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?
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.”
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
“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!