Latest News

The Music List: Is It Really Necessary? | The Vinyl Anachronist









A few weeks ago, I found myself editing an equipment review and I got to that section. You know the section, the one where the reviewer gathers up copious notes on the music used during the review and condenses it into a survey of sorts. I call it the Music List.

In this particular case, the Music List went on and on and eventually became the largest section in the review. I asked myself an important question—do we really need all this? Is it necessary to discuss the fabled drum solo by Steve Gadd on “Aja” as extra punchy on a particular pair of speakers? Or how easily we can hear Yoko’s back-up vocals on “Obla-di, Obla-da” through the latest DAC?

Maybe.

I published a review not too long ago, and I didn’t mention any particular pieces of music in the “listening” section—on purpose. Within a few hours of publication, we received a comment on the website: “What music did you listen to? How are we supposed to put your review in context?” And I came to the realization that we all expect reviewers to go on and on about the records they listened to, a linguistic touchstone for the readers. It’s not important to me, but it evidently is for a large chunk of audiophiles.

I thought about the concept of the Music List for quite some time. I’ve never been that fond of it. In many cases, I can write an entire review without even thinking about the music I listened to, and then I have to go back and mention some specific tracks. It’s a perfunctory chore, and to me it takes away from the flow of the review.

If I do mention music, I try to talk about a moment that clicked for me, a track in which I felt I learned something about the review subject. I can include those moments and still feel original, still in the reviewing-with-honesty zone. But in most high-end audio reviews, not just ours, I sense there’s a trend going on with the Music List. I’ll summarize it like this: sometimes I see reviews where there are more photos of album covers than the actual piece of gear being reviewed. That’s really odd to me.

I’ll tell you another thing. When I get to the Music List in high-end audio reviews, I usually skip it. It rarely tells me anything I need to know other than the reviewer’s too-cool-for-school musical tastes. Or occasionally, the reviewer’s somewhat mainstream and pedestrian tastes. Or, even worse, the reviewer is using the same five tracks for every single review. He’s been doing so since 2003.

A Little Help Here?

I’ve kept this opinion about the Music List to myself for a long time. I was convinced that I was alone. We should never forget about the music! Are we music lovers or just obsessed with gear? My answer has usually been “both.” But I seem to be in the minority.

Out of the blue, I asked the Part-Time Audiophile staff their opinion on the Music List. I heard a variety of responses up and down the spectrum. Eric Franklin Shook was the first to chime in and agree with me, and for a very good reason—he had recently published a review where he didn’t mention a single piece of music either. (I noticed this when I edited it, and I quietly said to myself, “Thank God, someone agrees with me.”) He felt that the Music List is often clunky in execution.

Here are his thoughts, found in the recent review of the Audeze LCD-1:

“Well, some writers in the hi-fi press look at the writing of reviews like the filling out of a form, where nothing should be left blank. To the team at Part-Time Audiophile, that feels like a crutch. If the review merits the kind of explanation that requires detailed analysis of said component using certain passages of a song, so be it. But it’s not required.

“In the instance of the Audeze LCD-1, attributing a sonic color to something so flat and clean-sounding would be like trying to attach rich and savory adjectives to premium filtered water. It’s not happening and it’s not believable.”

But Scot Hull also made the cogent and pragmatic point that I could cross-link the Music List to my Vinyl Anachronist music reviews, which made me go “Hmm.”

There was lively debate among the team, and here are some of the comments made:

“I have recently stopped mentioning a lot of music but I’m thinking it’s time to move back to describing things I hear in stuff. But maybe not a long laundry list of stuff, just three or four examples. But if you don’t mention a specific thing and simply say ‘my whole music collection sounded like a brand new experience with the Barking Pumpkin 2000 cartridge,’ that’s just as tired-sounding.” —Dave McNair

“I think that depends on the length of the review. A short review citing every significant piece of music basically doubles in length.” –Graig Neville

“There will always be those who complain that audiophiles use the music to listen to our equipment. And if you don’t do that they’ll say you don’t know enough music to evaluate, or you didn’t do your homework. Somebody is always unhappy so I say just write whatever the hell we want! But personally, I do my homework and have detailed listening notes on specific pieces of music I choose.” –Richard H. Mak

How About the Rest of the World?

I put the same Music List question out to social media, just to get a wider sample of opinions among people in the industry and audiophiles in general.

“I would say vital as many will know the recordings in question, especially if notes are given on the format used. It is also a great way to find interesting recordings that the reader may not be familiar with.”  –Andy Moore, MIAN Distribution, UK

“What Andy said.”  -Benza Cox Lance

“I would go with Peter and the Wolf and any Led Zeppelin.” –Alan Workman

“I started doing this in my first full reviews for Hi-Fi News in 1982. My model for a review was that it was a surrogate for inviting the readers to my room for a listening session. So if I listed the recordings I played, they could emulate the experience.” –John Atkinson, Stereophile

“Essential. It tells me a lot about the quality of the review. I also enjoy discovering new music based on what the reviewer uses as references.” –Mark Block

“A good question. It’s easy to overdo this.” –David William Robinson, Positive Feedback

“I say screw it all and tell us what you listened to (and what format). Leave it up to the readers to purchase downloads or find the LPs and CDs to hear what you are talking about.” –Dan Muzquiz, Blackbird Audio Gallery

“What’s a long list of recordings? Four to six records should be enough to describe in detail what you hear, but essential.”  –Gregor Rothensee

Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think about the Music List and its importance to a high-end audio review? Just leave your comment below, and thanks in advance for your input!









13 Comments on The Music List: Is It Really Necessary? | The Vinyl Anachronist

  1. Love, love, love the list and references to what to listen for. We are getting back into stereo after decades away raising kids. Hauled out our Technics 1301 with Dynavector cartridge (Bought it just as CDs became the thing in the early 80’s, so it has only a few hours on it) and via various reviews have found great music to try….Hoodoo Man or Friday Night in San Fransisco. Rarely is there a product that I want to or can afford (wife approval factor), but the music….oh my!

  2. I have mixed feelings. It is very tired and usually not helpful, filled with things like you cited – I really heard those glockenspiels like I never have before! – what the hell does that mean? Perhaps something more like: this component, in the context of my system (never enough commentary about the Rest of the system), “drew my attention to high frequencies and transients, but tended to lend hardness to recordings that are bright.” To me this would be more effective. Also please offer the type of components the reviewer finds would match its attributes. Be up front about your biases. Eg, I like British boxes with warm tubes, and components that accentuate this. With that information, then to me it is helpful to know how the gear impacts or changes the the sound of a recording. Or, “with my reference component X, this record sounds (insert). But when I played this same record on subject reviewed component Y, the sound changed as follows. If you prefer speed, transparency and even frequency response, this component would serve those ends because blank. In the following recordings I came to this conclusion as follows…

    Blah blah blah

    Also it is great to know what people like to listen to in any case. I think this gives at least some insight into what the listener or reviewer might prefer.

  3. It can certainly be a cliche (if the music mentioned is a cliche) but then I also value my favorite audio reviewers for their choices in deep cuts, and often come away from a review with new sounds to seek out (this is even more valuable when the equipment reviewed is not something I’d ever expect to own or perhaps even hear myself, however the experience of the music is much more accessible). I wouldn;t bother with any of the gear, especially at the prices, were it not for getting deeper into the music … so what good is an audio review without the discussion of some of that music? The best writers make of their listening something much more profound that a formulaic list, that’s for sure.

  4. That settles it! I’m putting music references back in future reviews.

  5. Darryl Lindberg // November 23, 2020 at 12:05 PM // Reply

    I believe it’s important for the writer and reader—along with the editor—to keep in mind what’s being reviewed: is it equipment or music? If it’s equipment, then I’m certainly in favor of condensing musical examples. But there’s no avoiding that fact that software (music) in one form or another is necessary to evaluate equipment: it’s the grist that elicits a reviewer’s response (positive or negative) to the gear under review. So I find it useful to know what’s on the playlist—within reason. After all, if music isn’t on the menu, doesn’t the equipment become nothing more than listening room decoration/furniture?

    Regarding the music, I find exceedingly annoying obscurist reviewers who use ridiculously recondite material as their “reference recordings.” I mean really, just for example, how many audiophiles are sufficiently familiar with live zither music to the extent that they’re able to determine whether a particular zither LP (test pressing, naturally), CD, tape, et al. is accurately reproduced by their system? Although I’m not especially cynical, I can’t help but consider the possibility that such arcane material is chosen specifically to ensure that readers won’t ever be able to confirm or refute the reviewer’s comments (“Hey, wait a minute, that sure didn’t sound like a zither on my system!”).

  6. Yeah I don’t care much either, mostly because I listen to very different music than most reviewers, it seems.

    Can someone please tell me what turntable is the one in the first two pictures?

  7. Lawrence Marshall // November 22, 2020 at 9:00 PM // Reply

    I don’t necessarily need to know what music was listened to during the review period, but I’m usually curious to know what a piece of equipment’s strengths and/or weaknesses might be. I’m fine with generalizations, i.e., timbre of instruments was uncanny, but large scale orchestral passages were congested at loud listening levels…or whatever. In any case, the most important thing a writer can do is find their own voice, whatever that might be! If the writing is compelling, I’m happy to go along for the ride.

  8. To me the Music List in a review is essential. It does not have to be exhaustive. Three to four tracks will do if they are drawing attention to a particular audio characteristic.

    If I am familiar with the track mentioned then I have a solid idea of what the reviewer is trying to communicate.

    If I am not familiar with the tracks then I am excited to get on Tidal and have a listen.

    I love finding new tracks to listen to in this manner. It is almost a guarantee that the suggested tracks will be of a high recording quality. That is a rare resource and can shorten my search for well recorded music.

    I often will open a review of a piece of equipment I am not interested in just to browse the Music List offered in the review. That probably describes best how important the list is to me. Your mileage may vary. Cheers.

  9. Unless it’s based solely on measurements, the reviewing process must include listening to specific tracks. The reviewer determines what’s different about these tracks with the newly installed piece. Specifying the list allows the reader to follow suit with the same recordings to see if his or her results match that of the reviewer. The number of tracks does not need to be exhaustive to be illustrative. What I want to know is, did the new piece reveal more ambient cues from the recording venue, was glare transformed into information, was the three dimensional shape of the saxophone more clearly outlined, was the shape of the column of air within it more palpable and so on. If the reader’s results match the reviewer’s that reinforces his assessment. If they do not it says something about the reviewer‘s system and/or the reader’s.

  10. Charles Rollo // November 22, 2020 at 12:02 PM // Reply

    Very important just to play same music for every review. A benchmark. IMHO piano, violin, cello should be part of list.

  11. A couple of touchstones (genre-based rather than specifics) are great and useful. A long, exhaustive list of increasingly obscure tracks? No thanks. Tell me how drums sound, how guitars sound, how strings sound, etc.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: