How Do you Tell The Audio Truth?

Back in Part 3 of this continuing series on audio reviews and reviewers, I wrote that there were three things that were absolutely necessary for a good and meaningful review of any product or system: "(1) We must be able to judge products' performance; then (2) we must apply some standard for rating them; and finally, (3) we must be able to communicate what we have found and decided to other people in a way that they will be able to understand and benefit from." The first 6 Parts of this series were about the first two of those things. Now it's time to get to the third one, which might very well be the most important.

AR-com101a.jpgIf you're wondering how that could be, consider this: Regardless of what the product may be, and regardless of what we may think of it or how or by what standard we may have judged it and come to our conclusion; if we can't communicate what we have found to others in a way that they can understand, will accept, and will find useful, our findings will be of no benefit to anyone other than  ourselves and, other than for whatever enlightenment, enjoyment, or satisfaction we may have derived in coming to them, the whole review process may be wasted.

So what do we need for good communication?  Well, the first thing you DON'T need is a degree in electrical engineering. And you don't need an engineering dictionary, either. In order to communicate with people, you need to be able to speak with them (or write to them) in language and in terms that they understand and, for most people, that means the simpler the language, the better. Even well-educated people may not have been educated in engineering or related subjects, and even people with an otherwise great vocabulary may not have a vocabulary that includes technical terms or jargon.

AR-com101b.pngRemember the "K.I.S.S." principle, and Keep It Simple, Stupid! If you had to have a special education to learn what you want to tell people about or if you had to check a special dictionary to look it up, the odds are overwhelming that people who didn't have that education or who don't have that special dictionary won't understand you unless you present what you want to say in their own easily comprehensible terms.  And if people aren't going to understand what you say, why say it? 

Also, if you're going - as I'm doing now - to write for international publication, it's important to remember that many of the people who read what you write may not be native (or even fluent) English speakers; will have to look up whatever they don't easily understand; and may simply put your article aside if it's too much work to try to read AND NOT INTERESTING ENOUGH TO HOLD THEIR ATTENTION. (Paradoxically, though, if you need to use an unusual word - like "paradoxically", for example -- USE IT; it's just as easy for interested foreign or other readers to look up an odd word as a common one.)

Once you're certain that your audience will be able to understand the words of what you tell them, the next thing is to make sure that what you have to say is what they want to hear or read, and that gets us directly to the ongoing firefight between the proponents of "objective" and "subjective" reviewing. 

AR-com1010c.jpgIn its pure form, an "objective" review is simply a statement of how a product or system measures, with no commentary at all on how it actually sounds. And, not surprisingly, a purely "subjective" review is exactly the opposite; telling how the thing under review sounds, but giving no measured data of any kind. Both will typically state the circumstances for the testing (whether measurement or simply listening), what kind of equipment was used (either measuring gear or other audio components), and what procedures were followed. And  both will, if done by a competent reviewer, be logically presented.

As to which I personally prefer, let me just say that I remember a time when I was just a Hi-Fi Crazy kid in the 1960s and called someone at RCA Broadcast Audio to ask about their (very famous) LC-1a speakers. The engineer I spoke with told me that he would send me a spec sheet on that speaker, showing frequency response curves and polar pattern charts, and asked if I knew how to read them. When I (bragged) that of course I did, he (probably not believing me) said "Okay, just remember that although they don't look great on paper, they sound terrific. That's they're used in so many movie theaters and radio stations." 

USABLE INFORMATION IS USABLE INFORMATION and it's all worth having. The real purpose, though, of most consumer reviews is to tell whether the speaker (or whatever else may be under review) is worth having, either at all, or for some specific application, and for an audio product, that ultimately comes down to "what does it sound like?" Because clear, accurate, and well-stated words from a reliable source will give me a direct description of that sound (one that, if the person attempting to communicate with me has done his job properly, I don't have to interpret), I'd personally rather have the words for most not purely technical purposes.

AR-com101d.jpgNumbers and other measurements are wonderful for quantifying things ("I listened at an average volume level of 91dB") or for analyzing or describing the things that cause what we hear ("It had a 12 dB peak at 11kHz" or "it was down 9dB at 8kHz 30 degrees off-axis"), and are really much more precise than just saying "I played it fairly loud" or "It was bright and shiny-sounding" or the highs were "beamy". Frankly, though, except for my professional work in the Audio industry which requires it, I really don't need precision for most of what I do. In fact, for just initial screening - the thing we all do in deciding if a new product is something worth actually going out to audition,  I'd prefer just a good flash summary IN WORDS to a full-blown technical analysis,.

Now here comes the shocker: If I do go listen and I do find the product to be something that curls my toes and makes me want to buy it, I don't need the charts, graphs, and detailed numbers, even then; I'm already hooked, and analyzing the bait won't do me any good at all!

Okay, so now we know that, for me and no doubt a great many other people, the words are the important thing and the other stuff can be anything from added useful information to just eye-glazing and mind-numbing clutter. In the next installment of this continuing series, I'll write about the words and how they can best be meaningful instead of just so many paragraphs of hyperbole in one direction or the other.   

See you then.

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