Incredulous. House brands. In audio retail, it used to mean a brand exclusive to a chain of franchised stores. In reviewing, it could mean a brand very popular with a publication. In that virtual sense, we’ve had a few house brands over at 6moons. Here are three handfuls: Acoustic System Int. Bakoon. COS Engineering. Cube Audio. Denafrips. Gallo Acoustics. Gold Note. Kinki Studio. Mark & Daniel. Metrum Acoustics now Sonnet Audio. Red Wine Audio now Vinnie Rossi. Rethm. sound|kaos. Wyred4Sound. Zu.
Over the years, we enjoyed whatever new model these brands bowed though Anthony Gallo has since vacated the field. Either way, it’s made these brands and others like them predictable successes in the sense that in the hands of designers with such consistent track records, one felt assured an assignment that would be fun, satisfying and exciting to share with the readers.
The way such quasi-house brands come about often has to do with crossing their paths at just the right time. Perhaps ours was the first major English review which for that reason only put them on the global map. To the brand that timing made a big difference. It thus embedded the review’s author in their genesis story. This will often lead to being offered new models before anyone else. Now a given publication becomes a de facto go-to portal for certain brands. For Denafrips go here, for Magico there, for Wilson over yonder.
Perception being what it is, cynics imagine undue connections. There was a time when for example Music Fidelity and Stereophile were accused of one. Eventually, one reviewer maligned as being the brand’s ambassador had enough innuendo. He tartly explained that, unlike many other fine brands he’d love to review, MF simply shipped product the day after they said they would. Those others never did. For every conspiracy theory, there’s routinely a very mundane explanation.
But it does beg the question. Should reviewers pander to perception? After all, one needn’t be a thief as long as everyone assumes one is. The treatment is the same. Should a reviewer fond of a particular brand refuse to accept subsequent assignments just to avoid the ambassador trap?
If so, where does pandering to perception stop? If perception insists that all ‘real’ reviewers must have rooms with serious treatments—after all, they’re professionals whose rooms become their labs—should writers hoping to gain credibility festoon their spaces with big absorbers and diffusors?
John and I had a recent exchange on that. “I’ve the opportunity to give my room ‘the works’ by way of Portugal’s Vicoustic but I’m torn on the idea: it’ll no doubt make the room sound better to allow me to hear more from upstream gear swaps and might make my findings appear more credible (ha!) but the price is having a room that’s almost certainly unrelatable to most Darko.Audio readers turned viewers.” Quite. It’s why I don’t use anything but virtually invisible Franck Tchang resonators. On credibility gain, those actually work like negative feedback. They reduce gain.
How about the expense of a reviewer’s gear? Must real reviewers own 5-figure kit? Must they have the cable lifters and outboard power supplies, master clocks and dual-mono everything to show for it? Is a Wilson speaker more serious than a KEF and that more serious than a Gallo? Is class D an automatic no-show? What if it weighs 50kg and costs €20’000 per channel?
How about the music reviewers should use? No woman no cry, no classical no cred? What must a reviewer do for maximum reader credit? Instead of acquiring the recently reviewed Aurai Lieutenant speaker for my big system which nobody aside from me and its makers has yet heard of, should I instead get an equivalent Magico? Instead of slumming it with 250wpc Kinki Studio monos, would an equivalent Boulder amp not be far more serious, never mind that I couldn’t pay for it?
These are innocuous questions all. Behind them simply do lurk often uninspected assumptions. Naturally, I have my own ideas on the matter. It just seems more fun to leave this subject open-ended. What do you think? Would John be a more credible reviewer if he embraced opera, got tricked out in the full-bore Vicoustic room treatment, added a Siltech cable loom then double-wide HRS rack? And what about those ficus trees? Wouldn’t a few rare bonsai sound so much better? I have just the right connection in Japan.
I already see our man wincing. Or perhaps ‘twas his wallet? How about his Patreon supporters? Would they underwrite pushing his hardware uphill because that would make him an even better video reviewer? Where does the madness start and more importantly, where does it end? What’s credibility got to do with any of it?
Never mind. Perception has its own say on the matter…
John: Wincing indeed. Not because I see Opera and Bonzai as ‘bad’ (how silly). Or HRS and Siltech as pricey (which they are). It’s that they’re just not me. And I think it’s more important to remain true to oneself than to worry about how one is perceived. Of course, that’s easier said than done in the age of Internet-driven conspiracy theories.
As you say, “Perception being what it is, cynics imagine undue connections.”
Readers can – and do – magic up all sorts of nonsense to explain away what they don’t like or don’t believe. This can cause our kind unjust reputational damage, especially when amplified by the Chinese whisper transmission mechanism of forums and Facebook groups. Cognitive dissonance can see the less self-reflective reader resort to accusations of malpractice, completely bypassing the more likely outcome that his own worldview could do with some recalibration.
Readers are entirely at liberty to dismiss what we say but for a few, their dismissal takes a more sinister turn. Claims of brown envelopes and secret paymounts abound. Why else would the reviewer have said what she said? The double standard rides shotgun. Without access to a reviewer’s financial records, the conspiracy theorist will forever remain unable to prove what he claims – that a review was paid for under the table – and yet he still demands proof of what the reviewer says she claims she heard. The irony is pure 🤦🏻♂️.
Seeing only part of the review world picture can also lead to more innocuous reader/viewer misperceptions. How many readers assume that we have access to all gear all of the time when nothing could be further from the truth? As a result, how many readers ask for on-the-spot assessments of gear that we’ve never heard? How many readers write in asking about a product’s sound the day after it is announced to the world, deaf to the fact that it takes time for review samples to trickle out to some – but not all – reviewers?
It isn’t all one-way traffic. Just as reviewers must contemplate what they don’t know, so must readers. Just as reviewers must do the work required for their coverage to be free of major errors and omissions (and entry fee!), readers have an obligation to do their own work: to watch attentively, read thoroughly and follow any ‘more information’ links to their natural conclusion.
And yes, I am pushing ahead with the Vicoustic room treatment. My room’s walls are already festooned with GIK absorber-diffusers and six of their bass traps are split between diametrically opposing corners, so I don’t anticipate the change-up to the Portuguese company’s panels being that too much of a dramatic shift. Besides, plants and physical media (CDs and vinyl) will help mitigate any aesthetic dominance.