It's Only Hi-Fi!

When I taught a recording engineering program at a California college, one of my first responsibilities to new students was to clarify for them what recording engineering was really about. Many of them entered the program with the impression that recording was nonstop glamor, with a significant part of the job devoted to partying with their favorite rock bands. It was my job to tell them the bad news: Recording was more about lying on your back underneath a recording console on a dirty studio floor with hot solder dripping on your face.

So it is with reviewing high-end audio products. Judging from the letters we receive, many readers have a distorted impression of the review process and, by extension, of reviewers themselves. This misconception of what we do and who we are extends to both the mechanics of conducting a review and how reviewers regard their roles in high-end audio.

First the nuts and bolts. The common image is of the reviewer sitting in a comfortable chair, glass of wine in hand, cavalierly handing down absolute judgments from on high. This guru wields power purely to satisfy his inflated ego.

In reality, reviewing is grunt work—physically and intellectually. Reviewing is crawling on hands and knees behind equipment racks. It is hauling Krell power amplifiers up the Stereophile office stairs to the test lab. It is sorting through a dark basement full of hundreds of dirty, similar-looking, empty cardboard boxes for the one you need. Producing a review entails a considerable amount of very unglamorous schlepping.

The intellectual grunt work is sitting in front of a blank computer screen searching agonizingly for the right combination of words to express your thoughts. Being a full-time reviewer is living with the realization that your livelihood depends on producing—every month—ten to twenty thousand words you're not afraid to share with the world. Moreover, the reviewer's listening skills and value judgments are put on the line with every review. Being right about a product is a huge responsibility—to the reader, to the product, and yes, to one's ability to make mortgage payments—and requires enormous care and deliberation. Clearly, this reality is a far cry from the fantasy of the reviewer as one who merely sits in judgment of products brought before him.

Now that I've provided a more realistic perspective on reviewing, I'd like to do the same for the reviewer. The writers of some of the letters we receive have the unhealthy impression that we somehow consider ourselves gurus. These letter writers either hold misconceptions about us or believe we carry delusions about ourselves.

For example, a recent letter I received read, in part, "Yes, Harley, too, is human: we can't rely on him as a Prophet. I genuinely hope that he harbored no such delusion, though the jury is still deliberating this." The letter was entitled "Harley Falls to Earth"—watch out for letters with titles!—and exemplifies both misconceptions: that the reviewer is a guru (if I fell to earth, where had I been?), and that reviewers do consider themselves gurus ("I genuinely hope he harbored no such delusion...").

Reviewers don't take themselves as seriously as this letter writer takes us, nor as seriously as the letter writer thinks we take ourselves. We're average Joes who happen to listen to hi-fi components and write about them for a living—period. Although my writing style is formal, deliberate, and considered, there is a difference between taking one's work seriously and having an exalted view of oneself. We evaluate hi-fi products and report our impressions in print—nothing more. Any projection beyond that is hogwash (footnote 1).

A product review is informed opinion, not some final judgment about which products you should like and purchase and which you shouldn't. Reviews should be a guide to making a short list of components worth the time and trouble to audition. Listen for yourself and compare our descriptions to what you hear. You decide which products are good and which aren't. Don't exalt a reviewer's opinion to a status it doesn't deserve.

Moreover, Stereophile's purpose isn't to dictate mass opinion. Instead, our role is that of a guidepost at the crossroads. The reader standing at these crossroads can go in many directions; the reviews point toward the path our experience suggests is the most fruitful. We've been down those roads and can share our experiences there. But searching the path's side roads and back trails to discover your own musical satisfaction is up to you. It is much more gratifying to assemble a system of components you've chosen from personal listening experience than to merely pick products from each category in a recommended-components list.

We do want to hear from readers with legitimate questions about a review's conclusion or methodology. Reviewers need to have their values questioned and assumptions challenged—it's part of the job. But those who want to put up—or tear down—some ivory tower of their own making should remember this:

It's only hi-fi.

Footnote 1: John Atkinson holds as a matter of principle that to be a Stereophile reviewer, one cannot want to be a reviewer. According to JA's Catch-22, anyone who sets out to be a reviewer is likely ego-driven and thus automatically disqualified. How's that for delicious irony?