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Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
august/september 2002


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Auroville, 4
by Srajan Ebaen

Today’s stream-of-consciousness crisis starts off with a question. It’s been bothering me lately—again. Say you were shopping for speakers. You’d do the usual tour through the local theater of retail operations. Narrowing down the prospects—possibly predetermined by exposure at shows or friends or a review-based short list—you’d ideally contract for a home demo with the dealer and model of your choice. Settle down for an eagerly anticipated, cover-all-bases audition in your living room.

How long before you’re expected to make up your mind?

If in-store, a few hours—tops. Perhaps more if accrued over a coupla visits. If at home, two days over the weekend. Speakers due back in the store on Monday. That’s what the man said. The stakes? Just your hard-earned moola, my friend. Nothing more.

Now let’s turn you into a reviewer. You’re doing a speaker assignment. How long before the manufacturer should reasonably expect publication of said review? How long before your Editor should get suspicious, demand that you hand in your outstanding report, or else? (Or else what? He could fire you—afterwards. But first he needs your written tome to fulfill his obligation to the manufacturer. Chances are he’ll prod you softly rather than assault you with a highly charged cattle prod. So take some more time. Enjoy. You could never afford ‘em anyway. Listen while the going’s good.)

Let’s leave this scenario open-ended for a moment. Take a detour for some scenery. When I was still in manufacturing and charged to procure reviews for my employers, it never occurred to me to press for turnaround times. Being a wide-eyed greenhorn, I wasn’t even exactly sure what was proper etiquette to land "the" review. There certainly weren’t any self-help books to guide the budding audio sales manager through the ropes of handling the press (Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em—now I’m pressed. There’s justice after all.)

Thankfully, there was common sense and experience, though not always in that sequence. InterNet publications gained credibility to offer valid alternatives to print. The modus operandi of the older establishment—thus far unchallenged part-of-the-package status quo ("the nature of the beast", perhaps decried and lambasted in private but still accepted with a brave smile as the way it was)—suddenly became undermined. It no longer was the only game in the small village that is High-End audio.

I distinctly remember shock at being told, unsolicited no less and for the first time, like a virgin, that an on-line review would publish approximately four months after receipt of product. Slowly the repercussions registered. I began to question the formerly unquestioned—and at times absolutely massive—delays I had experienced and been warned about elsewhere. But it was to take many more years before I gained the requisite ruggedness of character to make turnaround time mandatory part of the candidly negotiated upfront deal.

If I ship you said piece, how long ‘til the review hits? I get a fact-check copy before then. I want a manufacturer’s reply. I want permission to reproduce the review on our website if we so chose, quote excerpts for possible future ads. What equipment will you be using? How big’s your room? How good’s your hearing? (That I didn’t dare ask.) I want a guarantee. If anything goes wrong, you contact me immediately so we can address the issue expediently and professionally. Don’t call some service tech at the factory or some local guy. Talk to me. Also, I need receipt confirmation after the piece is hooked up and you’ve ascertained that everything’s hunky dory…!

Golly gee, did I lose my good graces? Did I turn into a demanding prick? What about that carefully cultivated and profuse gratitude, for the mighty honor that these magazines would deign to review my stuff?

Did I lose what?

How about gaining perspective? 

I simply wised up. Let’s get back at the unanswered question: How long should a reviewer be expected to listen before he can render definitive judgment? As a consumer, you have a few days at best. Then the dealer demands you shit (golden bricks) or get off the pot. Why are certain experts at liberty to take months and months, at times exceeding a full year?

Does it really take ‘em that long? Or, is the stuff just sitting in a garage waiting its turn, formal audition concluded in a few weeks when the guy finally gets around to it? If so, why requisition the product so far ahead of time? Doesn’t someone have the common courtesy to appreciate that sending $4000 amps or $6000/pr of speakers out on loan—to possibly be returned in less than 100% mint conditionis quite the burden on its maker?

Let’s give ‘em the benefit of the doubt, Say said gear was not hastily requisitioned. Why then does a golden-eared expert take forever, requiring far more time than a less experienced consumer? After all, the consumer lives with the results of his decision forever (or at least until the upgrade bug bites and the checking account refills). The reviewer merely asks for a call-tag pickup. What kind of business ethics are these? And when the manufacturer dares inquire about review status, he’s stonewalled. No communication between reviewer and manufacturer until the review hits.

But then you figured that you were a small and upcoming firm. Don’t shit where you eat. Bite your tongue, practice patience. You live longer, Confucius claims. Perhaps, but what about business?

In the garishly decorated grotto of my mental Tropicana bar, such ruminations have been pestering the regulars sipping their colorful cocktails. These questions have not been answered satisfactorily. Or perhaps, they haven’t been asked enough. While I can’t speak for any other writer or publication but for myself, I’ll simply share my thoughts on this pesky subject.

Here goes. If I clear the gates by stating "A professional reviewer should" then a brief explanation of the term "professional" is in order. The accepted difference between amateurs and professionals is that the latter do "it" for a living—hard cash to put it more crasslywhile amateurs do it for the sheer sport. Most established print magazine writers fall into the pro category while half or more of the InterNet writersyours truly included at this timeare amateurs.

You could expand the definition though. By default of volume, consistency and quality, an un- (or very poorly) paid amateur writer might sooner or later give the impression of being a professional. He or she might then be accorded the accompanying privileges as well as being held to the same high standards of conduct, responsibility and criticisms. Call it a perception issue. A raise without pay.

These lines are obviously blurry. That might explain why certain writers are judged more harshly than they rightly should. Others are let off the hook too easily. It’s applying the same boilerplate standards when what’s more appropriate on closer inspection is a distinction or demarcation.

So here goes again. A professional reviewer should have the acuity of hearing and the necessary time at hand to complete an assignment in 30—60 days. Lean toward the lower end if gear is received fully broken-in, toward the higher if requiring preconditioning. Much longer and one might as well question what makes him an expert.

He should possess the requisite tools to do his job. This requires a listening room suitably sized and optimized for good sound. Preferably it’s pictorially documented for reference (easier done on-line with a link to an archived bio section than in print). If the room were a mere 12" x 14", full-range speakers should be the rare exception, not the norm. Even as the exception, they should serve only as sidebar opinion to another writer endowed with the appropriate space.

While this seems so obvious as to not even merit mention, manufacturers who’ve been to places and seen certain things tell me it’s not. Part of the writer’s tool kit outside the room should be a variety of cables, preferably widely flavored. That facilitates experimentation with synergy concerns. He should possess enough technical understanding to not blindly fall prey to manufacturers’ product propaganda he’s then liable to use as base for his technical descriptions.

I don’t at all believe a reviewer needs to be an engineer—in fact, that’d put the noose around my own neck really tight. But he should know just enough to sniff out BS when it stares him in the face. Do the research necessary to ascertain questionable matters. Consult with actual engineers or designers for second or third opinions if need be. Know or learn enough about a product to evaluate all of its features and intended applications to render comprehensive judgment.

A reviewer should have the experience necessary to put findings into greater context. How does it compare? Is it worth the money? This is where lines get blurry once again. How to acquire said experience without starting out ignorant and naive?

The Editor or equipment review coordinator often becomes the safeguard. He monitors that equipment status and growing exposure level proceed in close proximity lockstep. Still, for every reviewer not pigeonholed and imprisoned in one lone category, there will have to be many a first. How else would this process ever get started? If honesty and disclaimers are used, such evaluations can turn out to be stacked goldmines.

Imagine. "This is my first encounter with a tube amp. I went into this assuming that…" Isn’t this the very situation facing many a potential customer? They’ll relate far better to this review than one penned by a writer who lives, breathes and dreams tube amps and talks about them via obscure references and subtleties that must seem esoteric blather to the uninitiated.

I recall fellow writer John Potis’ SoundStage! review of the AUDIOPAX integrated. Knowing I was turning into a self-styled tube hound, he confided to a certain measure of nervousness. He felt just slightly incompetent to tackle this subject with the perspective he thought necessary. Nonsense, I said. Not having a perspective is a perspective. Just be candid about it. Then describe what you hear as you would anything else.

After the review published, a congratulatory e-mail was dispatched with due haste. Not only was this a very concisely written evaluation, it made the whole tube experience accessible to the novice. This was particularly appropriate since the component under evaluation was priced such that the most immediate target audience was folks just like John—newbies to SETs not likely to spend the long green on such a leap of faith.

In a kind of parallel development pointing the other direction, Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere contacted me recently. I was unwitting part of a personal survey of potential reviewers to pop the cherry on his forthcoming $60,000 statement OTL. I felt momentarily smug that I would even qualify. Then I politely declined. To begin with, using >103dB efficient speakers made me the wrong guy for his high-power monster amp. More importantly, I’m a babe in the woods when it comes to batting in those rarefied leagues. And while there is a first for everything—I was listening to my own soliloquyto accelerate from $10,000 to $60,000 in one second were more Gs than I felt prepared for.

But there was more yet. A statement product such as Ralph’s needs to be launched with massive fireworks to make the requisite impact. Things being what they are, still—but already changing – print carries with it higher perceived credibility and gravitas. A premiere review in Stereophile or The Absolute Sound flies higher, louder and explodes with brighter colors than the same review by the same writer on-line. (Why that is so could be fodder for a future installment.)

With a few exceptions, print is where the rare writers make their home who are qualified to review genuine statement-level products. They’ve been carefully groomed over many years and now sport the requisite exposure, experience and system contexts under their belt and roof to mix it up on the higher slopes of Mount Olympus.

Perhaps this explains why to date no on-line venture has dedicated itself to "Ultimate or Extreme Audio". There simply aren’t enough mature upper echelon writers equipped to pull it off with the panache, prestige and professionalism that preaching on equal footing to such an audience requires. Imagine the manufacturer who’s approached for his new $50,000 floorstander. It weighs 700 lbs and requires delivery by specialized freight. Wouldn’t he want assurance that his babies visited a home that had seen equally ambitious guests before, perhaps even housed some in residence?

To boot, the current pay scale for audio computer screen jocks is such that no heavy hitter writer with the appropriate credentials could be expected to join for pocket change. The funny thing is that web-based publishing does offer distinct advantages for such a venture: Winsome turnaround times to minimize the considerable burden on long-term loans of such platinum-plated gear; and the "hard drive is cheap" reality of extensive pictorial documentation that SOTA gear deserves to emphasize its jewel-like appearance from ever conceivable angle, and to show it interfacing with an equally decorated environment.

Perhaps it is time for an HP/JV-league InterNet effort after all. Just who’d staff it? When you think about a publication dedicated to SOTA gear, it’s really much more about selling the dream than reporting on reality. Reality would be to apply hard test bench measurements and, on the part of the writer, the measure of requisite exposure to solid mid-priced offerings. With these items in place, the honest reporter can’t really be as indiscriminately gung ho as he’d have to be to make a compelling case for the existence of outrageously priced components. How to gush unreservedly if you know that for 1/5th the outlay, you could purchase something that measures better, performs every bit as good and is likely backed by a company established and sizable enough to survive long term?

But here’s the twist. Writers with the experience necessary to tackle and take the true measure of SOTA gear are the very same ones who usuallyby virtue of having climbed the ranks over many yearsalso possess the proper perspective: Shy of snob appeal, survive-the-next-world-war build quality and diamond-encrusted controls, much of the money-grows-on-trees stuff is unforgivably overpriced and can’t be recommended in good conscience.

For argument’s sake, let’s say we insist on publishing our Ultra-Audio rag regardless. Should we recruit our heroic SOTA tenors from the ranks of the less experienced writers? They’d be far more likely to soil their starchy white briefs at the mere thought of receiving $30,000 digital separates loaners than a world-weary veteran with little spare enthusiasm left to waste on anything but the true and rare exception.

In fact, the latter would be an outright liability, set to puncture the whole over-inflated bubble of the ultra High-End with a few choice cynicisms. Better to groom the right yes-men by not having them climb through the ranks but jump over the high-performance sector as though it didn‘t exist. Then feed ‘em ever more expensive stuff to spoil their appetites for good. How could they possibly perform the dreaded reality check in the everyman arena after having gotten used to feasting on truffles and Taittinger exclusively?

Boy, now I really worked myself into a tangled web of my own fabrication. I better stop before I trip myself. Ponder some of today’s suggested implications—if you’re in the mood. Otherwise, turn the page and fogeddaboudid. In the end, none of it matters. You might as well get out right at the beginning and listen to some good tunes instead. In fact, that’s what I’m gonna do right now: Adam del Monte’s Viaje a un nuevo mundo, then Gary Burton & Makoto Ozone on their new Virtuosi, and lastly the guilty pleasures of The Best of Lounge Music

Visit Srajan Ebaen at his site