What Makes a Good Audio Reviewer? It’s all about the tweaks isn’t it…or is it?

I was reading up on some newly announced audio gear.  One click led to another and I ended up on fellow audio review web site.   I cannot say that it is one I had visited before.  Somehow, I happened upon a page that listed the reviewers’ names and photos. Uneventful, or so I thought.

I decided to read about one of the reviewer’s profile.  After a simple statement about his daytime profession came the audio gear.  As you’d expect with any two-channel setup, the sources, pre-pro, amps, and speakers weren’t a long list, but the equipment list continued.

What followed that equipment really took me aback.  I didn’t know if I should be impressed, shocked, embarrassed, or… laugh.  There it was, a ridiculously long list—an entire paragraph’s worth—of tweaks and accessories that have no scientific basis for improving a system’s sound.  Many would argue that the majority of items on that list even bordered on snake oil.

This,” I thought to myself, “is what we, as audiophiles, are presenting to the world as street credentials for being an audiophile—or worse—a reviewer?  Only if I throw rocks on the chassis of my system or have some exotic wood in my room or have a mobile hanging from my ceiling that looks like the an astral constellation will my system sound good?  And the impression we’re giving to the world is that if you don’t have all the tweaks you’re somehow not a pedigreed audiophile.”


Silly things like that have no right to be listed as part of any reviewer’s profile.  It does a disservice to our hobby and to all the manufacturers out there who make superb-sounding, great-quality gear.  Regardless of where one stands on the topic, I’d like to throw out some thoughts for your consideration:

“It was like a veil was lifted from my system.”  “It took my system to a whole new level of performance.”  Insert whatever other phrase you want.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s subjective statements such as these from reviewers that are part of the problem.  In fact, if you add up all the times the same reviewer has said such a thing about each tweak they have reviewed, have you ever wondered how he was even able to stand listening to his system?  Indeed, how many veils and how much poor performance was there with his system prior to those tweaks being part of the system?  And yet, musically, each time a new tweak comes around the system is elevated again?

Think about it for a moment.  Logically—stop and think.  Imagine you are Mark Levinson, Krell, Classé, Dan D’Agostino, Pass Labs, Ayre, Bryston, Parasound, Benchmark, McIntosh, BelCanto, or insert any name you want.  Then imagine you are selling  $10,000, $25,000, or $50,000 set of amplifiers or other electronics.  Would you really omit any such tweaks from your design if they had merit?  Would you sell your units with reduced potential performance?  Would you exclude some exotic wooden footing from your unit if it could take your component to an entirely new level of performance? Wouldn’t you offer such tweaks as an upgrade to your line?  On a $50,000 set of amplifiers, wouldn’t you include a $100 set of rocks to place on the unit if it really made that much of a difference?  Better yet, wouldn’t you indeed design a specialized “rock-n-roll” opening on the chassis so that your buyers could simply sprinkle the provided rocks onto the chassis?  It sounds absurd because it is absurd.

In all my years in high end audio, I’ve never spoken to a single audio system engineer or high end audio company president who put real stock in such audio voodoo.  In fact, I think promoting such things prominently is detrimental to our hobby.


Well it’s obvious isn’t it?  What we’re really saying is that if you can’t hear the difference that garden rocks make on your audio system then surely you must not have golden ears!  If you can’t hear the difference that this or that makes on the audio system then you’re not really worthy to join the ranks of the audio elite.

Such an attitude, explicit or implied, isn’t healthy for our hobby.  It’s detrimental.

Now think again, what we are saying is that people with no degree in physics, no degree in audio engineering, no degree in electrical engineering, and no degree in any relevant field can magically come up with a panacea to all our audio woes!  To make matters worse, it’s not as though every accessory maker or reviewer even endorses the same tweak.  That’s certainly strange, isn’t it?

Audio reviewers and audio magazine should stop perpetuating such silly things.

The job of the audio reviewer is to describe the sound of audio gear to the audience.  I would hope that the audio reviewer would do so in such a way so that the reader could then read the review and say to himself, “Yes, that does sound like the type of gear that suites my particular taste” or “No, I don’t really value that aspect in the sound”  or “Hmm, that sounds like the a model I should put on my short list to audition.”  Then you, as the consumer, can make up your own mind based on your experience.

Over time, you’ll even come across reviewers that you feel reflect your own tastes and preferences.  Hopefully, you’ll continue to read their reviews and get a feel for what’s out there.  I, for one, have long been a fan and follower of Michael Fremer*, Brent Butterworth*, and Thomas Norton.  I also respect what Gene DellaSala has done over the years at Audioholics.com debunking silly audio claims.

I tend to like Michael Fremer’s taste in audio components.  I tend to agree with Brent’s observations about speakers.  In fact, my reference speakers of choice are Revel-branded speakers, just like Brent’s. I love Tom Norton’s methodical approach in his reviews.   Therefore, when I read audio reviews by any of them, I’m fairly confident that my own tastes and preferences will align with theirs.  Although I cannot say if the reverse is true, I’d like to hope so.

I’ve covered audio systems that sail north of $100,000, audio gear that retails for over $75,000, and some that sells for as little as a few hundred dollars.  Is there a difference as you go up in price?  Yes there is.  Are the differences discernible and palatable? Of course they are.

Is a person any less an audiophile if they cannot afford an ultra-expensive system?  Of course not.

As audiophiles, we all do a tremendous disservice both to our hobby and the brands we love when we extoll the virtues and over-promote the importance of unscientific claims.  To put it another way, when we make audio all about the tweaks, we’ve lost our way.  We’ve really lost our way.

We reviewers have a tremendous responsibility to you the consumer in this regard as well.  When we talk about and promote accessories and tweaks as the proof of our pedigree of our audiophile elite status then all we’ve done is proven that we’re nothing more than emperors without clothes.

*Speaking of Michael and Brent, both have weighed in on their opinions on cables.  Of all the tweaks out there, I consider cables to be the most logical, debatable, and cable differences are measurable.  I do commend both Michael and Brent for offering sobering opinions on that debate.  In fact, Brent went to far as to sit down with engineers from Harman International to dive into the topic of “Do Speaker Cables Make a Difference?  Science Weighs in” and get deep down into the science of it all.   And for one of my all time favorites, be sure to read about Schiit Audio’s incredible cables here.  You’ll be glad you did.  I love the guys at Schiit.

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