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.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Congrats on your third year John. It’s no wonder that your site has garnered such a following in short order. Evidently, the thoughtfulness has paid off.

      Happy New Year,


      • Thanks Fred – let’s sit down for a proper chat next time I’m Stateside. Happy new year to you!

    2. Great job, John! I enjoy DAR and TONEAudio because both magazines continued passion keeping HiFi fun.
      The landscapes changed, and one day we will die, that is when HiFi dies for me.

    3. John,
      The first time I read one of your reviews (about 6-8 months ago), I knew this was the web site to follow. Every time I visited afterwards, I felt reassured in my opinion on your skills as a writer and as a REVIEWER. You are doing fine. Thank you for that and I’ll be waiting for more. I wish, other reviewers were using your approach. This quote should be their motto:
      “…overloading a review with personal anecdotes suffocates insight.”

    4. Hey Mr. Darko,

      A fantastic read as always. I for one have always been a fan of your style as it is much different than my own and I do learn something from anything you write!

      I am on the road so I can’t get the link to my first article in the series but if you wanted to read an article talking about the coming age of headphones breathing new life into Hi-Fi through direct experience ( I wrote it after my second Head-Fi Meet) here’s a link to that article. I was psyched to be there and see the cresting wave of excitement around high end headphones. In 2009 I also wrote a piece entitled “The Birth of i-Fi and the inclusion of the Young” – It’s just been plain exciting to watch things change and grow and to be able to share all these experiences with one another. Here’s the link for you – especially now I think you will enjoy it:

    5. I’ve read seven or eight similar pieces elsewhere in the past few days, so I’m beginning to wonder whether these idiot prophets actually exist or are just a device to make self-admiring bloggers seem more ‘out there’.

    6. Great write-up. Possibly too deep for my shallow self.

      I’m pretty new here, so here’s my 2 cents. What I like about your writing is that you don’t badger your readers with annoying hyperbole of certain products or brands (looking at you, Audeze evangelists), don’t drown us in your life story (like the Stereophile/Audiostream geezers), and most importantly, you never sound like you’re talking out of your arse (like Ken Knobwell or whatever his name is).

      Another thing I like about you is that you never sound condascending. Most audiophiles seem to think they were born on Jupiter’s thigh and have ears capable of hearing gnats conducting phone-sex at night.

      You strike me as a musicphile who’s simply enthusiastic about his equipment, not an audiophile who buys equipment and then searches for “suitable music” to listen to.

      Sure, we might not agree at times – I still can’t gel with any ESS Sabre implementation, not even from Mytek or Resonessence gear – but as long as you continue telling it like you’re hearing it, I’ll continue respecting your opinion.

      Btw, that eye pic is kinda creepy. I want kittens!!

      • “You strike me as a musicphile who’s simply enthusiastic about his equipment, not an audiophile who buys equipment and then searches for “suitable music” to listen to.” <---- that's exactly what I am. You nailed it.

      • Possibly one of my favourite songs of the moment – I’m heartily rediscovering We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, easily their best album.

    7. Radiohead…. Amnesia Rules…. very funny. 😉

      Seriously though, if you want to mention the lack of accounting for NME’s predictions of Next Year’s Big New Bands, why not do the accounting and write articles on their past predictions and how it panned out? It would be very interesting.

    8. First time comment from someone who has been reading you articles for a couple of years. I just wanted to say I enjoy your clarity of writing, far better in my opinion than most audiophile writing out there. It is obvious you care what you say and how you say it. I appreciate your taste in music as well as it aligns with my own. I would like to hear more insights into that as I am always open to hearing new, great music.

    9. aha aha ahaa right on the money! WWDBtSES and also TiaLDfSWNtTA…
      have a good year and thank you for timely advice (articles).

    10. Now you’re on track! You’re listening to Modest Mouse instead of endless blathering about the Talking Heads and David Byrne!

      I don’t want to read your opinions on the latest electronic albums, and certainly no more Heads and Byrne.

      I’d much rather read a shoot-out between your favorite Tom Waits albums and your favorite Bob Dylan albums. How’s that for a topic? Rank your favorite Dylan albums, or discuss some Waits! Mix it up a little bit, for Chrisakes!!!

    11. Dial-up Bob Dylan from ’83 from “Infidels.” Track two, “Sweetheart Like You.” How about that Schiit!? That’s the game!

    12. Congratulations on another year of great writing… and insight, John.
      You have become my go-to site for reading about hifi, top end, bottom end and frankly, any other end.
      I have actually found I am getting a grip on the way I’d like to move forward as we look to downsize over the next couple of years, with headphones, streamers and possibly more on the wish list.
      And it is your writing that is getting me to that place.

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