I’m under no illusions. There have always been issues around critics and criticism for pretty much as long as there has been critics and criticism. I suppose it wouldn’t be all that weird to say that this is precisely what makes ‘art’ something other than an exercise of self-gratification. For something to be Art, it must be shared; when shared, it has impact; it is exactly that impact that is the value of the Art. In philosophy, we call that Aesthetics.
As a capstone to this impossible-to-finish series, I suspected that this was the place where the coin would stop rolling. By placing it here, at the end, I’m sure I’m saying quite a lot about what I think of Art generally and of high-end audio more specifically, especially where that intersects with what I do, which seems to be some kind of art-criticism. Uncomfortable as that coat might be to wear.
Roger and the Dream Impossible
I suppose I have only myself to blame. This project seemed like such a simple thing — take what Roger Skoff wrote and spin it. Something like 20,000 words later, I’m still spinning. Pardon me while I roll my eyes at myself. I’m an idiot; this is known.
I’m pretty sure that Roger wasn’t exactly thrilled with my “responses” to his original bit, and referring to his argument as a caricature was perhaps overstating what I took to be his totally obvious point. His point? Well, Roger wrote a nice, tight, argument that philosophers like to call a reductio ad absurdum, which pretty much points out the impossibility of some particular rhetorical maneuver by following it out to its illogical and/or impossible conclusions. For example: “experts”, if defined with “exhaustive experience” as a requirement, are impossible. Becoming an expert is likewise impossible. Yet … we not only cling to this rather absurd conception of what it means to be an expert, we routinely berate those who claim to be such for not having that impossible-to-achieve exhaustive experience, and (perhaps most tellingly) we also still somehow continue to function without having such impossibly exalted beings around. This got me thinking (obviously) about what we really mean by the term ‘expert’ (clearly, Roger exposed a gap), and using his piece as a foil (and by foil, I mean “sharp, pointy thing”), it turns out that you can unzip quite a bit. Oops.
Anyway, that’s how we got here.
The Problem with Aesthetics
So, to recap the first three parts of our philosophical bobsled run, we’ve talked about reviews, what’s in them, why, what that means (and doesn’t mean), who gets paid, and even had time for a sit down with Audio Jesus.
So, let’s talk about taste. Everyone has taste. Some of us only have it in our mouths. And …. rimshot!
Anyway, as my hero Art Dudley points out in a recent editorial over at Stereophile, we all know how to listen. I’m not going to take issue with Mr Dudley here because he would probably pummel me, but potential threats of literary violence aside, I’d like to make a related observation: We also know what we like. I’d further submit that this claim is also a bit less tendentious than a positive assessment of the listening skills of any particular individual in the general public, a skill that I happen to think can be trained (see Part 2.2 for that discussion in the context of the mis-application of ABX). But it’s not always the case that taste can be trained. Think about that for a moment, and I’m sure you’ll come up with a few (dozen) cringe-worthy cases-in-point all on your own, but while you’r digging through the memory trunk, I’ll offer that I am a fan of the band Journey. And The Scorpions. I will also admit that I am not a fan of classical music; in fact, I find the entire genre a little dull. In my defense, I will never order a well-done steak — or cook one for anyone else. Because that’s criminal. Oh, did I mention that I also love super-hero films? Weepy people, loss, deprivation, and triumph (or not) over personal adversity, and generally any movie easily described as being “character driven” as opposed to “plot driven” — feel free to insert my mental shrug here. When it comes down to it, if my visual entertainment doesn’t have explosions, aliens or monsters, I’m really not that interested — in fact, if those elements are not present, I’ll confess that I will probably add them to my own real-time mental commentary. Yep. No taste at all. That’s me. Pew pew! Pew pew!
In short, we like what we like. Yes, you can teach me to appreciate other things — and some of us are more open to that than others. To take another completely random example, I now love jazz. Growing up in the 1970’s, I might have had a vague idea of who Miles Davis was, but I can’t really remember. I “got into” Jazz only recently, after getting into high-end audio, another recent exploration. See? I’m growing. But while tastes evolve, and while I can learn to appreciate other forms of art, what I personally gravitate to will depend on nothing so much as me. Have I mentioned lately that I am not you? I fully expect that we may differ — and you should expect that too. On many things, actually, but about Art specifically. And that, my friends, is crux of the biscuit and this is exactly where everything falls apart.
I’ve heard this bandied about a bit, but I will freely offer that the notion of the “review as art” is something that makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. It’s not that I don’t want to give writers props when and where due; it’s the whole slippery notion of ‘Art’ that makes my skin crawl. What qualifies? Better yet, what doesn’t?
It appears that can’t define ‘Art’. I mean, you can try, but I’m guessing this is like having SCOTUS define ‘porn’ — and any attempt made will undoubtedly generate a flurry of exceptions or counter-examples or spawn an entire “school” that attempts to create such exceptions or counter-examples. ‘Art’ is messy that way. Which makes the term pretty much meaningless and unusable, except — perhaps — as a sheet that can be tossed over an enterprise overrun by anti-linguisitic commandos. You’ll pardon me, I hope, while I roll my eyes (again) in exasperation.
This is not, in any way, an indication that I don’t appreciate artistic steps taken in a review. Stereophile‘s Stephen Mejias was particularly gifted at this, I think, and he attempted to tell a story at the same time he described his experiences. The fact that he had a particularly talented ear for the language and for storytelling certainly makes the reading go easy and went a really long way to countering any concerns his own, admittedly still growing, body of expertise might generate.
It’s a complete mystery why and how Source Interlink let him escape. But I digress.
Whatever Art is, or however you define it, I think it’s safe to say that appreciation and enjoyment of it is a wildly personal thing. It’s about as subjective as you can get. Sure, it has to do with context. It has to do with history. It has to do with just about everything. Untangling that is not only impossible, it’s not important. It’s the reaction that’s the most relevant part. The evoking. And yes, I’m throwing up in my mouth a little (still) as I write this.
All of this is problematic for reviews and reviewers.
A tasty parable
Art Dudley is, to all reports, a fine fellow. An upstanding gentleman. He is also, interestingly, an expert by any relevant measure (as we’ve discussed at far too much length in this series). But that does not in any way entail that Art and I will ever agree on how to cook a steak. The fact that he seriously, with a straight face, claims that he prefers to eat his steak cooked to the point where it could be appropriately and usefully tacked to the bottom of his hiking boots to provide traction during mountain climbing is completely beyond my ability to comprehend, much less forgive. You might as well chop it up and smother it in ketchup. It is insane. As my Southern relatives would say, “Bless His Heart”. And while Art may well be a fine specimen in all other things, I simply cannot take him seriously when he offers his opinions about fine cuisine. And you shouldn’t either. There is a time and a place for well-done steak, and that’s “never” and “in the trash”. Well-done steak is a travesty.*
John Atkinson, on the other hand, knows a thing or two about duck. In point of fact, he’s true wizard at game bird preparation generally, and I’ve heard that no one can crisp up the skin on a duck breast with as much style and grace as the Editor of Stereophile Magazine. He’s also a genius at consommé and I will be forever amazed at not only his culinary skill, but his generosity. Back in 2012 at CES, I found John strolling through the Venetian hallways offering little tastings of his specialty, Canard à Trois, which I’d never had before. He’d made this 1″ square of crispy breast layered over a precisely sized portion of pulled confit, set adrift as a tiny island in a mini bowl of intense consommé. Oh la la. Blew. My. Mind. And those toothpicks, shaped like the bows on a violin, were just precious. I have six of them sitting in a cup on my desk as I type this. John is The Man when it comes to duck, and his opinions about haute cuisine are in line with mine and anything he has to say about preparation, well, I’m taking notes.
Hopefully, you’re seeing the outline of the problem area here.
Even if we’re blessed with the timely intervention of our own personal Audio Jesus, what makes his judgment actually helpful isn’t that he’s unburdened by financial complication. It isn’t that he’s curiously perspicacious. It isn’t that his experience is, in any meaningful sense, complete or even on-point. It isn’t that he understands the economics. Or the physics. It isn’t that he has a particular gift for storytelling. Nope. At root, everything comes down to one and only one thing. Taste. If his aligns to yours, bingo! You’re in the zone. But if not, who the hell cares what he has to say? Because it just won’t be relevant when it comes to Art. Because Art isn’t about any of that. Art is about engagement. About evocation. And there goes the barf again.
Once again with the wine
I think we’re about ready to come full circle and talk again about Robert Parker. In Part 1, I mentioned that I’m a
wino oenophile fan of wine. In the spirit of way too much information, allow me to share that, way back in the day, my wife and I noticed that our intoxicants had variable effects. Interesting! We found that, of the suite of tasty adult beverages that responsible adults over the age of 21 had to choose from, it was wine that we found most agreeable to our palates and to our humors. Not surprisingly, we started buying more of it — of varying varietals, vintages, and price levels. This increased intake caused all manner of high hilarity, but it also firmly launched our love affair with fine food and home cookery. This fed back into the wine hobby, and with the discovery of wine pairings, both hobbies became a bit obsessive. I eventually ended up in a French culinary school. We ate, drank, and partied like we were researchers for Andrea Immer and Bobby Flay. We then had kids and it all went to Hell. But before that, I learned a whole lot of stuff. Including some very handy rules of thumb:
- One, learn your tools. A good knife is an heirloom — invest accordingly. A thermometer is your friend — measure early and often. Forget the fancy cookware — cast iron is the King of cooktop.
- Two, plan ahead. Get all your shit to hand and do all your prep before anything hits a pan.
- Three, clean as you cook. You simply cannot overstate how important this is. If your kitchen is a disaster when the last ingredient hits a plate, you’ve screwed up profoundly.
- Four, you’re not using enough salt.
- Five, steaming or boiling your food is pretty much pointless. Cooking is the process of making things taste better, and water, in any form, adds nothing.
I also learned some short cuts. Phyllo dough and wonton wrappers are easier to buy than make. So is pizza sauce. Never cook with fancy salt. Homemade stock is best, but unless it’s veal stock, it’s not worth the bother. The rest are secrets, so I’m not sharing — save this one: if Robert Parker likes a wine, I will too.
I’m not sure how I got turned on the Wine Advocate, but it happened relatively early on. I had been a subscriber of Wine Enthusiast and then Wine Spectator, but both magazines had consistently led me astray. They’d rate a wine as, say 90 points (out of a possible 100), which seems like a reliably high score. I’d go get some, chill it slightly, aerate it if necessary, and do all the “things” I was taught to do with wine prep. But with all that done, far too often I’d tuck into an inexplicably lackluster experience. Given that I was spending over $30 bucks a bottle and we were plowing through at least one per night [cough], this got old and fast. Enter the Wine Advocate. I learned that if Parker hung a score of 90 points on a wine, I would end up with a party in my face. If I could score a 95 point wine, we were in for an evening peering Deeply Into Glorious Mystery. My oh my. In fact, I became so familiar with Parker and his scoring that I no longer even needed the review. An 85 meant “with pizza”. An 87 meant “for guests”. A 90 meant, “evening with my wife”. A 95 meant “our 10th anniversary”. He was infallible. He was my expert and I trusted his judgment. Not blindly — at least, not at first. I did quite a bit of “testing” [cough] before we reached those Happy Isles.
Years later, post
Apocalypse children, I adopted a similar strategy — I found a local “wine guy” whom I was able to guide and who’s resulting picks on my behalf were wickedly accurate. Man knows his wine. More helpfully, he knows the wine he has on hand to sell — gone were the days of poring over the recent magazines and calling wildly around trying to secure a bottle or 60 [cough — sorry, I must be coming down with something]. I just roll up in the minivan, ask for Kirk, and Kirk walks me through the available selections. Bam, I’m done. I trust Kirk, but not because he’s an expert. He is that. No, I trust him because he “gets me” and is able to reliably make suggestions I enjoy and do so while staying within my (radically reduced) budget. That’s money. Or perhaps more importantly, that’s money I’ve not misspent.
And that’s exactly what a reviewer ought to do for a reader.
That’s why there are and ought to be a lot of reviewers, with a large variety of personal history, background, and taste. There are just as many paths to Audio Joy as there are travelers on that road, and if a reviewer’s job is to help you shorten that travel time, pare down the irrelevant turns on the way, then variety is the only way it works. Without variety, everyone ends up with vegemite sandwiches or beans on toast. And that’s not only gross, that’s a damn shame.
Truth and Language
Which brings me to the subject of truth. In short, there isn’t any. Are we done? Perfect! Ha ha!
Michael Mercer, a contributor here at Part-Time Audiophile and many other outlets, has a saying he’s particularly fond of clubbing uppity reviewers with: “There is no ‘best’ in audio.” He’s absolutely right, of course. There isn’t. Not only in the Skoffian sense of the exhaustive possibilities that would need to be explored before such a statement could be offered in any meaningfully definitive way, but because the very notion of perfection is pretty much impossible to achieve. There is always something better. Paraphrasing the philosopher Karl Popper, absolutes are pretty much unreachable. In audio, each successful assault on Summit-Fi only serves to reveal the next peak, heretofore shrouded by mist and mystery. There is no “end”. It’s turtles all the way down.
I’d like to add that the very notion of “best” in audio is impossible because it’s a category mistake.
“Good”, “better” and “best” are all value terms. Value terms require a referent. Since absolutes are not available, they’re measured against each other as part of some bounded set, or against some standard. Again, since absolutes are not available, that standard is ipso facto arbitrary. Which makes these kinds of relative measurements problematic.
Let me sidestep here in order to make all this immeasurably worse and talk about cognitive science just for a moment.
Words and phrases have meaning. Easy, right? For example, the color that we call “green” is perception generated by a particular bandwidth of light as interpreted by the average human eye. But when we use the term ‘green’, we don’t intend any of that. We “mean” that ‘green’ is a color, and we’ll lump in with that meaning all the interesting green things: turtles, water, leaves, stop lights, her eyes, the snot in the tissue that tells you that a trip to the family doctor is coming up real soon. There are lots more of such things. But none of that is actually the meaning of green, and neither is the definition. What any term actually “means” is rather complicated. In fact, it’s downright Byzantine.
Here’s the short form: the “meaning”, or semantic content, of a word or phrase is at root the physical structure within the brain that is evoked by its instantiation. Said another way, it’s the interactions between a set of neurons and all their connections somewhere within your skull. When you use the term, or hear it used, or read it, or have your face rubbed in it, your brain “calls up” a stored interpretation. Mapped out, this can include a dizzyingly complex tree-like structure of several hundred to several hundred million branches. Here’s the fun part — each semantic representation may link to examples, memories, logical linkages, definitions, and more. Maybe a lot more. It depends, really, on how you acquired that representation, how it wired itself together, how it’s being activated, what happened to you then and now, and how that was interpreted by the unique machinery that is you. Here’s the more fun part — each person generates a different structure for any given representation. That is, the concept of [GREEN] is not, in point of fact, the same structure for you or me. Mine might look a bit like yours, but some of those connections in yours may be more important and be traced with heavier lines (as it were), perhaps representing that the element captured there is more central, more core. But that’s hardly a given. Hell, our two trees might look nothing alike at all, tracing out entirely different pathways with few — if any — neural bundles in common. Here’s the most fun part — your own representations (that is, what you actually mean when you use a term) vary. Yes! Okay, that’s not so weird — over time, meanings obviously change. You learn. You grow. You experience. That’s all recorded in structure, so yes, these structures change. Oh, but wait — they also vary by time of day. Oh, but wait — they also vary per usage, even when invoked with the same mental breath. It’s true! Are we having fun yet?
Let’s pull it apart a second. When I talk about “bass response”, I’m not a percussionist, so I don’t really have any knowledge about how hard you have to strike a timpani to make it bellow like a mountain giant nailed in the feels. It’s not part of my representation (okay, maybe it is now ….). But you might be one, and that might be part of yours. My “thing” might be electronica. Infrasonic bass is pretty much de rigeur in that genre. Yours might be jazz, and perhaps you hold the upright bass as the quintessential instrument for articulating what “true bass” means. My “web of experience” is different from yours. My memories are mine in a deeply personal, structural way that I’ll only ever be able to present to you like traceries drawn on wet tissue paper. But that’s where meaning lies, however. Meaning isn’t constant. Not for humans. Not for Americans. Not for Marylanders. Not for my family. Not for me and my twin. Not even for me. Not even for me, given the time it takes me to write out a sentence and use a word like “time” in it more than once.
Which makes the fact that our species is able to communicate at all something of a mystery, no?
In fact, communication does have problems traceable to this kind of representational fuzziness. We joke about it, especially when talking about the difference between the sexes. It’s part of the Common Body of Human Knowledge that people can mean different things by the same words or phrases. Most just don’t realize how deep that rabbit hole goes. Which is probably exactly how communication works — by not digging too deeply in marshland. We all float down here, Henry.
So, when someone tells you that “[x] is the best headphone ever made”, there’s really no need to do anything but marvel at how incredible that statement is, that you understand it, and that you (now) know that, (1), the statement is false, (2) that statement was made in a context that may or may not have relevance to you, (3) that the statement came from a person who values different things than you, (4) that all they’re really trying to say is “I like it a lot”, but then they got lost on a deer trail through the forest of hyperbole.
But that’s okay. We “get it”. Usually. Well, mostly. And that’s okay, too.
Familiarity and Influence
All of which brings me to the topic of familiarity. No, really, it’s not quite as ham-handed a segue as it looks.
Our tastes and preferences change over time. Me, I now like jazz and when I was deep into the hair-band phase of my early musical “appreciation” phase, I wouldn’t have been able to separate that “kind of music” from what was used to soothe people’s sense of claustrophobia in crowded elevators. You live, you learn. I learned. And from that, appreciation dawned.
But there are a lot of ways that this kind of change happens. One way is exposure. A leading psychologist once offered that we human beings covet. It’s in our nature. And we begin by coveting what we see every day. Familiarity. It’s what’s for dinner. Forever.
This is a fork of two tines, at least as I see it. The first is that your preferences and tastes tend to spring from your past in a way that’s pretty hard to divert from. I like to ask speaker designers, especially, about their “formative sound” — what experience that they’re seeking to emulate with their designs (if anything). The answers are pretty interesting — Greg Roberts, the designer and owner of Volti Audio loudspeakers, talks about his youthful obsession with Klipsch Khorns, for example. That was what he coveted. And that’s why his flagship speaker, the Vittora, looks and sounds like one of these legendary horn speakers (albeit, radically improved). Stepping back, I think it’s untendentious to say that most audiophiles have similar kinds of baggage that they’re carting around, and that this has rather pointedly obvious implications for lining up reviewers with prospective audiences. This is also why Art Dudley isn’t doing a whole lot of reviews of high-power solid-state amps, or why Michael Fremer isn’t doing a lot of reviews of computer audio systems. Know your Reviewers and ye shall be rewarded.
The other tine (as it were) is that it’s easy for the motivated to find ways to bias people. I’ll get back to bias in a second, but familiarity has a (potentially) insidious impact on objectivity. It’s really hard to say mean things about people you know. Or to say mean things about the work of people you know. I’ve already said that writing negative reviews is a suckers game, but given the wild variability of background, taste, synergy and expertise, I think we can now add that condemning a product is an act of staggering hubris. In point of fact, you know nothing Jon Snow. Declaring something as shite is another way of hanging a sign around your neck proclaiming that you’re an ignorant tool. Again, unless there’s a conspicuous flaw (that’s not clearly attributable to a broken unit), which is rare, then there’s far too much that could be going on in the reviewer’s head for such bald claims to be taken seriously. You don’t like it? Great. But unless you’re my Robert Parker, I’m not sure I ought to care.
Okay, just for fun, let me flip this around entirely and pretend I’m Evil.
So, if I were an Evil Bastard, I think serious Mayhem in the reviewing circle would be rather easy to accomplish. How? I’d find me a Nice Guy — or become one. The job? Cozy up to reviewers and magazines and whomever. That is, get to know them. Be charming. Tell crazy stories. Hang out for drinks or dinner at a trade show. Maybe buy, maybe not. But definitely take their calls. Answer their emails. Put them in touch with “those in the know” for tasty upcoming hints, or simply “those that know” for impromptu master-classes on some fascinating bit of esoterica. As Mr Nice Guy, I’d give out shirts and tchotchkes, pretty much like water. Somewhere along the line, I’d arrange for my new “friends” to try out my gear. I could create a circle of “beta testers” and tie them down with an NDA, while refining my product and pitch, before releasing them into the wild to spread the word of how awesome I am — and how cool my gear is — and let them defend any shortcomings for me, because hey, I’m a great guy. I could arrange for new, promising writers to get free gear, or gear for long-term use. Reviewers make shit money doing what they do, and as a result, their references also tend to be shit. Knowing that, I’d pick a few rainmakers and “let them” hold onto gear for a while, you know, to help them get a leg up because I’m awesome. Assuming they use the gear, that is. I’d have to visit to check — and I’d bring toys and booze with me. With use of the gear, and familiarity with me and the appreciation that I’d inculcate and foster, they will set or reset their internal thermostats toward my style, my approach and my aesthetic when it comes to sound. And since I did them a solid in the first place, I could reasonably expect that by and large, they’ll return the favor — if only by not slamming me or my products in front of prospective customers. And if they do? Well, Mr Nice Guy cuts them off.
I think the Mr Nice Guy approach is easy to caricature for a reason — most reviewers know a few of them. I’m told that this is “how business was done”, Back In The Day. While it may be true that, by and large, most savvy folks are “on to them”, knowing that a particular guy is working you over doesn’t matter. Why? Because they’re nice. Nice is good. We all like nice. And nice, with access? That’s money — at least it is to a reviewer, and especially so to the would-be writer.
Once initiated, influence is hard thing to pull away from, especially if it means risking something that approaches a friendship. And yes, I do mean “friendship” — familiarity works both ways. You get to know Mr Nice Guy, and he rubs off on you. The reverse is just as true. As you build a relationship, both of you become invested. Un-investing is not fun to contemplate, and when you realize that your objectivity has been thoroughly compromised, there really are only a few choices left to you. The most upright of us tend to choose recusal, but as Justice Clarence Thomas has so ably demonstrated, far too many of us believe that recusal is for wimps and the weak-minded.
Which brings me to the problem of how to deal with influence and familiarity, more generally.
Cognitive dissonance and the mission statement
Lachlang Tsang runs a very popular YouTube Channel called LachlanLikesAThing. I think he’s a brilliant guy and I quite like his down-to-earth take on things and thoroughness in his videos. He’s also struggling with how to support his hobby. His dilemma is centered on review units, and how he gets them, and how that process impacts his impartiality as a reviewer. In short, he believes that there’s significant bias with the traditional model of review units being made available to writers — he thinks it’d be more interesting, more honest and more helpful to the reader if the units were sourced in the conventional way. That is, bought. At retail. Like everyone else. That process could then be folded into the review and provide useful context — it’s the “everyman sharing” approach (aka, Audio Jesus). He goes further to say that there’s real, fundamental and insurmountable ethical issues with sourcing your review gear any other way, specifically arising around what I’ve laid out in the last section around familiarity and influence. But Lachlan has a point — several, actually.
I’m not really planning to tackle Lachlan here (or elsewhere), other than to say that we disagree on the issue of sourcing. I actually have precisely the opposite view — I generally won’t review stuff I buy. Main reason? Same as his, oddly: bias. I spent too many semesters studying theories and examples of cognitive dissonance to feel like parsing it out of my writing. I think personal investment opens the door to bad judgment. I understand how others can feel differently, but my counter arguments were laid out in the first three parts of this series, so I won’t rehash them here. I will say that Tyll Hertsens’ response “Mission Trumps Bias” in InnerFidelity is brilliantly balanced.
Tyll works from an assumption he happily held forth over tasty adult beverages one evening at THE Show in Newport this year, namely, that the Totality of the Online Audio Community, and here he included the forums, mainstream sites like TAS and newer sites like Audio360, Audio Head and Part-Time Audiophile, are not a zero-sum game. That is, it’s never been a “if me, then not them” readership — fans of this site still read Stereophile, Positive Feedback, and any number of online forums. Tyll believes, like I do, that the days of discrete sets of readers is long past, if ever it existed in any serious numbers, and that today’s online readers are pretty much omnivorous. Everything goes into the mix, always.
This kind of admission from a mainline publisher is unusual. The fact that it aligns with my take, laid out in this set of articles, is probably not a good thing for Tyll because I am unwell. In the head. But taking on a video blogger directly and treating his views with the respect, takes guts and a level of self-assurance that’s not only rare, it’s absolutely critical to building the community of trust that makes this whole “review thing” work as something other than a series of competing cults of personality. So, bravo.
In the piece, Tyll lays out a foundation I hadn’t really considered before — that is, the alignment of bias to mission. Not sure he’d say it like this, but the point is, we’re all biased. Horribly, hopelessly, irredeemably biased. I still hold out hope for an Audio Jesus, or better still, an Audio Jesus Society, but lacking that, the only serious solution I’ve seen, heard or found remotely compelling is one John Darkø of Digital Audio Review (and by extension, Srajan Ebaen of 6moons) suggested I adopt: disclosure.
Ideally, a writer (generally) or reviewer (specifically) wouldn’t need to disclose their material supports. Because there would be none. We’d all float around in a happy Utopia, sharing expertise with all and sundry Just Because We Can. Sadly, Utopia is bollux and we all have to make ends meet somehow, someway. Audio reviewers tend to be paid (see Part 3) to do what they do, or, ought to be.
The old adage, that you get what you pay for, is particularly apropos here — if there’s value in the offering, the offerer ought to be compensated in some way. That’s Capitalism! The fact that there are so many so-called professional audio review sites on the web today that don’t pay their writers is not only outrageous, it’s blatantly exploitative. Paradoxically and not coincidentally, this also happens to be the genius behind audio forums — nearly 100% of the content is offered up freely by the readers and it’s this freely-donated content that drives nearly 100% readership, which in turn creates serious value to prospective advertisers. But I digress.
Talking about paying reviewers is a thorny subject — assuming you are being paid for your efforts, the chances of being paid well are slim and none. Which makes alternatives rather interesting — such as Lachlan Tsang’s approach, for example. Monetizing videos through YouTube is a great way to secure a decent revenue stream, but still, it’s not a living — even for a college student like Lachlan, which is why he’s pursuing crowd-funding. You have to admire the approach — following his principles and buying all his own gear is not the cheapest or simplest or easiest way to do it. Good on him for trying something new.
No, it’s far easier for a writer to have other interests. You know. Maybe even a day job. Yours truly takes this approach, and it’s one of the reasons for the title of the site. When those bill-paying day-jobs are outside the industry, no big deal. I mean, what reader is going to care if their favored audio reviewer also happens to be an architect, a physician, or a general contractor? Nifty, maybe, for the human angle, but in terms of bias, it’s a non sequitur. But if that writer happens to be the National Sales director for a company that makes DACs or loudspeakers? Well, that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle o’ fish. One left out in the sun a bit too long. If you know what I mean. You know. Because it stinks? Yeah. That.
Anyway, since Part 3 was published, Part-Time Audiophile has pulled together an Editorial Policy, and published that. The requirement? Financial disclosures. Reviewers working as industry insiders are burning the candle at both ends: it’s not a long-term proposition and won’t be tolerated.
But Tyll’s point about mission is still unaddressed. What is the mission of this, or any, site? Any editorial policy will need to flow from that, not the other way around, so I’m back at my drawing board, fiddling about once again. That aside, the mission statements of all my co-habitants in this segment are all something to put in front of the reader. But even when combined with a detailed disclosure statement, will this kind of information let a prospective reader choose which site aligns most closely to their own philosophy, much less find the Robert Parker that is the most on-point as prospective guides to their audio experience?
I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be more interesting to get a detailed cranial dump from each writer. To hear from them, to have them explain their approach, their references and tools, their goals and to plot the arc of their career-as-reviewer. This is a bit more than a mission statement, obviously; it’s more like a curriculum vitae. But wouldn’t that kind of thing be terrifically useful to a reader?
When there’s no common frame of reference, terms like ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are as meaningless as ‘good’ and ‘neutral’. Measuring success, for a reviewer, then might be more akin to adherence to their mission statement. Ditto, a review site. Me? I find this very compelling.
Review and Art; Art in Review
Back to the whole meta-Art thing.
I submit that the relationship between the reviews and the reviewed is not predatory, not sycophantic, and not merely derivative. Not per se. In high-end audio, I think they’re symbiotic. Whether both survive better because of their joint efforts is moot, and perhaps something worth exploring another time.
I’ll also submit that reviewers are experts, or are as close as we’re likely to get. It’s not that they’re infallible. Far from it. They’re conflicted, poorly incentivized and rather trivially subvertible — they’re human, after all. Finding value from them is tough, tricky business, but the addition of mission statements and disclosures, when tied to a trajectory of relatable work, does seem like it could bring a reader reliably closer than anything else we’ve got.
I’ll submit, finally, that the thing that actually is the most important bit in all this talk about reviews is the aesthetic judgment of value (value statement) made by the reviewer. Without it, the review is pretty much pointless. Yes, there can be a lot of expository joy in anything written. A reader can learn or discover something new, and that’s awesome. But these journalistic windows are pretty much irrelevant to the review and its purpose. Journalism is a good and useful thing. But a review is not journalism. It’s editorial; it expresses an opinion. Hopefully an informed one. But it is, at root, one person’s reaction to the impact that the reviewed thing had on them. Where all that “other stuff” adds value is (and only is) when it adds to the explanation of what that impact was and why they had their reaction. What I want to read is a story. The plot is pretty much pre-determined, but it’s up to the teller to set up all the characters, fill in just enough of their backstory to make them make sense to me, and then to weave in a sense of drama that takes me to a conclusion that I actually want to read.
I should note nowhere in any of this is there any real thread of relevant objectivity. By this point, this should not be surprising — reviews are not true. Or false. Why? Because value statements are not true or false. They’re expressions of preference and of value measured against some personal reference. There is no truth-test for that. That said, there are as many ways to review as there are reviewers tackling the problem. Some use measurements — and measurements are about as objective as we’re likely to get, right?
I know that Stereophile really likes to measure anything they do a review of, assuming that it’s logistically possible to arrange the testing. In my view, they include these results not because they have independent value, because they don’t. They’re expository. Facts. They’re not opinions. Not in the same way a value statement is an opinion. At best, measurements frame the “why” part of the explanation behind the “did I like it or not” question.
I know some reviewers who actually prefer to measure before they evaluate, and are perfectly happy to let the measurements guide their evaluation. Is that wrong? No. Not at all. Why? Because the evaluation is an expression of preference. There is no right or wrong in expressing preference. The fact that this reviewer says that some measurement is an indicator of value is perfectly legit. But only if you value the reviewer, his approach, and his aesthetic. If not, then not. The fact that something measures in truly excellent fashion may be a terrific indication of performance and a terrible indicator of value. Measurements are interesting. Maybe. But it’s an incomplete, not to mention boring, picture at best. And what do you do when things go the other way?
Quite often, Stereophile editor John Atkinson is forced to note that the measurements he’s explaining don’t line up with the experience the other writer has described. Personally, I think it’s kind of funny when that happens. It’s kind of like painting yourself into a corner. If you believe in the value of measurements independent of a review, then this sort of thing is a roadside tragedy in the making. Oh no! The noble reviewer takes one right on the nose! Oh no! Embarrassing.
But going back to Tyll Hertsens again, we have another more interesting example. In reviewing the PM-1 from Oppo, Tyll wrote that he struggled with the decision to elevate that headphone to his highly recommended “Wall of Fame”, something he doesn’t do lightly. Why was there a problem? Well, the headphone failed to measure as well as the others on that Wall. Given it’s price and target audience, this gap was notable, and given Tyll’s methodology and emphasis on measurements, an elevation with this kind of discrepancy was a deviation from protocol. What to do? In the end, Tyll just really liked the headphone and what it did well enough to “get over” the measurements. And that’s really interesting. In this case, he used the measurements as his foil to explain himself, his approach and how he struggled with the product, and the result is, I think, one of the best reviews of headphones out there. Facts, used to drive the story, spiced with a bit of conflict, all laid out to serve an independent aesthetic judgment. Perfect.
Over and out
There’s been quite a bit cropping up lately on ethics, and reviewers, and the industry and how all that knots together. John Darkø calls attention to the blurry and blur-ing lines normally drawn between reviewer and manufacturer, and the new disclaimers on both Digital Audio Review and here are in part a response to that ongoing conversation. The fact that 6moons no longer flies a Part-Time Audiophile banner, and asked us to remove theirs from this site, appears to be a casualty of this new tension. Surprised? I was too, though “mystified” might have been a better word. Guess not everyone is happy with the way things are evolving.
Like Tyll, I subscribe to the view of online proliferation as a non-zero-sum game and I, personally, actively support growth in this segment. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, there’s real value in multiple voices, especially given that I believe we’re just tracing value chains based on personal preferences. Because, you know, preferences vary.
But that pool of willing advertisers isn’t unlimited, and perhaps competition for advertising dollars requires some sort of ready-to-hand differentiation. If so, ethics may well be a convenient dartboard to throw things at. Dunno. But it’s pretty clear that Srajan thinks that there’s some serious flaws with the current method of supporting reviews and reviewers. Taken with Lachlan’s novel approach (above), I take this all as a general commentary on how difficult it is to be a reviewer much less thrive as one. It’s a mess. Still. Even if it is a well-understood mess, it’s one that appears to extend to, and apply to, both ends of the expert/experience chain.
Like many, I’ve struggled with how to convert my hobby into something more. Not sure I should, to be honest, but the very notion is still oddly compelling. Another indication of severe head trauma, I’m sure. Knowing what I do now, the idea of writing my way to fortune seems a bit far-fetched and that’s makes me a more than a little sad. Most telling, perhaps, is the suspicion that success in this line of work, however achieved, brings a significant amount of exposure. And not in the sense where ‘exposure’ = “wider audience”, either; I’m feeling it more as a “wow, you’re way out there on that creaky old limb” sort of thing. Publishing is a tenuous business — and it’s not as if this segment is growing explosively.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure we’ll all be exploring and re-exploring issues like this a bit more over the coming months, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to these notes periodically. We’re cyclic creatures, after all, weird and squishy with our concerns and random bouts of fervor. Just glad I got to shake some of these worms out of the can. That bean was having a hell of a time getting a good rattle on.
In the meantime, I’m going to work on my mission statement. All of them. Heh heh. Yes, there will be more … differentiation … coming soon. For those of you that stuck with me on our philosophical tour, you have my thanks. And my apologies. You’re not getting any of that time back.
Stereophile Editor-at-Large Art Dudley reached out shortly after this post was published and requested that the record be set straight: he most definitely, decidedly, and perhaps even perversely prefers his steaks, and I quote, “barely cooked”.
We most humbly apologize. Properly cooked steak is no laughing matter. 😉