AUDIO MAGAZINES' SINISTER PRACTICES: 'Let the Reader Beware'

An irate reader, some time ago, wrote a letter to a popular high-end magazine (re: The Absolute Sound, Issue# 162). This letter was brimming with scathing criticism, literally accusing TAS of blatant dishonesty in its reporting to its readership.

According to this reader, the vast superiority of even good budget analogue turntables over expensive CD players, and other consumer digital source components, is obvious to all who’ve properly experienced them. Therefore, for TAS to be so prominently featuring digital hardware and software, as compared to their coverage of analogue turntables/LP’s, is an act tantamount to 'criminality' in a magazine claiming to be leading readers on the quest for ‘The Absolute Sound’ (I’m paraphrasing here, but I’m sure you get the gist). TAS did not respond.

Arthur Salvatore, a respected former high-end dealer and long-time audiophile who is obviously as learned in the field as your average high-end magazine-journalist (arguably, more so than many) has taken these commercial magazines and writers to task. Mr. Salvatore himself also authors (no pun intended) a small web magazine, ‘The Audio Critique’, in which he seeks to advise fellow audiophiles on prudent choices of components for their systems. In a section of this webzine, ‘Reviewing the Reviewers’, he accuses many of these magazines (The Absolute Sound and Stereophile included) of downright dishonesty in their practices regarding equipment reviews. He suggests that these magazines’ interest in pleasing their advertisers might be the reason they deliberately mislead their readers to whom they have an obligation, by dint of their ethical and professional responsibility, to provide accurate and honest reporting.

Other instances of similar criticism do crop-up in diverse places, from time to time, albeit much too infrequently. Regarding my own opinion, I’ll have to admit that I do agree with the above sentiments, to a large extent. But at the same time, paradoxically, I cannot disregard the value of these magazines in highlighting available equipment. With regard to the reports on the performance of these equipment, though, one is best armed with an ability to ‘pick sense from nonsense’, so-to-speak. I’m especially wary of glowing loudspeaker reviews, for instance, since I sincerely believe most modern high-end speakers to be fundamentally flawed. Moreover, I also believe most of the ‘better’ reviewers know this, therefore a rave review of a flawed component seems thoroughly hypocritical to me, and despicably dishonest. But we may look further into this later (for my comments on these speaker flaws, refer to my article, ‘From Hi-Fi to High-End: What’s Wrong’, and its follow-up).

‘CRIMES’ AGAINST; the CAUSE, the COMPONENTS, and the CONSUMER

I agree with the irate reader above regarding the superiority of good turntables/LP’s over all consumer digital hardware/software, and share his dismay at the efforts of the appointed scribes in disguising and/or under-emphasizing this fact. However, this is nothing new; the turntable long preceded the CD player, but when large corporations like Sony decided to push the CD as the source of ‘perfect sound forever’, these magazines were quick to join the band-wagon (perhaps chasing bigger advertizing-dollars) in decrying the turntable as an ancient relic, and proclaiming the CD as the source of ultimate fidelity in audio reproduction. (Thirty years later, any such claim is still a lie).

In the process they almost succeeded in killing-off the turntable. And even today they’re reticent about giving the turntable its due, preferring to falsely elevate consumer digital to a place close, or equal, to the superior turntable. Like most, I too look forward to the day when consumer digital actually surpasses the sound-quality of the turntable (I love the convenience – call me lazy, if you like). However until that day (if it ever comes) I believe we should call a spade a spade, and desist from trying to fool the public. Shame on the guilty parties.

Nevertheless, I do believe that these same parties (large, or should I say, favored electronics companies/corporations, and the audio-press) have effectively succeeded in killing-off another source-component that is unquestionably superior to even the best turntables in existence today. That component of which I speak is the 2 track/15 ips analogue reel-to-reel tape-recorder/player. One listen to a properly recorded tape on such a machine thru a competent system is enough to convince anyone of its superiority over any other source-component available to consumers today. However, anyone seeking to acquire such a machine would have to do so, thru places like e-bay, on the second-hand market since large-scale production of such machines has virtually ceased.

This is, arguably, partly due to the lack of demand caused by the ignorance fostered by the audio-press’ ‘negligence’ in articulating the true value of these machines in any quest for the ultimate in sound-quality. The formerly widely-popular and commendable, but relatively poor and dynamically compromised, cassette-player was actually promoted (by; you-know-who) as a viable alternative to both its incomparably superior 'competitors'. That is the reality, even as ridiculous as it may seem today. The lowly cassette-player was, effectively, the dagger in the jugular of the open-reel machine, and the press was among those with their hands firmly on the handle of that dagger. It therefore could be argued that they (the press) tried to kill the turntable – and failed. They also tried to kill reel-to-reel – and succeeded. [Refer to the article, 'System-Building for Lifelike Sound - My System’ (Tape Machine) for a little more on the subject of R to R].

As if the above were not enough, the audio-press is also guilty of the ‘attempted-murder’ of another component – the TUBE-AMPLIFIER, along with other vacum-tubed components. Just as with the turntable/CD player scenario, when the large corporations decided to push solid-state amps and other components, the audio-press literally fell over themselves in rushing to herald the vacuum-tube’s doom. Trashy sounding solid-state amps were declared the wave of the future. And, just as in the case of the later turntable/CD wars, manufacturers of solid-state amps are today, decades later, still struggling to attain the level of quality in sound reproduction that so many of today’s tube-amps provide as a matter of course. Undeniably, there are very good solid-state amps around (and solid-state does have its advantages) but for the very ultimate in audio reproduction, the tube-amp reigns supreme. And at the very pinnacle is the low-powered Single-Ended Triode (tube) amp – a basic design that pre-dates solid-state by decades.

Those who would argue that low-powered SET amps are inadequate with the use of the widely popular inefficient speaker-systems available today open the door to illuminating another of the audio-press’ transgressions in advocating the so-called ‘superiority’/desirability of inefficient acoustic-suspension speaker designs (ever since they emerged in the 60’s/70’s) over the much more realistic high-efficiency designs which preceded them. The majority of subsequent bass-reflex, and other, designs have conformed to this model of inefficiency to this day. All to the detriment of the majority of misled audiophiles who are deprived of the vastly more dynamically realistic reproduction high-efficiency designs provide. For more on this please see my article, ‘High-End Sound…’

The press also attempted the murder of the moving-magnet cartridge. They’ve partially succeeded, and are still at it. They continue to paint the ridiculously expensive moving-coil alternative with an aura of mystique, hinting at magical capabilities, to justify the outrageous prices. The fact that these cartridges are acknowledged (even by some of them, not to mention the inventor himself – Joe Grado) to be plagued with a falsely rising top-end obviously means nothing to them, perhaps because many moving-coils falsely emphasize the ‘detail’ these reviewers encourage in components and the fundamentally flawed speakers they claim to be so enamored with. The fact that several cutting-edge recording-studio heads and engineers, and highly regarded turntable designers (including Kavi Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics, and Harry Weisfeld of VPI) eschew the use of moving-coil in favor of moving-magnet cartridges because the latter is proven to be more accurate and realistic in mimicking the sound of master-tape and live instruments perhaps means nothing to those with an agenda to push the moving-coil for whatever reason. Refer again to, ‘System-Building for Lifelike Sound’ (Cartridge) for a little more on this.

At age 11, I bought my first hi-fi magazine, and never stopped since. That first magazine was ‘Stereo Review’, and for years a portion of my allowance went to this mag. Julian Hirsch, their esteemed Technical Director, came across as a brilliant man who I respected. However, the more I pondered the veracity of Mr. Hirsch’s famous statement - to the effect that; all amplifiers sound alike - the more I became disillusioned with Stereo Review. Common-sense and my gradually accumulated experience proved this oft repeated statement to be totally false. Amidst howls of derision from those who knew better, he subsequently sought to qualify that statement by saying that any differences between the sound of amps are not musically significant – or words to that effect – also false.

The question was; WHY? Was it to justify the magazine’s recommendation of trash? If we consider that this mag was heavily supported with ads from the manufacturers of these amps, then the answer won’t be too hard to define. (From all I’d gleaned, Mr. Hirsch never met a loudspeaker he didn’t like either). Consequently, I abandoned Stereo Review and gravitated toward such mags as; HiFi News + Record Review, HiFi Today, Practical HiFi (UK) Audio, High Fidelity, Home Theater, The Absolute Sound, Stereophile (US) and anything I could get my hands on (including the more recent webzines, white-papers, and every relevant text-book within my grasp).

But all magazines supported by the advertizing-dollar do the same as Stereo Review did, to a greater or lesser extent, they walk a thin line between pleasing their advertisers, and their readers. Whenever they need to make a choice, who do you think gets shafted? Certainly they’re well motivated to shaft you; manufacturers/distributors routinely offer many review items at low, or no, cost to the reviewer. We consumers are the ones who actually pay for these favors (in more ways than one) but the audio-press certainly doesn’t mind. Who cares? And their actions do have dire consequencies: As previously intimated, they’re guilty accomplices in the ‘murder’ of the reel-to-reel machine, they’re also guilty of the ‘attempted-murder’ of the turntable, the moving-magnet cartridge, the tube-amp, and the high-efficiency speaker, to name a few of their ‘crimes’.

For more of the consequencies just look at the many near-new equipment resold at huge losses on e-bay, Audiogon, and sundry, from time to time, by owners who'd read rave reviews and rushed out to buy these mega-buck equipment only to find that they don’t deliver as promised.

EVEN MORE ‘CRIMES’ – ARM YOURSELVES

We all need a lot of the info these mags can provide, and it’s about time they ceased their nefarious practices. However, we also need to arm ourselves with a wide base of knowledge, and this can only come from experience, and from being widely read. With such a base of knowledge, for example, consider the audiophile who seeks to acquire the very best system he can afford: He’ll know, without any doubt, that the very best source component is either a 2 track/15ips R to R machine (though tapes are limited) or a very good turntable, and that’s what he’ll seek. So even when he reads a glowing rave-review of a CD player the writer is trying to push for his advertiser, this audiophile will not be swayed. If, or when, he does buy a CD player, he won’t be under the influence of any illusion. The same goes for amps, speakers , or anything else. Such a knowledgable audiophile can safely navigate, and benefit from, the mine-field presented by the audio-press, as he’s well equipped to avoid the dangers presented by the unscrupulous who continue to betray their cause, and those they claim to serve.

Perhaps ‘unscrupulous’ may be too strong a word to apply in general terms. Sure it may apply to many, but I also do admire quite a few of these writers even as I recognize that their hands are tied, and that they cannot consistently displease their advertisers and hope to keep their jobs. (Indeed, if I were invited to write for one of these mags, then even I would have to conform, to a small degree). They really can’t tell you that an expensive speaker-system they’re reviewing, for instance, would be most valuable if all its bio-degradable components were broken-up and mixed with shi…sorry…manure, to fertilize arable farmland – no, that wouldn’t do. So some have honed their skill in skirting around the problem to a fine-art as they try to walk the line between pleasing their advertisers and being fair to their readers. Consequently, these writers could be regarded as the epitome of tact and diplomacy.

It shouldn’t be but the onus is, in fact, on the reader to learn this diplomatic language. Therefore, armed with a wide knowledge-base, as advised above, the reader also needs to learn to read between the lines. Take into account the significance of what is not said, about a product, as much as what is actually said, and regard both with equal import. For example, if you believe, as I do, that most high-end speakers sound rather thin, bright, and dynamically-limited, and you seek a dynamic, full-bodied, and natural sound in your next speaker purchase, then if the review doesn’t high-light the traits you seek as being present in the product, it’s probably safe to disregard it. (These traits are sadly so uncommon in modern speakers that, if encountered, any good reviewer is bound to show-case them). Moreover, if that review states that the speaker is basically ‘neutral’ with a tad more than ‘a slight emphasis’ in the upper mid/lower-treble region rendering a good measure of ‘detail’ – run in the opposite direction. If, also, this review neglects to mention how well sibilants are handled in this ‘slightly emphasized’ region don’t just run in the other direction, hitch a ride in a fast car.

Armed with protective measures similar to the above, one should be able to safely navigate the mine-field of audio-reviews. Also, it is always good to seek a second opinion/review, or more. Indeed, when a product is really outstanding, virtually all its outstanding traits will be corroborated by other good reviewers. Make sure tough that all these traits coincide with your own criteria, since what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander.

Thru the years, I’ve owned one or two outstanding pieces of equipment, and have found the reviews on them to be spot-on in most cases. However, similarly very good gear are sometimes ignored, or downplayed, if they’re not the products of favored advertisers. Moreover, additional to the sinister practices previously articulated is where crappy gear is verbally perfumed, with diplomatic-speak and linguistic-acrobatics, to seem just as good, or nearly so.

Another scenario is where a reviewer will rave about a product, and omit to mention obvious faults. If and when the favored manufacturer corrects them in its follow-up model, only then will the reviewer mention the faults in the previously reviewed model as he raves about all the reasons readers should run out and buy the new model in his current review. This aspect was brought more clearly to my attention by The Audio Critique. I’ve since discovered further cause to contemplate; – refer to Stereophile’s reviews of the, undeniably good, Wilson Audio MAXX 2 and MAXX 3 by the same reviewer: What do you think? I’m crushed – really crushed! Sadly, many members of the audio-press could never be candidates for sainthood; we’ve already looked at some of their many ‘crimes’, and at the components they’ve ‘murdered’, or attempted to. And, make no mistake, they are still active perpetrators. (Or should I say; perps and traitors?). Certainly, if there ain’t blood on them hands then look closely, there’s bound to be traces of molten-solder.

For magazines/webzines unencumbered by the constraints of the advertizing-dollar, perhaps one could investigate the likes of; The Audio Critique (previously mentioned, and highly recommended – not really for reviews though) The International Audio Review (also highly recommended) Bound for Sound, Stereo Mojo, and Positive Feedback, to name a few.

For more views/opinions, rare reviews, and advice (for what it’s worth) do continue to peruse the articles here. For sure, there are ads on this site. But be assured; this little column pulls no punches. The ad dollar will never cause these pages' contents to be contaminated, or 'watered-down', in any way. Why? Because this writer (and reader) is fed-up with being a passive witness to disingenuousness, outright lies, and blatant dishonesty in the audio-press. I wish there were more mags like those cited above. Look at this column as the contribution of a passionate, lifelong audiophile to the cause of truth - this is my two-cents worth.

All articles, here, are prepared and presented STRAIGHT – and there ain’t no chaser. The evidence is consistently clear.

Of course there’re always the mainstream mags but, likewise as always; ‘Let the reader beware’, and…….’Be careful out there!’

Copyright 2010

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