So, you want to be a reviewer: Part One

Let's make sure you have what it takes!

[Italian version here]

Reviewer: M.L. Gneier - TNT USA
Published: September, 2023

[Do you wanna be a reviewer?]

Back when I started reviewing there weren't that many reviewers. There was Stereophile and TAS and the usual suspects who came and stayed but mostly those who came and went. Then there were the print-newsletter guys like me and the late Martin De Wulf. It was a very small community of high end reviewers. Everyone knew everyone and most importantly their background, experience and preferences. Things have changed. Now there are scores of reviewers. There are so many that I'm sure the impact of any given review is vastly reduced compared to years ago. And who knows, maybe that's a good thing.

Still, it's all too easy to take yourself too seriously when you write about audio.

I'd like to talk about what I think anyone who's interested in reviewing should have before they ever consider writing about products they do not own. You should love music, audio and writing in pretty much equal parts. And, you should really enjoy sharing observations, rather than merely arguing or advocating for or against ideas and products. Lastly, you should have respect for what you're doing, which is making potentially consequential statements about products that others have put their blood, sweat and tears into. Forget this at your peril. The manufacturer and your readers have a lot more to lose than you do.

You must have a reference system that you understand. By understand I mean that you know its comparative strengths and weaknesses. A big error many readers (and many reviewers) make is to assume that the more expensive the reference system, the more valid the review. Nope. Never was and never will be. Believe me when I tell you that most high-cost systems have more and greater fundamental problems as reviewing tools than a more modest system. Why you ask? Because rather than truly adding to fundamental transparency a mega system has the potential to induce system matching and room interaction issues that a more elemental, but carefully chosen system, might easily avoid.

No matter how simple or complex your reference system is you need to have (on hand) the ancillaries needed to evaluate any gear you might consider reviewing. For example, if you are considering reviewing a moving-coil preamp your should already own a MC and attending preamp as a reference. Sure, if you don't it would still be valid to admit this fact up front and then write about the experience the new preamp and cartridge presents relative to your existing system. Just be honest that you are making an apples to oranges comparison. By ancillaries I'm also thinking of things like speaker stands and appropriate cables, again, that you are very familiar with...not something you just acquired so you could get the review done. Your room also requires honesty. Is it suited for what you're reviewing? Here, I'm thinking about speakers. It is a simple impossibility to review relatively full-range speakers in a room that is too small. So, pass on those big-ass speakers unless you can do them justice.

You should also know (from experience, preferably) about setting up whatever you're reviewing. Sure, maybe this was more important with tape and vinyl but it's still important to know how to chase down a stubborn ground loop or to make sure which specific component is misbehaving rather than prematurely concluding it's the component under review simply because it gets the rest of your system (and your set up abilities) off the hook. Decades ago, I did my time doing live recordings and later setting up arms and turntables that cost more than the down payment on my first house. Those were some nervy times, I promise you. Still, I'm grateful for each experience, especially the challenging ones. If you, as a new or experienced reviewer, hit a snag try to find a easy resolution but, failing that, contact the manufacturer. If pride won't allow it you don't deserve the privilege of being a reviewer in the first place.

That was the easy stuff. Let's discuss something more difficult; your mindset. Though you'll take a good deal of gratitude from a well-written and well-considered review, please bear in mind that a review is not for you. It's for your readers. You cannot remind yourself of that fact too often. You are (or should be) presenting your observations to help your readers determine whether or not a product is worthy of their consideration. Try to do this in as few words as possible. Do not equivocate. Do not drone on an on as is so common with so many other publications. Much of this copiousness is driven by a desire to have hapless readers turn the page as many times as possible. More pages viewed equals more ad impressions. One of the reasons I treasure writing for TNT is the fact that our reviews are presented cleanly, simply and unencumbered by ads. I have the vision of TNT's editor to thank for that. Come to think of it, our readers have him to thank, too.

Let's circle back briefly to the recordings you use for your reviews. You should know them. You should know what aspects of them might stress a component under review and make a recording sound less musical. Remember that just as there's no perfect component there's also no perfect recording, no matter how much we love the music. Years ago (and I'm dating myself here) I would have said a reviewer needed to have a reference analog system but that's no longer true. There's no need to argue about whether digital or analog is superior. The simple fact is that digital has evolved to point where its overall musicality is beyond question. Might I (or you) prefer analog all things being equal? Of course! That is the prerogative of the reviewer and the reader and always will be. Back to my fundamental point. A good reviewer needs a known review system and a known collection of reference recordings. It doesn't matter if that collection is on FLAC, RTR, vinyl, CD or wax cylinders. I would say that it ought not be streamed for review purposes. Lossless or lossy, I think you should be playing your own stored music. Streaming simply presents (at least at this point) too many potential playback variables that should never be blamed for something you're reviewing. As an aside, I often listened to FLAC files of my LPs when I first start an evaluation of a new product. That allows me to scrub to and fro, again and again, to make sure I'm really hearing something without subjecting my LPs to undue wear and playings. Plus, those FLAC files (and the ALAC and AAC files, if I'm being honest) sound damn good.

There's an old line I think is true, and I'd like to add to it: "There's no better guy than a good jazz guy." For a reviewer, there's no better guy than a good high end guy. That goes for readers, reviewers, manufacturers, distributors, dealers...the entire pantheon. There are many great people out there. But, as you consider that group take note of something very important. Everyone on that list is invested, has something to lose, with the notable exception of the reviewer. We, whether we deserve it or not, float above it all with few encumbrances, while bathing in great high end gear. Reviewing can be a wonderful and rewarding gig but only if you respect everyone who has much more on the line than you do.

Please stay tuned for Part Two where I discuss design bias, influences and the curse of contemporary video reviews.

As always, and especially to my fellow reviewers, listen well but listen happy.

DISCLAIMER . TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. If you wish, you can support our independent reviews via a PayPal donation . After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors . TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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