After “Which component should I buy?” the most oft-asked question of reviewers is: “What is your current reference system?” Both are loaded requests because of myriad implications. Most obvious is the suspicious thought related to the first demand: Why did he/she recommend Product X and not Y or Z? As for the second query, your nagging doubt is, How can a schmuck like you afford Product X, Y, or Z?
Let’s first deal with what to buy. Readers want reviewers’ advice because of presumed neutrality free of the agendas of salespeople in shops who want to sell what’s in stock. Assume for the sake of this discussion, then, that reviewers are impartial, and therefore able to recommend what is best for the reader because, in theory, whatever you buy doesn’t impact their earnings. (As for notorious individuals who -- allegedly -- were writing for magazines while in the direct, salaried employ of manufacturers, well, let’s leave that topic to those with powerful lawyers.)
Trouble is, no reviewer on earth has heard everything. If a reader wants help in selecting a $1500 DAC, for example, the reviewer has to choose from -- what? Fifty or more possibilities? Even if the reader had narrowed his or her shortlist down to DACs A, B, and C, it’s unfair to the third unit if the reviewer has only heard two of them. But that’s just a fact of life.
Expecting a hi-fi reviewer, magazine, or webzine to maintain a state of neutrality when giving advice, despite the above caveat, is surely preferable to the alternative: a return to the heavily biased reviewing of the 1980s/1990s, when the UK press was dominated by a coterie of compliant reviewers, all recommending the same stuff. Across the pond, the US press was riddled with equally worrying rumours of corruption in high places.
What ruined life for normal audiophiles in the UK back then was the knee-jerk response, no matter what the enquiry. All referrals were for NAD, Dual, KEF, Mission, Arcam, Rega, Nytech, Naim, and Linn, depending on budget. It resulted in gullible, benighted idiots using full-on £2000+ Linn LP12 front-ends with £79 integrated amps and £99 speakers. Meanwhile, back in the USA, one notorious reviewer is said to have written a review of a product before it even existed, but what he said remained sacrosanct. Yes, life was simpler then for those of a sheep-like mien, but it certainly wasn’t any better for the customer or the manufacturer -- nor any fairer.
Magazines have always had to be careful balancing “church and state,” aka editorial and advertising. Asking reviewers to recommend your next purchase puts them on the spot, but equally, one could argue that’s why we’re here. I tell you this so you know that when reviewers recommend Product Y and not X or Z, at least in my experience, there is no pressure to recommend products from advertisers. Recommendations are intended to be in your best interests -- not theirs.
As for the second question from readers, it does make sense to know what a reviewer uses. Magazines have different approaches to this, with at least one hi-fi publication listing at the end of each review everything the writer used during the listening sessions, down to the spikes under the speaker stands. I see what they hope to achieve, but a typical list enables hundreds, if not thousands, of possible combinations, rendering it pointless.
One review of a DAC cited two preamps, five power amps, and five loudspeakers: do the maths just for the possible permutations, and that’s not counting a dozen cables, three transports, etc. I’m impressed: I struggle with a minimum of two or three examples of each ancillary in a review -- e.g., at least three cartridges for assessing turntables, arms, and/or phono stages, three pairs of headphones for headphone amps, two transports for DAC reviews, and so on.
My argument is that the product being assessed will surely reveal its capabilities, nuances, and “personality” (or “signature sound”) within two or three product changes . . . especially to a full-time, experienced reviewer or, indeed, any seasoned audiophile who “knows” his or her system intimately. That’s why I am loath to change the main components in my reference system, though two situations demand this.
First is obsolescence: it is unfair to readers if the review system cannot be replicated or approximated in a shop. As much as I love my circa-1989 Marantz CD12/DA12, I realise that its use as a reference is untenable. While I still use the transport (and more recent Marantz and Sony units), I purchased a Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ as my “universal” DAC for dealing with every possible contingency: BNC, TosLink, coaxial, MQA, and so on. It’s current, and I could just about afford it.
As for the second situation, it’s all about finances. I own nearly all of my system, but I borrow a few pieces -- full disclosure. For readers who find this suspect, please note that any reviewer for a major publication, with a reasonable track record, can borrow for reference purposes pretty much anything on the planet. Manufacturers are more than happy to have their hardware referred to repeatedly in reviews.
So ask yourselves this: if reviewers can borrow products on disclosed, extended loan, surely they would borrow only units they believe to be the best of their type? I certainly wouldn’t borrow something I consider inferior, just because I could -- or just because it was hideously expensive.
Trust me on this: I’ve had in excess of 1000 components through my listening room during the past 37 years, not including the vintage stuff I’ve picked up during that period, so I am certainly no longer susceptible to GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), which infects newcomers in every field. (Example: I bought four ukuleles before I had even learned a dozen chords.)
For those of you who envy reviewers, the downside is that borrowed items can be called back by the manufacturer with little notice -- e.g., to be replaced by a newer version -- and that means finding a replacement and “relearning” one’s system. To prevent constant downtime familiarising myself with a new model, and in the interests of stability as well as preference, for nearly three decades my system has featured McIntosh or Audio Research electronics driving Wilson speakers. New models usually represent gradual evolution, compared with a move to an entirely different make of speaker or electronics.
A borrowed Dan D’Agostino Momentum stereo amplifier is my solid-state, higher-powered alternative to the Audio Research Reference 75 SE, and I have a PMC Cor integrated amp for mid-priced system reviewing. I house six turntables at varying price points, 25 cartridges (OK, OK, 11 of them are quirky Londons and Deccas), and I use wire from YTER, Transparent, and others. My assortment of speakers includes the BBC LS3/5A (five types), KEF LS50, JBL 4321M, Tannoy Prestige Autograph Mini, Quad S1, and both the Quad ESL-57 and 63. Oh, and eight open-reel decks. So now you know. And crucially, it helps to be married to the most tolerant woman I have ever met.
. . . Ken Kessler