Audiophiles Anonymous. You know how that starts. Do you know where it ends? I obviously can speak only for myself. From that point of view, certain things are quite crystal. For today let’s look at the common assumption—common if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool gear junkie—that audio reviewing is the coolest job ever. For the right person, it can very much be. But nothing is all lilies in the field without bird shyte and bug bites. If the world of self-help books is filled with “Six secrets to super sex” and “the nine don’ts of weight loss”, here’s my small number of things to watch.
Becoming opinionated. That one can’t be helped. Do anything long enough and you figure out what works, what doesn’t and if not unalienable truths, end up with at least working theories on why and wherefore. Now with surprising certainty, specific specs, approaches or execution details can become predictive and self-fulfilling prophecies. Where it saves time, that’s dandy. Where it overlooks the outlier or exception, it’s not. Since we can’t know what’s an outlier or exception until we actually hear it, our mind—actually, ear/brain—must remain open to be proven wrong.
But’s what wrong? I put it to you that if you’re anything like me, your definition of that will get more and more rigid over time. Having travelled the hobby’s highways and byways, we learn what we like most specifically. Now even small deviations become less and less amusing. More and more we can’t wait to get back at our ‘right’. Realizing that a square peg won’t fit a round hole takes no time at all. If that’s our review conclusion, we’ve really lost the plot. It should be obvious that the constantly narrowing definition of our ideal sound is intensely personal and a function of what our room and budget support. It’s nothing absolute; not even relative to us. We learn that after moving house often enough.
Despite inner reactivity to a sound that rubs us slightly or massively wrong, we always must drop our preferences and become stand-ins for a far larger audience of wildly divergent tastes. Only absolute beginners or douchebags forget to forget themselves. Unless review kit is unsafe, malfunctioning, obviously poorly made or sounds undeniable and irreparably off, so-called bad reviews mostly reflect a writer’s inability to vacate self-interest and explore what others might enjoy. By the same token, raves could be little more than laziness when perfect overlay with personal ideals goes full Monty but again forgets that others could have distinctly different responses.
True, a well-phrased gushing review can be enormously fun to read; certainly far more so than constant equivocation or a sour-puss version that didn’t want to be there at all. How to maintain a disposition that continues to communicate enthusiasm for the hobby whilst being critical, fair and informative? Becoming ever more opinionated stands in direct conflict with that mandate. You now appreciate that ‘opinionated’ runs a lot deeper than just having an opinion. It’s a total frame of mind, an emotional state, a lack of fluidity or willingness and ability to try one on for size and just shits and giggles.
Being critical. It’s an extension of being opinionated. How useful is being critical while having sex? Does true satisfaction tabulate technique, measurements and body parts? It’s in the absence of love or passion that ‘performing’ becomes important. The same is true for playback. Unlike a mixing/mastering engineer who shapes a piece of art with extreme criticism and specificity, listeners are expected to consume said art with a sense of joyful abandonment. We’re not expected to play at armchair mixing/mastering professional and reverse-engineer their process. All a chef wants is an empty plate and perhaps a ‘compliments to the chef’ conveyance from a waiter. That’s it. Musicians cutting an album want the same. Yet hi-fi reviews are about breaking down ingredients, method, technique and skill. It’s 180° opposed to the purpose of playback.
Being uncritical. So why not forgo all tech talk and dissective criticism in favour of effusive tales about getting off on the music? Because as pornographic as that sounds, it’s really not useful. If my sex life is bad, watching other people have apparently great sex aka enacted paid porn is no help. What should be an intensely private experience is being reduced to the close-up visible. It misses the most important bits and attaches importance to all the wrong ones. Reading how reviewer Mitchell had eargasms with component X doesn’t relate to me. Whilst getting hard then moist is exactly the desired outcome, describing it to perfect strangers doesn’t help them achieve euphoria. Voilà, the core crux of the hifi reviewing dilemma. “Watch how beautifully my hifi bonks me” has questionable utility to the reader.
“Breaking down sound into bits and bytes” includes useful data points but as a focus or process, directly contravenes why one would want a hi-fi to begin with. “Compare by contrast” introduces useful relativity but again isn’t a process a music consumer should duplicate. Comparing our present experience to what could be or how we imagine the reviewer has his/hers nullifies any depth of having our own experience, here, now. Talk about loggerheads.
Weasel words. Musicality. Compatibility. As the artist intended. An open window on the performance. Game changer. Awesome. The list continues. Relative to my prior points though, the mega weasel we actually want is balance. A good review—that’s no opposite of a ‘bad’ review since when properly done, such reviews are actually good—must balance between technique and emotion, method and soul. Basic balance is like a seesaw. It’s neither up nor down but in the middle. More complex balance is like a chandelier. Many different bulbs light up many different directions but all occupy the same level. Honing one’s reviewing skills isn’t primarily about eloquence. It’s about perfecting chandelier-type balance. Hey, having goals puts gas in the motivation tank. It’s not synonymous with actual mastery.
Experience. You can no more fake experience than bypass time. Time must be put in, experience earned not imagined. Sadly genuinely varied experience covering most/all of the available sonic flavours and presentational styles leads to being most opinionated. It’s while we haven’t explored much that always greener grass awaits around the bend. It duplicates the reader position of ‘what if’. As we decapitate one what-if after another, we diminish our chances of still being surprised. Whatever shows up is just another minor variation of something already familiar. And (yawn) familiarity can lead to saturation even constipation. So the laudably extensive experience which separates a veteran reviewer from a newbie can also undermine ongoing curiosity and enthusiasm. If we’ve already been there and done that many times over, why keep on trucking?
Make your hobby the job… and never work another day in your life. The implication is that loving what we do doesn’t feel like work. And it’s very true. Not feeling like work simply isn’t synonymous with not paying attention. To get better doesn’t happen by sheer repetition alone. Another proverb says that doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is idiocy. If we want different results, something’s got to change. What and how is for us to figure out. Back on the utility of reviews, they must balance the needs of a manufacturer (visibility, promotion) with those of the reader (honesty, education, entertainment) which differs from artistic narcissism that does as it pleases and to hell with whether you like it or not. Arguably most important of all, utility demands consistency. The only way readers can relate to us is if our approach remains consistent so today’s blue is tomorrow’s blue and not violet. Keeping consistency fun not rote routine is another job requirement or we’ll soon regret doing it.
If we review for a living, consistency also demands regularity which keeps feeding the beast of constant content creation without unseemly gaps. Prima-donna artistes wait for the muse’s kiss whilst a girlfriend, parents or trust fund pay the bills. Working artists produce day in, day out. If you can’t hack being productive with consistency and quality whilst having just your monitor screen and hifi kit for inspiration, reviewing for a living isn’t for you. You could still contribute somewhere on occasion but even there, timely delivery is key to do right by manufacturers and publishers.
Audiophiles anonymous. It’s what got us into today’s piece. Being a bit less anonymous and more personal is how we’ll hopefully exit it. The above is far from comprehensive. Just so, it ticks off what after 20-plus years on the beat feel like ‘the’ biggies. Some of them only step in once the initial kid-in-the-candy-store period wrapped. If one writes three reviews per year, that period could be lengthy indeed like a long-distance relationship with just occasional dates to keep things fresh and adventurous. If one gets married and does fifty reviews plus assorted editorials and news posts a year, the law of repetition has other ideas. Should you have eyed a career as full-time audio scribe, perhaps now you have other ideas?
If not, more power to you, happy trails and Copland’s “Fanfare for the common man”! In the end, hifi reviewing is a job. It could be perfect for us but it’s neither rocket science, heart surgery nor philanthropy. It’s simply what we do each and every day. As such, most people in love with music listening whenever the mood strikes should keep it as a hobby. Take a break when you need it, and switch things up beyond all recognition just because. Being on the job instead changes things. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is and must be factored in for the long view on it all.
“My name is Srajan and I’m an audio reviewer.”
Now you know what comes next; and what comes after that; and that. What comes in the end I don’t know. I’m not there yet…