We are all reviewers

March 18, 2014
 by Paul McGowan

For those interested in reading some first impressions of the DirectStream DAC you can go here and read on our forums.

Reviewing a new piece of equipment is a tough job. I am glad the challenge isn’t mine to review and then publish.

I am in awe of professional audio reviewers that can change gears so quickly and give great unbiased reviews of each new piece of gear that comes their way and, even more impressive to me, remember how the others they’ve reviewed sounded and mentally compare them for their readers. After writing those words my first reaction was that I certainly do not possess those skills. But then it occurred to me I might be wrong.

I think we’re all reviewers. No, we don’t write for magazines, no we don’t place our words on paper open for criticism and discussion each and every month, but in our own way we review everything that’s important to us. And our reviews may matter more than what’s on paper, because our reviews affect our system choices.

Of course many of us read everything we can on a piece of gear that interests us. We do the homework, learn what others think, build up enough knowledge to want to give it a try. But then the ball’s in our court. We are the ones reviewing the kit in our own environment. We are the ones that “live or die” by our decisions because we choose what to keep and what to reject. And most of us compare what we review to what we have in the system as well as what we remember older kit sounded like.

I think we’re all reviewers at heart.

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16 comments on “We are all reviewers”

  1. Hello Paul

    Yes, but are we good reviewers, whose opinions are useful to others?

    I distrust those who claim to be able to compare the sound of one thing with the sound of another unless the differences are HUGE or the two products are available for direct comparison, minute by minute, hour by hour, week by week or longer. Auditory memory is poor.

    There may be some who have an unusual faculty to recall sound (perhaps like those with eidetic memory who can recall full details of images) and perhaps some of them are reviewers. You, too, may be one such. (I hope so!) The rest of us need to have two audio components side by side, preferably for weeks, before reaching conclusions.

    BW
    Peter

    1. Peter, I agree that if one is reviewing and documenting the difference between components based on the usual “sonic” buzzwords, then having both available for direct AxB comparison can be helpful.
      I think it really depends what your auditioning goal really is.
      Do you start with a check list of “terms” like timbre, tone, stage etc and after adding them all up, give an opinion based on the sum of the terms?
      Or do you sit and and let the performance and presentation flow before you and see if it creates a “connection”
      with you that is desirable. Whether it does or not one could then begin to examine more closely why or why not.
      Is the stage awesome? is the tone ok but the timbre is truncated? Maybe this sounds like reverse engineering but to me it makes more sense to begin with the bottom line and work backwards.
      In this case, memory of the previous component becomes much less important.
      If I was “comparing” two components for review or to purchase, I would always defer to the one that I connected with and that moved me. I have no problem remembering that.

  2. It’s always and ever about the music. How does a component — whatever it may be — make you react to the music? Many years ago, when I bought the CalAudio CD player and listened to my CDs with it, it was as if I had a whole new collection of music I could enjoy. That is what a new addition to a music system should do: make you want to spin your discs and listen — or tap your toes, as Ted Smith states it…

  3. I think that the difference between many of us and a “reviewer” is not whether we can or cannot hear the same things, but rather that most of us lack the command of language to convey what we hear to a wider audience.

    When I was younger I used to avidly read the reviews of Jimmy Hughes and particularly Alvin Gold in the British rag “Hi-Fi Answers”. I would then call in at a high-end store and listen to the equipment I had read about in the reviews. Invariably I would hear exactly what Jimmy or Alvin described, almost as if I had written the review myself. My takeaway from that was that I too had the quality of hearing necessary to be a reviewer.

    Over a period of time the truth dawned on me, which was that yes, I did have the quality of hearing necessary to be a reviewer, but no, I did not have the writing chops to transcribe what I heard into the right collection of words. It is not the hearing that makes for a good reviewer, but the ability to cogently and accurately describe what you are hearing. And to do so in such a way that as broad a spectrum of readers as possible can agree upon the intent and substance of your review, without necessarily agreeing with the overall assessment. By reading this paragraph over again you may glean some insights as to why that might be….

    So when my PerfectWave arrives, expect me to form a detailed opinion. I will certainly post that opinion somewhere, but it somehow won’t get across nearly half of what I want to say or how I wanted to say it.

    1. Richard will be sent one of the very first DirectStream DACS shortly, to aid in his company’s development of their Bit Perfect software (excellent software BTW). If you have a Mac and use USB, then you really should use Bit Perfect IMHO.

    2. Hey, Richard.
      Given our proximity [ I’m in Ile Perrot] we should get together for a listen at either your place or mine.
      The DS is playing in my rig as I write.
      I would love to be there when YOUR jaw drops. : >}}
      Do you still have my tel number?
      Gordon

  4. I have done some reviewing over the years both in print and on the net. And I at least in my case while I try my best to be unbiased I know that, at least for me, that’s not totally possible. So I try to minimize the bias and try to expose my biases so the reader can interpret what I wrote relative to their biases. Although the best reviewers minimize their biases awfully well how is one totally unbiased in a subjective review? And the more a reader gets to know a reviewer the easier it is to know how to read the reviewer which makes consistency from review to review especially important.

    And, of course, it isn’t the job of a reviewer to choose gear for you. That’s impossible. A reviewer’s job is to explain the product and its performance well enough to tell the reader whether it’s a product that’s colored perfectly, meaning it’s it’s colored the way he wants, whether it probably has the virtues that make it worth seriously auditioning.

  5. All reviewers are biased. I remember the great debates between East Coast and West Coast. Even the origins of this schism are related to prior conditioning – AR/KLH/Advent speakers sound more like Boston Symphony Hall and JBL/Altec speakers sound more like big bands on soundstages cutting movie soundtracks.

    Hearing is plastic. It adapts by the millisecond, minute, hour, day and it grows to understanding of sounds and acoustic environments from womb to puberty depending on the daily sonic environment. Our biological hearing processors are wired individually, and even have considerably different number of neurons and hearing abilities because of the aural stimuli during our formative years. The development of eidetic auditory memory depends on having the right conditions, which include consistent linear and non-linear acoustics and sufficient silence.

    There is a tribe in the Amazon rain forest who live in a flat alluvial plain with no rocks. There is only indirect light and the visual horizon averages two meters due to dense vegetation at ground level, 60 meters below the canopy. The only landmarks are the position of unseen tree trunks.

    And yet, they are never lost. They hunt and gather over many kilometers daily, navigating by the sound shadows and echo location off the trees. Even if they wake up away from home, they know where they are by decoding acoustic signatures that vary by tiny amounts, tens of dBs below the “noise floor”.

    Visitors to this environment are so dis-oriented by the lack of visual information they get dizzy, fall down and get nauseous to the point of regurgitation. They feel lost and uncomfortable unless they are hand-in-hand with a native guide. The natives likewise are dis-oriented if they are not surrounded by tree trunks. This is an extreme case of dependence on aural information, but it is similar to the arboreal environment that led to the emergence of our species that required us to hear in all directions simultaneously.

    I am re-counting this story as told to me by an acoustic researcher seven years ago. I can remember the conversation verbatim because I have a near-eidetic auditory memory. I have very few memories of realistic audio. For reproduction of spatial information, this has been from experimental systems with more than two channels and capture via near coincident microphone array and no added reverb. I can remember the quality of these experiences going back 45 years, starting with Michael Gerzon and Ambisonics.

    Some of my audiophile friends agree with me about ranking amplifiers and other electronics; but when it comes to recordings, speakers and rooms we usually diverge. The persons who agree with me about speakers and rooms learned to hear music and other acoustically generated sounds in a pre-industrial environments free of speakers and motors.

    This is the ultimate reviewer bias: wiring your brain according to recording studio modifications in the two channel paradigm, the spatial, temporal and inter-modulation distortions of specific speakers, the acoustic vagaries of visually oriented architecture and interior design and the background noise of the post-industrial world. Reviewers may not be swayed by size, cost or appearance, but without hearing live music as a native language or a short term absolute reference from acoustic music it is all hearsay, with as many different opinions as there are speaker models and recording engineers.

  6. I was not born into the world of the school of thought and culture of Dale Carnegie’s “I’m OK, you’re OK” politically correct, all things are of equal value, non judgmental, that’s good Johnny, try harder next time social promotion in schools, there is good in all of us values. I’m from the school of “that stinks, don’t bring it back until you get it right” way of thinking.

    I review a lot of things. I review engineering designs for mission critical applications to see if they meet their criteria. I review how problems were solved, where the solutions are strong, where they are weak, where they can fail. I review the quality of how things are manufactured and what their value is compared to their price.

    I also review sounds, all kinds of sounds. I review the sounds of musical instruments, the sounds of musical performances, the sounds of musical compositions, and the sounds of acoustic spaces I’m in. I review the sound of human voices too. Not just singing voices but spoken voices. I rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. My own voice rates a 3, not very good. I would never consider a relationship with a woman whose voice wasn’t at least 6, preferably 7 or higher. I even review the sounds of how pleasing or displeasing regional and foreign accents are.

    I also review people’s motives. By far the number one motive for going into business is to make money. Companies live or die on profits unless the owner is so wealthy he can own a business as a hobby (athletic team owners for example) or his accountant says he needs to own a tax loss. Widely read reviewers can make or break products or companies. Conversely, bad reviews can cost magazines paid advertisers as Stereo Review Magazine found out when it reviewed Monster Cable in the early 1980s. Therefore manufacturers MUST have an amicable relationship with reviewers. I on the other hand don’t. So I can review the reviewers. What qualifies someone to be a paid reviewer of audio equipment? As far as I can tell nothing except that they must be able to write well. Among the most highly regarded of them, John Atkinson has no qualifications as an engineer (his background being in chemistry and physics), he does not seem to have a lab nearly as well equipped as say CBS Technology Center or Hirsch Houck Laboratories, and in a live versus recorded demonstration he revealed that he couldn’t tell the difference in a direct comparison between a real piano an his recording of it when everyone in his audience could. In fact he didn’t even seem to understand the difference when they tried to explain it to him.

    I do give reviewers credit for one thing though, they’ve managed to reinvent the same reviews month after month, year after year, decade after decade in different words. Look at old reviews and you will see the same glowing reports of the best amplifier, speaker, phono cartridge, turntable, speaker wire or anything else in the world for that month. Better be nice to Atkinson Paul. If your equipment doesn’t make his A list or at least his B list sales might not be very good. Personally, to quote Judge Judy, I wouldn’t believe these guys if their tongues came notarized.

    1. Of course the rave reviews are used again and again and again. Once you give one item the ‘coming of christ’ award you’ve essentially run out of superlatives and boxed your self in a corner when the next ‘better’ product comes down the pike which, of course, it will.

      I recall when Gordon Holt implied in a review that the Fulton J(stood for junior by the way) was almost perfect. I warned him not to do it because there’s always something improved down the road. He didn’t listen. But, thankfully, Gordon was not afraid of pulling his foot out of his mouth and admitting in print he had goofed. That was one of the things that made him special. He wasn’t afraid of making mistakes and then admitting to himself and hie readers what he had done.

      1. Did he offer to pay compensation to the people for the financial loss they incurred buying that product on his recommendation and then realizing it was a mistake?

        1. The review wasn’t a mistake exactly. The speaker was one of the very best at the time. It’s just that he shouldn’t have suggested it couldn’t be significantly bettered in the future.

  7. Enjoyed reading these posts. My take may be different, for I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag.

    My frequent typose (sic) attest to the fact. And my eyesight ain’t getting any better. Or is it “isn’t?”

    Reviewers, as all human beans (sic) come in all shapes and sizes and political sentiments. Many are fat.

    World views colour (sic) their writing. Some of these bias their tubes without bias.

    Frequent reviews do not prove anything about qualifications or competence; as working in engineering in another realm, say microwave, won’t either. I’d go into it further, for examples audio designers make terrible reviewers, for you don’t know bias until you speak to an objective audio designer!

    Qualifications help, but are not evidence of anything but the existence of a diploma, often the schooling on which it was awarded having nothing to do with the “expertise.” Transgender studies for example. Or race studies, which prepares the graduate for a career in nuclear physics or burger flipping, the last can teach a lot about physics and gravity.

    The least important qualifications for an audio reviewer are:

    1. Claims of expertise.
    2. Engineering diploma, especially in electrical engineering or physics: more on that later
    3. Being overopinionated and undereducated in music
    4. Having purchased $2 million worth of boat anchors during the last year
    5. Having spent three lifetimes and 2 reincarnations in the high end
    6. Having worked as an audio salesman
    7. Having built electronic components
    8. Having an understanding wife
    9. Being able to write well
    10. Having experience
    11. Playing instruments
    12. Building speakers in the shape of a bull’s gonads

    The most important qualifications are:

    1- Being hung
    2-12 being musically sensitive.

    No.1 I can only explain in the context of bringing home dates who will not believe their ears, but after a few glasses of vine in a very stuffy darkened room will likely open a gift that cannot be discussed in polite company. In the case you can’t bring home dates however, you might be able to bring a few figs and nuts.

    I’d sum it up here, for one’s ability to hear musical nuance and quality is key and his being able to write down, however poorly worded, what he hears, as long as the intellectually-challenged can understand most of it.

    Being reliable about what the reviewer hears, at least on occasion, is helpful to keep the man’s credibility intact.

    If one’s creds are not intact after a few years in the game, it doesn’t matter. No one’s creds remain intact after a few years in any business, even if you can keep your doctors.

    If perchance the reviewer has significant experience with live music, it can help; but if not, that can help, for the reviewer can make up anything from imagination, provided he has some. It the reviewer has never heard the sound of live music, the car radio as reference will do.

    Eating and having sex while reviewing is permissible on occasion as long as the reviewer does not make a habit of it. As long as the reviewer is musically sensitive that is. And is hung.

    I think these should suffice, coming from a fellow who knows (so he claims); and as you all can see, reviewing is a complex, almost superhuman task that should only be indulged in by the severely deluded for the severely deluded.

    This scribe is not one, obviously he left the profession for a more lucrative career: sex slave trafficking.

    Of course, the radio always stays on, especially during heavy traffic.

  8. Thank you so much, Vinush. I have known for 40 years that the hearing model used to design audio was deficient, and the Freeman research is the first new approach since Manfred Schroeder’s work on phase response of hearing in the ’60s.

    Here are two more blurbs:

    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/hearing-1010.html

    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/hearing-mechanism-1110.html

    Note the references to extended time resolution: “faster than neurons” and “millions of cycles per second”.

    They discovered a transparent membrane roughly 2 microliters in size that adds another dimension of hearing, vastly increasing the information content beyond the Nyquist criterion for two sets of scalar frequencies as in conventional information theoretic views of hearing. Encoding time at microsecond levels yields potentially 25 times the information, and correlating orthogonal waves multiplies it even more.

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