Why the use of excessive technicality in Audiophile HiFi reviews helps nobody.
Phil Daniels ubiquitously famous line from Blur’s 1994 Parklife. Meaning ‘leading through technology’ or ‘progress through technology’. I’m relating this tagline to the use of technology in HiFi reviews. The overt use of technology to be more precise. The ‘all the chips’ on the circuit board approach or mantra. I’m not a technical audiophile – it’s the end result that matters, and part of the reason I started this site was I dislike excessive technical speak….
Everyone appreciates the use of the technology in HiFi has forbearance on the sound quality the HiFi produces because its sound is a sum total of the technical parts. But to the inclusion of ‘analyzing the hell’ out of circuit board features, tells us nothing of what a HiFi component will sound like against another, much less harder to predict. This approach also excludes the whole pursuit and enjoyment of why you buy HiFi, that HiFi is not an exclusive connoisseur pursuit because it serves music’s all out inclusivity. One of the most basic pleasures in fact. It is, and should be, more for the masses, and the narrowing of it down to make it pretentious, limits its appeal. As my massive music loving friend said to me ; “you really are into the technical side of audio”, which encapsulates an outsiders view of an audiophile I think. Amused, considering my take as this article makes plain, I explained I’m not in it for getting excessively embroiled in the technology.
As HiFi manufacturers will say in a product manual ; “don’t concern yourselves with all the technical features”, “it’s what it does for you that matters”. How absolutely true. They have done all the measurements and realize too listening is another stage. Like the restauranteur has just done his craft, concern yourself with taste. This is essentially, the unwillingness to want to twiddle with all the settings on your new cars central console display, rather first enjoy how it drives.
So this is my theme here….labouring very many specific technical features of a HiFi product in a review, to the extent that it is wholeheartedly and universally useful on all occasions and to all is not a very smart pursuit to the comparative performance nature of HiFi reviews. Nor does this labouring offer anything of the true independence of the writer or videographer and wish to understand that all the technical circuit based features do not have any bearing on overall sonic judgement, by comparison. This is not to assuage the designer of all their effort at constructing the HiFi, it’s just we as consumers are different and come in at the ‘tasting’ stage. Also that it is incredibly hard to predict all the technical features to be able to say how, combined, excessively mentioned technical product specs have or give benefit, or not.
I think it is natural to yearn for the technicality of products, to make them in our minds live up to our expectations. Let’s be honest Men like technical things and being ‘geeks’ with narrow obsessive pursuits to the pragmatism our female companions teach us, maybe why there are few Female Audiophiles. Almost always do products live up to expectation, but they also do when overt technicality isn’t in the mix. And I’m talking about the guy who has to look out for the latest version of an ESS DAC or a particular type of capacitor to consider buying a DAC or amplifier. I remember doing it when buying HiFi in the 90’s as a student too, way before I could rationalize what I do here. Writing down all the features of an Arcam CD player – the Alpha 7. What DAC does it have? Is it the latest version that What HiFi said was the latest? The word ‘latest’ was important to me, I picked up on it, without questioning its significance. Did I get the most up to date DAC chip, even though it may not actually have been relevant to performance considering the DAC’s jitter, and power supply in the mix, etc.
I’m not saying exclude all technical thought, but what it means is by far make all of the overt technical features, the be all and end all, as I think Audiophile HiFi reviews suffer from. We see this with debates about Hi-Res and CD formats, with people forgetting the implementation of the DAC, or its quality, can make up the difference. That comes from excessive technical debate of bit rates and sample rates and what you can and can’t hear… Why, that is, CD is often all you need. But all this excessive technicality in reviews makes HiFi alien to those who do not ordinarily participate in them, but want to buy HiFi, which is a huge risk for the HiFi industry. People who are audiophiles suppose a natural tendency to buy based on the technology and not what products do in the real listening world. It distorts real world thinking. One guy wrote comments against my YouTube video of the Hegel H390 that the cables running through the case are a ‘no no’ for him to consider it a good amp against his Naim gear, despite the fact I pointed out my view, that I thought it sounded better than comparable Naim amps. Also that I didn’t care if it had a fried egg inside, ok extending it a bit far to embellish my point – but the point being, it is the real world result that matters.
I suppose it is only natural to go into loads of detail about circuit features in a review when it panders to the technical nature of HiFi, and to suit these people, I just question whether it is actually helpful or most really want it?
From the point of comparing HiFi too it also makes a reviewer less susceptible to bias, if excessive technicality isn’t in the mix. Especially since, as explained, how a product measures does not relate to sound quality. Nor can any of these ‘measurement-ists’ say that a product sounds like X because of a set of graphs. It’s frankly impossible to work it all out. And combined measurements don’t work at all, because how would one relate a perception of all those criteria deemed important to say how a person likes a product or not? Their experiences of liking a product are immutable and nobody can take that away from them, by implication and extension of asserting many measurements should have mattered. If a reviewer says that a compendium of technical features matter to the extent of choosing the product or not, but some buyers don’t really consider them at all, and still like and buy the product, where does that leave the reviewer who insists another reviewer is wrong to make no mention of these features technical importance? It leaves his position nowhere – it makes him appear arrogant, and elitist in a technological bubble. Extending such importance, it not only makes it more difficult for the newbie, but it adds complexity to such people, where HiFi is wholeheartedly a subjective pursuit to forming opinions about worth and likeability, anyway. If you accept it as such and that existing and new audiophiles can form opinions in a widespread way just on ‘what they like the sound of’, then you have to accept that labouring technology excessively has no requirement. Therefore why do it? To explain what manufacturers have stated already is available on their website.
I actually think there exists a vacuum of the importance of technology on the internet, in review articles and online debate, to the real world ‘bod in a HiFi dealer’ who just likes how a HiFi sounds. But does so without much consideration of technicality and just buys, goes home and listens – the type of person who then won’t be on any forums driving the importance of labouring technology in reviews . Spend too much time online and you are suckered into this thinking, free of your own thought.
What all this means is that HiFi is mainly not a pretentious field of subjective listening and objective measurement summation, to work out what we like to buy. It is essentially a buyers market where there are products that work for us, or don’t. If they work well in one HiFi they tend to in another, so it’s about experimentation and experience and seeing what works. No more is this true comparing sources or DACs and speakers driven well by amplifiers. They are a mixture of all the sum parts. The idea that they can be wildly different with different components is generally not what we hear in the real world, not when I listen to what other reviewers say when they consider the sound quality of products well. I tend to agree with most or all of their comments, and they are using different systems to me.
As much as you get in a car and drive it, being a product, most people don’t start adding new wishbones and suspensions and then trying to compare it all as some academic exercise where nobody will ever be right. The rationalization of buying HiFi to be right in the order of enjoying music, is the end game, which means buying products and being happy with them or not. Some are good and some are bad. It doesn’t mean analyzing technical features to the nth degree. Again, as music is not an exclusive pursuit, nor should HiFi be and to do otherwise is a huge barrier to being into faithfully reproduced music, because it becomes about the technology in spite of the music. So too perhaps to the outside world, the more austere exclusive club of calling ourselves audiophiles, by the mystical nature of the word. Why not just audio lovers ? The problem is too few can play devils advocate.
The inter-relationship of how products work in a system to explain away products in reviews as all being the same quality, is a huge red herring and flag to a reviewer benefiting from not calling out considerably better performing products, on a combination of price, features or sonics. Most of the time similarity is true but not exclusively. To call out ‘better’ as being only subjective without any objective comparison, common consensus ground, or thought, is vacuous. It suits that reviewer to say that. It’s totally ridiculous that anyone would think that, and comes from a position of lack of confidence, not seeking to find common ground, or truth, and protecting reviewer own ego’s.
In addition we are not wine tasting. There are only three levels of what people like in HiFi ; smooth, neutral or bright and lots of ways to get there. Wow moments between better products, within these brackets, are pretty easy to discern when you review. It’s not hard – they come at you adding better balance, more detail, midrange or sound-staging and so on. One product that does more of one, or more universally a combination, is the better product in sound terms. And using the word better is not an ill-defined loose word that has just subjectivity at its core, or is to be quoted in inverted commas all the time. We aren’t talking of leaving it to preference, but excluding preference. Putting ourselves in the ‘neutral, smooth or bright’ camps and seeing what most stands out when we compare, that at least more people than not will probably agree with (when decent gaps in performance exist). Our opinion and some forethought matters. Despite the misconceived view this is all difficult in HiFi, with a perception of it being a connoisseur pursuit, where no two tastes are the same – the fact is that this is so far from the truth.
HiFi being nothing to do with ‘Vorsrpung Durch Technik’ means any wish to drive notions of self reflection about engineering prowess in an excessively technical way, is unnecessary. Excessive technical consideration is under powering to why people should or would be an audiophile, an argument I’ve presented. You can be an audiophile buying a really good consumer amp product and pair of passive speakers like the NAD M10 and KEF LS50 Meta’s I recently reviewed, with little or no experience. In the process stumble upon something that probably is 80-90% of overtly technical Audiophiles system, who is agonizing to reach the remaining 10%, but with the other party just enjoying the music. If Audiophiles want to keep with an ideology that this pursuit stays technically exclusive or niche, then they do so at their peril and financial cost, as this industry needs more audiophiles, not less. That will come from less overt technicality and more mass market participation, and less technical alienation which frankly makes HiFi boring presented that way. Just as my friend exclaimed. It’s not that people will be spending tens of thousands to be Audiophiles but be into spending a few thousand, in spite of a 4K TV maybe, and for that they need no technical experience or intimidation. They are the people we need to attract to make this pursuit more universal and drive down prices for us all and they have the power to do that. It is clear from the products that are being developed for the mass market, there is an increasing need for sound quality, so this is an opportunity in Audiophile land.
This industry needs a shot in the arm of simplicity to achieve this participation, and too place the involvement of music at the central heart of why we do this – not overt technology. Reviewers have a responsibility in this. I’m not preaching some miss-construed ideology but there is a real possibility, done the right way, and casting down complacency in the industry that audiophile HiFi will stay niche, that the market for audiophile HiFi can be extended considerably further…. I’ll say it again, this will only happen if we restrict overt technicality in HiFi reviews.