Different Strokes

In last month's "As We See It," I examined how I decide upon ratings in Stereophile's biannual "Recommended Components" listing. This leads me to talk about who writes our equipment reports. Stereophile currently has a team of 16 active reviewers. The core are professional: J. Gordon Holt, Robert Harley, Thomas J. Norton, Corey Greenberg, and Martin Colloms. The others—Sam Tellig, Jack English, Robert Deutsch, Don Scott, Jonathan Scull, Larry Greenhill, Dick Olsher, Guy Lemcoe, Lewis Lipnick, and Steven Stone—may be enthusiastic amateurs, but they are amateurs only in the sense that they don't earn their livings from writing. I'm the team's catcher, both calling the game and keeping the stray balls from getting away. Why, then, is it this cast of characters (footnote 1) who gets to cast judgments in stone in my magazine?

It is not that Stereophile's reviewers boast exquisite hearing compared with ordinary people; while their hearing is good, each has a certain mix of innate talents and learned abilities that enables him to accurately and reliably describe what he hears.

First, he or she must have an abiding love for music—I have no time for the cynical or the world-weary. One of the first questions I ask of would-be reviewers is, "How big is your record collection?" I've found the answer to be a reliable litmus test. I see no point in anyone spending large sums of money on hi-fi equipment unless music plays a significant role in their life. True, there will always be someone with a $25,000 system on which he (it's always a he, isn't it?) plays five audiophile-approved recordings. But music plays a major role in the very different lives of all of Stereophile's writers, every one of whom has a large collection of recordings.

I'm not concerned with a writer's tastes in music—my responsibility as editor is not to bully my writers into conforming to some arbitrary policy regarding what music they listen to. Instead, I expect them to use source material—whether it be Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Ralph Vaughan Williams—that enables them to correctly describe sound quality.

Second, the would-be writer should be informed about sound reproduction. How has this person assembled a musically satisfying system and listening room? Has she avoided the obvious and not-so-obvious pitfalls? There is so much to learn that anyone wanting to write reviews must have taken the first steps to knowledge without waiting for a specific commission. Writers must be involved in a continuing process of self-education; I feel it essential that this process be already under way before someone contacts me.

Third, the writer should already be able to write clear, concise English, and effectively communicate what it is they hear and appreciate. Writing ability is unfortunately an innate, not a learned skill, though the physical act of writing can do wonders to help someone organize her thoughts. (A critic was once asked what he thought of something new. "I don't know—I haven't written about it yet," he replied.)

Finally, is the writer prepared to work with, rather than against, the magazine's other writers and editors? I don't mean by this that they should subjugate their opinions to my own. Far from it. What my writers write need not conform at all with my opinions and beliefs. I will hire anyone who can justify what they have written. But if a writer is not prepared to grow as an audiophile and as a writer, then I have no time for him. I earn my living from my magazine; I have professional standards of conduct; I put my neck on the line with each new issue (footnote 2). Someone who writes for Stereophile cannot remain a dilettante.

In one area I accept no compromise. As laid down by J. Gordon Holt when he founded Stereophile in 1962, our reviews are based upon how a component sounds. (While we believe that good measured performance is important, we are committed to the view that this is subsidiary to good sound.) I therefore demand from my writers that their reviews accurately reflect the results of their auditioning so that readers, listening to the same components under the same conditions, will share the same experience.

Stereophile's reviewers are therefore instructed to make available to readers all the details of equipment and recordings used in their evaluations so that their prejudices, tastes, methodologies, and biases are laid out for inspection.

It bears repeating that reviews in any magazine, not just in Stereophile, are not to be blindly followed as received opinion. Rather, they are offered as informed opinion to be used in conjunction with a reader's own feelings and experience to reach a buying decision. It is essential for readers to develop "reviewer filters" so that they will be able to interpret whether the performance of a component under test aligns with their own needs. For example, a writer who feels that an accurate midrange is the most important parameter of performance will rank components accordingly. However, if you feel that this is irrelevant to your musical enjoyment, or subsidiary to powerful, extended bass, you will be making a big mistake by following this writer's rankings as gospel and purchasing Quad ESL-63s rather than NHT 3.3s.

Ultimately, it's up to you to audition the components Stereophile recommends to find out which best meets your needs. We can lead you into the fairground, but it's your quarter, and your decision which pony to ride.

Footnote 1: As a matter of policy, I do not approach established reviewers for other magazines to ask if they would like to write for Stereophile, though I'm always receptive if they approach me.

Footnote 2: A publishing maxim: No matter who or what you are, you're only as good as your most recent issue.