Up until fairly recently I was immune to the whole forensic TV show phenomenon. But then I started watching re-runs of House while I was at 24-Hour Fitness (which is not to say I endorse 24-Hour fitness. My local branch is a hole with a locker room designed by someone who obviously had never set foot in a locker room or a gym, coupled with an antiquated ventilation system that fills the air with eau de old sweat sock). But House led to NCIS and CSI, so now I'm solidly hooked. But watching these TV mysteries while sweating profusely got me thinking - Audiophiles who are into vintage audio gear and want to do it successfully need to be able to read audio reviews like forensic pathologists.
Here's the way the process works for me - I see something on Ebay or Audiogon that catches my fancy, I Google it, looking for reviews and descriptions. Once I find a review the fun begins. If it's a full review from someone I know, I can apply what I know about their tastes to the review. Even more importantly, if it's a TAS or Stereophile review I can see what other gear was in the signal chain during the review process.
Next, it's time to read the sonic description and see if any of the sonic characteristics the reviewer attributes to the review component could be attributable to something other than that the particular piece of gear. This is where the gear list is vital - it is a compilation of reasons the system sounded as it did. Each piece added it's own colorations and quirks to the equation. See how this is getting to be more like an episode of NCI. We have our list of suspects.
If you are especially thorough, you can spend quite a bit of time working your way through a signal chain, finding reviews of each component and seeing if that review has any info that's relevant to the sound of the original component you're researching. Did I mention this could take some time?
One of my theories, completely unsubstantiated by any meaningful statistic or research or any kind, is that during the 70's, 80's, and yes even the 90's, many of the "reference" source components were not as good as we originally thought, so many of the preamps and power amps that received less than stellar reviews may have been unfairly tarred by the brush of their source components upstream. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying a Phase Linear is as transparent as a Krell. But Motif and a number of other '90's solid-state amps and preamps might not be as bad as originally reported, just a bit too revealing for their time...