Press as the Public Relations Arm of Industry

There are a lot of pieces and parts of the show report – kind of sprinkled in amongst almost 2000 photos – and even I forget where I said what.

But one of the themes this year was influenced by a ‘Cranky Geeks’ episode (online or special TiVo download) that crystallized, for me, the problem with most reviews in our industry. Although Cranky Geeks was talking about the software industry – it applied equally well to ours [and the Washington Press Core as well, but let’s not go there].

That is that the press is serving as the Public Relations arm of the Industry. The corporations. They take press releases [well, in high-end audio, we don’t need no stinking press releases – so our reviewers have to do more work], massage it, and spit it back out as a review.

Thinking about this off and on during the last few weeks as I do the kind of laborious task of juggling CES photos, I think that there are telltale signs of reviews that are really just PR – that really just server as pages for the industry to link to, to serve as an incentive for the industry to donate free equipment to get more of, a safe place to advertise on.

And those signs are that it reads like PR.

PR, like your prototypical salesperson, never, ever, ever say anything bad about what they are selling. Nothing that can even be *slightly* construed as negative about the piece of equipment.

Now reviewers are famous for putting in clues that seem like they maybe might be a hint at what they really think about the component.

But, think about it. All components have a sound and have issues. .

So most reviews are like describing a car crash by saying over and over again how great the car was – and about what songs were playing in the car at the time of the crash.

Anyway, I grew up respecting the press as being honorable, reporting what was really happening, very often DIFFERENT from what the official spin was about the events. Now it is all in support of making more money. Not making waves.

And the only reviewer who I have any confidence in that they actually write real reviews is Mike Fremer.

Sure, he ignores his prejudices, and ignores how badly his poor sad room affects the sound, and ignores the fact that much of his system equipment is flawed and affects what his results are going to be. So he ain’t perfect [and he has some anger management issues – or at least, he should learn to count to ten before posting. I know. I know. Many people want me to count to a billion before posting]. But I think he is the best we got. [Which is saying a lot about the state of the press industry here, huh?]. And I think he has been getting better.

HP hasn’t written a real review for years and years. Art Dudly, Srajan are runners up – and they may be just as good as Mike, but I just don’t read enough of their reviews, especially of equipment that I am familiar with that have easily agreed-upon issues.

As far as the other reviewers go, as far as I have time to read their copy – uh, well, there is really no reason for me to go farther.

I haven’t met Mr. Fremer, nor Art Dudley and have no specific desire to do so [I emailed once or twice with Fremer about 6 years ago]. I have met Srajan at shows when he used to go to shows here in the U.S. [and he is the only member of the press that acknowledges we exist – all the others try hard to ignore us because we encroach on their (abandoned, as this post testifies) domain] but he doesn’t review stuff I am familiar with – and I instead mostly end up reading his editorials.

Anyway, to wrap this up – it is not like reviewers, in general, are any more a**holes than the rest of us – in fact, of the few I see at shows, most of them are just like the rest of us. It is just that I see the responsibilities of being a reporter differently than they do.

What I mean by 'Mid-Fi'

I received an email today [I think it was today] feedback on the CES 2008 Show report, such as it is at this point. I am posting it here, anonymously, because I think many people may also be curious but not want to email us [me] such a, uh, potentially inflammatory question.

“Hi, it would be interesting to hear more about the definitions you are using to describe the sound in the report section. VTL/Wilson a big mid-fi stereo!!!???

Different hearing and different opinions as to what live music sounds like?

“VTL’s room is always an oasis at shows, playing music at levels that actually match rather than trying to impress the listener with mere volume, the system meticulously set up. The same was true at CES 2008, a pair of Wilson WATT/Puppy 8s being driven by the new MB450 Series II tubed monoblocks”

Your input would be highly appreciated.”


I use “Mid-Fi” as an abbreviation for a system that has so many problems I grow weary of describing them.

[BTW, The quote is by Robert Deutsch over on the Stereophile blog. Nice guy, doing his job. If you read what he said, he is 100% correct: the room was not played too loud, and they did pay attention to setup – at least with respect to choosing nice ancillary components.]

In this case, the notes were attenuated more quickly [dampened] than what I consider high-end [and some died out more quickly than others], the dynamics was more uneven top to bottom than what one might expect from the high-end [the upper-mids had more midi-dynamics than the rest of the frequencies, which had little to none], there was no micro-dynamics to speak of, harmonic color was almost non-existent, separation was problematic and uneven across the dynamic and frequency band more so than is standard… and I didn’t listen to check the imaging, soundstaging, air, emotion, etc.

In my mind, there is a line that separates high-fi and mid-fi – the minimum system that is high-fi is prototypically the Acoustic Zen Adagio loudspeaker being driven by a decent amp [Red Dragon, Kharma MP150, both are digital amps – approximately a $10K system plus source]. But systems with the Von Schweikert VR4, even sometimes systems built around the EPOS speakers, often, but not always, qualify in my opinion as high-end. Some of Odyssey Audio systems as well might qualify – which makes them so intriguing to me as they total around $5K.

What these systems all have is balance – they do a lot of high-end audio-like things ‘good enough’, and these things are things that go into making a system enjoyable for the long term. Big Mid-fi systems have a wide frequency range and they go loud. That’s about it.

And VTL + Wilson systems sound like this at every show. So do BAT + Wilson systems. I have no doubt that individual audiophiles can make similar systems work. At least inasmuch as they say they are happy and that they sometimes mention that they also think the show systems suck, and that their systems sound nothing like them.

anyway, thanks so much for your question – I am sure there are a lot of people who wondered the same thing.

Take care,