I'll have to admit I've developed somewhat of a penchant for reading audio forums. Part insightful, part thought provoking, part comedy, the various forums into which an audiophile might venture at the very least offer information. Seldom do I ever comment, choosing instead to read the differences of opinion so prevalent among the respondents. For instance, if someone were to write in and ask which amp would be the most desired, amp A or amp B, there would, of course, be opinions as to which was best. Additionally, there are always recommendations for amps C, D, E, F, G and so on. That is not surprising since most of these comments are basically personal opinions.
One recent forum string did catch my interest and started me thinking. The essential question was whether or not the credentials of reviewers were ever considered when reading the review of an evaluated product.
In high end today, reviewers and their reviews are arguably held with higher esteem than perhaps ever before. With fewer dealers available now than in years past, many audiophiles turn to a review of a component, at least partially, to determine if that component has merit. So when a review is read, how much thought is given to the veracity of the reviewer's skills both in listening and product knowledge?
Reviewers today can easily influence the sales of a product they bring in for evaluation. If a product happens to be written up in one of the two mainstream print magazines, it almost guarantees a certain measure of notoriety - and if the comments are positive, then quite possibly increased sales for the manufacturer.
About three years ago, I purchased an Esoteric D07X DAC. I felt the time had come for an upgrade and from the start I was very impressed with the build quality and performance. After I made my purchase, I saw a review by Alan Taffel in The Absolute Sound that was not only favorable, it validated all my opinions about my purchase. So a year or so later when I saw several reviews about the Esoteric D02 DAC, I felt safe enough to make the purchase (another upgrade) and was rewarded with an absolutely remarkable product. Of course, the advice of a very trusted dealer probably carried more weight than the reviews, but the reviews certainly helped.
I didn't then or now question the wisdom of Mr. Taffel, his credentials or qualifications. As such, for me personally, I don't really question the qualifications of any of the reviewers in the mainstream press or even most of the web based outlets. I consider the reviewers in a professional capacity to be highly qualified and their knowledge and expertise a given. But that's me. However, the question remains, the one raised in the online forum, should reviewer's credentials be considered?
I've traveled fairly extensively over the years and often times when in a new city, I have turned to restaurant reviews to see about a good place to dine. I've been happily impressed and also highly disappointed. I've agreed and disagreed with wine critics. I've seen glowing reviews in automotive magazines for cars I wouldn't drive to the end of the street. All of this seems to point in one direction - reviews, almost regardless of what is being evaluated, are basically the personal opinion of the reviewer as well as the buyer of the product itself. That's as true for restaurants, wine and cars as it is for audio components.
Read almost any audio review and the equipment used are usually spelled out. Most reviewers commonly detail how the product was used, what it replaced, how the reviewed component differs from his or her normal component, and how the product was built. Typically, the music is listed, identified as analog or digital and if it was digital, the resolution. Many times, the reviewer has multiple copies of a particular piece of music, all of which will possibly be sampled and compared.
Great detail is generally given to how the product sounded, if it was bass heavy, if the mids disappeared or if the highs were overly bright - or if it sounded sublime. It is not at all uncommon to see reprints of electronic measurements using test equipment to verify manufacturers claims. At the end of the day, however, it all boils down to one essential thing - the personal opinion of the reviewer.
So what of the credentials of most of the reviewers in high-end audio today? Do they have the chops? Look at almost any of them and you'll find years of experience in audio. Most have backgrounds in some aspect of recorded music or perhaps equipment. Many have been record producers and engineers or still are on a part time basis. Look also at the number of years most reviewers have been writing reviews. While there are certainly exceptions, most have an excellent audio pedigree. Is it obvious to state that a review should only be used as one means to verify a component? Is it also obvious to state that the ultimate review is by a perspective buyer trying out a component in their system before buying? So if both of those obvious things are in fact obvious, how important is it to have some verification of a reviewer's qualifications?
Reading a review is a very subjective thing taken with, as grandma used to say, "a grain of salt." The buyer is the ultimate reviewer since they are the final judge. For me, I'll keep reading the reviews and give them their proper consideration. As for any final decisions, it's really my call and because that's so, a product reviewer's background may hold some merit, but no barometer of qualification is more important that what I think, what I hear in my system, and how much I like how something sounds. Ultimately, I am my own ultimate critic.