Many readers may think the life of your average hifi reviewer is a non-stop round of high-end luxury, champagne breakfasts, fast cars and supermodel baubles. Think again says Dominic Marsh as he tells it like it really is.
I don’t know what your own personal opinions are about hifi reviewers, but I am pretty sure that you have a mental picture of what it’s like to be one, so I thought my latest blog should give readers a little insight into what it’s like to be a hifi reviewer and if you aspire to becoming one, this might just change your mind. Consider a career in Crocodile hunting instead.
You probably think we are permanently surrounded by all manner of esoteric hifi components with price tags that read like the Starship Enterprise’s odometer, with us positively bathing in these wonderful sounds day after day, week after week, month after month. Nope, you couldn’t be more wrong if you tried.
Firstly, you really do have to bury your own personal listening preferences immediately, and trust me, that is not an easy thing to do. It is rarely, if ever pleasurable because it is WORK in the strictest sense of the word, the level of concentration required is immense and often very tiring. It can also involve a lot of chopping and changing elements in your reference system to get the best sound out of the component under test to reveal its true performance envelope… and that brings a new meaning to the word “synergy” in our world.
When you actually want to unwind with your own system and take a listen to your favourite music you have to go through the pain of putting your system back together again and safely storing or packing away the review components…and that’s before you can even begin listening! On the subject of which, you (or I) may not mind dozens of boxes heaped up all over the place because it is all part of the territory, but the significant other half is usually a lot less tolerant about having their home overflowing with mountains of boxes. When you have completed your listening sessions and written up the review, you let whoever sent the item to you know that you would like it to be collected as soon as possible. There have been one or two that need repeated prompting, so that that mountain of boxes has reached Everest proportions once or twice, much to the wife’s annoyance.
So, the courier delivers a box or boxes, you crack them open and haul out some gorgeous item you relish playing with, yes? Nope, again. 99% of what gets sent to you is fresh off the production line or development department and it all needs running in before you even contemplate listening to it. One item is bad enough, but just before Christmas I had no less than 8 items, all minty fresh and most needed 400 hundred hours running in. EEEEEK! That was akin to spinning 8 plates at once and my electricity meter jolly near fell off the wall while this lot was merrily cooking away for hour after hour getting ready for the evaluations.
I am often asked why I don’t write negative reviews and this is my definitive answer; yes there are some components submitted for review that are hopelessly inadequate and they are returned to the manufacturer – smartish. “Why not review them anyway so we know what to avoid?” I hear you ask and the answer is simple when you are this side of the fence. Why should I or any other reviewer for that matter, waste an inordinate amount of time and hard effort reviewing a component that woofs, when there is lined up far into the distance some superb components that are more than worthy of high praise? Secondly, if the product gets withdrawn, then nobody will relate what was written in a review to a product that isn’t being sold. Lastly, I do normally have the good grace to explain to whoever submitted the item why it doesn’t meet minimum standards and most (but not all) take on board what you have said and modify the product accordingly, or withdraw it from the market completely. I am not in the business of savaging (or indeed over praising) anything for the sake of it and even the direst of components have had some redeeming features, but not I’m afraid sufficient enough to press ahead with a full review. Interesting enough, there have been a few instances where before I even receive the item I am literally bombarded with “technical information” which I would like to rename something else, but that would mean using a few choice/rude words, so I won’t. In all of the instances of that so far, it has turned out that the products themselves were terrible, so I regarded it as no more than propaganda in an attempt to brainwash me into thinking I was getting something to review that was superb, when it clearly wasn’t. My antennae start twitching immediately now when I get emailed a load of this “information to help the review process”. Hifi Pig also don’t believe the majority of our readers want to read about poor hifi and from the outset our mission has been to “Snoofle Out What’s HOT in Hifi”…and long may that continue.
Most of the time you walk a very narrow tightrope of what your own views are, what the readership demands, what the editor wants form you and what the people who submit items for review want, and sometimes it can all crash without warning and out with your own control. Boy, have I experienced some serious flounces from one and all of those sectors and it can be an error of only one wrong word and your backside gets toasted good and proper. Part of the reason for that is some manufacturers have literally put their entire heart and soul into the baby they have sent you and they all firmly believe they have created the best Hifi EVER and no mere reviewer is going to say anything otherwise. You might also think that we write effusive and fawning reviews to please whoever submitted the item(s). If that were the case there would be no point whatsoever in handing anything over to a reviewer and just let the marketing people loose on it to gush out the accolades in torrents.
Did I hear a cynical accusation of bribery or being given a small bung to say nice things? Hahahahahahahahaha! Fat chance! I have never been offered any inducements of any kind from anyone and never would accept one anyway, as my loyalties must also lie with the readership who actually do read and absorb (sometimes act upon) what I write. We do not get paid for reviewing in-kind or in hard cash and while I bemoan it many times on a personal level, it still gives me true independence to write whatever I like without bias or favour. Stuart our editor and owner of Hifi Pig has never yet altered or amended any of my reviews and we do lock horns from time to time over some of the things I write, but a conversation between us usually sorts things out and I much prefer that to having the red pencil unilaterally applied to my reviews.
I see myself as simply a pair of ears who can translate what I hear into the written word that you the reader can relate to, nothing more, nothing less. I suppose the real indicator of how enthusiastic I may get about any component is when I put my hand in my pocket and buy it. I read a fellow reviewer’s comments a few days ago on how he approaches his reviews and he says he is like the friend or family member who recommends certain products, full in the knowledge that if it all goes pear shaped it’s his neck on the block! There is a lot of merit in that.
Another thing that frustrates is the lack of good available language to use to describe a sound. Not THOSE words you naughty readers you, I mean using a bigger more varied palette of words, aside from the well worn ones like “incisive”, “coherent”, “musical” (whatever that means) and a dozen other frequently dished out subjective words that can mean different things to different people. They say that Eskimos have a word for each different type of snow and that extends to a fair good number as I understand it and we English have the one – snow, which is a close parallel to what I am trying to say about words that describe music I hear to an audiophile. I’m sure you all ‘get’ what I mean here.
One of the many quandaries I face almost on a daily basis is scoring a product. There is very often an imbalance to be found where a “budget” component exceeds expectations (The proverbial “giant killer”) and actually gets a higher scoring than a more expensive component, even though the pricier product is probably better in every way than the cheaper component. We at Hifi Pig Magazine fret endlessly about this one and have tried to work out a much fairer yet consistent system, but no workable ideas that readers can easily comprehend and understand have yet surfaced. OK dear readers, have you got any ideas you could share with us as how to achieve this particular goal? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’m sure he’ll be in touch.
Given all that I have written above in this article, the burning question that needs to be asked is why, when it is such hard work, having your house perpetually cluttered up, not being paid, dealing with every complexion of emotions from manufacturers, distributors, PR agencies, dealers and not forgetting the readers, to all the other foibles the job entails, do I still want to continue writing reviews? I will tell you why. It is when someone, no matter who, takes the time and trouble to thank you for what you have written in a review, it’s as simple as that. If a reader has bought a component based upon a review of mine and is delighted with it, saying I made their buying decision easier, then that pleases me. If a manufacturer calls me to say I have nailed it 100% in an evaluation, that pleases me. I try whenever possible to inject some light hearted humour into my reviews and if it entertains as well as informs, then I am over the moon when people tell me they had a real hoot reading it. That is a fair trade to me!