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Lost in Translation

Gear comes and gear goes — and so does memory. A lot of ink has been spilled on the transience of aural memory, how unreliable human beings are at even basic tasks of observation, and how thoroughgoingly bad we are, as a species, in consistency of language use and interpretation. I say all this, because I’ve been made aware — rather keenly — that some of us are far more influenced by peer pressure and hand-me-downs from so-called figures of authority than we are by what our very own senses are actually telling us. We’re a nervous, jittery, self-doubting bunch, we humans.

I think that’s important to remember when you read audio reviews.

You, the astute reader, really ought to know by now that anything a reviewer says about any component in any audio chain really ought to be taken with a liberal dose of salt. The reasons ought to be obvious, but on pain of being blindingly redundant, let’s review:

  • A reviewer’s “tastes” are questionable, at best.
  • A reviewer’s system isn’t yours.
  • A reviewer’s room isn’t yours.
  • A reviewer’s ears aren’t yours.
  • A reviewer’s history of experiences isn’t yours.
  • The fact that any two human beings are able to communicate at all, given the wide disparity in semantic attachment to the semi-random constructs we call “words”, is a fucking miracle.

When given the chance, I’ve repeated likened the audio reviewer as rather parallel to that of a food or wine critic. Not to be so bold as to assume you, the reader, are as OCD about what goes in your mouth as you are about what goes in your ears, but I think this analogy holds, and I’ll emphasize the resulting corollary — no reviewer’s conclusions will be universally relevant. Oh well.

Ten years ago, or so — before my twins came along and upended my world in a most unexpected way — my wife and I were foodies. More precisely, we were winos. Ahem. That is, we were really into wine — wine tasting, wine pairing, and yes, wine drinking. It’s kind of odd, but we realized early in our relationship that beer buzzes were rather belligerent, but wine … well, that was a happy other story. So, we gravitated toward the grape and have been happy little winos ever since. Perhaps you’ll recall that this is also how The Julia Rule got it’s start. Anyway, in case of wine taste, my friends would blow a day with wine steward Larry down at Pearsons Wine & Liquor down in DC, and explore that way — directly, by taste. I found out pretty quickly that Larry, connoisseur though he is, simply likes more “interesting” wines than I do. Me? I’m a “fruit-bomber”. Larry likes to wander the edges of interesting — new grapes, new blends, new vintners. Nothing wrong with either approach, but if it happened that I needed a good, quick reference — Larry’s personal tastes weren’t necessarily the best guide. No, Larry had a little book that he carried — with my name, my wife’s name, our friends — and more interestingly, wines that we all liked. When I swung by to buy, Larry pulled out his book and pulled the relevant wines. Worked like a charm — Larry was an awesome resource.

When we moved away from DC, we needed a new approach.

We started subscribing to wine mags. Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and more. By trial and error, I learned that the reviewer for me and my tastes — that is, the recommendations that had the highest “happy rate” to me and mine was Wine Advocate. If Wine Advocate endorsed a wine, I’d like the wine. Wine Spectator? A bit less on-target, but close, and would usually do. Wine Enthusiast? Hit-or-miss — I’m not sure what it was they were looking for, or using as a baseline, but whatever — I learned to not rely on their reviews. They just didn’t work as often — for me. But Wine Advocate? Hit after hit after hit.

How does this relate to audio? Pretty straightforwardly — you need to find a reviewer or magazine (if you’re lucky) that has a pretty high success-rate, and pay attention accordingly, whether that’s wine or audio.

Of course, audio isn’t wine — the prices are way higher and the subsequent risk is much higher. Which brings me to my last point — even if you run across a review that is wildly over the top with enthusiasm that is unbridled, this may not ultimately mean a whole lot to you, the random reader. Again, review the list above.

Another side point: reviewers are paid (not much, but still paid) to make mountains out of molehills. That is, hyperbole is the friend of the writer — and the enemy of the reader. Not much we can do about that — but do yourself a favor — before diving in after a wordsmith in chasing the latest and greatest widget, try it out. At home. With your own gear. If you can’t do that — and many times, you can’t — just remember: caveat emptor.

Get your Occasional now

4 Comments on Lost in Translation

  1. Excellent post. One suggestion I would add when evaluating audio publications – look for ones that dare to compare products of similar prices and name names of rivals. Many avoid that trap at all costs, and instead provide useless comparisons against products that cost 10 times less and 10 times more.

    It also helps immeasurably if the publication has ever been in any way critical of a product. I know the line is usually “we just don’t review products we don’t like” but that provides absolutely no help to the reader.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // September 16, 2012 at 1:06 PM //

      “It also helps immeasurably if the publication has ever been in any way critical of a product. I know the line is usually “we just don’t review products we don’t like” but that provides absolutely no help to the reader.”

      Yeah … I hear you. But.

      I’ve said elsewhere that slamming products isn’t doing anybody any favors. Yes, you say it lends “credibility” …. But, no, not really. Again, just because I hate something doesn’t entail or even imply that someone in their right might will — or even ought — to agree with me. No, seriously! Unless there’s some flaw with the product, something obvious — like it’s broken, prone to breakage, catches fire, looks like ass, or something similar — then what you’re left with is my opinion, not my fact.

      The caution is worthwhile. This is audio, not cancer-fighting or baby-killing. Again, by super-imposing my tastes over those of a designer’s and claiming that I’m right and he’s a douche bag, all I’ve done is shown what a tool I am. I mean, there’s no objective “right answer” here, and never has been — at least in the matter of preference and taste. But there is spite. And spite is stupid.

      It’s helpful to remember that these products don’t fall out of the sky, they’re made, by people that are just regular folks. Some have left “real careers” to pursue a dream. Perhaps an ill-advised move, but laudable and admirable. Who am I to take a giant crap on that? I’m just an asshole with a website and a whole rack of undeserved opinions.

      The job of a critic — that is, a critic who’s not just an ego-maniacal asshole — is to educate and promote. If you’re even in doubt which might describe a given critic, here’s a clue. If they feel their job is to “protect and serve” their readers by hunting down the crooks and charlatans and bring the Truth to light, they’re an asshole.

      I personally feel that this kind of writing is sloppy and lazy. It’s a waste of space and words. Good writing, by contrast, can still point out the hazards of the particular course and attempts to find you the shortest path to some goal. Whether that path or that goal is worth it to you — is left to you. If a critic has an opinion, they ought to feel free to share it — but if they can’t be constructive, they have nothing of value to say. So: don’t. And move on.

      All that said, this isn’t to say that value judgments have no place in a review. And I’ll be the first to tell you what I think might be better than what, hopefully taking some considerable care to frame that comparison in a relevant context. But if at the end of a session all that I have are a string of negative comments and unfavorable comparisons, I’m done, and the review goes in the bin. And I move on.

      I do prefer to compare products to references, for whatever it’s worth, assuming I have one. And assuming I have one at a particular price point, that’s what I work from. Harder (and more expensive) than it sounds, unfortunately.

  2. Nice piece! I completely agree with the idea of finding a “guide” for music and gear. It’s the same way with selecting books. I used I know a small book store owner who knew my tastes and whenever I would drop in, he would reach around the counter and say, “Ah, I’ve got just the thing for YOU!”. And he was always right on the money. Sorry, but Amazon will never replace moments like that.

  3. It’s thoughtful posts like these that keep my coming back to this website — not just the excellent reviews. Just wanted to say thanks for the great work!

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