I received a comment to one of my comments forms on this website from Alan Sircom, Editor of HiFi+. Interestingly Alan is the son of the late Carry On Actress Patsy Rowlands. We’ve talked before about the challenges of the HiFi industry and whenever I have come to speak to him, since our first encounter, I have come to like talking to him. He clearly considers everything he says, and his articles are written in a way where he does, to my mind, sometimes allow the reader to read between the lines of his own personal preference. On performance and in the comparisons I do, I’m more – ‘this IS it’. I suppose, like Michael Jackson’s tour, which was cancelled due to his death – much like my ethos cancelled by the review element of this site.
Opinion pieces carry on however in The END series, which maybe should be called The END that is never-ending. But I thought it would be interesting to publish his message to me and my reply here. This will hopefully add some insight, for you, into my take on HiFi, the status quo and the thinking behind how HiFi reviews are conducted in the industry, and the way some mags operate with manufacturers.
Comment from Alan (in full)
When I said to you in an email that “I don’t think you are cut out for this lark”, this was one of the main reasons. I have lost friends and family to suicide and am perhaps overly sensitive to its signs… and writing for a living (in all its guises) is a solitary pursuit that can push all those suicidal ideation buttons; you work in relative isolation to produce material where the only feedback is scrutiny and criticism by one and all.
Filing copy puts your words in front of that editor who will brook no excuse as to why your words are late (and yes, that did include filing copy while sitting in a hospice watching my mother breathe her last), that sub-editor who will pull you up unmercifully on your use of the Oxford comma, the manufacturer moaning that you didn’t include the name of the designer’s uncle’s cat in the text, the distributor who blames you for including the incorrect information that they supplied, the reader who happens to own that product (or its rival) who thinks you have just destroyed its resale value and wants blood and ultimately the troll who simply wants to see you on fire in a ditch because it’s a Friday. Perhaps worse still, your reputation as a writer is consistently undermined, perpetually devalued and constantly one sentence away from being irrevocably obliterated.
This can challenge even the most robust of us, and as an editor, I have had to at once develop a thick skin that can extend out to protect those working for the magazine from the worst excesses and build a sixth sense in recognising and preventing those who might struggle with such criticism from laying themselves bare. Of course, when that email happens as a result of being rudely awakened from a drunken stupor in the middle of the night by protesting Hong Kongers, some of that message gets lost in translation.
So my advice to you remains where it was a year ago: I don’t think you are cut out for this lark. Your site traffic will increase if you tear your heart out in public for the same reason people rubberneck car crashes on motorways. The problem with being Peter Finch’s character shouting “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in the 1976 movie Network is that things didn’t end well for Howard Beale and the viewers simply moved on. I’d say ignore the blip in site traffic and save your sanity by closing the site down fast. That’s not said from the position of a rival, but out of simple human empathy.
I also felt I had to make this public as I’ve noticed in some subsequent calls and emails that you can tend to be primarily ‘on transmit’ and I hope by making this statement in this way, it might get through your personal defence shield you sometimes seem to put up in other kinds of discussion. Moreover, because I am in that difficult stage just before going to press with the latest issue, I’m sorry but I cannot spare the additional time spent on the phone or in a game of email tag. Regardless, please take this at face value; I am not trying to air some dirty linen, trying to take advantage of your current situation or attempting to make myself look good at your expense. I am concerned that if your level of suicidal ideation makes it onto your website you should be seeking professional help and not relying on the comments section of your site as a form of therapy. If you read nothing more than “seeking professional help” in all of this, my work here is done!
It’s better to have some stories from the past to share with your pals than have your pals sharing stories about you in the past tense. Put an end to this before it puts an end to you, seek some help and move on with your life. As someone who has spent more than 30 years in the audio business, the audio business is not worth it if the stakes seem that high to you.
Reply from Me (in full)
First off I’ll say I’ve enjoyed our chats since the first one. I respect the position you are in and yourself because I realize, personally, you are someone I like with a similar kind of personality to me.
But I sense underneath there is an element of ‘we like you to fail‘ in our dealings, because the people who occupy HiFi are, self evidently, all out for themselves. I think this comes from my slant to call out poor products – which indirectly shines a light on the credibility stakes of the HiFi press, when they don’t. This may be something you’ve built up with a thick skin, and I understand why.
I have no problem telling people as it is, most of the industry doesn’t like that and you admitted in a roundabout way when we spoke last, that the HiFi press panders to manufacturers will, as the previous owner of AVI alluded to in an article in Tech Radar about the failure of the HiFi industry – see here, notwithstanding commercial considerations obviously flying around there, reading between the lines of a conversation with Ashley and this article….In other words you aren’t true independent journalists. They pay your bills. This distorts bad products as being good, to get sales. It’s a failed market that isn’t working to Laissez-faire economics.
There is something soul destroying about this from the perspective, we as human beings, set out to be honest and as good as we can be in the jobs we do. A review means a ‘critical appraisal’ and you admitted you don’t ever do that, because you say people don’t want bad reviews, where you can’t call out a products poor value for money. I understand the commercial reasons. But it means you aren’t setting out to do what you intended….to write honest HiFi reviews independently, which is the very intrinsic nature of a review – being the ear and eyes…lots of the ears!!!. I’d find it soul destroying not to do so. Same with many others : Kennedy, Darko, etc.
Not in a personal context, but sadly you are part of an industry who has lost its moral and ethical way, which isn’t helping. And it’s not a frivolous thing, because these comments are constructs that severely shape the ability to depart someone of lots of money, given the expense of Audiophile HiFi. It’s at a level of fraud en masse by the industry, for me, and needs regulation. I’ve no idea how the government regulate this but they should try, I think. I think you could think of new ways to fund yourselves and do something different, so you can be more impartial, to sell more copy. How, is a very difficult one.
HiFi isn’t all “meh” in performance such that it is ALL similar in this respect (and in order to explain products away as preference) as you said when we spoke a few days ago. There is still some objectivity to audio to set the really good gear from the poor value for money stuff – all the gear and all the idea maybe. Your approach enables you to explain a HiFi product review as good, every time, and that’s what you obviously do. Serving as a rubber stamp for the reader. It’s clear in the writing. But not to be able to say, as illustration, that a £500 Bluesound Node 2i, sounds better than a £2300 Innuos Zenith mk2, Streaming Tidal/Qobuz, and you think the sound is sufficiently changed in performance (in most people’s ears) for most to probably reach that view, then you should say it. What HiFi are to be commended in this respect.
Your approach is to take the attitude I’ll keep that quiet. That means someone buys the Innuos wanting best sound quality from streaming services, to think with this streamer they’ll be getting it. To a view based on what most, I think, will think, they won’t. And as we discussed, contrary to your view which suits your magazine, you can say that one HiFi component is *better* than the other and not use preference to conflate that, so as you don’t have to convey a poorly performing product.
The test is, do I think at least 60-70 percent of people coming into my or their listening room, would think the same as me? If you think so – and it’s fairly obvious to pick differences like soundstage, detail, dynamic prowess etc (and even rank them if you wanted), to come up with an answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. These are things which will rank in all rooms and are fairly easy to judge. This is something you as a magazine consistently don’t do and it displays lack of confidence, lack of independence, an industry that props up poor products, and all this engenders bad image and lack of trust and erodes the very thing you are trying to do – get people into HiFi and buying the best audio. To review a £2500 Roon Nucleus+ and not say it’s an Intel NUC at 4 times the price, would be an example of a fundamental part of this. At the same time it’s possible to say Roon itself is best in class of interfaces/software. Swings and roundabouts….
The notion that people correctly criticize me by making out that I am somehow telling them what they should like, is nonsense. I am steering people to what I think they will like in the bounds of separate tastes and this is the role of the reviewer. Hifi isn’t some kind of connoisseur pursuit where everyone has unique HiFi like DNA. There are lots of ways to achieve the same results and contextualized by making different buying sound preference choices, it is equally likely people may like a different sound too.
What also stuck in my mind was when you said that you thought the readers of your HiFi magazine like boring articles with no creativity (and creative amusing writing) because that’s what the market wants. I think this is fundamentally flawed, a staid safe approach and complacency to try and self invent HiFi, getting those people off golf courses to buy HiFi. Maybe written that way as a kind of disconnect between austere manufactures and what the consumer wants. It’s also lazy on your writers part not to do this. I like your writing but I think some of the other writers need to write more creatively. Most readers, given the chance, always vote for humour and wit. This self invention is counter to the over use of technicality (new entrants), the exclusivity, the lack of interestingly written articles, high price and very narrow image, the pervades the audio industry.
For me it’s never been about being thick skinned. I’ve shown frustration to the appalling nature of the HiFi industry more than most. But that’s what it is. Frustration out of ill health. In most respects I’m right, because anyone who you are meant to work with who can’t return calls for 3 weeks and this is a consistent feature, when you contact their customers within an hour , and help their prospective customers, and expect you to work free to this treatment, isn’t worthy of working with. They are taking the piss. The problem in audio is it’s rife and it extends all the way to annoying customers too – people complaining on FaceBook forums dealers don’t return calls. There is always an element ‘the customer isn’t right’. I’d have no problem putting up with these peoples shortcoming in better times, would I want to work in an industry that follows these practices , I doubt it! Who would, if given a choice?