Over the past year or so, I have been carrying on a sometimes friendly, sometimes not, conversation with some of my colleagues on the U-HUG - the Unofficial Harbeth Users Group - about what constitutes a proper audio review. The 'other' side argues that personal impressions, subjective observations - no matter how carefully made - are of no use unless they are fortified and confirmed by more objective means. Blind tests are the minimum requirement; instrumental measurements, where possible, are best.
I have responded with some variation on the following: If my personal observations, which are what most listeners who are reading my reviews base their judgments on, are consistent over time but are contradicted, or at least not confirmed, by measurements and blind tests, which shall I consider definitive? I have argued that it is sometimes easier to be fooled in a test than in a listening session - especially one as disorienting as a one-shot blind one. I think it might be possible, I concluded shockingly, for a very clever woman, in the dark, to convince me that she's my wife - provided she kept her mouth shut and the 'test' didn't last too long. So when the lights come on and the ruse is discovered, do I divorce my wife based on the 'objective' evidence of the 'blind' test?
The 'other' side responds with evidence of how faulty our senses are, how powerful is 'the placebo effect,' how we are likely to hear what we expect to hear, not hear what we don't want to hear. But granting all of this - and I do - I am not persuaded. I am mainly not persuaded that nature could have seen any competitive advantage in providing us with senses that are not
generally dependable over time. But I am willing to grant the opposition one concession. While I do not believe that the various 'objective' means for evaluating audio components are as useful, dependable, or valuable as sustained critical listening by
a listener who has decent aural memory and a reasonably long attention span, I do believe that 'subjective' means need some sort of grounding if the listener pretends to listen on behalf of others, that is, to review. What I propose as the grounding is the transparency of the reviewer.
The Whole Reviewer
I want the reviewers I read to listen with all of their being over an extended period of time, making all kinds of comparisons; and then I want them, writing at the limits of their ability, to describe to me what they've heard. But as they do this, I want them also to make sure they find a way to let me know who they are:
· What sort of music does he favor. A very well respected 'objective' reviewer/musician just told me today for the first time that music played on 'early instruments' is "torture" to him because he can't tolerate anything not tuned to 440Hz - I would sure like to have known that a long time ago! Does the reviewer know who Sigiswald
Kuijken, Wayne Shorter, and Iris Dement are?
· How much 'live' music does he listen to and what kind?
· What kinds of colorations or 'enhancements', if any, does he approve of and which disapprove and why. Are tubes allowable?
· What is most important to him in a component? What equipment is he using to evaluate the item at hand? Is he accustomed (Are his ears tuned) to planars and stats or boxes? I especially want to know this if he starts throwing terms around like 'natural warmth.'
· What is his listening room is like? And especially, how large is it? Some speakers sound profoundly different in a small to moderate sized room than they do in a large one.
· And arguably most important, he needs to write enough so that I can infer something about the quality, climate and topography of his mind. (That's the real reason they ask kids to write an essay on the
S.A.T.!) Is it a laboratory, a kid's playroom, Oz, a city, a meadow, or a fen?
In other words, I need to be able to hear through the reviewer. If the reviewer is sufficiently transparent in this sense, we are probably in a better position to hear and evaluate
what she's reviewing than if we have some sort of 'objective' guarantee that she has in fact heard what she tells us she's heard. And if she can write well, I would argue that
we are in a
far better position. For at bottom, I do not think many of us care as much, unless
we are scientists which most of us are not, why Speaker X sounds the way it does as we care what it sounds like. What does it sound like in terms we know? Do not suppress the powers of language to communicate human experience, release them!
Just the Facts, Jack?
It is somewhat comforting to know that in fact a slight, gradual, steady roll-off beginning at around
1,000Hz has been measured for my Harbeth Monitor 40's. But unless you've heard how subtle and natural it is or heard someone describe how it is so brilliantly executed that the result is ease without loss of openness, you are likely to infer that it is probably one of those falsely forgiving British monitors rather than a brilliant reproducer of what live music sounds like in a concert hall. According to a study a while back in
TAS by Robert E. Greene, high frequencies begin a rapid roll-off at even close up audience locations. Some few of you know how subtle but eloquent a gradual 1-1.5 dB roll-off is, but not many, I expect.
And what will you make of the fact that a Harbeth Compact 7 (and many other British monitors) have engineered in a slight dip in the presence range, unless your reviewer tells you that in a large, open room the effect is a slight, unnatural warming and confining of voices, while in small or moderate sized rooms with walls and ceilings closer by, the effect is actually salutary? And unless you know your reviewer's taste, experience, and intelligence, what are you to make of these observations and this judgment? (It would have helped me a great deal had I known more about the personal priorities of the author of what was for several years the definitive review of the Spendor SP ½. When I heard the speakers earlier this year again for the first time in two years, I could not believe what he had not heard while attending to what mattered to him most.) And, returning to the Compact 7 and its dip, which finally is it more important to know: the fact that the dip is there and how few or many dB's it is, or how it sounds in various listening situations? The answer might well be, "let's have both." And if we're lucky enough to have a reviewer with the necessary measuring equipment at hand, let's have both, I guess; though I still wonder what to do with contradictory evidence. Facts are almost never the last word.
"The Dyer's Hand"
Sometimes, I suspect, the measurements get so much attention and carry so much weight with 'objective' reviewers because they believe so thoroughly in the measurability of sound and in their roles as measurers. They truly believe that anything we hear can be measured, including (despite considerable informed opinion to the contrary) colorations, and that the rest is imaginary. And, more important, they also seem to believe that the measurer has no effect on the measurements or
interpretations of them. In a word, they believe too much in the power of science to reveal the objective world. And so they believe that rather than be transparent, they ought to be invisible. Science becomes for them a bit of a cloak, cloaking them both from us and from themselves - from their instinctive anxiety about the chaos of the world - and about the unruly self left to its own designs.
W.H. Auden, in the Prologue to his first collection of critical prose,
The Dyer's Hand, tells us that "all of the judgments we make as critics, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part of corrective discipline of our subjective wishes." Honesty therefore demands, he continues, that any critic who pretends to tell us about art owes his readers "his own personal dream of Eden" - in effect the color of his glasses. As a poet, he believes profoundly in the superiority of the power of human expression to that of the instruments of science in the ability to reveal the world, so he is notably
not asking us to flee from these difficulties into the grey narrows of 'objectivism.' But he also knows there is no escaping a point of view: there is no 'view from nowhere.'
I am one of those who believe there is still enough art remaining in the design and creation of audio components that audio reviewers must heed Auden as much as literary critics must. I am not a
spiritualist, I am a materialist. I do believe that there will likely come a time when we can measure most of what we can hear, though measurements are not experience and translation is always a tricky business. In the meantime and even later when we know more, I want
first to know who you are; and then I want you to pour your whole 'subjective' self into hearing and then describing what you hear. I want you to open your ears and your eyes and wade out into the world of experience, for experience is the world we live in. I do not want you running off to the illusive safe harbor of the laboratory... or
leaving your wife.