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Opinion : Benchmarks? – the need for product comparison

need for product comparisons

It’s banded about that comparisons in assessing HiFi are sometimes not required; that you can review a HiFi product or Audiophile HiFi product without comparison to another. Here is why this notion is categorically wrong, just like we needed the Pepsi challenge, there is a need for product comparisons.

First off, the differences between Audiophile products are very often relatively small, and we pick out nuanced and subtle differences between products. Sometimes at price comparable levels, other times not so. And I use the word ‘relatively’, not because I’m an Audiophile who doesn’t want to eek out every last bit of performance I can and pay for it (and I have), but because with these often small comparables, we all know that to assess sonic performance, there often has to be a benchmark. And benchmarks are basically other products we have tried. Just like formats perhaps – assessing MP3s against other formats; which if you don’t do you’d get some serious flac. Forgive me.

a standard or point of reference against which things may be compared

“Benchmark” – Oxford English Dictionary

These benchmarks can come from A to B comparisons in situ (or A to C etc), or they come from experiencing a HiFi component for a decent amount of time even if no longer in our possession or owned by us. A memory bank, if you will, of opinions about product performance. Incidentally although not relevant to my article – I’d caution that if memory differences are too close to call – don’t rely on them – you’ll be succumbing to self-bias and go back to A to B comparison!

But what if I jump right in and exclaim the sound of a product achieves this or that without a stated benchmark reference to another, that you can either take or leave? Based possibly on your experience of those comparable products too?

Put 100 Audiophiles in a room and ask them to sonically compare two products. Ask half of them to describe the sonics of the products with reference to one another, and the other half to describe the same sonics of one of the products in isolation. Which group would you rely on to best accurately describe either of the products?

A balancing Act of Credibility : need for product comparisons

With the best will in the world, what this means is that there is always a need to be making comparisons to check what we are saying is correct, we aren’t succumbing to any biases, we are forcing ourselves to make the appraisal to difference. That worth is wider than something in isolation.

So playing devils advocate; half of that test group who are giving the isolated opinions, may have a memory bank of opinions formed on other products without referencing those other products but are still making a valid comparison at a sub conscious level. A review without referencing other products might be too. But if the other products are not mentioned or referenced then how do you know they are making them? Perhaps based on your own personal experiences with relative products too. In other words, it becomes more difficult to validate worth and make parallels.

In not truly making those comparisons but attempting to describe the audio in absolute terms without a benchmark, on an assumption this can happen, then variance will come in for any description to be meaningless. If there was only one HiFi component in the world, how could we review it? So ask 100 people to describe an audio product when they don’t make or consider relative benchmark judgements – they will all give you very varied sonic descriptions about the product. That’s often what we see too because, without a comparable and in isolation, views about the quality of the audio become much more subjectively reached. They have too. It could just confuse rather than help. Also it won’t help to convey the unique sonic selling point of the product. To me this is surely common sense. I’m not implying a review should be unfair, for all reviews have to be fair to consumers and manufacturers alike.

PS Audio DirectStream DAC

So developing my subjective point ; reviews ARE often said TO BE subjective – it’s often true – but are they really when we have objective based consensus of products based on comparison? There is no denying a PS Audio DirectStream DAC is sonically very different to a Chord Hugo TT2 DAC , level matched across a range of systems (or even not level matched). In fact, either one is quite different to any number of others eg a Mytek Brooklyn DAC. Both are at a similar price with current discounts but the PS Audio gives a vinyl like sound, with wide soundstage and a tonal roundedness, whereas the Chord is incisive, dynamic and intonated.

Which is *best*? – well neither and that’s not the point. The point is if you described the PS Audio without a benchmark to the Chord or vice versa, or any number of other DACs, you’d not convey its sound and USP. And that’s why it’s good for manufacturers too because the USP of the product is sold and who it is for and it’s based on comparison and its place in the market – if this isn’t currently obvious. And if you can validate an opinion based on your own parallels or those of others, including other reviewers, based on this objective consensus sonic USP, what more do you need to help you buy? It’s an extremely persuasive argument for honesty helping consumers and manufacturers. Of course features matter but as Audiophiles, boy do sonics!

Sometimes I think it would be blindingly obvious on swapping it over, what one product does achieve over another. But again unless this is made clear and the reasons why a product comparison is needed or not, then how can we know if it’s a valid one and based on our possible personal experience too. So again you’d have to compare. Give or take an opinion when you know more as to how it’s formed – yes, but give or take an opinion when you don’t so much and a whole multitude of other reasons might come into play – well no thank you Sir. And I should say I’m as much as a buyer of products I don’t review to the next man.

It’s good to talk about how HiFi reviews are conducted because you can see behind the eye of the appraiser. Secondly I’ve often thought that appraising the negative of the way reviews are conducted, is a good way of improvements in the positive. My view on this subject is cemented by a poll I conducted. I asked on Facebook ; “Do HiFi Reviews lack credibility if they make no fair comparisons to other products?”. The response was emphatic, so one has to question why the opposite is still done?

Nough said, but tell me what are your views?

2 Comments

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  1. I no longer drink Pepsi or Coke but when I did I found Pepsi to be sweeter than Coke, and coke manufactured in the USA better tasting than coke from the UK. However the differences were small but very personal and real to me and my judgement was made on comparisons.

    Without comparisons how can we trust hi-fi reviews that are perhaps been loyal to manufactures rather than readers. A recent Hi-fi magazine listed a 100 products chosen by the editor that have stood the test of time many of the manufactures featured advertised within the magazine.

    What is clear to the myself and the 63% of readers of the 13th note without comparisons how do you know if you even want to drink Pepsi or coke?

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an audio lover who likes sharing experiences of faithfully reproduced audio in a CREDIBLE, BALANCED and ENGAGING way. I’m interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews keep technicalities easy, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

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