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I have an admirer in Rome. But this time, Michele Surdi's e-mail began ominously enough. Was I in need of a major Zappa-esque attitude adjustment for the busy executive? "I see you're getting a bit snarky and censorious in your latest reviews..."

I knew what censorious meant. I had in fact been so accused recently by Simon Yorke, for not attending the offboarders' event that ran parallel to the Munich 2009 HighEnd show in the out-of-the-way Fleming hotel. I'd had a perfectly rational explanation for my choice of focusing on the main event. I thus questioned Yorke's attitude. Did his censorship accusation include those magazines which hadn't sent even a single reporter to Munich, period?

Snarky however wasn't part of this non-native's vocabulary. I envisioned it delivered full of Gollum "sneaky?" venom. To unwrap the intended meaning of Michele's gift, I had to look up the word: "A witty mannerism, personality or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism. Usually accepted as a complimentary term. Snark is sometimes mistaken for a snotty or arrogant attitude." Hmm. This was far from promising. Had I finally turned into a pompous arse, a snide arrogancer? But lo, Michele's e-mail continued: "Well done, believe me. Times being what they are, what this hobby needs is a seriously value-oriented perspective. With forty years of hifi consumption under my belt, I'm getting seriously bored with the suckers are born every minute reviewing technique. What I want is comparisons, evaluations and judgments."

Phew. I'd just escaped the firing squad. I'd have hated to lose what could be a female audiophile fan. The name Michele after all is unisex and there aren't too many women readers, at least none who bother writing in. But escaping the firing squad this time didn't mean I might be so lucky the next. Did I have to reevaluate my attitude lest I turn into a jerk who perpetuates snide remarks disguised as balanced review commentary?

It gets us straight to the subject of negative reviews. Have you ever seen a nature series like BBC's Living Planet? Whenever they feature animals, the highlight of the segment is inevitable the great hunt. A school of starved lions stalks an elephant herd. It strategically separates out a youngster and takes him down. Or take an army of Wilderbeest that have migrated for hundreds of kilometers to finally arrive at the promised river. Front legs splayed to drink, a massive crocodile lying in wait just below the water line jumps into the center-fold buffalo's face. Torquing it off its feet, the lockjaw reptile drags the struggling animal into the river to drown. No CGI, these are real deaths. For your entertainment.

Spectators are attracted to accidents, carnage and so-called negative reviews (their writers prefer to call them critical but even positive reviews are supposed to be that). Certain readers view them as proof positive that the magazine's reportage is honest. Now imagine your dad hustling across the Arctic tundra stalked by a lone wolf. He runs, he stumbles, he twists. Shortness of breath distorts his visage, the pain of a stitch wrecks his advances. Finally the inevitable. The great lean beast moves in for the silent kill like an evil shadow. It begins to tear into your father's stomach. It scarfs down his intestines while the man is still jerking. All is delivered in perfect high resolution, the colors are intensely saturated and glossy. The fatal moment and its gory aftermath are replayed in slow motion and from several angles. You vomit.

The inured who regard your dad their mortal enemy meanwhile might applaud. In review terms, if a piece savaged isn't the darling of the blood-thirsty rows, similar applause is predictable yet only a lower intelligence considers that proof that the magazine was operating properly and call it fun. The general readership in fact could find it distasteful and troublesome while the specific manufacturer might reel from the blows economically.

A case in point might be my recent report on KR Audio's VA350i. Having invested considerable sums to have at my disposal tubed competitors of the low and high-power persuasion, plus quality transistor and tube preamplifiers and an assortment of loudspeakers, I judged the piece poorly positioned and overpriced. At 30 hot-running single-ended no-feedback watts and €10.200, it neither sounded like a traditional quality SET nor did it have the ultimate control and power of a 130-watt push/pull feedback design priced the same. Its passive pot was outperformed by external preamplifiers and the finish in its price class wasn't completely up to par. To my ears and context, German and Japanese competitors (two countries where labor costs most certainly aren't low) had more to offer than these Czechs.

That said, could I have phrased things differently to soften the impact? Should I have? That's where today's consideration enters. I'm by no means immune to snarky. In fact, the longer one works in this sector, the greater the chances that cynicism and sarcasm get the better of impartiality and even-handedness. Add to this stew the current economic crisis which heightens the stakes that our industry deliver relevant products that are highly competitive and priced within reach. It's easy to see -- but no justification or excuse -- why the tone of a review could get snarky.

"What this hobby needs is a seriously value-oriented perspective. With forty years of hifi consumption under my belt, I'm getting seriously bored with the suckers are born every minute reviewing technique. What I want is comparisons, evaluations and judgments." Michele Surdi has a point. The challenge on this side of the table is how to do that without becoming censorious and unpleasant. Standing complaints against nearly all magazines in this sector include having to read between the lines, i.e. an aversion to coming right out and saying it as it is. Gloves off would be the battle cry of those critic's critics. Others complain about a lack of comparisons as in Robert Harley's recent review on a Running Springs powerline conditioner. Having favored and reviewed Shunyata product to even own them, readers -- rightly -- expected comparisons between Shunyata and Running Springs. None were given.

Comparisons naturally rely on components being in one place at the same time to conduct. Many interesting comparisons can be dreamed up but reality mostly interferes when a given reviewer doesn't have those comparators on hand. If and when one does however, it is vital that such rare opportunities be exercised.

While reviews should be entertaining -- it's about a hobby after all -- this doesn't include gratuitous brawls and cat fights. But it-all-sounds-great timidity is unattractive as well. Hitting all the points and angles isn't easy; defaulting into snotty attitude no matter how short-term refreshing the contrast might be isn't proper. If I've fallen prey to the snarky stalker, it's time I readjusted my attitude. Thanks are due my Roman fan Michele Surdi for stirring up this consideration. Merci bien!