Listening #151

Before hitting the Refresh key on last month's column, which was dedicated to the challenges one encounters when evaluating audio cables and other accessories, I'd like to share with you a true story: a cautionary tale, as it were, about the hazards of writing reviews for a living.

Seven or eight years ago, just as spring was returning to upstate New York, I made my annual trek to Montreal for Salon Son et Image: one of my favorite audio shows for a number of reasons, not the least being the fact that I can travel there by train.

My time at SSI went well, until the morning I visited a room sponsored by a new company that specialized in cables and accessories. The principals of the company were intelligent, friendly people with good taste in music, interesting if fanciful ideas about playback technology, and boundless enthusiasm for domestic audio. We got along well, I thought the sound in their room was okay, and I expressed interest in reviewing one of their products. But when the time came for me to leave, these two men—I'll call them Mr. X and Mr. Y—were crestfallen. They all but begged me to return to their demonstration before the end of the show, so I could listen some more: an invitation I shrugged off with a vague "I'll try, but . . ."

I pause to explain the algebra of show coverage. There are three unignorable variables: the number of writers covering the show for a given media outlet; the number of exhibits/demonstration rooms at the show; and the number of minutes during which the show is open. To determine the amount of time a reporter can afford to spend with a single exhibitor, one need only divide the total number of show minutes by the number of exhibits for which each reporter is responsible, itself a quotient arrived at by dividing the number of exhibits by the number of reporters. Nothing could be simpler.

Let's say a show is open for three days—a total of 24 hours, or 1440 minutes—and that it comprises 120 individual exhibits. And let's say you're one of two people being paid to cover the show. Thus, you can spend a maximum of 24 minutes at each exhibit—although, in fact, the most time you can afford to spend at each stop is considerably less, given travel time between rooms, bathroom stops, and the like; the real answer is probably 20 minutes, max. Bear in mind, too, that most audio-show demonstration systems comprise products from more than one manufacturer, each of whom contributed to paying for their exhibit space, and all of whom desire publicity.

My visit to the room of Mr. X and Mr. Y lasted about a half hour, during which time no other visitors dropped in—although I believe their door remained open while I was there. (While it's not uncommon for exhibitors to keep their doors closed during show hours, it's also not unheard-of for exhibitors to respond to the arrival of The Press by locking said door—to prevent the hoi-polloi from diluting the intensity of their presentation, I suppose. That sort of behavior makes my flesh crawl, especially since it also serves to impede my exit.) After I left the room, I made my way down the hotel corridor, intent on visiting the scores of other rooms I was obliged to cover that day.

I was three or four stops down the line when I exited a closed-door demonstration, only to find Mr. X waiting for me outside the door. He accosted me at once, beginning with, "There's something I forgot to tell you," and ending with, "I hope you'll make it back soon." The stuff in the middle could have been a description of an audio cable, an invitation to join the Church of Scientology, or a recipe for Spanish rice; it didn't matter, because I was seriously creeped out and, as a consequence, just as seriously determined not to revisit his room in this lifetime. I extricated myself as politely as possible and moved on.

About an hour later, I exited another demonstration, only to find Mr. X and Mr. Y waiting for me outside the door. One of them—I forget which—smiled nervously, and made a remark to the effect of, "You probably think we're stalking you." I agreed, with no sign of good cheer, that he had summed up my thoughts with rare accuracy. I stated, flatly, that I had no time to speak with them, and turned and walked away, to the sounds of their protests. Skipping the next few exhibit rooms, I picked up my pace and melted into the crowd of attendees in the corridor, intending to arrive at the show's farthest reaches and then work my way backward.

At least twice more that day, I saw Mr. X hovering within a few yards of whatever room I was entering or exiting; on one of those occasions he noticed me noticing him and gave a blank, wan, unsmiling wave—strange behavior for someone who, I presumed, had paid good money for an exhibition room of his own, and who should have stayed the hell in it. Then I remembered something Mr. X and Mr. Y had said to me when I visited their room: While making small talk just prior to leaving their room, I asked if the show was proving successful for them and their business; they replied, enthusiastically and in perfect accord with one another, that they now felt as though they could pack up and go home early. Now that they'd been visited by a Stereophile writer, it was mission accomplished Mr. X and Mr. Y.

I left the show venue on Sunday, the last day of Salon Son et Image, and traveled through the Underground City on my way from Place Bonaventure to Montreal's Central Station. Although I arrived well ahead of time, I nevertheless got right in line at the appointed Amtrak departure gate, in the hope of getting a good seat. And here's the really unsettling part of the story.

When I got in line for my train, I stooped to tie my shoelaces—and looked up just in time to see Mr. X, without luggage or even a coat, briskly striding through the station's main concourse, craning his head this way and that. I quietly prayed to God, the Mother of God, and all the saints on the calendar that I might avoid detection. My prayers were answered.

Veteran employees of UPS have a saying: Don't make me hate your parcel. By this they mean: Don't tie string around it, don't cover it with wrapping paper, don't plaster it with Hello Kitty or Jesus stickers, don't draw stick-figures of your family on it, don't write the address using the Cyrillic alphabet. That sort of thing. Although I always have and always will make every effort to approach each review sample in a neutral and open-minded way, my own silent mantra has now become: Don't make me hate your product.

Mr. X and Mr. Y's product arrived at my home later that year. It acquitted itself nicely but not exceptionally well. I expressed those conclusions in as few words as possible, and the company ultimately complained that they received far fewer column inches than they had expected—an observation I went out of my way to ignore. The experience didn't leave me angry or even regretful; just a little bit wiser with regard to the value of time, and how not to waste it.

And that is why I'm wary of being hounded for reviews by desperate, hungry cable startups.

EMT 997 tonearm: Updating an update
Remarkably, it has been 10 years since the German manufacturer EMT reissued their classic 997 "banana" tonearm of the 1970s. And now, in the same manner that Darryl Jones has been the Rolling Stones' bassist for almost as long as Bill Wyman held the job—a mind-blowing fact if ever there was one—the day draws near when the EMT 997 reissue will have been on the market longer than the original was. Where has the time gone?

The 997 tonearm was introduced in 1974 as a companion for the then-well-established EMT 927 broadcast turntable, whose bigger-than-average (17") platter requires the use of a longer-than-average tonearm. Until that time, most 927s were bundled with Ortofon's RF-297 arm, which has a spindle-to-pivot distance of 297mm; the new EMT 997 was of similar length but slightly different geometry—a key to which is the armtube's position alongside, rather than coincident with, the pivot center—and it offered a spring-actuated dynamic tracking-force mechanism that was reliably well calibrated. EMT, of course, might add that the 997 was a better-made product, with better wiring, higher-quality bearings, and slightly lower effective mass than earlier transcription-length arms—qualities that, in years to come, would endear the 997 to domestic-audio enthusiasts with a taste for vintage gear.


Early in this century, Keith Aschenbrenner, of the design and distribution firm Auditorium 23, began to gather support for returning the 997 tonearm to production. He won approval from the newly streamlined EMT corporation—now situated in Mahlberg, Germany—and coordinated the efforts to locate the original production tools and dies, and to coax from retirement EMT's Rudi Glaser, whose help was needed in training new tonearm builders. The goal was to make the current-generation EMT 997 exactly like the original in every way, and Aschenbrenner and EMT succeeded to an extent that eludes most people who are called to the profession of reissuing vintage gear; the only thing different about the new EMT 997 tonearm ($5250) is its availability with the nearly universal SME (or international) configuration of headshell contact pins, alongside the version that's configured for use only with vintage EMT pickups.

For a $5000-plus tonearm whose appeal is limited mostly to vintage-audio enthusiasts, the new 997 appears to have sold well (I bought mine in 2008). But in time, the people who revived the EMT began to consider improving it—a scary word to anyone, myself included, who cringes to see the best of the old painted over with the most banal of the new. In domestic audio, that usually means designer capacitors, designer resistors, MDF instead of plywood, silver-plated wire, enormous, jewelry-like connectors, and lots and lots of silicon (footnote 1).

I needn't have worried. According to Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports, which distributes EMT products in the US and Canada (footnote 2), current production of the 997 reflects two major improvements, one cosmetic, the other structural. With regard to the former, it turns out that, on the armtubes of early reissue samples, the paint was visibly stressed at the points where the tube had been bent into shape. Current samples are said to be formed and finished more carefully. The second, structural refinement pertains to the straight-sided, bell-shaped housing that covers and supports the arm's downforce mechanism and vertical bearings. In original EMT 997s and early reissue samples, that part was stamped out of aluminum alloy. But because the vertical bearings are tensioned against this part—which also holds in place one end of the downforce spring—the benefits of a stronger material and a more precise fit are apparent. Thus, on current-production arms, the stamped-alloy housing is replaced by one CNC-machined from brass.


Last year, I received from Tone Imports a new sample of the EMT 997 that incorporated both refinements. My 2008 sample must have been free from the bending and finishing flaws described by Halpern—it and the new one looked equally fine to me. (Not that I'm a terribly good judge. Some people have tin ears; I have a tin eye.) As for the change from stamped alloy to machined brass for the bearing housing—which was visibly apparent only after it had been pointed out to me—there was no doubt that the bearings on the new sample were even better adjusted than those on the one I'd bought: The vertical bearings on the newest 997 had less play—in fact, none that I could detect—with no signs of added friction. If anything, the newest arm, when set for zero downforce and perfect balance, was even quicker in returning to its resting position after deflection. And after several months of harder-than-average use—as a reviewer, I change pickup heads and counterweights far more often than would the average 997 owner—the bearings remain in perfect condition.

Footnote 1: To the mainstream-media technology writers who address the domestic-audio market only annually, I imagine the only way to improve a vintage tonearm would be to conceal within it a miniature analog-to-digital converter—whose 44.1kHz performance would, I'm sure, be indistinguishable from the 44.1kHz performance of anything else.

Footnote 2: EMT Studiotechnik, Industriestrasse 25, 77972 Mahlberg, Germany. Tel: (49) (0)7825-879-47-0. Fax: (49) (0)7825-879-47-15. Web: US distributor: Tone Imports, 20 Continental Avenue, Suite 5H, Forest Hills, NY 11375. Tel: (646) 425-7800. Web:


HammerSandwich's picture

Sorry to say, Art, but I believe it came from you.

In your first Pono post, you wrote, "The only way to judge Pono or any other audio product is to listen to it the way you normally enjoy music: at leisure, in comfort, and with abundant time to come to an informed decision. A/B testing is anathema to the enjoyment of music, and will tell you nothing." You really don't see that readers might take that as an absolutist stance? And, while you follow this with a judge-for-yourself comment, that concerns the personal-value equation, not the how-to-listen aspect.

Regardless, I believe a lot of the anger arises in response to the rise in vocal science deniers. There's no shortage of antis (insert your choice of evolution, AGW, vaccination, etc.), and the dialogue between them & their pro counterparts is often more ad hominem than substantive.

John Atkinson's picture
HammerSandwich wrote:
I believe a lot of the anger arises in response to the rise in vocal science deniers.

Possibly so. Nevertheless, the blind tests promoted by the believers in science are nothing more than junk science—poorly designed, poorly implemented, and poorly performed, the results of which mean nothing.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Actually I've found that the most and worst personal attacks are made against skeptics of the corporate machine. "Conspiracy Theorist" is a very common attack that carries absolutely no information, yet the True Believers in Science are quick to use it to bash any disbelievers. Injecting animal and insect DNA into one's body may seem to be always good science to you, yet there is ample room for skepticism. Believing that what you cannot measure cannot be heard is equally common, and yet it violates the logic of absence of evidence etc.

Venere 2's picture

"Injecting animal and insect DNA into one's body may seem to be always good science to you, yet there is ample room for skepticism."

I have no idea what you're going on about Dale. But, when Jeff Goldblum injected that insect DNA into himself in 1985, he made a pretty good man-fly! Stop being so skeptical.

dalethorn's picture

"I have no idea what ....." -- well, then that's the time to start thinking and NOT press that 'Post' button.

Venere 2's picture

LOOK who's talking!

Glass houses Dale, glass houses.

jhanken's picture

I had a similar experience not long ago. I was on a forum thread dedicated to a particular well-known amplifier, I somewhat naively voiced my opinion that i was disappointed by the sound quality as compared to my existing amplifier. I unwittingly launched a 10 page flame war about A/B testing, and how if I didn't employ such and such tools for measurement I was being disingenuous, and that I couldn't possibly have identified the maligned amp in a blind test if it was functioning properly. My thought was, "what possible genuine interest could you people have in this forum if you believe all amps sound the same?" I guess some people just like to fight.

Mikeymort's picture

I'm your age Art, and I became aware in my 20's that what I desired in an audio system was the ability to listen to a system for hours on end without listening fatigue. A/B comparisons are helpful, but not as important as living with a piece of equipment for a few days (or weeks). This is especially true with speakers. I initially went "all in" when compact discs were introduced, but soon realized that after a disc or two, I wanted to quit listening and rest my ears. As digital playback has improved, so has the amount of time I spend listening to it.'s picture

And, as I have posted and/or responded MANY times in audio forums over the years, "how do you measure musical enjoyment?"

That question is never answered by any member of the Flat Earth Society or the Subcommittee For Double Blind Testing.

Venere 2's picture

Come on Art! Who were the two dudes that stalked you at SSI 7-8 years ago? Which company? I have looked over your reviews from the period 7-8 years ago, and there are very few possibilities.

You can't tell that story without spilling the beans :-)

Art Dudley's picture

Hi Venere 2: Being skittish about skirmishes (and lawsuits), I can't name the stalkers—but I assure you there are hints in one of my Listening columns from 2009. (I swear, this is not a an attempt to stimulate back-issue sales.) BTW, within the past couple of weeks an industry friend called me and said, "It was [name] and [name], wasn't it!" Yup: He had gotten it right. In any event, thanks for reading my column.