Insight holds more water than speculation

  • Like a joke trying to make another joke laugh. Ha ha.

    During the first year of running Digital Audio Review I took advice from more seasoned quarters. I sought pearls of wisdom from those who had already found success in the hi-fi review field. I listened. I absorbed as much as I could. During these conversations – to name drop would be gauche – one word kept popping up. That word was insight.


    Prior to starting each review I ask myself: what exactly do I want to say? On the face of it that may sound naively simple but clear thinking begets clear writing. The initial period of reflection is filtered into trying to establish the sonic personality of the unit under consideration and how it compares to the competition. Is this DAC brighter than the other DAC? Does that amplifier bring more bass to the picture than the rival? Which amplifier do I prefer with these speakers and why? To whom is this product best suited? To answer these questions – and thousands more like them – is to provide the reader with insight.

    You can’t please everyone all of the time; there will always be a cross-section of review-reading audiophiles who don’t click with what I have to say and/or the way I say it. Knowing who they are helps me better define my audience and, in some ways, how to better write reviews. I think about the DAR reader experience always and often.

    From reading reviews I learned to write them. I am a hi-fi consumer (just like you) and I read reviews (just like you). In a recent quest for a budget turntable I churned through several thousand words of web copy to help whittle an initial field of ten down to two or three. Those reviews ultimately informed my turntable buying decision. When I read reviews I look for insight. I ask myself: what have I learnt from that review? I try to mentally picture a bullet-pointed summary. If things then get woolly upstairs, I begin to question the level of insight on offer.

    Regular readers will know of my strong allergic reaction to cliched wraps like “competes with units two or three times the price”. It’s a toothless cop out thrown in to distract the reader from a paucity of insight. Of similarly descriptive impotence are superlatives. To only describe something as “awesome” or “killer” is to only tell me that you like it. It’s as much about you as it is about the gear at hand. A writer who infuses his commentary with his personality ups the reader enjoyment factor but overloading a review with personal anecdotes suffocates insight. Therefore, when I’ve finished reading a review I also ask myself: about which did I learn more, the author or the product? I bet you do likewise.

    I know I’ve said it before but context is key. How does A compare to B? And to C? That’s what readers (consumers!) want to know. I receive a steady stream of reader emails asking the same. Rarely am I asked what I think of Product X in isolation.

    At the close of each year, the NME (and music mags like it) like to play Nostradamus. They pen pieces on the bands to watch in the coming months. They make sweeping proclamations about how they have discovered the next Smiths/Cure/Radiohead and exhort readers to go check ’em out before said next big thing sell out stadiums in a years’ time. It makes for exciting copy. It makes for EASY copy because – and here’s the kicker – they a rarely called to account if they are wrong. And so the cycle continues, year in, year out. Predictions of next big things. Big things that VERY rarely materialise. Come June, readers have usually collectively shrugged their shoulders and moved on. Amnesia rules.


    Our ideas held no water but we used them as a dam.

    Speculation is the antithesis of insight. (Some members of) the audiophile press have been predicting the demise of high-end for what seems like centuries.

    Check out this opening paragraph from a Stereophile article first published in 1993.

    “Slowly, painfully, high-end audio seems to be dying. We all know it but we’re apparently unable to resuscitate the patient. US dealers are closing at alarming rates—it must be the economy. Women continue to avoid the High End—it must be the technobabble combined with male equipment fetishism. Younger people aren’t hopping aboard—it must be all those other things competing for their money. (Then again, it might be the High End’s abhorrence of rock’n’roll.)”

    Did Jack English ever follow up this “R.I.P High-End Audio?” article with a piece on how he was wide of the mark? I doubt it. This kind of op-ed piece is probably good for circulation numbers and Google visitor stats but English’s opening para reads like it could have been written at any point in the last ten years. Nothing gets juices flowing like a tablespoon of fear. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not singling out Stereophile here. Their staff roster includes many fine writers more experienced and eloquent than I.

    Anecdotal evidence down under points to a buoyant high-end but a struggling budget sector. At least, that’s been my take away from several conversations I’ve had with some of the bigger Australian distributors this year. Perhaps this is a reflection of a widening income divide? Now that’s an article I’d care to read.

    My point is this: endless pontification on what will bring the hi-fi industry out of intensive care is simply hot air. High-end audio isn’t dying, it’s simply changing shape. If a dog loses a leg, it doesn’t give up on life, it learns to walk in a different way. The high-end audio industry adapts and it survives.


    These fit like clothes made out of wasps.

    You won’t find any such speculation on DAR, not now and certainly not in 2014. I can’t even predict what I’ll be eating for dinner a week on Tuesday, let alone what might befall the hi-fi industry in the coming months/years. I didn’t see the vinyl resurgence coming (did anyone?) and I’d very much like to be directed to an article predicting the rise and rise of headphones should such a thing exists. I’ll wager it doesn’t. No-one really saw that explosion coming, did they? I don’t know what will happen to the headphone sector in years to come any more than my Mum does. I save speculation for shooting the shit over drinks, a private conversation where being wrong is of little consequence. I’m of the opinion that speculation from a formal publication can only really serve to devalue its long-term importance. Will you ever believe those pesky Mayans again? Did you ever believe them in the first place? We’re still here a year on from the supposed end of the world: December 21st 2012.

    Editor of TONEAudio magazine, Jeff Dorgay has also hit home with a similar ‘anti-speculation’ stance. Good show.

    What you can expect from this website throughout the next twelve months is a tonne of reviews that (hopefully) provide you the reader with insight. There’ll be a small amount of show coverage too – I have Munich and NYC in my crosshairs for 2014 – but I don’t like to lean too heavily on that. Hifi shows are tremendous fun for geeks like me but they’re really just a glorified show ‘n tell. I use them mainly to a) talk shop with fellow audiophiles and b) single out products for further investigation. That further investigation often begets a review and that review provides the reader – you guessed it – with insight.

    Some day you will die and somehow something’s going to steal your carbon.

    Happy new year to each and every one of you.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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