Sound Of/Or Music…

You don’t need to read many reviews to find examples of writers decorating their copy with examples designed to big up their musical credentials. They vary from the constant insistence on referencing rare, obscure or unobtainable recordings (the latter serving the double purpose of making their observations effectively unverifiable) to long-winded anecdotes about live events that bear no real relevance to the subject at hand. To that you can add massive lists of material used for listening and pally accounts of ‘insider’ access to artists and recordings. They’re all designed to fuel the impression that music is the centre and lodestone of the writer’s existence, that their conclusions are the result of hours of intimate communing with recordings, system and equipment, connecting on a higher emotional and musical plane.

Practice makes perfect?

The reality is rather different. Some months ago, Alan Sircom, editor of Hi-Fi Plus, was taken to task over the number of reviews he writes for each issue. Personally, I stand in awe of his output, but it’s also impossible to square the kind of meticulous, highly involved musical assessment outlined above with producing 10 or more reviews a month. Except that, as AS pointed out, reviewing (just like listening to high-end audio) is an acquired skill. You learn how to do it and there is no harder school than the product packed pages of the mass-market publications that are his background. Sit an established and capable reviewer in front of an equipment comparison and he’ll tell you an awful lot about the sonic differences between the two DUTs in a matter of minutes. Depending on the reviewer’s perspective, his observations may well extend into the musical as well. Knowing musicians, unless that musician’s material is being played, or even being a musician, is of limited value. The skillset is specific and different – partly because it does deal, to a large extent, with the sonic.

I can’t speak to reviewers in general, but as a fully signed up member of the observational/subjectivist school, I can certainly describe my own listening practice. If a review takes a month or more to complete, that doesn’t infer that I’m spending 30 days with my ears glued to the system, critically assessing every disc I play. The first couple of weeks will be devoted to setting up and settling down: getting the equipment up to listening temperature (you’d be astonished just how slowly the air-mass inside a loudspeaker adjusts to room temperature – or how cold a speaker can get in a warehouse or lorry overnight) tuning supports and positioning, optimising partnering equipment etc. After that, a period of prolonged listening creates a general sense of character and perspective – and generally throws up a few specific examples to illustrate those observations. After that, comes a period of focussed, critical listening and writing, in which those examples are broken down and described in detail. You can see how the constant need to insert the rare, wonderful or obscure could obstruct or confuse that process. Likewise, live comparisons and personal associations may or may not be relevant, depending on the point being made. It’s hard enough to distil the musical essence of any system or listening experience. Constantly having to dress it in the King’s new clothes dilutes the process and can even give writers a place to hide – which can be a welcome smoke-screen (at least from the author’s perspective) if the conclusions are less than positive and potentially embarrassing to the publication and/or its advertisers.