Any listening test is subjective. Whether it’s one person who is thoroughly indoctrinated with product literature and besotted with a component’s appearance, or a panel of listeners in a double-blind setup, the results are still based on opinions, which are necessarily filtered through various experiences, expectations, and biases. I studied physics for my bachelor’s degree, and my career has been in applied research and product development. (I occasionally deal with topics tangentially related to audio, but I do not work full-time in the audio industry. My writing role for the SoundStage! Network, my only audio occupation, is a part-time endeavor.) I couldn’t do my job without rigorous measurements, and I think it would be nearly impossible for any designer of audio equipment to do his. Those who say that measurements can’t tell you anything about the performance of a piece of audio equipment don’t know what they’re talking about. With a little bit of knowledge and experience, good measurements can give you a solid idea of how a component sounds.
On the other side, anyone who says that we can completely characterize the sound of that equipment using current measurement techniques is equally deluded. Objective measurements -- those using microphones, oscilloscopes, and other similar apparati -- can give only a first- or second-order approximation of the total picture. The understanding of audio reproduction through measurements continues to improve, but the best tools for assessing the performance of an audio component are still our ears and brains. So, how can we objectify what is, inherently, a subjective process?
That anyone can have an opinion about an audio product can be seen by trolling the audio forums, and the many websites that claim to review audio products. A simple opinion about whether a particular person, no matter his or her credentials, likes or dislikes a product is relatively uninformative, regardless of how many adjectives that person uses. An informative audio review should tell you specifically how a product sounds. Does it have a flat frequency response and a neutral tonal balance? If not, how does it deviate from neutrality? How does it handle dynamics, detail, transients? Is the bass quick and articulate, deep and authoritative, or round and bloomy? How does the product image? Such a review can be more difficult and less fun to write than a rant or a rave, and it may be less fun to read. We like to think that we entertain our readers, but our primary goal is to inform.
Here at the SoundStage! Network, we have a specific format for all audio reviews. Each should spend some time discussing the product’s features and its look and feel. The bulk of the review should be dedicated to a description of the sound quality, with reference to the things mentioned above. Some aspects of performance may be emphasized more in one review than another, depending on the particular product, and that’s perfectly OK. Each review should also have a section in which the product is compared to others at or around its price. When you finish reading one of our reviews, you should have a good idea of whether or not the product will fit your listening preferences; and, if it does, whether it’s worth seeking out for an audition.
In most reviews, whether or not the writer liked the product is obvious. A strong opinion one way or the other can make for a more engaging review, and doesn’t hurt the review’s information value as long as all the specifics are still there. Your listening preferences shouldn’t have to align with those of the reviewer in order for you to come away with a good idea of the product. There may be products that I don’t like that may make some other listener very happy -- we don’t all have the same tastes. Very few reviews are entirely negative or entirely positive, because no product is perfect and we’re rarely sent the truly dismal ones. An objective reviewer should be able to write a positive review of a product he doesn’t like and a negative review of a product he does like.
That’s not to say that some products aren’t clearly better than others when measured against the yardstick of accuracy to the source. Most audiophiles claim to want accuracy, and many studies have shown that a neutral, accurate system is most satisfying to the largest number of listeners. One of my fellow reviewers at SoundStage! Hi-Fi doesn’t listen to a lot of chamber music; I, on the other hand, rarely listen to anything that has synthesizers. Even so, we like much of the same equipment. Our reference systems are different, but we could exchange them and continue listening to the types of music each of us likes -- which, in both cases, is actually quite a broad spectrum. We are both interested in high fidelity, which does not favor any particular genre of music. Preferences for audible colorations in gear can vary from listener to listener, but high fidelity is what it is. It’s important for consumers to recognize the difference between individual sonic preferences and absolute high fidelity, but it’s even more important for reviewers.
A year ago, this publication was rebranded as SoundStage! Hi-Fi. We know and appreciate what high-fidelity audio is all about, but we still recognize that there can be great products whose designers did not adhere to strict accuracy as a guiding principle. One such example is the Vienna Acoustics Mozart Grand SE loudspeaker, which publisher Doug Schneider reviewed last month. Another is the Audeze LCD-2 headphones, which I reviewed in August on SoundStage! Xperience. Although each of us has assembled his reference system to further our primary goal of accuracy, Doug and I favorably reviewed these products. That’s not because we have a policy of giving favorable reviews -- we don’t. It’s because we genuinely enjoyed our experiences with them. More important, we know that they will appeal to a certain group of listeners specifically for those ways in which they deviate from neutrality.
There are innumerable audio products out there with different sounds at different prices. Our goal is to help you find the products that best fit your priorities and will bring you the most enjoyment. The key to this, we believe, is making the subjective reviewing process more objective by being as concrete in our descriptions as we can possibly be.
. . . S. Andrea Sundaram