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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 24
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Auroville 38: Right. Wrong
by Srajan Ebaen

Anyone who's been at this reviewing game for a while will concur. It's easy to come up with a collection of reader e-mails that so completely affirm one's own findings as to create the illusion of personal infallibility. "I just purchased the Flaming Attack amplifier you recommended to mate with the Pines of Rome speakers. Man, you nailed it. I've got Flaming Pines now. Best sound I ever had. You've got the Platinum Ears in this business." And so on. Cover your refrigerator with sticky post-its and bask in the short-lived glory.

Part of the secret to papal reviewer status is that most end users simply don't have access to extensive comparisons. Unless your recommendation is a complete dog or plain won't work in a particular system inquired about, it's relatively easy to cultivate such responses. But for every hit a reviewer scores -- not the review per se but confirmation from actual owners—there should be countless embarrassing flops on the unmentioned side of the board. Shouldn't there? I mean, there's only one pope. And he ain't reviewing HiFi.


Actually, a good reviewer should always be right. And always wrong. It's simply a function of consistency. If you always call it as you hear it; if your hearing doesn't decline nor your tastes take an obscure off ramp from your customary main highway—you can't ever be wrong. By definition. It's simply about telling the truth. Your truth. That's it. It means that those who hear like you to share your professed preferences, biases and sensibilities, will view you with infallibility. You've become the man. Those who don't will infallibly call you wrong. That still makes you utterly reliable. As the anti man. Mind you, I'm not talking about conclusions or overall rankings in the greater scheme of things. Such exploits are beset with error. Not only is the terrain an ever-changing mine field, the endless synergy concerns go beyond any single reviewer's ability to catalogue and predict. Plus, nobody has yet heard everything available to know what's best (not that a fixed "best" exists in the first place). No, I'm simply talking about descriptions of how something sounded. To you.

If you call it accurately, you will always be right (even if the conclusions you draw from it are not). It's very much like measurements. If they're taken consistently and under clearly defined and published circumstances, they can't be wrong. They simply are what they are. Commentary explaining what they ought to mean and whether they're acceptable, stellar or below par? Well, now we're getting on slippery interpretative ground. Granted, it's a slippery slope experts are supposed to brave and tread. But readers are always advised to separate: between hard fact (whether subjective as listener commentary or so-called objective as a bench rest result or graph) on the one hand; and interpretations regarding meaning, context and value of those facts on the other.

To an individual, likes or dislikes are fact. They may not be to anyone else but to that one person, they're objective truth and acted upon in like fashion. That's how the subjective turns objective. It's the context of the individual rather than the universal that makes it so (compliments to Cap'n Picard). That's how well-done audio reviews become both subjective and objective, simultaneously. They're subjective only in the sense that their objectivism centers on individual rather than global perspective. If I despise someone, no so-called proof to the contrary will change my feelings. I have my personal experiences and gut-level reactions. To me, they're fact and reality. Objective. To you, they could be the same. Then it's simple agreement that makes it so. Or you could vehemently object and call it all imagination, skewed understanding or plain error. Now disagreement makes it so. None of these secondary reactions—affirmative or contrary—alter the objectivity of where we began; with the reviewer's actual "how did it sound to me" commentary.

The only prerequisite in my book then is consistency to play this game. Always use the same yardstick. That is the only burden of responsibility a reviewer ultimately carries. Whatever your beliefs, state them for all to see. Whatever your limitations in terms of exposure and experience, state them for all to know. Then simply be honest and truthful. That's all any reasonable participant (reader or manufacturer) can and should expect. Anything beyond that is silliness or based on self delusions of grandeur whereby a writer presumes to be more important than he is or know more than he does or be in possession of a universally applicable yard stick. In the end, there's only one Pope. To my knowledge, there hasn't been an audio reviewer in the Vatican yet. Hence, universal infallibility is beyond our ken, HP included. However, good reviewers are infallible in their own way. They never err if they say exactly what they heard. How many good reviewers according to this definition exist? That isn't for me but you to say. This "good" is clearly not about the quality of writing. It's not about the cleverness of syntax or metaphor or the mastery of rhythm and punctuation. It's simply about consistency and making this consistency transparent to the audience.

Such consistency isn't easy to come by. It relies on the writer's ability to separate personal moodiness and momentary disability from how those psychological factors impact data acquisition—what is heard and how it is heard. The road to consistency is experience. How much time have you put in. How much more time will you dedicate to this endeavor in the face of online criticism, widespread corruption in the profession and little hard payback beyond the personal satisfaction of having shared something you're enthusiastic and passionate about?

Those are very personal questions. They merit equally personal answers. I can only speak for myself then when I say that applying oneself wholeheartedly to anything creates focus and constancy. Those forces act like a forge. Impurities are melted, base materials are refined and the constant hammering of engagement creates a more defined shape in the psychology of the men or women who, by applying themselves, are simultaneously being worked on. It's the old "it's not what you do but how you do it" rule. Something as mundane and trifling as audio reviewing can become a viable ongoing discipline. Its real personal benefits completely transcend the superficial benefits of access to goods and discounted pricing for the occasional personal acquisition which naysayers often quote as the sole underlying motivation for becoming a reviewer. How many components could you possibly own? Trust me, that gets old in a hurry. Were it not for the constancy of my chosen occupation and—due to owning this site—the inherent freedom to apply it without compromise and regard for committee and consensus, writing about audio toys relevant only to the affluent with enough time for music listening would feel like a terrible waste of time. Especially considering the general global situation.

To the writer, audio reviewing can become a craft and art to be honed and be honed by. It doesn't require that anyone else thinks you're great at it. As long as you improve beyond where you began and do what's necessary to continue improving rather than go on automatic mass production, the magic of getting shaped by what you do is in full effect. In the end, it's about communicating hard-to-communicate observations and emotional reactions. It's wonderful exercise to talk audio, sound and the effects of music on a listener. Grappling with the intangible elements thereof means we simultaneously exercise our ability to talk about love, dreams and spiritual matters—other things that tend to be very real to us but often become nebulous and vague in the talking about them. It's this that makes audio discussions so interesting for this writer. It's a context to refine personal ability of translating feelings and sensory stimuli into plain words that properly convey intention. That's already a lot less mundane than audio toys. Add the spiritual dimension of what music listening can mean and suddenly, the much-maligned gig of audio reviewing doesn't look so shabby after all. Good. Hey, I just convinced myself. I'm gonna keep this job for a little while longer...

Visit Srajan at his site www.6moons.com

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