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Words on a wing

  • “What shall I write about today?” – I ask this of myself every morning. Today, en route to Munich to the world’s biggest and best high-end audio show, I’m turning that inner dialogue in on itself. What better time for reflection than a long-haul flight loaded with bad coffee and good tunes.

    One of the downsides (if you can call it that) of living in Australia is that one must now leave the country to attend an audio show proper. This is truer now than ever. The Chester Group’s annual Audio and AV show has been moved from Melbourne to Sydney, from October to the July and its remit widened to encompass a broader range of technologies. New-Tech 2015 won’t just be showing audio equipment.

    DAR has been covering hi-fi for four and three-quarter years; it turns five in September (*Gasp*). Don’t look for a self-congratulatory fourth birthday post in the 2014 archives though – you won’t find it. Returning from a second month on the road last October, an increasingly tight schedule squeezed out all but the most essential articles.

    I’m lucky. No – strike that – I consider myself fortunate enough to have turned a hobby into a vocation that pays its way…just. Luck played a bit part I’m sure but to get from there (mid-2010) to here (mid-2015) took good old fashioned hard work. If you think DAR is all about the gear though, you’d be mistaken. This site also serves as an outlet for my broader desire to explain and disseminate. I find writing a challenge. I don’t simply dump the contents of my brain onto the page and let it fly. It often takes several days to get a review ready for publication. That’s what makes this job immensely rewarding. In fact, I look back at posts from as recent as two years ago and I cringe – a telltale sign that I’m getting better perhaps.


    One of DAR’s key mandates is to write about audio gear from a consumer’s perspective. In order to better understand my audience I have to become my audience. To do that, I give ongoing thought to what I like and dislike as a reader of the hi-fi press. Who shoots their own photos? Who can separate fact from marketing department spin? Who writes well?

    Let’s start with a pet peeve: I have a strong aversion to clichés.

    When you talk in clichés you effectively say nothing. For example, few phrases in 2015 have become more abundant than “as the artist intended”. Since Neil Young brandished the notion of authorial intention in support of Pono last March, this phrase has become the catch-cry of marketing departments charged with promoting yet another pair of headphones or yet another hi-res audio player.

    Other clichés that permeate the audio world are “It’s all about the music” (it isn’t), “It’s all about the people” (nope) and “We’re one big family” (sorry). Like all good clichés there’s a grain of truth to be found within. Beyond that, their use is pure posturing.

    Music is important. People are important. Community is important. However, their collective role is a byproduct of the main event: hardware and software that underpins music’s reproduction. Think of it this way; if it were all about the music, would DAR not be aimed to read more like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone? Moreover, too much chatter about the personalities behind the gear and this site would devolve into an ego massage. There’s a fine line between community recognition and a circle-jerk.


    As a writer, I take great pride in being part of the TONEAudio and 6moons teams but as a reader I better identify with individual writers than I do the mastheads under which they write. “What does Art Dudley think?” comes to mind more often than “What does Stereophile think?” Each staff writer infuses his or her host publication with brand value and vice versa. From a reader perspective, a publication’s broader import is a function of its staff writers’ talents with insight and engagement.

    Some aren’t (financially) able to give exclusivity to a single publication. I’ve followed John Grandberg for a number of years across a broad range of titles. He has an excellent way with words and I hope that one day his busy schedule will allow him to write for this site.

    Like Grandberg, Steve Guttenberg and (natürlich) Srajan Ebaen are my goto hi-fi journalists. Grandberg and Ebaen for their thoroughness with comparaison, Guttenberg for his willingness to cut to the chase.

    These guys aren’t faceless web writers charged with content creation to optimise visitor stats for would be advertisers. DAR could increase its hit count simply by posting more frequently, but unless more staff writers come aboard quality would suffer. Besides, advertising dollars keep the press in business but the smart money doesn’t blindly follow the greatest number of eyeballs. It seeks out an audience that’s engaged. (Writing) quality matters to advertisers as well as readers because advertisers ARE readers.


    For me, a good review provides insight not just into the product at hand but also a glimpse into the commentator’s life – personal context is crucial to long-term reader engagement. Good writers give of themselves without making it ABOUT themselves. They shoot their own photographs too, eschewing those provided by the manufacturer. I don’t dig this because of a need to scrutinise a writer’s taste in soft furnishings. I dig it because it tells me more about the product in a real-life scenario away from the studio lights and post-shoot airbrushing.

    Art Dudley, Marj&Henk, Michael Fremer, Jeff Dorgay and Srajan Ebaen – they all infuse their reviews with personal expression. Michael Fremer is possibly the most enjoyable extreme in this regard. His videos lack professional production values but the insight into his life and listening space more than compensates. A recent Analog Planet video in which he discusses a recently issued Roxy Music box set only to first be interrupted by his dogs’ barking and then by his wife shows us how this reviewer works in a ‘real world’ space (as do most).

    It is these personalities, with their album picks, anecdotal diversions and – most of all – an ability to write, that help me better connect as a reader. Repeated connections cultivate admiration and a better understanding of the writer’s broader perspective, all of which funnels into the greatest gift a reader can bestow upon a writer: trust.

    Trust isn’t earned overnight. It takes years, not months. Each review written is a notch on the bedpost of experience and that experience (or lack thereof) is why we value some opinions more than others.

    I know very little about climate change so I defer to those more experienced in this field than me. Similarly, with hi-fi, I hold those with more experience than I in high regard. I don’t labour under the misapprehension that because I have a laptop, an Internet connection and a WordPress account that my opinion is of equal import to that of Jonathan Valin or David Robinson who have been in this game far longer than I.


    The message here isn’t about knowing one’s place, it’s about respecting those whose experience continues to shine through in what they do. This counts hugely in an age where anyone (myself included!) can have a go.

    In the mid-noughties, I ran a monthly music club night. If you’re thinking techno and lasers, time for me to disabuse you of that mental image. It was held in a sweaty, dirty (and sometimes smelly) old pub near the centre of Sydney. Not dance music but indie rock. I DJ-d too. New events would pop-up at nearby venues and fall away just as quickly. A buddy and I used to joke that anyone could start a club night but it takes guts and determination to see it through into the second year. And then a third. And perhaps a fourth. Mine ran for five years before I could no longer outrun the truth: no-one wants to see a 40-year old DJ.

    With few technological or financial barriers in their way, pretty much anyone is able to get up and running, bang the drum about how their mission statement will be dare to be different, will re-write the rulebook or better represent a changing scene. Noble aims that come to zilch without a willingness (or ability) to knuckle down and stay the course.

    A real sense of achievement stems from sticking around well beyond launch-day hoopla; even more so when the originating big bang is not even visible in the rear-view mirror. For many, it serves as its own reward. It might not allow for day job surrender but it’s bloody terrific knowing you’ve been doing it for (almost) five years and people appreciate your efforts.

    “It”? Am I talking DJ events or hi-fi websites…? Same thing really. Skill matters, quality matters, hard work matters, experience matters. Heck, even luck matters.

    It all matters…to someone.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve work to be getting on with.


    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. John, I had no idea you were THAT old 😉
      Great article and why I keep on coming back to your web site. PLEASE keep up the good words!
      I think John Grandberg would be a great addition. I secretly hoped that he would take up the 2 slots that seemed to be free at stereophile but I would rather see him on DAR .

    2. Calling things a circle jerk could rub people up the wrong way… oooh errr, missus.

    3. Well you have earned my trust. I read Srajan’s review on 6moons, but waited for yours before placing my order for Vinnie Rossi’s LIO. Since we are throwing names of reviewers I ‘ll add one of my favorites, Jeff Day (maybe you could convince him to continue the Music Lovers series on DAR).

    4. Nice column, John. I do think that the music is always a good stand-by if the shows and gear dry up for a moment.

      Today I offer these two:

      J. Roddy Walston and the Business – Essential Tremors (2013)

      Frank Black & The Catholics – The Complete Recordings (7 CD set) (2015)

    5. The problem, as I see it, is that most writers have horrible taste in music, but great taste in gear. I won’t mention any names, but most “gear writers” correctly identify the merits of various gear, but they listen to horrible shit.

      I can’t get past their speaker-cone analysis because they are listening to some dude wanking on his cello. While the cello is a perfectly admirable instrument, there aren’t many people who know how to put it to proper use.

      I think the Frank Black & The Catholics Box Set gives a great example of the way music should be. Let it rip and screw the finer points of audio worship! It sounds good, but it’s not buried in pretentiousness.

    6. Hey John,

      I’ve been meaning to tell you what a PITA it is that you disable the right-click…. You provide many great links to interesting material in your articles, so instead of right clicking to a new tab, I must leave your page!!!! arghhhhhhh its not 1995! Why why why???!!! Are you a Mac user who is jealous perhaps? 🙂 Apart from that….. love your work.

      • Yup – a few complaints have come my way about the right-click being disabled. That restriction has been in place since January to prevent the increasing number of websites who think they are doing me a favour by copy/pasting a snippet of my content and then linking back to me. Frustrating.

      • John, I’m going to have to agree with Norman here. Removing basic functionality for all, to protect against a few bad apples doesn’t seem to me like a good solution—especially when said solution is so easy to get around. I’m reminded of the time that Sony starting putting malware on their CDs in an effort to prevent them from being copied.

        That being said, I remain a fan of your writing. Thank you.

        • Hey Dan – I hear ya, I really do but dealing with these bad apples can seriously impact my workload. Time that could be better spent on reviews.

    7. Thanks mate! Mmmmmmm, that pint is calling my name. On topic, it seems to me the writers I like best are the ones who allow more personality to shine through. If I never read another fawning, generic review, rife with cliches and Jazz at the Pawn Shop, I’ll be a happy man. Also, one needn’t posses a Shakespearean command of language to be enjoyable – just a clear and consistent voice. If I read a dozen reviews by the same author and still haven’t gleaned anything about their sonic and musical preferences, something has has gone wrong.

      • Agreed. Personality is pivotal…as long as it doesn’t suffocate that which is being written about.

        • True! It’s a matter of balance though. I’ve heard some folks complain about Srajan and Mike Fremer and Jonathan Scull etc for exactly that reason. “Quit giving me anecdotes and tell me how well the device plays Diana Krall!”

          • Indeed. Balance is key. The occasional anecdote reveals personality but load in too many and the reviewer over-eggs the pudding.

    8. How about acknowledging the sonic might of manufacturers? Why are they so systematically ignored? Is it because they dont care for super expensive cabLes? Or is it because they use blind tests? I think it is time to recognize the greatness of hi-fi manufacturers.

      I have been reading the posts by robb Watts and charlie hansen. Sorry to say this, but they are way above reviewers. And i have a lot of respect for most hi-fi reviewers, but you cannot out-opinion the folks who run and design Magnepan (just one example of folks who dont care for cables and use blind tests)

      • Oh, you mean manufacturers that run their own blogs? Yup – agreed – I’ve learnt a great deal from being a regular at Paul McGowan’s “Paul’s Posts”.

        That Dusty Vawter doesn’t care for cables is a common trait. But you have to ask yourself: is this manufacturer spin? Harbeth’s Alan Shaw used to claim that his speakers would sound equally as good on a bookshelf as on dedicated stands.

      • I have to agree regarding designers and their blogs or whatever we call them. Salk has some great stuff on their site, jansZen does too, and certainly many others. Also some just build the info into their website itself – see Anedio and Resonessence Labs for tons of useful info. It’s not a blog per say but still very useful.

      • Been thinking about this overnight. I am curious by what you mean by “Why are they so systematically ignored?”, Bernard? Ignored as reviewers? Absolutely – a manufacturer’s opinion arrives with its own inherent bias. On matters technical, it’s a different story. Many have great wisdom to share. Happy to compile a list and share if you’ll point me in the direction of manufacturer blogs?

    9. John, you probably have a long list yourself. Here is a good one:

      I also learnt a lot from robb watts posts on head fi.

      We all human beings have our inherent biases and i think that is called post modernism and theory of relativity.

      The inherent bias of reviewers: business model is advertisement based and not subscription based (even when subscribers pay an insignificant amount as compared to the income stream of advertisement)

      The above is a HUGE bias that will take a toll on your conscious and unconscious decisions. Of course you will find differences on cables when not using a long and comfortable blind test: your mind wants to help the advertiser whether you know it or not.

      The opinion of highly regarded manufacturers regarding blind tests and cables are systematically ignored not because of their inherent biases but because the reviewing community is extremely afraid of losing a big income stream. I am not pointing fingers, i still think the reviewing community kicks ass. It just happens to be imperfect.

      I believe tyll hertens has built a loyal fan base because he has created a context of honesty. He does not review cables and has resorted to long blind tests at least once for the pono. Tyll keeps saying that manufactures know a lot more than he does. He is just an honest man.

      John, start asking manufacturers about controversial issues such as cables and blind tests, post it, and see your fan base soar. ( i am an online marketer and an audiophile)

      • I couldn’t afford to run this site on a subscription based model – readers just don’t wanna pay. You’re right, we’re left with an imperfect model. That’s why I talk up the importance of time. Only after months and years can readers learn to read the words as well as between the lines.

        I *do* talk to manufacturers about cables. In fact, last night I was talking to AudioQuest again about their Ethernet cable. I might see if I can turn one of these conversations into an interview about the same…

        I’ve also a piece planned (in my head at least) that relates to a conversation I had with Vinnie Rossi recently.

    10. You are right, “it takes years, not months,” to develop trust and as a long time reader you’ve secured it with me. I’ve been a subscriber since nearly the beginning of DAR and have enjoyed seeing the site and your writing evolve over the years.

      Usually, I only write in to sites if I have a question or (sadly) a complaint, but this most recent post got me nostalgic. Your reviews have directed two purchases in my financially limited quest for good sound: my Beresford Caiman DAC and my Emotiva XDA-2, and I have not regretted either.

      I also wouldn’t have found the Omega Super 3s to lust after if it wasn’t for you. I value the lengths you go to reviewing realistically reasonable gear and according to one of your recent post even championing for more affordable gear at shows.

      I enjoyed your search for the best (all things considered) headphones awhile back. It felt authentic which $10,000 speaker reviews never do. If I ever upgrade from my Monoprice 8323s I would strongly consider the V-Modas because of the trust and respect you’ve built over the years.

      I appreciate that you keep exorbitantly priced and supposedly immeasurably better cable reviews to a minimum.

      I’ve also enjoy Srajan Ebaen and am happy to see him on your site from time to time. It’s great you mentioned taking real life photos of gear. For the longest time I didn’t recognize him by name, but I always did by his interior design and really liked it. I wish my rack had half the style.

      I’m glad to hear you think highly of Steve Guttenberg; I read his material too, but sometimes he goes a little too affordable; whereas your reviews seem to be focused on gear priced right before the point of diminishing returns. Plus, I mostly love your taste in music, especially when you mentioned Future Sounds of London!

      Sorry to go off topic now, but I do have one question. You recently mention using the Ikea APTITLIG bamboo chopping board as affordable vibration control which certainly seems a lot more reasonable than the $25 (or more, each) alien rubber pucks I see advertised. And coming from a language arts background, I’ve always struggled with the more scientific aspects of our hobby, but wouldn’t the AVSKILD cork place mats seem like they’d be better at vibration control because they are soft. I’ve also thought of using rough spun table mats because fabric seems like it would work. What am I failing to understand?

      You’re lucky to have turned your hobby into a job; keep up the good work!

    11. At the risk of massaging your ego I can tell you that this is the only audiophile site that is a must read for me. Your articles are interesting and well written and you are one of the only sites I can think of that writes about music I can relate to as opposed to the usual stuff that almost every other site trots out time after time. I almost choked when you published the audiophile’s guide to electronic music. I know I won’t see that anywhere else. I think it should be OK to listen to punk rock or reggae or whatever even if it isn’t the music that is most effective for peddling gear. For me audio gear has always been a means to an end. I’ve been into music long before I started looking seriously at the gear I use. I’m glad I did because I might never have known what I was missing but it isn’t going to change my listening habits and turn my back on what I really like. I’m totally open to listening to different kinds of music but it should be because I’m interested in the music, not because I want to present my gear in its best light.

      The point of all this blah blah blah is keep doing what you’re doing because it’s good.

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