: I have a bit of a philosophical streak and tangential tendencies which, if left to run rampant, can get unnecessarily serpentine. If properly controlled, you might view this also as a strength. Depends on what you expect from a review. Also, having worked in retail, marketing and manufacturing, I have a unique perspective on the industry which eludes most reviewers. That's both a strength and weakness, the latter because by tendency, one might become a manufacturer's advocate rather than write as consumer by proxy. Corey Greenberg was the king of opening doors to a younger audience. He's never been replaced and has left a hole that still is felt. I appreciate Ken Kessler for his sheer productiveness and suave polish. I enjoy Sam Tellig for his story-telling style which makes his reviews accessible to the neophyte. I love Art Dudley for his humanity. I admire John Marks for his scholarly breadth of knowledge. I enjoyed Jonathan Skull for his enthusiasm and passion and put-on role as living in the Trump Towers of the scene. I dig Chip Stern as a fellow enthusiast and music lover with a heart of gold and perennial money problems which makes him the quintessential audio everyman. In general, I enjoy writers who embed audio in the bigger picture of life, however life presents itself to them. The reviews I outright despise are the test scores that run down a list. I'm a passionate character and unlike in the US where crimes are about money and drugs, I'm a European where crimes are also about passion. I might make errors of judgment but as long as the reader knows where I'm coming from, he might forgive it as a crime of passion. Crimes of boredom, conceitedness and egomania are much harder to forgive in my book. Hopefully I'm not guilty of those.

Considering the general review scene from a global perspective, what publications do you considers leaders and why? Do you see specific trends you consider negative or positive?

Srajan Ebaen: Though I can't read them, certain Asian magazines rule for their photos and sheer scope of coverage. I think HiFi+ is the best-looking print magazine in the English-speaking world. Listener magazine was unique by remembering the hobbyist core of it all and I like to believe that our venture captures some of what Listener stood for. One negative trend is endemic to the profession. Reviewers plant seeds of discontent and, being story and news hounds, can't help but perpetrate the illusion of progress. The unweary reader gets sucked into this perpetuum mobile and burns through equipment just to keep up. You could say that the press and manufacturers maintain a joint conspiracy to keep selling stuff. That's simply the nature of the beast. Another negative trend endemic to the usual review approach is the reliance on analysis which educates the reader to listen analytically rather than holistically. Reviewers breed audiophiles. We make them. A counter trend I'd like to see arise would talk about holistic listening, the necessary skills, how to acquire them. I view as negative review styles that talk down and present the hobby as though it were higher philosophy. That makes newbies feel like complete idiots who lack the insider's hand shake and don't understand the insider's language. I view as negative boring paint-by-numbers reviews that don't telegraph passion and excitement but the sad fact that many audiophiles are geeks in dire need of a life. How to invite newcomers if the scene we present is so unappealing? Internet forums are both a great real-time resource of information and sharing and a pathetic excuse for malcontents to hide behind anonymity and spread negativity. If I ran the Asylum, I'd kill all handles and e-mail aliases and have every contributor use his legal name and personal e-mail. I'm interested to share what I know but have no interest to get accosted, hence I tend to stay away from the forums.

When average folks visit your home, how do they react to your system in terms of aesthetics, size, cost and performance? What are some of the most common reactions?

Srajan Ebaen: They invariably had no idea what good audio is all about. Their hearts open and they have an experience which they didn't know was theirs to be had. Because I own Avantgarde Duos, I always get comments on their appearance. They're like outer-space visitors. Most people don't believe in aliens so when they see one, they respond. Most visitors don't know that tubes still exist either and comment. But the core theme is ignorance about the powerful effects a properly voiced system will have on your psyche - that it's not about the sound but the energy that is conveyed. That's what people don't know and that's what undoes them every time. Because my rig is expensive, there's the usual reactions but when I explain that the Gallo Ref3s will go 90% of the distance, ears prick up and I know some seeds have been sown. That's what I consider my real job - sowing seeds. Whether and when they'll sprout isn't up to me but putting them in the ground is.

Given complete freedom on what to say, how would you comment on the audio review scene in general?

Srajan Ebaen: It's viewed as incredibly corrupt and inept and not all such perceptions are ungrounded. In general, it lacks formal training and structure both with the individual writers and how it's pursued. As such, it's not as professional as, say accounting or engineering where people pass state exams. We don't have schools and trained instructors and most Editors won't have been to their writers' homes to check up on the state of their gear, room and hearing. Certain publications' ways of doing things aren't at all transparent to participating manufacturers which fosters a climate of guesswork and conspiracy theories. Better management skills could address this in a hurry and eliminate the mysterious secret handshake. Other industries practice cross fertilization and syndication but there isn't much of that in our industry. I'd like to see more of it, with publications in different countries working together. In general, audio reviewing needs to move away from the test score and into a more LifeStyle-embedded reporting so that readers wade in a constant undercurrent of "audio is a bloody exciting hobby that's part of a well-lived life". Reviews need to be juicy, their writers people you'd like to meet and have discussions with about all manner of things, not just audio.

How does listening to music fit into your general lifestyle? What other hobbies do you have? How does your family participate in audio?

Srajan Ebaen: Music is food as essential as bread. It bypasses the mind and goes straight for the heart and from there, often to the spirit. I don't view it as a luxury but an essential aspect of my life. My wife loves music but not as an audiophile. Her soul-feeding itch is more fed by reading. I'm also a meditator and ex-Pilates instructor so Pilates is part of my physical (and mental) maintenance routine. Most of all, I'm a writer now. I'm learning while doing it and audio just happens to be something I know just enough about (and as a reviewer, have something ongoing to talk about) to hang my hat on. "Srajan" means "creativity". Being creative is how I'm wired. It's what makes me tick. I'm a communicator and I'm fortunate that with my past conservatory training in music, my time in audio and the launch of the Internet, an opportunity presented itself where these things could meet. Reviewing/writing isn't a job for me but how I voluntarily spend all of my time seven days a week because I love it. The day the love dies, I'll do something else.

What do you think are the most common mistakes audiophiles make when assembling a system while using reviews to assist them?

Srajan Ebaen: To take things literal and out of context. Reviews are a bit of background information which needs to lead to personal investigation and verification. Without that personal work, they're entirely useless.

What (if anything) is wrong with the industry at large and do you have any realistic notions on what needs to be done?

Srajan Ebaen: The industry lacks high-profile spokespeople in the media to represent it. No Michael Jordan endorsing Nike, no Arnold Schwarzenegger saying cigars are hip, no Angelina Jolie behind a perfume ad campaign, no Robert de Niro endorsing AmEx. We're invisible. Our industry lacks a governing body to represent us in congress and our manufacturing infrastructure is moving offshore. We lack manufacturer-sponsored public events. Most dealers no longer sell the experience but boxes, turning audio into a commodity's trade rather than art form. Most of all, manufacturers are working in isolation rather than together and the same might be said for most publications. It's an us-versus-them syndrome rather than "we're all in this shit together, let's act like it" attitude. Do I know how to change it? Hell no. I'm just one little guy. But I'm certainly available to explore creative proposals. If anyone in the global press shares my notions about syndication and cross pollination, let's get together and make some hay. The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is a great step in the right direction and our own reporting of foreign events, by contributors living there, is an attempt to practice a bit of globalism. Ditto for our world music pages. Music is the global language after all. It's important we build bridges to make this transparent and the fact that it's really about the music and the possibility of turning music listening into a very profound encounter that becomes as real, nourishing and part of a balanced life as love and good healthy food.