November 8, 2009

How To Make HiFi Reviews Work For You.

My current subscription only mag.

How many times have you heard people whom put together a hifi system comprising of all 5 star rated equipment, only to complain that the sonic result suck big time? Then bitterness set in and they start going around telling other people that "all reviews suck", "reviewers are all big fat liars", "hifi reviews cannot be trusted" and last, but not least "reviewers are better writers than they are listeners!". How about that person whom bought all the best and most expensive equipment that money can buy, only to find out that the resulting sound is not what they had expected? Well at least that last one had nothing to do with reviews. He!,He!

With this note I wish to give some insight about why the above scenarios happened. First I want to reinforce an advise that an ol' timer gave me recently. He told me that the 4 most important factors for putting together a successful hifi system is as follows in the order of priority:

1) The room - One have to first figure out where he intends to set up his hifi system. Because the room will always be a limiting factor to the speaker size it can accommodate, it'll also ultimately dictate if you'll end up with a big or smaller system. This is by logic that a big room will be able to accommodate a pair of big speakers. Big speakers need big amps. and after all the money you've plonk in to the both the former items, one will certainly not want to short change their performance by using less than equally good pre-amp and source equipment.

2) The power supply - Many ol' timers advocate a dedicated power supply line to your chosen room. But these days, a high quality power conditioner is a more convenient, if costly option. The quality of power supply will determine the level of performance of an audio system. All the best and most expensive hifi gear will not perform at their full potential if power supply is not taken care of.

3) The person - The person putting together a system is responsible for the outcome of the final sonic result. No one else shall be blamed for the mess he got himself in to. The person selects all the equipment, either thru reviews or friend's recommendation or just any other reason one can think of under the sun. The most important thing is to listen to the hifi equipment before buying, no matter how many 5 star reviews, awards or how many friends recommended it. I have to ask this question, do you know the test conditions(a.k.a. the listening room), preference of the reviewers writing the review or awarding the awards? How about your friends preferences? Does he like the same things that you do in sound reproduction? And finally, the system owner must ultimately set up, tweak and do all one could to ensure the system that he has painstakingly put together works optimally and results in great sound. Knowledge, effort and time is key to getting a system to sound good.

4) Equipment - Many people say brand A suck, brand B no good, brand C not his cuppa tea! With so many equipments available to choose from, the choice can appear to be daunting. But with enough patience and perseverance, I am very sure one can find the equipment that he likes. Most modern high end hifi equipment offered by the major brands are tonally neutral with minimal coloration, highly transparent, have wide dynamic range and ultra wide frequency bandwidth. On top of that, most offer great reliability and excellent user flexibilities to various degrees. When some say brand A suck, maybe it just doesn't match the system synergy, maybe the system it self is not transparent enough reveal the strengths of product brand A? The hifi system's performance is only as strong as it's weakest link, remember? Did you also note that equipment is ranked the lowest amongst the 4 factors?

With the above 4 main factors explained, I now move on to the thorny issues of the reviewers them selves. Who are they?

Reviewers, are just basically, people like us! People who like music and are intrigue at the way each different hifi equipment portrays the music, and they all do it differently so. All I can say is writing about hifi requires a certain amount of passion, unlike a journalist writing about an event to be printed on the news paper. A Singaporean forumer posted in an online hifi forum that these days, any one with a set of half decent hifi and access to internet can call them selves reviewers! I totally agree to that statement. He!He! We have quite a few examples here don't we?

Car mags are just like hifi mags, only the subject is different, but why no brick bats about the test drivers/writers here?

Hifi mags are very much like car mags, the reviewers/test drivers write about a subject they have passion for. However, we must also remember, that reviewers are just like us, only human. They all have their preferences, which dictates the final sound of their reference system, which is again like us, their hifi set up is dictated by the above 4 main factors, i.e. room size, power supply, the person himself and finally the equipment that he uses as references! See how things goes around, comes back in another round?

However, all said and done, the hifi reviewers have one certain clear advantage that most of us don't. Just like the test drivers whom write car mags, hifi reviewers get to play with a wide variety of gears that most of us average audiophile can only dream of. It's the experiences of various products at various price points and the comparable experience can be used to make recommendations based on one's subjective preference against the over all product standards within the industry. Just like the test drivers of the various car mags, for example: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Mazda 6 or Hyundai Azeera? All belong within the corporate/executive car price bracket, but which is best? Now, I am gonna put on my amateur test driver cap here as an example:

The sportiest road feel with responsive engine: Mazda 6, followed closely by the Honda Accord.

The most comfy ride with high refinement: Toyota Camry, followed by Hyundai Azeera, Honda Accord, and lastly Mazda 6

The most spacious accommodation: Toyota Camry, Hyundai Azeera, and a joint third placing shared by both the Honda Accord and the Mazda 6.
These are just the subjective part of the product's interaction with us, the drivers.

Other more technical factors, which can be measured by specifications like 0-60 times, top speed, vehicle dimensions, no. of cylinders, engine config, compression ratio and fuel economy are all printed on the brochures, so no disputes there. Are there any bad cars of the 4? No, all are just products that each different manufacturer can do within a price point. Compromises are made, some towards a sportier theme, but less accommodating. Some push towards the plush refined side of the spectrum, while others trying to juggle between the two extremes. In the end, what sways buyer A to a Toyota Camry or buyer B to a Honda Accord, ultimately boils down to preference of the individual. Now does it matter if most of the test drivers in the various car mags prefer the Mazda 6? In fact, the Mazda 6 series has won more design achievement awards then the other 3 cars compared here, but where is it in the context of the Malaysian market place? What does that say about the preferences of the Malaysian drivers?

Just like cars, hifi equipment also has 2 sides to it's performance parameters. The subjective interactive user experience part and the latter part of technical specs which are measurable. The second part is the easy part as it can give us an idea about the equipment's performance potential. The important thing is the subjective part, i.e. practical realization the equipment's potential in the context of our system. Again just to add to the subjective vs objective camp debate, in cars, I've driven cars that felt like they going faster than they actually are, like the Alfa Romeo 156 2.0 Selespeed, it doesn't go any faster than, say a equivalent Camry 2.2 of the same vintage year, but it just felt like it went faster, with the sportier theme and engine/exhaust note. However, the stop watch doesn't lie. Bringing back the same debate in hifi, why does some poorer measuring equipment sound better than another superior measured/better spec model? I do not have an answer to either the subjective experience vs objective performance of cars or hifi just yet. Perhaps a day will come when we're all enlighten enough.

Just like how our choice of cars to fit our lifestyle and image, hifi purchase decisions are more or less effect by the same emotional choice. Now why don't I hear people calling car test drivers liars or other derogatory remarks?

So let's assume that all the hifi reviews that we read, does actually reflect the reality of the equipment's subjective sonic capabilities, i.e. reviewers are not lying. Then the only way of trusting reviewers verdict on the review subject is to get to know them, just like we get to know a friend. Let us take reviewers from Stereophile, which I read regularly and have by now formed my opinion about the reviewers that write there. I here by summarise what I think of the following reviewers:

Sam Tellig: Reviews mostly boutique European manufacturers stuff. Loves smaller sized, budget and sometimes China made hifi equipment. I can gather that he is fond of Harbeth, Triangle speakers and Lavardin, Creek and a few other flea watt brands of amplifiers. Most of the stuff he likes, though I have no objections, but just not really my cuppa tea.He!He!

Art Dudley: Loves mostly English and boutique/cottage Japanese hifi gears. His reference system consist of a Sony 777xes SACD player, a modified Linn LP12 turntable, Shindo amps. I am not quite sure what speakers he is using now, but I am sure he like to use transformer based phono stages. I can mostly agree with his reviews on sources only.

Micheal Fremer: The ultra high end guy in Stereophile. Most of the stuff he reviews, I can't afford! But I could agree with many of his reviews.

John Atkinson: Stereophile Editor in Chief and Test Bench guy. He seems to like gears of absolute neutrality, as reflect by his choice of Mark Levinson, Sim Audio amps and Revel speakers. I can only say that I love beautiful sound over absolute neutrality. He is also a music downloads guy. Computer hifi, is not for me just yet. However, I do find John's comments on the test bench results reflective of the design and circuit quality, which is helpful for me from a technical point of view.

Wes Philips: I have found my self to be able to relate to many of his reviews, and he is normally not far off the mark from my very own experiences with the hifi equipments that he reviews. He mostly reviews gears of similar quality and price levels as those "featured" here in HiFi Unlimited, may be that's why?

So now you know what I mean by getting to know the reviewers. By getting to know the people whom write the reviews, we can gauge their preferences, mostly in which review samples they bought. Just like us, Big E and Odiosleuth. We can all like the things we review, but we'll only buy them if we like them too much, not able live without them!(unless, we can't afford them that is). Now is that practical logic or what? But the question remains still, do you like the same things that we do in sound reproduction? How well do you know us as friends?

A good British read on mostly mid fi and entry level high end audio gear.

Lastly, speaker reviews are a little more tricky to decipher. However, I have an almost(yeah "almost" but not absolute!) way to sort them as well. My general take is this, if you have big space/room to put your hifi in to, then most American reviews of the speaker model you choose would be quite valid. If you've got a small room like mine, then most European reviews of the said speaker model is more valid. This is based on my opinion formed that most average American homes are bigger than most average European homes. And with big homes comes big rooms, smaller homes, you get equally small rooms. I also must point out that many American homes have rather flexible wooden build, but Europeans would almost certainly build their homes with stone, just like our Asian brick walls. This is because flexible wooden walls will easily cancel out some low bass quantity, and hard stone/brick wall will enhance low bass quantity to a certain degree. That's why it's common to have room boom for stone/brick wall rooms and almost a non issue with wooden built wall rooms. Now if a speaker review does mention about the room's size used for the said review, that's certainly a great plus, just to be very sure.

The British high end audio bible, I love reading Roy Gregory articles.

By now, I hope I've shed some light on how to use hifi reviews for the benefit of one's hifi audition short listings. DO NOT BUY any piece of hifi equipment on the strength of it's reviews. One should instead use reviews to shortlist the equipment candidates he wishes to purchase for audition. I think it is fair to short list 2 brands of specific hifi equipment within your budgeted spending range, 3 if you're rather fussy or harder working but I think to audition everything under the sun is just too time consuming and ultimately, only leads to frustration of having too many choices to confuse you.

I am not writing this to defend the hifi reviewers, I just think that it's a point that needs to be straighten and we can all enjoy reading our hifi mags again, with the full benefit of doubt as a courtesy to the professional reviewers at work.


Sze Ern said...

Wow Big E, quite a write up there!

You've covered most points for readers who are shopping. However, there are also many readers who already have some form of hi-fi at home and are enjoying music. These readers come to reviews and magazine to get a taste of utopia which they can never ever afford (today anyway). So reviews are a form of escapism where with a bit of imagination and familiarity with the reviewer's taste/style, you can get a feel of the whole music experience through this particular high end gear.

I'd argue 99% of all who read reviews of the Veyron, Carrera GT and Zonda could never afford and are completely aware/comfortable with this fact. But for that taste of heaven, words on a page evokes sounds of the intake, vibrations through the cabin and the way the rev needles sweeps so effortlessly across the arc. How it must feel to delicately steer the car at the edge of all 4 corners' traction under power and under braking.

Sometimes, we want to get a feel for the house sound of a make, and this is usually expressed in their statement/flagship models. So even if ultimately as a shopper you can only afford the lower end offering of a particular make, you can roughly estimate the type of colour and smell from the music through this make. This is particularly so of companies where a single person is responsible for the design (older Sonus Faber's and Franco Serblin comes to mind). And for this, reviews of high end gears are valuable, for me at least.

You can probably guess that I too don't think absolute neutrality is the most important thing, but rather the ability to listen to music which stimulates you, be it goose bumps or just that general feeling of euphoria/sadness.

Big E said...

Sze Ern,

Thanks for the encouraging words. I am sorry of it seems a little long winded.

I delibrately covered most points on the aspect of purchase decision with the assitance of reviews.

To view high end hifi that is way beyond our dreams is sheer escapism, and mostly fun too.

I am glad to share your point of view that absolute neutrality is not necessarily the best sounding, but the ability of a system to carry a tune with goose bumps inducing moments are certainly much more an enjoyable listen, everytime!

PuchongWong said...

Big e,

A bout your thesis, i agree to 3 points, but one on the person i don't agree entirely, i think tin ears if trained well one day also can become golden ears,

tan said...

Big E,

Very good view.

I agree that good/clean main power is very important to reveal equipments best.

Yes, prolonged and more enjoyable listen without ears fatigue is the main point for most of us to have a hifi system.
Best regards.