The Audio Press

FIRST EDITION-JANUARY 1996

LAST UPDATED-JANUARY 2013

(Industry Watchdogs): "In youth they are vigorous, aggressive, evangelistic and even intolerant. Later, they become mellow; and in old age-after some 10 or 15 years-they become, with some exceptions, either an arm of the industry they are regulating or senile."
John Kenneth Galbraith

INTRODUCTION

STEREOPHILE
THE ABSOLUTE SOUND
SOME OTHER MAGAZINES

ADVERTISING & THE ECONOMICS OF PUBLISHING
"CRONYISM"-THE UNAVOIDABLE PROBLEM
A TYPICAL REVIEWER'S HIGHEST PRIORITY

AUDIO CABLES-THE ULTIMATE TEST OF INTEGRITY
"AUDIO FAITH"-THE UNSPOKEN BELIEF SYSTEM
"AUDIO RELATIVISM"- THE NEW DISEASE AND EXCUSE

THE (SECRET) "RULES" OF 'AUDIO REVIEWING'

SOME WORTHWHILE MAGAZINES
THE PURPOSE OF AUDIO REVIEWS
CONCLUSIONS

INTERNAL LINKS

INTRODUCTION

The biggest disappointment I have had with the "audio world" in general is with the magazines, particularly what was once called "the underground press". No other group; the manufacturers, retailers, or distributors, has let the average audiophile down as much as them.

The behavior of the audio press, during the last 20 years or so, is the worst "breach of trust" in our hobby/industry since it started more than 50 years ago. In fact, there is so much to criticize that I have had a difficult time even knowing where to begin, so I'll start with a discussion of the audio magazine with the largest current circulation, Stereophile.

After that, I will focus on other magazines, some well known and some obscure, plus various other subjects and issues concerning publishing an audio magazine today. Special attention will be given to the "reviewers", who perform the most important function that the magazines are supposed to provide.

I will continue to edit and add material to this file as time and circumstances permit.

STEREOPHILE

"There is always an inverse proportion between the number of persons a reporter reaches and the amount he can say. The larger the audience the more inoffensive and inconclusive the article must be." -Timothy Crouse

Stereophile was the first "underground" audio magazine. Its existence even coined the term. It was started by maverick audio reviewer J. Gordon Holt. His efforts spawned other magazines, and set the standard for honest reporting. Eventually, after many years of struggle, he sold the magazine to Larry Archibald. A few years after that, Archibald replaced Holt as the editor. That job went to his new junior partner, John Atkinson. The magazine has never been the same since.

Stereophile is now basically a commercial marketing engine for established brands, and those rare new brands which can afford an extravagant marketing (advertising) budget, meaning hundreds of thousands of dollars. The only other audio companies they mention favorably are small companies whose owners are friends, or have some sort of "relationship", with the senior writers or the editor himself. Everyone else is "out", especially small, newly formed, innovative manufacturers who are perceived as a threat to any of the companies previously mentioned.

The "reviews" in Stereophile are rarely direct, with a definitive, unambiguous conclusion. Readers are forced to "read between the lines" in some vain hope that they can actually decipher the reviewer's true experiences, thoughts and feelings. Sonic downsides and compromises are rarely stated in frank and detailed terms. The finest and most valuable reviews, in any field of human endeavor, are enlightening, challenging and, in many instances, controversial. I can't remember the last time that ANY review in Stereophile could be honestly characterized in such terms.

Stereophile's original allegiance has now been fundamentaly altered. What used to be a magazine whose main goal was "to inform" its readership, has now changed to a magazine whose main goal is "To Sell" its readership on the latest, most fashionable components, regardless of their true and relative merit. Their readers have been reduced to a simple statistic used for calculating advertising revenues.

To that end, they are increasingly less critical of components as their selling prices increase. If their readers' interests were their true first priority, as they continually claim, they would be increasingly more critical as the prices rise. In effect, they've now transformered themselves from being tough industry critics into pandering industry cheerleaders.

Their Recommended Components List reflects this new reality, with almost every component they review now earning this once prestiguous achievement. It is the equivalent of every professional sports team making the playoffs.

If that wasn't bad enough, there are now more recommendations described as "Class A", meaning "the best available", than as "Class C", which is "the best for the money". This is, of course, logically impossible in the real world. It is analogous to having more Generals than Sergeants within the Army.

The section below within this file, which I termed "The Rules", was mainly, though not exclusively, inspired by the disheartening conduct and practices of this magazine.

I've written extensively about Stereophile within the Reviewing the Reviewers. It is highly detailed and includes some relevant examples of the continuing degeneration and blatant commercialization of the magazine.


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THE ABSOLUTE SOUND

The Absolute Sound has also seriously deteriorated. Here's one simple example: In issue # 114, they 'reviewed' the VPI Aries Turntable with the JMW tonearm, with a total cost of $ 4,995, and the Jadis 845 triode amplifiers.

What did they compare the VPI Aries with? The Rega Planar 3 at $ 695. (Yes, I'm serious.) Guess which was better? It's safe to say that no one (in the audio business) was upset at the result of such a comparison. More important, no prospective purchaser, of either turntable/arm combination, was enlightened about its relative audio performance and value.

Then there was the $20,000 Jadis 845. This should be thought of as an all-out design at that price. What did they compare the Jadis with? Their "references" were a VTL KT-90 push-pull amplifier and an original, stock, Dynaco Stereo 70! The price of both of these amplifiers, combined, is not much more than the sales tax on the Jadis, and neither is single-ended, as is the Jadis.

What really hurts is that TAS had been the finest audiophile magazine for more than two decades. It set the standard for complete and reliable reporting, not only the components, but also for seeking out the music itself. It started going downhill in the early to mid-eighties, after the "no advertising" policy was changed and it escalated after The Perfect Vision was started. There were politics and cronyism from virtually the beginning, but TAS always seemed to transcend them in the long run, and they had "continuity", a rare virtue.

Now, they are just a ghost of themselves, with new owners and format, without a direction, and with no idea where the audio pulse lies. The two junk 'reviews' discussed above couldn't have been published in TAS's prime years. Now they are routine.

The two main writers, Harry Pearson and Jonathan Valin, change their "reference" components almost ever issue. Worst of all- The "reviewers" even appear to be engaged in a decadent contest of who can spend (actually waste) the most amount of (other peoples') money on a system. Valin, through a "close friend", was even caught cutting a 17 meter pair of (expensive and unpaid for) Nordost interconnects into (17) 1 meter pairs, and then selling them on Audiogon. Since Valin can still "sell", nothing happened to him.

There are also some critical essays concerning The Absolute Sound within Reviewing the Reviewers. It includes details of the continuing degeneration and blatant commercialization of the magazine.


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SOME OTHER MAGAZINES

AUDIO ADVENTURE

The worst example is, fortunately, now out of business, but sadly not out of audio. Have you ever read Audio Adventure? Check out an issue, but don't pay for it. Virtually all the "editorial" reads like ad copy, but with even less modesty. There were actually biographies of the 'reviewed' manufacturers, plus pictures of them, their family, spouse, factory etc.

It almost read like a National Lampoon parody of the cronyism and cowardice of the other magazines. Of course, all the "chosen ones", those who received the described Royal Treatment, just happen to have been their largest advertisers. Reading AA can bring up strong and conflicting emotions; nausea and extreme embarrassment being just two of them.

Are you wondering what happened to the owner/editor of Audio Adventure, Thomas O. Miiller? He was almost immediately rehired by TAS as a "senior writer". There's one constant truth about the audio press, once you're "in", you're always "in", as long as you keep your mouth shut and obey "The Rules". (See below.)

Addendum- To my surprise and horror, I now realize, in 2008, that Audio Adventure went out of business not because of its embarrassing degree of utter groveling, but because it was ahead of its time. Both Stereophile and TAS now routinely have the same multiple page "spreads" that Audio Adventure specialized in, along with their fawning "interviews" and common usage of words like "awesome" and "revolutionary".

LISTENER

In August 2002, Listener stopped publishing. This was unfortunate because it was different and its readership was growing.

Listener was published by Art Dudley, through a larger magazine company. Its biggest downside was that it had a strong bias towards English equipment; Linn, Naim, Spendor etc., but it didn't follow the industry dogma that spending big money is always better. It also had a Harvey Rosenberg column, which was usually provocative. On the other hand, outside of Dudley and Rosenberg, their other reviewers were unreliable. In fact, one of them has since blatantly misinformed the readers of Audio Asylum in his numerous posts in their forums, including unfounded personal attacks on members who are critical of Stereophile (where Dudley now works), and a sickening, groveling like "worship" of its editor, John Atkinson.

THE AUDIO CRITIC

There is another magazine that deserves special mention, because in many ways it is unique. That magazine is The Audio Critic. It was originally published during the late 1970's until around 1981. Then it reincarnated around 1987, with the publisher being in the speaker business during that 6 year hiatus. I was a subscriber during the first period and enjoyed the magazine quite a bit. It was very precise and to the point, and did not tolerate any scientific "mumbo jumbo". It also didn't accept any advertising. I was very sorry to see it go.

The Audio Critic, in its new reincarnation, has profoundly changed, mainly because the publisher/editor's beliefs have also changed. It's still very scientifically based, which I like and it also pulls no punches, which I really like. In fact, it's the only magazine I know that breaks "The Rules" listed below in a consistent manner.

The new problem for me, and most others, is the editor no longer believes that any component, other than loudspeakers, can make an audible difference (improvement) in the sound; a cheap (powerful) receiver will sound as good as any power amplifier; the same with CD players, cables, preamp line-stages etc. He states he can prove all this with ABX testing. He also feels analogue, meaning phono reproduction, is far inferior to any CD player and that "tubes are for boobs". No, I am not exaggerating.

While I concur about the prime importance of speakers and listening rooms, I don't agree with their position on tubes, phono reproduction, and everything else sounding the same, though I do feel that the sonic differences in most cases are greatly exaggerated. In fact, if I felt the same way the editor did about audio components, I wouldn't even bother being involved with an audio magazine in the first place. It would be too boring, and besides; What's the point?

According to their own findings and philosophy, all you have to do to get the best sound possible is to buy the cheapest receiver, CD player and cables you can find, then buy your favorite loudspeaker with all the money you saved. Further, the only improvement you will ever be able make in the future is with a better pair of speakers. Everything else must be, in effect, perfect, because it all sounds exactly the same. There is also a continually angry, bitter and negative tone to the writing that may put one off.

Addendum- Since the above was posted, The Audio Critic has ceased publishing and now only has a web presence. Sadly, their posts are infrequent and short, but then, when you think about it, there's not much to add to "almost every component sounds exactly the same".

INTERNATIONAL AUDIO REVIEW

One final print magazine worth mentioning is International Audio Review (IAR), published by Peter Moncrieff since around 1980. It is also scientifically based and the editor has an exceptional track record for finding previously unknown, but superb sounding components. He describes why they are superior, usually in excessive length, and is also prone to exaggerating the degree of this superiority.

Unfortunately, he is in the passive parts (capacitors and wire) business. The magazine has also suffered from long publishing delays, a growing focus on low priority (digital) components and, up until recently, equipment from Audio Research Corp. However, some of the issues can still be both provocative and very informative. Their issues from the early 1980's had an incredible amount of general, well thought out, audio information. He now has a website, with some sample reviews in it.

THE AUDIO PERFECTIONIST

As far as I know, this is a magazine found only on the Internet. However, unlike the typical and useless (and "free") audio websites I've visited, the reader must pay for a subscription and then download the text etc.

The publisher and editor is Richard Hardesty, who also has a long (30 year) career in the audio (retail, repair, design) business, and even has a musical background as well. His experience is formidable and his critical nature is very similar to mine.

There is a link to The Audio Perfectionist in the "Links" section of this website. There you will find a decent sample of his writing style, background and perspective. It will be enough to make the decision whether or not to subscribe.

FOR FURTHER COMMENTARY

For those of you who are interested in taking a second, critical look at some specific audio reviews, recommendations and corresondence from a variety of sources, both from print magazines and the Internet, please go to my column: Reviewing the Reviewers. The criticisms will be much more specific than the broad strokes mainly used in this essay. Both the "famous" and the less well known will be "featured".


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ADVERTISING AND THE ECONOMICS OF PUBLISHING

"Stereophile is going to start taking ads...we are not considering...taking ads from manufacturers. There is just too intimate a relationship between a product and an advertisement for that product...we are not sure we could really ignore the fact that a devastating report might cost us three mortgage payments...if (...the manufacturer) happens to be a nice guy, it is hard to be as hard on his mistakes...as we should be in order to warn our readers of them." - J. Gordon Holt - Stereophile -(Issue 3-1971, Page 2)

"Magazines---all magazines--exist on the basis of advertising. That's all that counts. Magazines are "sold" simply to have circulation which can then be used to sell advertising at prices commensurate with the circulation. IN FACT most magazines LOSE money on circulation. It doesn't matter since they make their money on advertising." - Michael Fremer of Stereophile (From his Letter of October 29, 2000 - My Underlines)

INTRODUCTION

There is much more to all this than just advertising dollars, but because advertising $$ is the root cause of much of the problems, we have to talk about the unpleasant, but inevitable subject of money before we get to "The Rules", for perspective's sake.

THE OBVIOUS REALITY

To paraphrase Michael Fremer above; Isn't it obvious that if you pay only $20 or less for an annual subscription, while a manufacturer (or retailer) pays up to $200,000 a year to advertise in that same magazine, that the publisher will think more than twice (how about 10,000 times!) about upsetting that (even potential) advertiser?

The magazine must protect their advertiser(s), or else they'll all go under, because neither can survive without the other. This will be the case until their readers demand more and, much more importantly, are willing to pay for it. Actually, I find it amazing that audiophiles really believe they can buy a magazine with over 200 pages, with color, in a large format, and even have it shipped to them for less than $2 an issue and still expect total frankness. And all this at the literal expense of the audio businesses that actually subsidize the entire production, through their advertising money, equipment "loans" and assorted "favors".

No, I'm not defending the magazines and 'reviewers'. One can acknowledge that they are dependent on the advertisers and have no choice but to mollify them, but they put themselves in that position by offering more frequent and larger issues, and even charging less for them. They gave the readers what they seemed to want; a lot more quantity and much less quality.

THE MAGAZINES' CHOICE

Most 'underground' publishers and editors made a strategic choice:

More 'reviews', more ads, more pages, and all for a small price in dollars.

What a deal! The inevitable trade off: very little hard content or clear-cut choices; 50 amplifiers described as "the best", instead of 4. They figured that some audiophiles, mainly "old timers" like myself, would be put off, but we're a small minority. By now, there are only a few thousand subscribers who can even remember the early days of "no ads" and very frank and direct reviews. In short; the magazines became "commercial" and we were written off. Remember...

Fortunes (the ultimate goal for many) are rarely made from purists and perfectionists.

The audio magazines decided that their advertisers were their best and most reliable short and long-term sources of income. One key to understanding the priorities of any audio magazine is how much they charge for a subscription. The cheaper and more inviting the subscription price is to attract a maximum amount of subscribers, and increase their advertising rates, then the less dependent they are on individual subscribers and more dependent on those advertisers for their income.

In other words; The magazines are "buying you out" for a cheap subscription price.


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"CRONYISM"-THE UNAVOIDABLE PROBLEM

"The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of audio journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between audio manufacturers and journalists."-Hunter S. Thompson (Paraphrased)

The first (and usually the worst) problem is cronyism. It cannot be avoided, because it deals with the basic fundamentals of human nature.

How can readers ever know the true, overall "relationship" of the audio manufacturer or distributor and the audio reviewer? How close are they? What favors have been exchanged? When is a "loan" a gift? How much did the "reviewer's purchase" really cost? How important is this relationship to both of them? What will either of them do, or don't do, to retain it?

THE "INSIDERS" WORLD

These are the questions whose answers only the true "insiders" know. I believe most audio reviewers begin their jobs wanting to be honest. This attitude doesn't usually last very long, because the reviewer won't be a reviewer very long if they are as critical of components in public as they are of those same components in private. So they learn first to be "diplomatic" and then later to fake "enthusiasm".

And then, sooner or later, they are "helped" by a manufacturer. It may take the form of a 'loan' of some exotic equipment they lust for, or a "give-away" price if they want to actually own it. If there's an expensive upgrade; "no problem", it's done for free, usually in their own home. They, in turn, will highly recommend the "reference" component, creating a symbiotic relationship.

This relationship may go on for years, with constant, reciprocal interactions; telephone calls; dinners; trips; and other favors (even for friends). After a while, a true friendship may even develop, but usually it is one just based on mutual gain and/or dependence.

Of course, as night still follows day, the reviewer will inevitably hear a component that is superior to the "reference", and it may also be cheaper. What does the reviewer do now?

THE INEVITABLE DILEMMA

The reviewer's (and the magazine's) choices are stark. Advertising, from the reviewer's perspective, may not even be the most important factor. If the reviewer is totally frank about the superiority of the new component, he knows he will compromise or even destroy the long-term "relationship" he has developed with the original manufacturer. Worse, he will scare off many other third-party manufacturers from loaning him equipment in the future.

While the original manufacturer must acknowledge that the reviewer helped them in the past, they will usually forget that when the new review, recommending their competitor's product over their own, is published. It will hurt their sales and may even bankrupt them. They will feel betrayed after all the favors they have given to the reviewer, maybe over the course of years. The fact that the new component really is superior to their own is irrelevant to them.

The reviewer also doesn't want to burn such an important bridge after all the time he has invested in it, and there can still be many future favors and interactions between him and the original manufacturer, let alone substantial future advertising dollars for the publisher/employer. So this is the point where "The Rules" come in to play, which were designed to insure that Everyone, except the readers, will be protected and satisfied in the long run.

THE CONTINUAL TEMPTATIONS

Admittedly, the inevitable and endless temptations faced by influential 'reviewers' are considerable, and it should be no great surprise that most people can not resist them. Here is a typical example:

A manufacturer offers the reviewer a $20,000 amplifier for an "extended loan". The manufacturer receives a "rave review" shortly thereafter. (There is no formal agreement.) The manufacturer may eventually sell a few dozen amplifiers because of that 'review', and now tells the 'reviewer' to keep the "loaner", or purchase it for "parts cost", which may amount to $ 4,000, and usually less.

The 'reviewer', in turn, can now sell the amplifier for half of retail, $10,000. This is very easy to do since his own 'review' created the artificial demand for it in the first place. He becomes a "hero" for both the now very happy manufacturer and also the person purchasing the amplifier, maybe a friend, who saved $10,000 plus tax from the retail price. This same scenario may be repeated many times in a 'reviewer's' "career". In almost all instances, the readers are unaware that these "transactions" even took place.


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A TYPICAL REVIEWER'S HIGHEST PRIORITY

To truly understand how the vast majority of reviewers think, including the most famous and the total unknowns, you must put yourself in their position. They begin as "ordinary" readers and consumers, paying the highest prices, and with no special access to anyone. Suddenly they are "reviewers", with deals, loans, access, "respect" and privileges they never dreamed of.

What then becomes their single highest priority, almost inevitably, as soon as the shock wears off and they can think straight?

That's real simple:

To remain a reviewer!

Most reviewers will do virtually anything to retain this unexpected and highly beneficial status, and that means keeping their editor/publisher happy, which, in turn, means keeping the manufacturers/advertisers happy. In effect, they only "review" components for the purpose of allowing them to review more components in the future. This is in sharp contrast to an ordinary reviewer, whose first goal is to help his readers, by making a serious and honest effort to communicate his observations and expertise with them. Keep this in mind, at all times, when you contemplate their "work".

Finally, always remember that a "negative review" does much more than simply upset the manufacturer of the reviewed component. It also sends a signal to all the other manufacturers that they may be highly vulnerable if they decide to loan a component to that particular reviewer.


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AUDIO CABLES-THE ULTIMATE TEST OF INTEGRITY

There is no subject or component category that has been as revealing of the magazines', and their reviewers', (lack of) integrity as audio cables. In less than 25 years audio cables have gone from an afterthought to a major investment in most systems. The prices have also skyrocketed from less than $ 50 to tens of thousands for the (so-called) "best".

Simultaneously, the cable companies have slowly become some of the largest advertisers in almost every audio magazine. In return, these magazines have published 'reviews', and "recommendations", of the "better known" (most heavily advertised) brands and models. Meanwhile...

Virtually nothing else has been printed about audio cables by them. So, one may ask, where is the problem with the magazines' self-proclaimed integrity? They're honest and open, aren't they?

Well, prepare yourself for a totally new perspective about audio cables and the audio magazines:

1. LACK OF BASIC INFORMATION

I used the expression "cable companies" in the above paragraph. Did you think it was an oversight on my part that I didn't use the word "manufacturer" instead? After all, that is the word that all the magazines (and the 'reviewers') use, or at least imply. I didn't use it for a very good reason: It is not true. What is the truth?

Virtually every cable company you have ever heard of (or ever will hear of) does NOT make its own cables.

Are you surprised, or even shocked by this statement? Well, I was too, and remember, I was in the audio business for more than 20 years. In fact, I even discovered (from the actual manufacturers) that many cable companies don't even design their own cables. They simply choose among different designs, materials, colors, terminations and the overall volume (total length). Then they are quoted a price, and that's it. Some companies may perform some custom terminations at their "factory", but that's all the "manufacturing" they'll ever do.

The magazines (and their 'reviewers') know all of this of course, but they make damn sure that their readers don't.

Why do they suppress such basic information from their own subscribers?

The magazines realize that the word "Manufacturer" implies huge initial expenditures and investments of time and money, plus true size and importance. Simply ordering 50 or 100 pairs of cable from some large, 50-year old manufacturing plant, at their normal volume discount, doesn't even begin to convey the same image of scale, the same sense of expertise and commitment, or earn the same amount of respect or prestige, does it? Most importantly, a consumer, knowing this underlying reality, would be hesitant to pay the now outlandish prices on these cables.

It's obvious that anyone with some money to invest can do the same thing. Magazines don't want their readers to think that any of their advertisers are just "anyone". The only serious monetary "investments" any of these cable companies will ever make is in "marketing" their products.

2. LACK OF PROPER AND THOROUGH TESTING

Unlike most other components, audio cables are easy to compare with each other, and now even with a "straight bypass" (a direct connection of two components that bypasses the cables). It should be obvious to all that the closer any cable is to the bypass, the better that cable must be.

One cable company, Wireworld, came out with the Comparator, a device which allows any particular cable to be compared with both a "bypass" position and one other cable. They use it themselves at audio shows, and a few of their larger retailers also use it. (Audio 'reviewers' always avoid the Comparator at shows, during public hours, for fear of exposure.) There is another, older device, the ABX switcher, which also makes it very easy and convenient to compare cables with each other, though not against a pure bypass.

How many magazines use these informative devices, including the (free for them) Wireworld Comparator, with its ultra-revealing bypass position? Easy answer: None of them! A few 'reviewers' used the Comparator once, when reviewing some of Wireworld's cable, and never mentioned it again.

Even when they did use the Comparator, the results were always "inconclusive"; all the cables just happened to be "equally different" from the bypass.

The fact that the magazines refuse to even make these simple tests, let alone publish the results, is irrefutable evidence of their continual efforts to protect the inferior models. This means the "inferiors" will still be able to sell their products, give away "review samples" and pay their bills, most importantly their numerous advertising (AKA protection) invoices.

3. LACK OF COST/PRICE INQUIRY

As we enter this new decade, it is no longer even slightly surprising to see cables for thousands of dollars, even for short lengths. Some cables are now above $ 20,000 a pair. Only around 20 years ago, the most expensive cables were all $ 200 or less, and some of them even used pure silver. So what has happened?

Well, the cable companies discovered that some customers were prepared to pay more, a lot more. Even more important, they also found out that the magazines never questioned, let alone challenged, the prices they charged; $ 500, $ 1,000, $ 5,000, $ 10,000 etc. (Retailers weren't complaining either with this new development; A $ 200 sale became a $ 5,000 sale!)

No one, not even those cable companies that didn't advertise, was ever asked to justify their prices. It didn't matter what the cable was made of, or its build quality, or its terminations etc. No questions asked. Why?

The magazines are afraid, almost to the point of terror, that the readers/customers will discover that the markups on cables are now very similar to those on "illegal drugs", over 1,000%! The outraged reader may even lose his Audio Faith. (See the next subject below.)

4. LACK OF PRICE/PERFORMANCE COMPARISONS

The magazines' "don't ask, don't tell" policy doesn't stop there. For further protection, they will not even compare any of the (now rare) reasonably priced cables to any of the high-priced models, unless they already know that they are inferior (a "fix"). Why?

The magazines know that if even one low-priced cable is better, the entire myth that all high-quality cables must also be high-priced will be shattered, permanently.

The magazines have never compromised their "total package of protection" for the cable companies. That's why there exists today a "reference speaker cable", with "rave reviews", from a very well known "manufacturer", which retails at $ 9,500 for an 8' pair, while his own cost is less than $ 100 from the real cable manufacturer, and he can still "sleep like a baby". (Yes, under $ 100 dollars, including terminations!)

SUMMARY

The mainstream audio magazines, self-described as "your friends in the audio world", have shown a strange method of demonstrating their "friendship". They have allowed and even contributed to the illusion that ordinary individuals are actually large and serious "manufacturers". They have avoided even the simplest and most basic tests on cables with extraordinary claims and prices. No retail price, even above $ 20,000, has ever been questioned, and any reasonably priced cable is shunned as if it were the audio equivalent of "truth serum". In short;

They have completely ignored every serious concern and question relating to these audio products.

There is an obvious consistency and pattern of behavior in evidence here. Audio cables have presented a revealing and ultimate test of every magazines' basic honesty and integrity.

"Ultimate" because there is no other situation in audio where, simultaneously, the readers are so uninformed and vulnerable, the magazines tempted by huge advertising income and their 'reviewers' by "gifts", while the respective 'manufacturers' have unprecedented amounts of gross profits (90% or more of sales) to spread around to anyone who can help them. How many magazines have actually passed this "Ultimate Test"?

In my Opinion: Virtually None.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS PART I

For the reader who would like to see a confirmation of the above essay, plus an example of the (now standard) uninhibited markups in this "industry", please check out this enlightening thread on Audio Asylum: The JPS Labs Power Cord. You will also note the absence of contributions from the prominent reviewers who regularly hype these cables and, as a bonus, some "defences" of these highly misleading cable "manufacturers" from their shameless shills operating within these groups. In contrast, Steve Eddy, the Audio Asylum "member" who actually tracked down this invaluable information, at his own time and expense, has done an admirable service for the entire audiophile community. Congratulations!

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS PART II

This will be old news for most readers, but Tara Labs, a North American based cable "manufacturer", found itself in some trouble because they mislabeled a huge number of cables (42,000!), by claiming they were "Made in the U.S.A.", presumably in their own "plant", when they were actually made in Asia, at an average cost of around $ 14! (Now compare the $ 14 cost to the retail price of the average Tara Labs cable.)

For more details, Stereophile has a short article; http://www.stereophile.com/news/091304taralabs/ Also, search Cable Asylum and Audiogon in September 2004 for more discussions about this particular subject. You're sure to find apologists for both the mislabeling and the price gouging.

Personal Note- The Tara Labs' model for outsourcing its products is "The Rule" concerning cable companies, and not an exception.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS PART III

There was a recent incident at The Absolute Sound which was very indicative of the current state of the audiophile cable business. It also confirms what I wrote above about the unprecedented profit margins in audio cables. According to threads in Critics Asylum, Romy the Cat's audio website and TAS' own "Forums", it appears that TAS senior reviewer, Jonathan Valin, received a 17 meter pair of highly expensive Nordost interconnects for a review. Valin never purchased them. Later, Valin, with a "friend", had this same 17 meter pair cut down and re-terminated into (17) individual 1 meter pairs, and then sold them, to unsuspecting audiophiles, on Audiogon. How the all the money they received was actually split between the two "friends" was never disclosed.

Nordost did not ask for the cables back, which is their standard policy with reviewer "loans". This is true despite the fact that these particular cables sold for many thousands of dollars (which then tells you how little they actually cost to manufacture). Valin obviously knew Nordost would never ask for the cables back. He was only caught because one of the buyers of a 1 meter pair had a problem, called Nordost, and they (Nordost) couldn't figure out how the serial number of a 17 meter pair was now located on a 1 meter pair. After a quick investigation, and a few phone calls, the truth was discovered, but only after Valin first claimed he "lost" the cables.

So what happened to Valin? Nothing. All the blame was placed on Valin's "nefarious friend".
The Bottom Line- When it comes to contemporary audio journalism, particularly in the mainstream press, all that matters is if the writer can "SELL"*.

*As far as I know, Robert Harley, the TAS Editor, is the person with the authority to "fire" Valin. These two men have worked closely together for many years now, and, of course, have many shared experiences and confidences.


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"AUDIO FAITH"-THE UNSPOKEN BELIEF SYSTEM

Secret Rule No. 8- "The more dishonest your magazine is, the more you shall proclaim your honesty."

"That is true in life....and has nothing to do with hifi!" - Michael Fremer, Stereophile (Letter of October 29, 2000)

What is "Audio Faith"?

This is the simple, childlike, yet powerful belief that the entire audio world is very different than the rest of the world.

Those audiophiles who have "audio faith" strongly believe that all audio components are fairly priced (even if they are incompetently designed or are not to the believer's "taste"), and they are also convinced that basic, universal, human greed always amazingly disappears as soon as someone becomes an "audio manufacturer".

In addition, the "faithful" also believe that all the 'reviewers' are both competent and honest, which is the reason they attained their desired and exalted positions, and are only concerned with their readers' welfare, rather than their own, their magazine's and/or the manufacturers who 'loan' them their components. The "believers" are even encouraged to express their gratitude to the manufacturers for just building and selling their equipment.

Their Main Priority

The magazines' main priority is to keep this "faith" alive in their readers, because they know all too well that once a reader questions just one manufacturer's prices, or the integrity and/or competence of just one 'reviewer', that reader may start questioning all of them. Magazines don't want their readers to "go there". Why?

The magazines fear that these same readers will finally realize the fundamental reality beneath and beyond the "fun" and "carefree" image these same publications have worked so hard and long to create about the audio industry. What is that "reality"?

The Harsh Reality

The brutal truth is that "audio" is just another very serious, highly competitive and ruthless business. The industry is owned and operated by very serious businessmen. Many, if not most, of them are motivated almost exclusively by profits. Further, that description, without a single doubt, includes almost all of the audio magazines themselves.

Once that depressing reality is understood and accepted, a person's "guard" must automatically go up. It is at that exact moment that the manufacturers lose their "romantic" aura, and the magazines also lose their influence, and with it, their only source of power.


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"AUDIO RELATIVISM"-THE NEW DISEASE AND EXCUSE

There has been a growing (and unspoken) "trend" in the audio magazine industry for more than a decade. In fact, I understand that one editor/reviewer (Jonathan Valin) finally stated and defended (a version of) this "theory" (or "belief") in a major magazine (TAS). Later on, another audio writer, Michael Laborgna, this time in Stereophile, made the same claim, in almost the same words.

I call this new "theory": "Audio Relativism".

What is Audio Relativism?

It is the belief system that virtually every component has strong merit and can produce "great sound", for someone's "tastes", if it is matched correctly with other components.

What are (some of) the ultimate implications of this theory?

1. Every component has some validity in the audio marketplace.

2. No component is inherently superior to another.

3. All sound reproduction differences are just a simple matter of taste.

4. There is no objective standard to aim for.

5. (High) Fidelity to the source, or in general, is irrelevant.

6. Audio is an "Art Form", like poetry and sculpting, rather than a science.

This "belief system" is very convenient for its creators; the audio magazines and their 'reviewers'. It provides them with the ability (and the excuse) to find some "good", or some "justification" to purchase, within every single component that is reviewed by them. How?

Because, if their belief is true, each and every component, under the right conditions, can equally satisfy listeners as much as any other component, for either the money or in the absolute sense. It's just a matter of time, or luck, before you find the right "match".

In effect: this theory means that all component performance is "relative" and with no "absolutes"; only "possibilities" exist.

I profoundly disagree with this belief.

The Problems with Audio Relativism

1. If true, in effect there has been no real progress in audio for the last 40 years or more, since any "improvements" are simply a "matter of taste", and that's all.

2. If true, there can never be any true, objective (or even "subjective") progress in audio reproduction in the future.

In theory, only "relative" progress can ever be made, depending only on the changing tastes and feelings of the listeners, and based on how they "relate" to the sound of the components.

3. If true, no component, let alone complete system, can ever be honestly described (or declared) to be closer to the sound of "The Reference" (the original recording, or "live music"), as any other component or system.

My Opinion on "Audio Relativism"

I am the first to admit that "priorities" and "tastes" are critical when choosing components, because nothing is "perfect". That being said, this is still very different from proclaiming that:

1. "Tastes" are all that matter, and
2. All components are the same or equal otherwise.

Those two statements are false, period.

Audio is not like wine or food tasting. It is a scientific and technical attempt to perfectly recreate a previous (musical) event. It is engineers and technicians that by and large design and build audio components, not Master Chefs.

Because it is still (and may always be) "imperfect", there will be unavoidable subjective elements within its pursuit, but there are existing objective and fundamental standards (the original recordings and "live music"), even though they are a moving and nebulous target. This can never be true with "wine and food tasting".

There is a huge difference between a subjective description of imperfect music reproduction and a subjective response to imperfect music reproduction. That vital distinction must never be blurred.

This "theory" is just one more pathetic attempt by the magazines and their 'reviewers' to compromise their prime responsibility to their readers:

To separate the truly "outstanding" components from the vast majority that do not reach those same demanding performance standards.

Elementary Imperfections are Not a "license" to ignore that serious responsibility.

Anyone who claims that there has been no true progress in home audio reproduction, and/or that virtually all components have an equal potential to reveal the reality and essence of "live music", subject only to "taste" and matching, is either highly misinformed, ignorant, a liar, a coward or an incompetent.

Take your choice.


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THE (SECRET) RULES OF 'AUDIO REVIEWING'

1. Never anger any protected audio industry entity, such as:

A. An important current, or potential, advertiser; including manufacturers, distributors or retailers, or...

B. Any other audio establishment which has a "personal relationship" with you.

2. Delay acknowledging any serious problems with a "protected" component until you give another rave review to the "updated" model which replaces it and "corrects" the problems.

3. Avoid making any direct comparisons with a "protected" component, but if you have to, follow these "Solutions":

   A. Compare the component only to older and/or obsolete models, especially from the same manufacturer. (See Rule #2 above).

   B. If Solution "A" is not possible, compare the component to "competitors" costing either MUCH more or MUCH less.

   C. If both Solutions "A" or "B" are not possible, "neglect" to mention the actual names and model numbers of the rival components that you compare it to in the review.

   D. If Solutions "A", "B" or "C" are all not feasible, and you must compare the model to a current, similarly priced (and "protected") competitor that you must name, then you must be:

  1. As ambiguous as possible, and you must also...
  2. Never describe any problem as "serious" (See Rule #3.E)
  3. Never proclaim one model to be clearly superior to the other(s). In short...
  4. Both (or all) of the components must be seen as equally desirable and of similar value.

   E. Problems or imperfections that aren't obvious (such as no bass below 40 Hz with small speakers), may be described as "serious" (easy to hear) only when using Solutions "A", "B" or "C".

However, any problems described when using Solution "D" must always be "subtle" and "difficult to hear", or even described as an "advancement" if possible.

4. You must never inform readers if an "audiophile" accessory or tweak is also available in a generic form at a fraction of the price that the "protected" manufacturer is charging (Blue Tac and RFI rings etc.).

5. Any and all "transactions" between you and any of the parties mentioned in Rule #1 must always be kept strictly Confidential. Accordingly...

  A. You must never divulge the actual price, if any, you paid to "purchase" your reference components or accessories, or any extra costs you paid, if any, to have those same components updated, modified, repaired, replaced etc.

  B. You must never divulge any "gifts", "favors" or "perks" that you received from the "protected" audio entities, or those with whom you have a "personal relationship".

6. You must never mention the actual costs, even at retail prices, of the parts that are used to manufacture the component.

7. Further to Rules #4 & #6, you must never state, or even imply, that any component or accessory is "over-priced".

8. The more corrupt your magazine is, the more you shall proclaim your honesty.

9. Magazines shall never divulge the actual percentage of their advertising revenues to their total revenues.

10. OVERRIDE CLAUSE- Some of the preceding rules (#1, #2 & #3) may be ignored only in the event of either a serious (and apparently indefinite) breach of the "personal relationship" between the audio company and reviewer/magazine, and/or the termination, or non-payment, of their advertising contract.

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SOME WORTHWHILE MAGAZINES

A few magazines worth looking in to are; Bound for Sound, UHF from Canada, International Audio Review and one other specializing in tube amplification; Vacuum Tube Valley. There is also an Internet magazine that appears very interesting and informative, The Audio Perfectionist. One former print magazine, Positive Feedback, has been reincarnated on the web, but it is not quite the same (or as good), but may still be worthwhile.

The Sensible Sound (TSS) was dedicated to lower-priced equipment, which some audiophiles call "entry-level" or "mid-fi". It can also be described as "best bang for the buck". They used to have a lot of reviews and were the finest magazine I knew for this level of equipment. They stopped publishing in 2009.

Unfortunately, all the reviewers later felt that all amplifiers, cables and CD players sound basically the same. (Like The Audio Critic). Many of the reviewers also felt you should buy exclusively on wattage and speaker drivers per dollar. Also known as quantity over quality. Still, they will be greatly missed, since their budget speaker reviews, and their surveys, were the most trustworthy and thorough of any magazine of my acquaintance.

UHF is published in Quebec, a province of Canada. It has a good combination of reviews and technical articles. The editor, Gerard Rejskind, and his associates are open minded and are always on the lookout for good equipment, either with a new approach or using a different execution with an old approach. Their reviews are also slightly different, usually allowing all four listeners to each have his own say on the component being discussed.

The only ethical compromise of the magazine is that UHF also sells some accessories and software that it also reviews and recommends. Of course, that can also be a convenience for some Canadian readers who are far from any stores that sell those same products.

Bound for Sound has been around for more than 10 years now. Martin DeWulf is the Publisher/Editor and has slowly built up a reputation for honest and competent reporting. This magazine takes no advertising, which, according to DeWulf, actually frightens some of the manufacturers and distributors who are accustomed to having a "financial relationship" with the publishers. Consequently, you won't see any of the components from these "uncomfortable manufacturers" reviewed here.

Instead you will see innovative components from small, unknown start-up companies, willing to take the risk of a honest review. The magazine comes out monthly. It isn't very large, but the subscription price is reasonable and what is there is both generally competent and not adulterated by advertising.

International Audio Review is recommended if you don't mind interminable periods between issues and with each issue having an unpredictable focus. One important touch though; there's absolutely no advertising in IAR. CAVEATS: This magazine has been very supportive of Audio Research Corp. (ARC) in the past. I would be very skeptical of any of their recommendations of ARC's components. Their website does have some very useful information, but ignore their standard ARC "raves".

Vacuum Tube Valley specializes in tube equipment, all types, and the tubes themselves. It is unbiased except for its obvious preference for tube equipment. It's an absolute must for tube lovers and the type of magazine you will always keep as a reference, just like the 1973 to 1983 The Absolute Sounds. It is more expensive than the other magazines, but it's worth it for the unique information you will find there and no where else. They also have a web site with "sample articles" to check out prior to subscribing. (See Links)

As for TAS itself, they have reorganized and so far it doesn't look good. I was sickened with something I read. The editor, then Harry Pearson, actually used the expression "In Awe!" to describe a component, on the front cover no less. Fortunately, there were some other signs of promise (meaning real criticisms) from a few of the other reviewers within that same issue, but this magazine now looks more like another Stereophile, in the worst sense, with every issue. Their once helpful website is now almost totally commercial and almost totally useless.

Stereophile (the print magazine) has only a few sections of any interest; Industry Update, because of its objective nature, and their personal columns, such as Analog Corner (but only if and when the writer's "buddies" or perceived "enemies" aren't involved). Surprisingly, I felt that Stereophile's sister publication, The Guide to Home Theater, was a pretty good magazine, at least when I was a subscriber a few years back.

Stereophile also has a commercial website with a large and growing number of articles that can be downloaded. While the opinions in the vast majority of their "reviews" are almost always totally worthless, if not actually fraudulent, they may contain important descriptive information of the components. Many of the posted articles are objective in nature, and the personal columns are also here. In short- The Stereophile website is highly recommended, though the "opinions" of the reviewers, almost all of it undeserved industry "cheerleading", are to be mainly ignored.

An important exception to the above is Art Dudley, who appears to me as being the least "commercial", and most independent, writer on the staff. I read him myself whenever I get the chance.

Finally, and to end on a positive note, it is important to recognize that the editor, John Atkinson, will provide measurements of reviewed components even when they completely contradict the reviewer's observations. As far as I'm concerned, these are Atkinson's "finest hours".

Positive Feedback was also very informative and non-biased, and with a wider degree of interests than VTV. It focused on triode designs and high-efficiency speakers. It's now a web magazine, with no print equivalent. It joined up with Audio Musings.(See "Links")

It still has some of those highly informative articles, but their reviews are all very suspect, despite their policy of multiple reviewers and comparisons, which I strongly believe in. What's the problem? Carefully read the beginning of the final paragraph of their new reviewing policy:

"If we work hard, but cannot find the "magic," then the gear is returned without review. This has happened on a number of occasions. It does not mean that the equipment is "bad," simply that we could not find a combination that did anything for us. Other settings might well yield excellent results. We wish to tell our readers where the gold is, not where it ain?t... (My underlines for emphasis.)

As one reader pointed out, this looks like another case of "audio relativism". (See above) The reader has a good point, but I see it also as a typical case of "audio cowardice" and "audio opportunism". The publishers simply want to be absolutely certain that a steady supply of components will come in on loan.

With a "heads you win, tails doesn't count" policy, they are guaranteed to be successful.

Further- Since writing the above, I received an e-mail from their senior assistant editor. He felt that I was being too hard on them and informed me that this new venture will still be "balancing the good with the bad...As is life". I really hope so, but only time will tell.

The Audio Perfectionist, which has absolutely no advertising, appears to be worth the small risk and investment for an on-line subscription. The editor has even more "in-home" experience than I do, plus he demonstrates a strong independent streak and doesn't pull his punches. He concentrates on the basics, which most magazines avoid and/or are ignorant of. This is very important information for everyone to know, especially beginners. (See "Links")
Important Note- Publishing ended in 2009, but old issues are still available as PDF files.

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THE PURPOSE OF AUDIO REVIEWS

INTRODUCTION

Much of the above criticism has no true perspective without acknowledging what audio reviews are actually supposed to achieve. What is their purpose, and what is required to achieve that purpose?

Their primary purpose is to inform the reader whether or not the component being reviewed is one he or she should be interested in purchasing, now or in the future. There are many factors that must be taken into consideration before making an audio investment, and they should all be addressed in the review. This cannot be done unless:

The reviewer views and writes everything from a prospective consumer's viewpoint.

Since every reviewer was once an audio consumer, this shouldn't be that difficult, especially at the beginning of the reviewer's career. The sad, but unescapable fact that this perspective is now rare is a damning indictment of the current audio press, and the main reason why this section of the web site exists.

Now, to become specific: The first requirement (and duty!) of all audio reviewers is simple...

FIND AND REPORT ALL THE PROBLEMS OF THE COMPONENT UNDER REVIEW

If this essential duty is not accomplished, the remainder of the review is meaningless or, worse, misleading and even dangerous. Everything else, while still potentially important, is always secondary. This is because learning about the weaknesses of an audio component is ultimately more important than learning anything else about it, and that even includes its strengths.

THE SECOND REQUIREMENT - SONIC DESCRIPTION

The second element of an audio review is almost equally obvious; a description of the component's overall sound, and how it effects music reproduction. This is admittedly difficult, because the sound of the component must now be isolated within a system that is highly imperfect, and with software that is also flawed. However, with extensive experience, any audiophile should be able to hear what the component does within their system, and later verify it in other systems if necessary. (Any reader who feels this is beyond their capabilities, shouldn't be involved with this hobby.)

In many, if not most, cases, a second opinion can be invaluable, especially if the reviewer is having difficulty with a particular aspect of the component, either its sonics or compatibility. The ability to describe the particular characteristics of the component, in a manner which other audiophiles can understand, is another required talent.

THE NEXT REQUIREMENT - COMPARISONS AND PREFERENCES

The next requirement of the reviewer is to make comparisons of the component under review with other, competing models, and if relevant, to some sort of "reference(s)", new and/or used. The most important comparisons are with models within the same general price point. The competing models should normally be the current, established "standard(s)" within that price point, and not "the also-rans". Discontinued models, which provided superior performance to even the current models, may also be used as standards.

Comparisons with units costing far more or far less are mostly useless. The rare exception would be if the component's performance was so phenomenal that it required some comparisons with more formidable units, just for the sake of sonic perspective. The comparisons should be thorough, and when finished;

The reader should be unambiguously informed of which unit the reviewer prefers, and why.

The reader should also be made aware of what it would cost to make the next significant leap in performance, and the exact nature of the improvements. This could be very important to the reader who still hasn't made up his mind concerning his ultimate price-point and wants to know all of his options beforehand.

THE REVIEWER'S CREDIBILITY

All the reviewer's sonic descriptions and opinions are worthless unless he/she has real credibility. This takes time of course. The reviewer, at a minimum, must pull no punches and be open and honest as to his own sonic preferences. Then he must demonstrate consistency with those preferences and have continuity from review to review. The end result of all this will be an evolving learning curve and a description of continual audible enhancements that can be shared with his readers.

'Reviewers' who are all over the place (transistor & tube, dynamic & dipole), are totally useless. In effect, they are starting from scratch every month, making everything they wrote in the past irrelevant. At best, such 'reviewers' are confused, indecisive and immature. In reality, they are usually afraid of making a commitment in public print because they will upset someone in the audio business, so they avoid the tough choices at all costs.

All the real audiophiles I know eventually choose a certain direction and don't keep backtracking, because it's too impractical and also inconsistent with their past choices, inclinations and basic nature.

OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES

The reviewer also has other responsibilities. The reader must be informed of any incompatibility problems, either for the present or future, and whether the unit is well made or not for the price, including the quality of the parts, especially those that may wear out.

For most readers, the bottom line is whether or not the component offers true and honest value, not only in sound, but in build quality and intelligent design. In an ever changing audio world, this is the best guarantee in the long run for listening satisfaction and receiving a fair price when it's time to trade up.


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CONCLUSIONS

THE CURRENT SITUATION

For years now, I have been hearing about another audio manufacturer, magazine or retail store in financial trouble if not going into bankruptcy. I can't help but think that the long-term effects of the problems described above are finally coming to fruition.

You can create an artificial demand for mediocre products (in any business) for only so long. The real tragedy is that some of the creators of the more exceptional components (like Counterpoint) have been caught up in the financial carnage, since no real distinctions of true quality were ever made.

When everything is "highly recommended", and dozens of products are "the best", then there isn't a true "best" any more. Just as vulgar, four-letter words lose their impact when used repeatedly, so do words such as "great" and "awesome" etc. What happens then is inevitable; the truly exceptional components aren't recognized as such and the mediocre are elevated. There is no longer any incentive to create something truly special other than personal satisfaction. Most creative people need more than that, and I'm not just talking about making money.

The audio customer has also become disenchanted. Because of his lack of trust, he no longer has any true standards to aim for and feel really passionate about, even if he can't afford them at the time.

THE MAGAZINES' ROLE

Magazines have been an absolutely indispensable part of the audio world, which also includes the manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers. They're supposed to be in the middle, as honest communicators and arbiters. Instead, they have routinely abused the trust they earned from the past by turning into "common cheerleaders", and cynically exploiting their readers' innocence, ignorance and laziness.

THE READERS' RESPONSIBILITY

Readers and consumers must not be left "off the hook" either, because it is the readers themselves that have allowed all of the above to happen. How? As long as the readers keep subscribing to the magazines that follow "The Rules", and purchase the components they "recommend", the magazines will have no incentive to change. The bottom line is simple:

It was the readers' own insecurities and lack of personal effort to even verify what was written, which created both the power vacuum and the subsequent environment that the magazines could (and still can) not resist exploiting. Ironically;

The power that corrupted the magazines actually originated from their own exploited readers.

IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS

The main "underground press", at present, is failing in its fundamental obligations.

When didn't it? What are my own standards?

Just read Stereophile, pre John Atkinson; or

The Absolute Sound, pre The Perfect Vision; or

The Audio Critic, pre Fourier speakers; or

International Audio Review, pre Wonder Caps.

A PERSONAL SUMMARY

If I had to condense all that I have written above into just one thought which would describe and explain what has occurred in the last 25 years, this would be it:

Audiophiles and music lovers are still the idealistic, trusting and optimistic people they have always been, but most audio magazines have slowly evolved into serious businesses, where only profit, preferential treatment and influence matter. In short-

The magazines have been "commercialized" and can no longer be trusted.

I received no pleasure in writing this essay. It's unpleasant to burst balloons and to inform fellow audiophiles that our common passion now plays by the same commercial rules as everything else. However, we must both acknowledge this painful reality and then use this new technology to bypass all those who would exploit and unfairly profit from our passion and quest for perfection.


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