The Reviewer's Art

How many times have I asked myself what the purpose of music is? And what music really is, and what exactly I am trying to convey. What feelings? What ideas? How can I explain something that I myself cannot fathom?—Gabriel Fauré, letter to his wife, August 31, 1903

In writing reviews for Stereophile, I face a challenge. Whether I'm evaluating an audio component, a recording, or a live performance, I'm confronted by the fact that, when all is said and done, no one fully understands why or how the sound of a particular component, composition, or artist can affect us as powerfully as so many of them do. How and why music and sound moves us remains, fundamentally, a mystery.

I believe that what reviewers must do is communicate the mysteries that music, and the equipment we often hear it through, can reveal. Our words must allow those mysteries to emerge in whatever ways they will, so that our readers are touched by both the magic of music and the genius that allows its power and message to touch us deeply.

But can a mystery be quantified? It would seem to be a contradiction in terms. In the case of equipment reviews, isn't almost every equipment review published in Stereophile accompanied by John Atkinson's measurements? Don't the program and liner notes written to accompany performances and recordings of complex works of music often explain their key changes, harmonic and rhythmic patterns, and basic structures, and provide reference points for what people are about to hear?

Well, yes. But measurements of equipment and analyses of compositions can reveal only so much. After looking at every measurement, and examining every key change and dynamic marking, even the most technically adroit among us can extrapolate, at best, only an approximation of how something will actually sound. To pretend otherwise is to deny music's essential mystery: its impact is far greater than anything our analysis of it can reveal.

Given the essential mystery that is the heart of the musical experience, all reviewers or critics worth reading find their own ways into and through that mystery, then share with their readers whatever personal revelations come to them. Those journeys are the tales they have to tell.

In his video interview with Sean Casey, of loudspeaker maker Zu Audio, at the 2017 Los Angeles Audio Show, John Atkinson shared some of his thoughts about how to convey such revelations when reviewing equipment:

"You can't just say 'I like it' or 'I don't like it'—that's semantically void language. You have to ask, "What is the designer trying to achieve? What are their goals?" Then you look at the design, listen to it—measure it, in my case—and ask how close the designer has got to achieving what they want to do. Only then can you step back and ask, 'How do those goals add up in an overall context in the world of audio?'

"If the designer only concentrates on one thing, have they forgotten everything else? My colleague Tom Norton calls it 'designer tunnel vision'—when they maximize efficiency, or flat response, or dispersion, and they forget that something else is terribly wrong.

"The reviewer must judge everything in a total context. Are the designer's goals valid? Are they achievable? Does achieving those goals add up to something that has validity?

"Finally, the reviewer has to communicate all that to the reader. What I try to do in my reviews, by analogy, is to invite the reader to my home to hear music that demonstrates what the equipment does. The idea is, by the end of the review, all the readers have, in effect, visited me, listened to something, and gone away understanding what I'm describing. But it's not easy."

As we reviewers tell our stories, we must remain aware that what each of us values as sacred may differ from what others value as sacred. If beauty is in the ears of the beholder, then perhaps the best a critic or reviewer can do is choose words and images that enable readers to hear the component through the critic's ears. If we can give readers a sense of what we value in sound and what touches us in music, as they become familiar with our writing and worldview, they may be able to find in our descriptors something that suggests what may touch them as deeply as it has touched us.

One marker of critical success is when a reviewer empowers readers to make educated assessments on their own. A way to do this is to first establish what "musical performance" means, then perform comparisons that help establish relative critical standards of performance. An example: We can assess whether or not a DAC that lists for $200 (eg, AudioQuest's DragonFly Red) can deliver musically rewarding sound quality. If it can, how can readers expect its sound to differ from a DAC that costs over 500 times as much (eg, dCS's four-box Vivaldi, or an MSB Select with all the trimmings)? Can two products, one at each extreme of the price spectrum, both deliver satisfaction? If so, how do reviewers find language that conveys the relative worths of such very different products, while acknowledging that worth ultimately resides in the ears, minds, and heart of the beholder?

Heady questions. As JA said, it's not easy.—Jason Victor Serinus

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

Just thinking after seeing the photo and the title of the column...

How would you say listening with glasses on differs from glasses off?

Eyeglasses can vibrate, they have a resonant frequency, they have surfaces we put right in front of our faces, etc...

I listen with glasses off, with no chair back at head level.

Also interesting - listening to a Hi Fi 'sounds different' than listening to the same sounds with an 'appropriate' source of visual cues. We actually hear things differently with different sight cues!

Thanks for the interesting "As We See It."

As we see it affects how we hear it!

Kal Rubinson's picture

Is that how you listen to live music as well?

Anton's picture

It's tough to find live shows with wingback seating!

;-D

Even if one were to listen while wearing glasses, there'd be frame to frame variability.

Also, no hat.

_

When I listen to live music, I tend to be sitting with other people, which is anathema to audiophiles!

(Audiophile joke.)

Last year, our audiophile club had an outdoor vs. indoor listening session which was quite fun.

Interestingly, outdoor listening produced larger perceived 'images.'

At a building I used to work in, the superintendent was an audiophile and he had built a pair of speakers that were mounted on the building's outdoor wall facing the parking lot, about 30 feet up, and facing somewhat 'in' and slightly 'down.' It was awesome. I will never forget one night when we played Kind of Blue when the area was quiet and empty and what a gorgeous experience it was.

Herb Reichert's picture

with candles
glasses off
shoes off
incense

Anton's picture

I don't incense, but there is often the fine perfume of a glass of wine in close proximity!

Venere's picture

you know he was talking about listening to music, right?

Anton's picture

The "shoes off" part is what gives it away.

Glotz's picture

I do find that glasses have a tendency to reflect the center image of vocals and instruments with fussy speakers like Magneplanars. High-backed sofas and chairs also absorb or reflect in an undesirable way.

I think the best way to verify what one hears is by consensus. One opinion or subjective review is just that... If many hear and report, there are truths that come to the fore that I see as 'objective'.

tonykaz's picture

music and "The Teaching Company" are constant companions.

At home, with my big Sennhieser System, I can become an Addict

On the Road, with a nice player & little in-ears, there is no loneliness

I'll be buried with Lang Lang playing

Music is a lifetime friend & an endless supply of dopamine.

My little Etymotics shut-out the "maniacal" World

Music creates a paradisiacal environment.

"Thank God for the Radio" the Kindels c.1986

"Thank God for Music",

my whole lifetime,

Tony in Michigan

Richard Schram's picture

There's some basis to support Kal, Herb and others who prefer to listen without eyeglasses. I had the honor of chatting with Jake Turner between flights at the Brussels airport in the mid '70s. He asserted that not wearing eyeglasses is essential for the full musical experience because the compression/rarefaction of sound is also sensed by the corneas of our eyes. The corneas have the highest density of nerves making them exquisitely sensitive to pressure (and if abraded, intense pain). Jake Turner was a great audio engineer who made notable contributions to the advancement of sound reproduction. It's worth looking up his accomplishments with electostatic headphones and speakers after Koss purchased Acoustat.

ok's picture

Let me look on you with my own eyes..

Kal Rubinson's picture

Hey, I never said that I preferred to listen with my glasses off. I was trying to make the point that, if you listen with your glasses on at live events (as I do), taking them off for home listening is illogical.

Knowing a bit about corneal sensitivity and its compliant mounting, I'd like the protection from any sound energy that might stimulate such sensation.

ok's picture

Some wear eyeglasses during sex.
Sex is a fun substitute of masturbation.
Masturbation is a poor substitute of audition.
Why wearing eyeglasses during serious audition?

rschryer's picture

Wait, what...?

rt66indierock's picture

I want protection from sound energy hitting my eyes as well.

Ortofan's picture

... listen with eyes open rather than eyes closed?

Allen Fant's picture

Very deep meditations- JVS
Keep writing and Happy Listening!

tonykaz's picture

when I was in the Audio Business, I realized that people listen with their eyes.

First they read a positive TAS Review, then they buy what they've read about and finally listen as they're friends audition this latest "important" upgrade to see if the new "thing" is as good as ole HP claimed. It usually wasn't, oh-well. The TAS were such bull-shitters compared to our Tyll & Herb.R of Stereophile who take the time to put the piece into "their" vast context of experiences.

On this matter of eyes & ears, how many of us have the "Earned Confidence" of someone like Bob Katz?
Can we believe our ears?
I discovered that I couldn't until I had the Univ.of Michigan's Audiologists adjust my audio gear to perform in harmony with my personal hearing response curves.

Another factor is people's "Sacreds". As a Salon, I ran into this all the time: Only tubes sound good! is an everyday example.

There seems to be plenty of Sacreds, vinyl audio folks are chuck full of em. Headphones have a few: Balanced vs. single ended is a darn good example. It should be obvious that single ended has greater potential for being better. ( there's less to go wrong )

Listening, in the Dark with half a fifth of 5-Oclock Vodka already inside me, a bag of Chips, a can of roasted Beer Nuts and an 8 ounce Glass of the remaining happy-juice is about the best darn listening experience a person could hope for. ( I forgot: sitting in a Navy Blue crushed velvet Laz-y-boy with only a few cigarette burns and a fresh pack of Pall Mal unfiltered or a nice $5 Cigar ) Bring it on!!!

Tony in Michigan

ps. by now, nearly 20 years of no-booze & definitely no smoking!!!, phew.

ricktomaszewicz's picture

...likes the same thing. That's why young music lovers are surprised or frustrated their friend doesn't "get" the newest artist/recording being shared. Music is a personal experience, even in the presence of empathetic others. Mature music lovers realize they themselves are different people depending on time, circumstance and context. That's why our tastes change. Perhaps audio gear is the same. One system grates whereas another seems to fulfill a personal need at that moment. That's why we can't all agree on what makes good gear.

Anton's picture

Papermate?

BIC?

I would think reviewers, being a type of connoisseur, would appreciate the finer points of high end pens.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Papermate?

BIC?

I would think reviewers, being a type of connoisseur, would appreciate the finer points of high end pens.

I prefer more broad strokes.

Anton's picture

Hahahahahaha!

Flair, get it?

Oh, man, sometimes I really slay me.

rschryer's picture

All reviewers begin their reviewing vocation with fancy pens, until they lose their fancy pens and get tired of throwing good money after bad by buying new fancy pens. As this goes on, the option of buying BIC pens becomes more and more attractive to the reviewer until it becomes the only economically feasible choice.

Richard D. George's picture

Kal:

Speaking of reviews, I have found many of your reviews to be well-reasoned and very helpful.

Thank you.

ednazarko's picture

That phrase could get legged out to two or three more levels of objective subjective when talking about music reviews. I can't imagine how a reviewer washes out all the things that I know affect my own perceptions of music, or of music through any given system. There are days (rare, but still) when NOTHING I listen to is satisfying, and days when listening through my emergency power outage radio is immensely satisfying.

I have noted in your reviews, and almost everyone else's on this site, that a peak experience seems to correlate with forgetting that you've got a job to do - losing track of your role as assessor and critic and just dancing... or whatever place that music takes you away from your professional role. It doesn't happen in every review. Not that its terribly rare - since you all try to avoid reviewing things that will be poorly reviewed - but rare enough to have gotten my attention. I've started to look for those as key markers that something being reviewed is really special - or at least that's my theory. Particularly relevant to me since my drug of choice is music - other than background music, I listen to leave this petty world behind. So far, the few decisions I've made on new gear based on the reviews I read here seem to have confirmed that theory.

mrkaic's picture

Reviews without measurements are useless. Might just as well be ignored.

All good amplifiers are transparent and sound identical. Audiophiles cannot tell them apart in blind tests. So, what do they write about when they review transparent low distortion gear? Bad/ distorting amplifiers with “signature” sound have no place in a high fidelity system.

ken mac's picture

“I do not believe that any amplifier that is reasonably good and operating as intended has any sound quality of its own ..." Forsooth!

ChrisS's picture

...believes you, mrkaic.

mrkaic's picture

How do you know? Have you interviewed the whole world?
Or just a 1% sample of the world’s population? :))))))

I have always enjoyed your jokes, Chris. So creative.

ChrisS's picture

...does what you think everyone should do, mrkaic.

mrkaic's picture

You seem to derive lot of certainty and satisfaction from conforming to (what you perceive to be) the majority opinion.

I hate to tell you, but the world is laughing at anti-science audiophiles. The links below show disdain people have for audio occult. It is great fun.

http://www.ecoustics.com/articles/ten-biggest-lies-audio/
https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Audio_woo
http://www.roger-russell.com/wire/wire.htm
http://wathifi.com/
http://seriousaudioblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/how-to-read-stereophile-w...

ChrisS's picture

Reinstated by JA:

These sites date back to 2012 and earlier. What has been their impact?

Most people take the advertising, hype, and marketing of audio products
about the same as any other consumer product. You buy or you don't.

And when the average consumer does buy into any audio product no matter
what price point, no one suffers anything worse than "buyers remorse" if
that product does not perform to one's expectations.

Do you take all advertising (anti-science?) this seriously?

"Science" lies, too.

How about laughing at the "science" behind oxycodone and any of the many
anti-depressants on the market? How about the "science" that produces
all those toxic products in a 99cent store that usually go straight to a
landfill?

Look around.

Who uses "good science" as advertising?

Answer: Good science.

Not "science" for profit.

ChrisS's picture

...

dalethorn's picture

Look who totally forgot the Bob Carver tests. Everybody knows. Except you.

Herb Reichert's picture

into which loudspeaker? Why do people who are unable to discern amplifier differences insist no one else can either?

mrkaic's picture

That is the point. You change the amps, ceteris paribus. You cannot tell the difference.

I can tell amplifiers apart if I can see which one is playing. I’m sure you can do that too. Anyone can. But, Can you tell transparent amplifiers apart in an ABX blind test?

Anton's picture

The notion that "well designed and properly working amplifiers all sound the same" will disappear once the DBT Messiah arrives and can actually demonstrate the ability to hear the differences.

Same goes for "wires," etc.

Don't get me wrong, I belong to the church of "sounds different," I just find it odd that these "Night and Day' "veil lifting" differences disappear when the listener doesn't know which amp or wire is which.

"Blind listening deafness" is a pernicious beast.

mrkaic's picture

Great phrase, “blind listening deafness “.

You should copyright it. I’m serious, it is awesome. And it is a pernicious beast, as you say.

Anton's picture

Does anybody know the starting date for when all well designed power amplifiers achieved aural equivalence?

That would help a lot.

The “they all sound the same” society should at least be willing to tell us when their club was founded!

dalethorn's picture

You'd feel left out if you couldn't hear what everyone else is hearing.

Johnny2Bad's picture

"All good amplifiers are transparent and sound identical"

Excellent. I'm looking for a vacuum-state Power Amplifier of about 40 wpc output. Recommend to me "a good amplifier". If that is too difficult, a Sold State variant of about 80~100 wpc will serve as a good substitute. Prefer one that is wallet-friendly. Thanks.

dalethorn's picture

I'm a candidate for a much wider variety of music than what I like at any given time, and what's in my growing but modest collection. Some things I learn to like when I come back to them later, some I like when I hear them on different gear, some I like when I read an encouraging review and take the time to listen and re-listen, and some I learn to like when friends turn me on to the music. There's a kind of empathy that connects me to a new piece of music, then the composer/artist, and given enough time and exposure I can imagine liking things that I'd usually dismiss in a quick listen today.

Anton's picture

Shouldn't the title of the post be "The Reviewer's Jason?"

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