ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

December 1, 2003

Why Read Audio Reviews?

In "Obligation and Integrity in the Audio Community," I lamented the growing cynicism about the absence of objectivity in the reviewing process, and emphasized the importance of trust not just in the credibility of reviews, but for the health of the audio community. In this and subsequent pieces, I want to explore related themes by shifting focus from the relationship between the review process and product manufacturers to the relationship between the review process and readers.

What’s the point of reading audio reviews? If we can answer that, we can learn something about what justifies the writing of reviews and, perhaps more interesting, how they should be written or structured.

I began reflecting on this question by asking myself why I read reviews. God knows, I read a lot of them. In fact, for most of my adult life I have been a voracious reader of audio journals -- print and, more recently, online, British and US alike (with the very occasional French journal thrown in). But I never reflected on why I did so until I began reviewing equipment in earnest myself.

Why do I read reviews? First, I want to learn about what’s new in audio. I love music and the modes of its reproduction. Audio journals -- including, but not especially, their review sections -- are tremendous sources of information about the cutting edge. Second, if I’m interested in purchasing equipment, audio reviews save me time by narrowing the list of equipment I should be seeking out while providing me with a framework for approaching my listening sessions. Third, I read reviews because a well-crafted audio review is a work of art. I admire craftsmanship -- artistic craftsmanship in particular, and literary craftsmanship especially.

Most of all, however, I read reviews carefully because I want to get to know the people who write them -- the reviewers. I want to get to know those people, not because I have some prurient interest in knowing the details of their lives -- after all, audio reviewers are rarely public figures, the details of their sex lives and financial dealings never the stuff of tabloid exposť or VH1 episodes. What I want to know are things about them that will contribute to my ability to gain useful information from their reviews.

Although facts -- descriptions of the equipment, technical data, listening-room dimensions and treatments, music listened to, listening distance, etc. -- are important to any review, the evaluations and recommendations in a good review are not built up of merely factual descriptions. The heart of a modern, subjective review is observations. Observations are not mere descriptions on which all reasonable people will agree. There is no ultimate test of their validity, nor can they be detached from the reviewer’s musical experiences, values, and approach to reviewing and listening -- not even, in the end, from other aspects of his world view. A reviewer’s observations are the basis of his ultimate evaluations, judgments, and recommendations. The connective tissue that turns observation into judgment and recommendation are the criteria of assessment and the norms of inference that the reviewer employs.

In coming to know a reviewer or audio journalist through his writings, we get to know something about how he approaches music, how he observes, what matters to him, and why. We get a sense of the importance of music in his life, and of his view about the objectives of an audio reproduction system. We learn about how and what he observes, and what he listens to in order to draw his observations. Most of all, we learn how he incorporates his observations into judgments and recommendations.

Reviews provide information about the reviewer that is essential to creating a context of communication and a community of discourse. Without that community, the rest of the information contained in a review cannot be reliably interpreted. The problem of creating that community of discourse among reviewers and readers is exacerbated by the fact that the conversation is so one-sided. That problem can be somewhat overcome by the reader learning enough about the reviewer -- his approach to music and its reproduction, his views about the contribution music makes to human well-being, and his view of what it is an audio system is supposed to do.

This issue would be a little less pressing were it not for the fact that, even if the vast majority of our readership is not always on the verge of making an expensive audio purchase, when they do make such purchases, they do so on painfully little evidence beyond the reviews we provide. Almost no one gets to listen to equipment in audio emporia for hours on end. Nor can the typical customer take a tube amplifier from store A and a solid-state amplifier from store B and hook them up to a pair of speakers at store C -- let alone with all the other speakers taken out of the room. Rarely does a customer have the ability to take the same products home for 30 days to hear how they sound in his listening environment. This is as true for $100,000 purchases as it is for $1000 ones -- maybe more so, and for obvious reasons.

So there is much more reliance on our reviews than we may realize. We are the fundamental source of information on which most purchases are based. The reliability of our information depends on the credibility of our process; the extent to which our reviews actually provide information depends on the extent to which we share a community of discourse with our readers. For me, this has at least two implications.

First, if we are to be responsible subjective reviewers, we must make ourselves available to our readership through our writing. This is one of the reasons that trust and integrity are so important to our review process. Trust is considerably less important when the judgments reached are little more than summaries of measurements, the results of entirely repeatable experiments, or conclusions that follow logically from objectively verifiable premises in conjunction with well-established, publicly available inference rules. But subjective reviewing is nothing of the sort; trust is important to the process.

Second, and perhaps more urgent, we must resist the formulaic review format that so dominates modern reviewing, in favor of a more theoretically informed yet personal narrative style that, to my mind, at least, made some journals, like the once-great The Absolute Sound, as good as they were. The formulaic review fails us on several counts. Its stifling structure of description of equipment, followed by description of listening environment, listening tools, and music, followed by observation and, finally, evaluation, recommendation, and conclusion, deadens the writing and eliminates the possibility of literary craft and achievement. It threatens to make reading audio reviews an utterly joyless task. Worse, it invites the view that there is something of a contradictory impulse at the heart of subjective reviewing: on the one hand, the reviewer is supposed to write about what she hears in her system in her room, while on the other hand, her report is to be presented in a somewhat detached, impersonal, highly stylized and structured way -- as if the mode of presentation could provide the objectivity the experience of observation and judgment is presumed to lack.

The problem is that a rigid form of presentation is inadequate to constitute the objectivity that a subjective review process must and can rightly claim for itself, while at the same time it robs us of what we need most for the reviews to be meaningful and helpful: a narrative that allows us to get to know the reviewer in a way that will make his or her reviews genuinely valuable to us.

What, then, are the possibilities of objectivity in a process of subjective reviewing? And is objectivity necessary for the legitimacy of a subjective review process? Is it necessary for the trust on which the entire process ultimately rests? Stay tuned.

...Jules Coleman

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