True, Truer, Truest: Reviewers

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."—Laurie Anderson

And writing about audio components is an even harder trick to successfully pull off. What is it that makes some writers competent to write authoritatively about hi-fi products, while others waffle in a morass of non-communication?

In his letter on affirmative action in this month's "Letters," Carl Hoefer states that "reviewers can be trained, not just plucked full-grown from the population." While I don't disagree with his statement—in fact, such "training" is a major part of my responsibility as this magazine's Editor—it just ain't that easy, Mr. Hoefer. I'm always on the lookout for new reviewers, and a steady stream of manuscripts keeps my "In" basket full. But hardly any would-be writers have what I look for in a reviewer.

First, and most important, would-be equipment reviewers must be primarily motivated by a love of music. Not only must they have more than a nodding acquaintance with live music—as listener, performer, or recordist—but reproduced music must also play an important role in their lives. If there's one thing that ties this magazine's motley mass of reviewers together, it's that they have large collections of recorded music. (Note that I don't regard people's tastes in music as being important. The music that turns someone on is the music they should use to reach accurate value judgments.)

Second, but almost equally as important, I look for evidence that the writer doesn't have a problem in communicating what he or she feels to be the truth. If, for whatever reason, you shrink from the consequences of having an opinion—if you feel, perhaps, that you'll be judged adversely by telling the truth, or that the political consequences will be too much for you to handle—then you don't belong at Stereophile. I tell my writers to tell the truth about how the components they review sound in their systems. As long as they do so, the magazine will handle any consequences—political, legal, or otherwise.

I witnessed an example of this at the recent Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I was sitting next to a writer for another magazine, listening to a new loudspeaker. I thought the speaker needed a lot more work to make it ready for prime time; so did the other Stereophile writers who heard it. I was astonished, therefore, to hear the other writer spontaneously congratulate the manufacturer on the new design's sound. I was so surprised, in fact, that I later asked him what it was about the speaker's sound that he liked so much. His reply was that "it sucked," but he liked the manufacturer personally and didn't want to rain on his parade—a reply that disqualified him from ever contributing to Stereophile.

Note that I am not saying that I encourage writers for my magazine to, uninvited, be brutally honest to the exhibitors at Shows. But to tell a manufacturer the opposite of what you perceive is to do him no favors. Instead, it sets him up for a fall when the still-flawed product goes to dealers and reviewers.

Third, and just as important, prospective reviewers must be able to describe sound quality in terms that are transportable and repeatable. When I visit possible writers to listen with them, or just hang out with writers for other magazines, I generally let them offer their opinions on what we're listening to. Almost always, the adjectives they use describe what I hear. But occasionally, I'm surprised to find that their descriptions of sound quality are completely at odds with my own. Loudspeakers that I find bright or lean are described as being laid-back or full-bodied. Speakers with a lack of low-frequency extension are described as sounding too bass-heavy.

I have no idea why there should be such perceptual dissonance, other than to suggest that not all audiophiles are in touch with what their own senses tell them. Again, however, such writers don't belong at this magazine.

Finally, it would seem to go without saying that would-be writers should be able to express themselves in written English. If, after reading this, you still think you should be reviewing components for Stereophile, go for it! Write a review of a piece of equipment with which you are very familiar and send it to me via E-Mail or Snail Mail. I promise I'll read it.—John Atkinson