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KIH #27 – Targeting best practice

  • A few greasy nuts and rusty bolts of audio reviewing, no Zen involved.
    To you, what’s the most important thing in audio reviewing?
    Describing what something sounds like.

    What do you think is the hardest thing about that?
    To do it in such a way that it remains easily understood, relatable and relevant without obscure insider lingo; and doesn’t become formulaic, repetitive, boring, condescending or abstract.

    What are some common mistakes reviewers can make?
    ● To think that readers (should) care whether a writer likes the sound. The primary task is to describe it. Whether it conforms to a writer’s personal preferences is just anecdotal. Reviews aren’t reviewer endorsements where the gear fails if it doesn’t conform to the writer’s ideals.
    ● To forget that unless it’s a recording one has cut or attended personally, one really hasn’t a clue what the source material should sound like.
    ● To make definitive causative statements. A DAC’s sound for example cannot be pinned to its choice of converter IC, I/V conversion, power supply, analog output stage, capacitor selection etc. unless the reviewer can isolate individual building blocks by substitution or bypass.
    ● To rely on ‘common knowledge’ which may merely perpetuate urban myths. Just because another reviewer said it before, doesn’t necessarily make it so.
    ● To state personal opinion as fact.

    What are some common challenges reviewers will encounter sooner or later?
    ● To remain interesting, educational and entertaining in equal measure. Reviews aren’t just test scores. They ought to promote the lifestyle of music playback as a fun rewarding activity; increase the reader’s understanding of how things work; and ideally shed some light on the people behind the product.
    ● To become cynical, to pretend at knowing more than one does, to lose touch with everyman’s pricing reality, to become inconsistent.
    ● To balance responsibility to the manufacturers with accountability to the readers.
    ● To get shot at. Audio writers are public figures open to criticism, ridicule and even personal attacks. This often comes from complete strangers who might additionally hide behind forum anonymity or poster handles. Getting injured or killed is a soldier’s job risk. Being the subject of public opinion is part of the reviewer’s job.
    ● To distinguish between what’s an objective failing or shortcoming; what’s system interaction; and what’s personal dislike.
    ● To write a truly fair and even-handed review on equipment that runs counter to one’s personal preferences and taste.


    How do you define responsibility to the manufacturers versus accountability to the readers?
    When manufacturers dispatch review samples, they make themselves vulnerable to a writer’s and magazine’s influence on their sales and livelihood with potentially severe outcomes. Implied in that very gesture are trust and expectations to being treated fairly and professionally. This includes being notified when things go wrong to have a chance at rectifying it; and to be asked for assistance when things don’t work as expected. Readers deserve an honest and comprehensive accounting of the good, the bad and the ugly. Neither manufacturers nor readers are served by omissions, spin or dishonesty.

    What are some personal pet peeves about the reviewing business?
    ● To disguise press releases and marketing materials as reviews.
    ● To dabble in forum-level content whose only purpose is as click bait to stir up controversy.
    ● To pepper reviews with major paste jobs from promotional literature.
    ● To not show photos of the gear in the reviewer’s environment, thus failing to give readers visual context.
    ● To do no meaningful comparisons.
    ● To paint by numbers which communicates no personality, passion or humanity.
    ● To indulge in king making and hyperbole.
    ● To express ivory-tower disconnect.
    ● To publish poorly written poorly presented reviews which lower not raise standards.
    ● To see equipment at €50’000 or €100’000 referred to as good value just because competition exists which charges even more. High-end pricing has gone extortionist and many in the press are complicit in not calling it out.
    ● Manufacturers who fail to do their due diligence on the writers and magazines they supply with loaners. You can’t complain about unprofessional poorly written reviews whilst continuing to feed their writers and publications with loaners.


    Do you have personal ‘tricks’ to escape the routine approach to audio reviewing?
    I never begin writing after the listening is over. If I knew the outcome and conclusion before I penned the first paragraph, there’d be no discovery, no journey. Already the first sentence would be infected by foreknowledge. Now writing would be like a director watching his own movie, knowing full well how it ends. How could there be pure spontaneity to reacting to what’s on screen? Instead, I always start to write the intro and preview well before the product arrives. That sets up expectation, personal bias and misconceptions which the actual encounter may then meet, exceed, fail or correct. Now the reader accompanies me on an exploration with an uncertain outcome. And I take no notes. I listen as I write directly to HTM. Then I listen again, write some more until the conclusion is in sight.

    What are some of the major requirements you think a reviewer must possess to do a proper job?
    Like for most any other job, one must have the right tools. One needs a decent selection of high quality tools to accommodate special demands and circumstances; and one must keep one’s tools sharp and clean. For reviewers who don’t specialize in headfi, a room which is conducive to the type of equipment and speakers they accept is of the utmost importance. So is an assortment of permanent hardware by which a system can be adapted to short-term loaners. Ideally this hardware isn’t too obscure or so marginally distributed that readers can’t relate to it by personal exposure at shops and shows.

    A reviewer must be able to identify and articulate personal biases so the reader can relate to the findings. Though it is subjective, a reviewer’s yardstick must remain constant to generate consistency from review to review. A reviewer must be exposed to live sound on a regular basis to be able to communicate where and how playback fails, meets or exceeds it and is plain different. And a reviewer should be passionate about music and its enjoyment so that discussions about hardware remain translucent to hifi’s true purpose: not worship of hardware but enjoyment of playback.


    Any useful tips to improving one’s reviewing skills?
    ● Familiarity with premium headfi is most useful to learn what the actual tonal balance of recordings is. Loudspeakers interact with the room. Sub 200Hz performance is heavily influenced by those interactions. Headphones eliminate the room and those particular issues. Headphones also eliminate the ambient field and most of a room’s noise floor to reveal low-level details most speaker systems will miss. To get more familiar with what’s actually on a given recording, comparisons between headfi and speaker readings are really instructive.
    ● Move a lot. Working out of many different rooms increases one’s appreciation for just how much the environment influences the final sound.
    ● Listen with others and solicit their feedback. This is instructive about how different listeners may key into different qualities; or how they may describe the very same qualities in different and unexpected ways.
    ● Only create a personality sketch or basic sonic profile of the review loaner. Don’t attempt a photo-realistic reportage of the sound in your system. A sketch captures the essence and core features which will translate to different systems and rooms. Rendering ever wart and hair is specific only to the reviewer’s room and system. As such, it is entirely irrelevant to anyone else.
    ● Read reviewer colleagues who write up the same components to compare, contrast and learn where and what you missed.
    ● Ask a lot of questions.
    ● Experiment, experiment, experiment. There’s no substitute for experience.

    To you, what is the purpose of reviews?
    Some writers believe that reviews are primarily shopping guides. If I think on how many reviews the average audiophile will read over their years of hifi interest versus how many of those reviews are used for and lead to an actual purchase, I conclude without a doubt that the primary purpose of reviews is entertainment. Wherever reviews thus fail to be entertaining reads, they fail their primary purpose utterly.

    To conclude, how about three good rules for a reviewer to live by?
    ● No matter what else you may think, say or write, at the end of the day it’s never more or less than just one guys’ opinion.
    ● Whilst listening experience and sophistication vary widely, all listeners are made exactly the same in that they only have to please themselves.
    ● When it’s no longer fun, do something else or at least take a good long break.

    Further reading: 6moons

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. I agree 100% that describing what something sounds like is the primary objective of any review. Whether or not I like it is of secondary importance. As such, I try to imagine the reader compiling a bullet-pointed list of what they’ve learned from my review. If that list is skinny, I’ve failed in my job. That said, enthusiasm in infectious so it helps to write about things that one enjoys, otherwise what’s the point? Maintaining a balance with gear that doesn’t play as obviously to one’s personal preferences hopefully keeps a reviewer’s world view broad.

      Pet peeves? The passing off of press release copy/paste-jobs (or with minor edits) as acceptable industry practice. There’s a difference between reporting and being played for a PR puppet. As journalists, it is our job not only to report information but in doing so we refract it through our own lens.

    2. I’ve tryed to find some sort of yard stick, I can judge equipment reviews by.

      Why isn’t thier a gold standard. Jazz rock classical Flacs , we can all say yes this improves….
      But the last part of the chain people for never account for is the bit in between the ears. ( people = me)
      My basic foray into music madness, at best places like DAR are a yard stick, a sign post . Swap holiday for hifi you end up in the same situation. Only you will part with your money to find out if was worth the effort. I joked about you guys playing and reviewing musical houses. Black market kidney prices for the last reviews.
      But I’d rather take a broad view from people who know a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
      Remember Internet attacks mean little , if you believe what you write is fair comment, time will prove an opinion right.
      I asked Cyberdrive to send review units here, because an experienced reviewer has the scope to add valve that benefits all concerned developing an IDGG player.
      I tryed that on headfi, it’s hard not to turn it into a bun fight or magical Unicorn wish list.
      Engage the public, ask for help, find a balance and you may get something more than the sum of its parts.

      It must be tough to hear music played through equipment worth 5 years pay.. but as lesser of 2 evils that isn’t a bad Gig..

      When’s the DAR xmas list coming out btw.
      The high end guys seem to have gone low fi this year with stocking fillers.
      Can’t wait to see what you guys come up with.
      Thanks for the enjoyable reads this year and Merry xmas to one and [email protected] DAR

    3. Oh great. A reviewer writing about reviewing. Its as bankrupt as a rock band singing about rock and roll (a la jefferson starship or the byrds ) – let’s just get it over with and slit our collective writsts.

      • Not at all. It provides insight into the thinking behind how reviewer’s see their craft what motivates them and what they aim for.

        • Fantastic, maybe we should have a meta review site of the reviews. “…. John’s latest use of superlative in his recent review of the xyz dac was sublimely deficient…..” or
          “…. we can only guess that Srajan’s weak use of metaphor in the recent review of obscure speakers was motivated by over roasting of his morning cup of java….”

      • Ordinary I would agree with you. But, as someone with an interest in a few different areas (lit, movies, music, video games, tech, cars etc) who reads the accompanying journalism for each, audio journalism is most frequently the worst of the lot. There are entire websites, not just writers that I can’t bring myself to read – ones like What and TAS and plenty in-between.

        Srajan and John are two audio journalists I actually respect quite a lot, and I think that is due to the fact that they are open to talking about what they do.

    4. Easy to read, enjoyable and informative.
      Everything else is a bonus.. I sometimes pay for What hifi, I’d rather support DAR. .
      Thanks as always..

    5. Srajan,
      A great read in my case just before a delayed flight home. I had a copy of the latest The Absolute Sound and it was great fun to use your criteria instead of mine and give every review a failing grade.

      David we all have different experiences, Srajan likes more bass than I do in folk type music. Neither is wrong and both are right for us. In your case you have to develop your own test suite of music there is no gold standard. In my case the following are useful. Blonde on Blonde must sound good. It is an example of a record that the sound quality is mediocre at best. Then go to great recordings Pet Sounds and Abbey Road. And finally JJ Cale’s Naturally because I need both the high lonesome sound of bluegrass and the Bakersfield Sound reproduced. JJ Cale’s debut album fills this requirement well though it is neither. These are maybe too mono for some tastes but John is slowly talking me out of stereo.

      If you want an example of why you should ignore all audiophile dogma, play Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly. Early attempts at digital recording can sound very good.

      In my case David, these records saved me a lot money and trouble. No expensive speaker sounds enough better to warrant spending money on it to me but I’ve only heard about 84 of them in my life.

      I prefer to focus on music and treasure hearing the Grateful Dead live at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland Oregon February 1969 on reel to reel again this Thanks Giving Holiday when I was in Portland. It is one of the best amateur recordings I’ve heard. And even Harry Pearson liked the stacked Advents we listened to it on.

      • (If I may interject: getting Blonde on Blonde to sound just right is a tall order – tame that harmonica screech, flesh out that bottom end – but it’s one that aligns with my own tastes and hifi preferences).

      • Thanks for the reply and insight. Forgive my comments, they are on my phone on the bus, or between soaps the wife’s watching.
        This hobby is a little strange with reactions, nobody complains about the cost of a Ferrari first seeing it or a priceless painting by Monet. I am grateful for places like DAR to guide me in my new hobby. Remembering Music first and only..
        Have a great Xmas
        Kind regards

    6. Some frustrated messages here, on the reader side it’s basically about being able to read between the lines and pick out what one considers to be relevant for one’s system and listening preferences, I’ve been served greatly by both Srajan and John and most of the times the information provided was spot on, of course there’s cases where things turn out slightly differently than expected but in that case it often points to a flaw in one’s system (as in crappy speakers 😉 some of my components only started to reveal themselves a year or so later when implemented in the right context. Srajan and John also tend to do proper cross-checking where a component is tested with a variety of others which really paints up a pretty accurate idea of what the devices nature is like. I consider the quality of their reviews to be excellent … sure, science minded people will always smell some subjectivist bias as it is not a proper randomized double-blind study on thousands of people, but as said, a bit of reading between the lines, trying to imagine things in context will get you a pretty good idea.

    7. John that is exactly my point, I’m not willing to spend money on any equipment that doesn’t meet my minimum requirements. Let’s go back to 1966 when Blonde on Blonde was released. Columbia knew that it was going to sound great on at least 1/3 of the speakers because that was the market share of AR at the time. It sounded great on many brands too. So in 1966 it wasn’t a tall order to get Dylan’s harmonica to sound right. Set up your listening room properly and that covered the bottom end. So if it’s a tall order in 2015 then high end audio hasn’t advanced or has gotten worse. Your commentary on the music played at audio shows supports the argument that it has gotten worse; you don’t play that stuff unless you are trying to hide lack of performance.

      David, first name me a US spec Ferrari that can outrun a Z/28 Camaro on a US road racing course, hint it’s a very short list. At the Ring in Germany the number is two. Price and performance don’t correlate. High End Audio is only a price point. How do I know? I have AR-4x speakers available in 1965 in my office. I’ve owned them long enough that they have been reconditioned and restored. Secondly hunt up a copy of the February 2015 Hi-fi news & Record Review. Read the review of the AR-7 and note that they are badly matched pair, with original crossovers showing the effects of drift. Now imagine how pair of well-matched AR-4x speakers sound with crossover upgrades eliminating the drift similar to the ones in Andrew Jones’ new speakers. The crossover upgrade is $80 US. That is my standard. Your speakers must sound better than the speakers in my office. Finally read Harry Pearson’s review of stacked Advent’s. If I have a gold standard these are it. Note Harry’s use of the words cultist and snobbism. My challenge to any audiophile or speaker manufacturer is simple. Let me listen to my music at a volume of 72 DB average on your speakers if you think they are better than stacked Advents. You should develop similar criteria based on your musical tastes and interests.

    The Select DAC II: MSB Technology’s $90,000 D/A converter

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