Thoughts on reviewing

Evidence is nothing without judgments.—The Lord Leto Atreides II in God Emperor Of Dune, by Frank Herbert

In college, I majored in physics, but I took a lot of theater courses. Not acting—I never had any affinity for that—but all the other aspects of theater: set design, directing, theory of performance, playwriting. One professor, a playwright himself, offered some advice to his students that has served me well ever since: To learn the craft, observe your response first, then look to the text to figure out what about it caused you to respond the way you did.

It was an important way to learn about the playwright's art, or nearly anything else: Pay attention both to your responses and to what, specifically, provokes them. Experience. Observe. Be systematic about it.

While intended for pedagogy, it's essential advice for any serious critic, whether of theater or music or audio electronics. Look inward before looking outward. How does it make you feel? Why?

In the context of audio reviewing, the first part of that is often easier to achieve than the second. Different amplifiers, players, and loudspeakers produce subtly (or profoundly) different sounds, which provoke different feelings inside us. But why that specific response? Reacting is easy. Understanding your reaction requires a degree of self-reflection that's neither comfortable nor easy. Even if you're willing to engage in such self-reflection, answers don't come easily.

This method—looking inward for a response and then outward for the cause—has a few implications that are worth considering.

Starting with responses and not with the sound itself focuses attention on the aspects of the sound that matter. Because good criticism is not just about listing characteristics: tight bass, airy highs, and so on.

Whether you're an aspiring playwright, a theater critic, or an audio designer or reviewer, the validity of any approach depends on shared humanity. Ultimately, a playwright, composer, or designer isn't interested in her or his own responses; their goal is to help others see, hear, and feel. Nothing a theater, music, or audio critic has to say is of any interest to others unless some part of the experience is shared.

The evidence is overwhelming that we do share much, even across languages and cultures. If we didn't, art would fail. Music would fail. The fact that we can agree—most of us, or at least some of us—about the value of Beethoven's Op.111 piano sonata or the Beatles' Abbey Road means that we're affected by many of the same things, in similar ways.

Which brings up the next interesting aspect of this respond-then-ask-why approach: It's fundamentally qualitative. It's about things we can agree on—things we can share—without needing quantitative, scientific proof. Which is not to say that quantitative testing is impossible. The genre of research famously performed by Floyd Toole and many others is an example of precisely that: a quantitative, rigorous, largely successful attempt to uncover patterns in human emotional response. It's essential work: human preference made scientific. Its utter reliability is its great virtue.

But there's a tradeoff. What it gains us in rigor and certainty, it gives up in specificity and incisiveness.

What do I mean by that? Two things. First, what's measured is an average over a whole population, over all test subjects. Studying a population is necessary to achieve statistical significance—to be confident of the result to some stated precision—and to be certain your result has broad validity, beyond one individual. But what you learn from such research reveals little of interest about any individual in the group. Second, in most such studies, human emotional response is reduced to a single, blunt concept: Which one do you prefer?

What does that teach us about love, or fate, or the human response to mortality—about deeper human things that almost anyone can learn about by watching a play or listening to a great piece of music? Not much.

There is an alternative. The artist—including composers and musicians—can stir deep, human responses inside us, responses most of us share. We learn things about ourselves and our shared humanity. I find it interesting that musicians spend most of their practice time learning technique—but then rely, often intuitively, on shared humanity to put the piece across.

When my playwriting professor told me to look inside myself, then note my response, he wasn't referring to such dull responses as "I like that speaker better than this one." He was speaking of specific, profound things—questions and feelings that many of us share about what it means to be human.

We read, or look, or listen, and we feel less alone. But to embrace those responses—to be a part of the human race—we have no choice but to abandon certainty. There are things we know about ourselves and others—about what it means to be human—that we'll never prove. We don't need to prove it because we know it.

My background in science sensitizes me to these issues—which many readers and other reviewers may never question. The questions are worth asking, though, because there are people out there—very vocal people—who don't understand this simple, basic fact. Yes, our field—reproduced music—is underpinned by science. But that doesn't mean that the scientific approach to criticism is the only one that's valid. Music reproduction is based in electronics, but music itself, and our experience of it, is based in shared humanity.

Stereophile exists in both worlds. Measurements belong in the world of evidence and certainty, though for different reasons than Floyd Toole's work. Even there, though, humanity creeps in, in the way those measurements are interpreted.

The heart of this magazine, though, is in this other realm. It's based on a faith in shared human experience, a belief that what's true for the critic will be true for others, that humans share enough in common that not every insight requires proof. All that's needed is a certain sensitivity, seriousness, and goodwill.

rt66indierock's picture

I disagree a lot of audio equipment will not play my nine reference albums and three reference recordings. But critics praise it in their well written reviews. And it seems that the critics were wrong about MQA.

Coming from someone who is a real reviewer, whose reviewing standards have the force of law (Circular 230).


DougM's picture

If in your reviews you're as bad at communicating and formulating sentences that make sense and are as grammatically flawed as your comments here, then you need to find a new job, because you're an utter failure

MatthewT's picture

If you google "rt66indierock."

Jack L's picture


Indeed. Music is an excellent example of "a faith in shared human experience" !

Listening is believing

Jack L

rt66indierock's picture

Happier now? I've had my thoughts about COVID 19 tax strategies published.
The skill of my reviews is not measured in sentences and grammar. It is the answer to one question. Does this tax return meet the standards of Circular 230? I wish audio reviewers had enough skill to see through MQA but they didn't.

johnnythunder1's picture

somewhere - obviously not a professional magazine - doesn't make you a journalist or even someone worthy of judging other's work. What Jim is getting at is the mix of right and left brain involved in "this things of ours." The fact that you quote irrelevant tax topics while judging Jim's excellent article demonstrates that you are out of your league, perhaps out of your mind or maybe a little of both.

Glotz's picture

You couldn't have said it better Johnny. Sorry RT.. You sound deluded.

tonykaz's picture

are you say'n or claiming to be an Audio Reviewer of some sort ?

I did a Google search and only found some reference to MQA which we all know is a 21st Century Breakthru technology. isn't it???

What have you reviewed and where can I find it to read?

Wish You well.

Tony in Florida

michaelavorgna's picture


Michael Fremer's picture

The stupid comments are dumber than usual. That means Jim's written a very provocative and useful essay.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You've just scored one for the Gipper, Mikey. The original goal goes to Jim, of course.

thatguy's picture

" All that's needed is a certain sensitivity, seriousness, and goodwill."

The comments seem to indicate that we are in short supply of the last item anymore.
Sadly, I scrolled down to the comments hoping I'd see people coming together over a love of audio...

tonykaz's picture

Stereophile has been one of the top 5 Interesting Monthly Publications over these last
30+ years.

It's 95% opinion based, isn't it? Thousands of words, huge editorial content percentages, nearly everyone claiming to be an Editor of some sort but not a Coven of Anarchy.

Mr.JA 1 might've ended up being Editor of Rolling Stone or Atlantic but we benefited and won.

Stereophile's great DNA inspires wonderful philosophical expression!

It even has an old-timer reviewing $10,000 Mono Phono Cartridges, for gods sake . ( kinda reminds me of my local Amish city of Pinecraft )

and a Canadian Lad that has insights .

Stereophile is Brilliant !!!

Tony in Florida

ken mac's picture

Jim Austin sees it all: The short game, the long game, every angle, no matter how small or insignificant. He always makes me think. People with big brains have a way of doing that. The vision thing.

deckeda's picture

Know that we're here with you.

Archimago's picture

Jim, I think you're mischaracterizing the science around how biological sciences, psychology, social sciences, and even psychoacoustics present data, or the kinds of answers they seek.

Also you have some claims/beliefs which I think are not exactly true.

Let's address this on the weekend. ;-)

Robin Landseadel's picture

Faith is an island in the setting sun
But proof, yes
Proof is the bottom line for everyone

Paul Simon: Proof

Leigh's picture

Stereophile, Sept.1993 did an experiment with “blind” Speaker testing.

The current staff Reviewers assembled in the same room together with a system setup where only “the” half dozen or so loudspeaker systems would be exchanged, with controlled levels, in a “blind” test with the brands, and costs unknown to the reviewers.

Each Reviewer could bring recordings, familiar to them, for use in the testing.

The result was that there was no substantial consensus among them, although some speakers scored higher than others, some reviewer’s ranked the same speaker high, that others ranked low!!!

That implies that, if a reader was seeking a review of a particular speaker of interest, He/She could have gotten either a glowing positive review, or a damning negative review of the same Speaker dependent upon which Reviewer did the review!!!

Considering those tests results by experienced Streophile Reviewers were inconclusive, though done in the same room, with the same base system, what does that suggest when reviews are conducted in differing room environments, with differing base components, and Reviewers with differing tastes, biases, and hearing abilities, and quite possibly a biased belief that a higher retail price undisputedly corelates to superior sound quality???
Reviewer Thomas Norton concluded:

“This underscores the fact that our observations should only provide the reader with a starting framework for his or her own auditioning,' not the last word. —Thomas Norton”

Robin Landseadel's picture

Speakers are the one element in the chain most likely to be distorting in a gross fashion. One should expect wide variation in subjective responses. Speakers need to be auditioned where they are going to be used.

However, there are other components, such as the $50,000 SACD/CD reviewed by the same author that follows this post, that have clear limits of audibility. If you want to play back your CDs on $50,000 player, that's fine, but don't tell me about superior audio performance from an overpriced player with substandard measurements and limited functionality. A $50,000 CD player is much like a $50,000 blender. I can't tell you it's wrong to pay $50,000 for a blender, that's your business. But there's no way you will ever convince me it's worth the money.

Leigh's picture

Someone designs a highly capable Amplifier and determines that it can be manufactured for $1K.

He could set a retail price of $5K in which He and a dealer could each earn a 200% + mark-up profit.

He thinks, what if I could make a 1000% profit at $10,000, or perhaps even double that. How would I market it?

Obviously by advertising in, and hopefully receiving a positive review in a publication dedicated to Audiophiles.

He checks such publications from which to choose.

One, he finds conducts blind, controlled, multi reviewer testing that at times has concluded that a lower priced component significantly outperformed a far, far more expensive unit.

Another fervently rails against any form of blind, and/or controlled reviewing and their reviews and ratings clearly, undeniably, and with very few exceptions, equate to higher retail price = superior performance.

Which one do you think he’d pick?

The notion that so called “High-end” Manufacturers are not wise to that is foolhardy.

A $25 digital watch can be proven to tell time as well as a $15K Rolex, and the latter are chosen more for prestige & status rather than accuracy / performance.

When an extremely high-priced Audio component is selected over a far more affordable one solely on the basis of a purely subjective review recommendation, it could very well be a status symbol, but its comparative performance value remains questionable,

The Dictionary on subjective = “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.”

That says it all!

Julie Mullins's picture

This essay is refreshing and inspiring to me as a reviewer and as a person who appreciates where art and science intersect in our field—and beyond.

I find it interesting that musicians spend most of their practice time learning technique—but then rely, often intuitively, on shared humanity to put the piece across.

The same could be said of dancers re: technique and practice time—performing relies on sharing one's humanity. Music is obviously a central element there as well.

walwal's picture

"... First, what's measured is an average over a whole population, over all test subjects..."

This is totally wrong, measurement are not connectet to human believings or the way, our brain interprets them. Measurements are absolutly neutral.

ChrisS's picture

Our brains interpret sound.

Our brains interpret numbers.

Without our brains and interpretation, measurements are meaningless.

Anton's picture

Our brains interpret sound.

Our brains interpret numbers.

Without our brains and interpretation, music/art/literature are meaningless.

This is cool, it's like sitting around the bong in high school, only now we are old.

ChrisS's picture

I started out with a Sony STR-6065 receiver, Thorens TD-160 turntable, and Dynaco A25 speakers.

I read Stereo Review back then.

The bong came later in Uni.

wendellkb's picture

Made me think of a different approach. Don't need to agree, don't need to criticize, don't need to get angry. Just enjoy.

Glotz's picture

Time and time again, the subjective review validates this shared experience.. and the references of the review recordings shown in every review point to a deep desire to continue the connection between reviewer and reader.

This forum also does that, though to a lesser extent... lol.

I really can't wait for this issue's darTZeel review to be posted. Such an Important Review, on both the subjective and technical fronts. JVS' findings and JA's measurements validate this very need of communication of this shared experience.

JVS' findings remind me that his words trump those of measurements, no matter how salient and insightful they may be. And I suspect that even JVS has challenged how he looks at measurements after this review. (I now surmise that no-one can tell the difference 'beyond 60db' in any audio measurement.) I now question my own set of convictions as well.

As readers and listeners, our Trust in the reviewer is utterly critical to make sense of the measurements after the reviewer has told us what they heard.

cgh's picture

I'll paraphrase MacKenzie, who paraphrased Milton Friedman, and sprinkle in some Robert Shiller.

I was having discussion with Shiller in what must have been 2016. At the time he was very interested in narrative psychology and the role that story telling plays in adopting beliefs to varying degrees of conviction (cognitive biases notwithstanding). I found some benefit from this discussion in that I started to apply epidemiological models to some work I was doing which, unbeknownst to me, would have me up-to-speed when the pandemic came... I've digressed, but I was applying these pathogenic models to the rate of transmission of sentiment in news sources.

Back in 1953 Friedman wrote in the essay ‘The Methodology of Positive Economics’

‘[T]he belief that a theory can be tested by the realism of its assumptions independently of the accuracy of its predictions is widespread and the source of much of the perennial criticism of economic theory as unrealistic. Such criticism is largely irrelevant, and, in consequence, most attempts to reform economic theory that it has stimulated have been unsuccessful.’

Years later, in the mid 00's, MacKenzie riffed on Friedman's idea, if I recall, wrt to the Black-Scholes equation. Quantitative people love the idea that the BS equation was reduced to the heat equation from physics. This thinking became endemic. "Econophysics" was a thing: Applying renormalization group theory, general relativity, quantum mechanics,..., to markets.

But Mackenzie's point was that while Maxwells equations or the Dirac equation describe something physical in the universe, the equations themselves have no bearing on the physical objects (or fields) they describe. Whereas the BS equation, describing what the "correct" price of a financial asset is, actually fueled the market for that asset. Hence, "An Engine, Not a Camera".

There's a narrative about THD and a crowd of builders and consumers that value that measurement. There's also a narrative about SET and a crowd of builders and consumers that value that design. These would seem to be at odds, forming conjugate groups (e.g., the Kondo versus CH Precision groups that are after the same thing) In this regard I suppose that either quantitative measurements or qualitative exposition support a narrative that becomes more of an engine than a camera.

walwal's picture

@Hello ChrisS

If we talk about the interpretation of measurements, I agree. Of course, an interpretation must be based on the taste of the majority, what else? Of course it can be that person A feels differently than B. But who should you believe, who should you follow?

In the end, all you have to do is decide for yourself.

Conclusion: I either follow the majority or I ignore all the judgments of others. When that is, I am completely insecure and spend my lifetime questioning everything and am never satisfied.

Based on my experience and comparing many measurements with the sound quality I believe the measurements more than some gurus.
Of course you have to look at relevant and comparable values, as always.

"Audiophiles don't use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment."

Alan Parsons

ChrisS's picture

our own ears

our rooms

our audio equipment

our music

What else is there?

The writers of mags, like Stereophile, HiFi News, Listener, TAS, Stereo Review, and even Consumer Reports, can get us started and help us along in our audio journey.

The garage sales, big box stores, high end boutiques, mail order, diy kits, car stereos, iphones, etc., there's a plethora of hardware we are exposed to.

So easy to access music, live, lp's, cd's, radio, streaming.

So many are involved in audio without having read a review or understanding measurements at all.

bdiament's picture

Nicely said Jim. Thank you.

Best regards,

thatguy's picture

Audio reviews are like movie reviews, to me. I don't need the reviewer to like everything I like; I just need them to articulate what they did and didn't like so I can compare that to what is important to me.

Anton's picture

Do we delude ourselves and magnify minuscule differences or even create non-existent differences? Yes.

Is it fun, do we like what we are doing? Yes.

I don't see any problem, other than people thinking they are the final arbiters for everyone else.

(Well, that and absurd hyperbole.)

avanti1960's picture

... that the reporting about what you observed while looking inward was completely candid, unfiltered and that the primary objective was to inform us.

Archimago's picture

I believe that these ideas run the risk of bringing into the audio product reviewing process an unnecessary emphasis on the art itself, and the reviewer's projection of his/her own feelings.

By doing this, what is expressed is a testimony that ends up in fact reducing the review to an idiosyncratic viewpoint which does the opposite from presenting the value of the product to the audience. I believe this is the opposite of the "shared humanity" idealized in this article.

Furthermore, the exclusion of finding common "facts", "knowledge", using "evidence" while promoting "heart" and "faith" perpetuates that subjective-objective divide that is IMO unhealthy for this hobby.

A more detailed response:

DH's picture

I think this column borders on new age nonsense.
Reviewers aren't artists and aren't creating art. You are reviewing the performance of a technological device.
Your emotional response, on it's own, means zilch to the people you are trying to inform.
Instead of relying only on your personal emotional response, adding a more rigorous scientific POV makes reviews MORE universal and more applicable to a broad audience of readers.
I want to know first, how the product performs, and second, how it made you feel.
But I have more insight now into why you and your writers are still pushing that failed format - MQA. It all comes from the false conclusions brought about by the approach you espouse.

Robin Landseadel's picture

[Edit, I see the author already posted this].

David Harper's picture

I wish I could post a profound, insightful, and brilliant comment here.

I just can't think of one.

And I'm not sure what you guys are talking about.

Michael Levy's picture

Your thoughts on reviewing come from what I find is an incredibly detailed and multifaceted mind that tries to find the correct path to both being analytical in your understanding and emotional in leaving yourself open to something new. A scientific analysis that does not deny the human aspect. What more could someone ask? You have accomplished the hardest task.