I should begin by saying that I like Stereophile Magazine. In fact, I adore it. If I were asked to name something else that comes to my mailbox every month that I look forward to with equal enthusiasm, I would be hard pressed to provide another answer, with the possible exception of TAS and Gramophone. I should also mention that I appreciate just how hard it is to review audio gear for a living. Although to many of us it sounds like a dream job which allows the opportunity to hear the very best and latest gear, I’m sure that in reality, with limited time to complete thorough evaluations and publication deadlines constantly at hand, the actual job is harder than we might have guessed. I also like Stereophile’s commitment to providing technical measurements that gives the reader additional information that might be important or useful in trying to assess the full measure of a piece of gear under discussion.
But enough accolades. Despite these strengths, there are some obvious and tragic examples of audio reviewing that really leave me shaking my head at the stupidity of remarks that are made by people who should know better. One wonders- why is it we never, ever see a bad review in Stereophile? (I thought the days of “everything is great” were over when Julian Hirsch left the field? Apparently, not.)
Two fine examples can be found in September's Stereophile. In discussing a Cary CD player, Mike Fremer comments that “the sound….was never less than complimentary to every disc played, even those that were warm and mid-bass heavy, or slightly rolled off on top- another indicator of the skill with which the player has been voiced”. Mikey; two things. First: “the sound….was never less than complimentary to every disc played”. What the hell does this even mean? “Second, “….the skill with which the player has been voiced.”? Are you kidding me? Look at the damn frequency response Mikey. It’s ruler flat from 10Hz to 20KHz. Do you even know what the word “voiced” means? You generally need some deviation in frequency response to have any sort of genuine voicing options at all. Seems like a ridiculous comment to me. But as enjoyable as that gobblygook was to read, it was not quite the equal of John Atkinson’s review of the Violoncello II speakers.
Get this. Here is a speaker that shows a frequency response characterized by a rising top end over 6K that is up 5 dB between 10KHz and 20KHz! It’s so insufferable that Atkinson had to insert a 600-ohm series resistor in the tweeter feeds just to reduce the level above 10KHz to acceptability. In fact, he said the ionic tweeter sensitivity is “too high for a completely neutral on-axis response” so he had to resort to “toe-in” just to listen to the damn thing without frying his ears. Atkinson says “this won’t be an issue in a well-damped large room”, but meanwhile the top end is so hot in his room you can fry an egg on it. Add to the fact that the impulse response is a total train wreck with out of phase driver responses and level mismatches that are a sonic embarrassment, and you simply have to shudder when you read his final conclusion that the speaker is “highly recommended”!!! John, what the hell are you thinking?
Wouldn’t it be really nice for a change if a reviewer wrote something honest that was totally believable in an audio review? How about “although the dynamics were impressive, the basic flaws for a speaker of this price ($80K) leads me to conclude that you can do a lot better for far less money elsewhere. In fact, based on the fundamental anomalies of frequency response and impulse response, the speaker essentially sucks and you’d have to be nuts to even think about owning these”. I know that many folks including me have beat up Valin for saying that everything he seems to test recently is “the best”. But its not just the occassional review in TAS that lacks credibility. Stereophile has done a great job of displaying their own lack of credibility in the two examples I cited. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to discourage them from reviewing the latest gear. But what I’d like to see is more reviews that reflect the reviewer’s honest opinions. And not a review that is couched in language so as to meet the following standard: “ Jeez, these guys spent a lot of money to advertise with us so I have to figure how to say something nice about the product even though it really isn’t very good. I just have to figure a way to say it so our average reader can’t figure that out yet the manufacturer will continue to advertise with us!"
Do you have your own tale of dumb audio equipment reviews? Please share them. We all need a good laugh now and then and I’m sure there are plenty of equipment reviews out there to laugh about.