Written by 4:21 am Audiophile

Oh No, We are the Audio Establishment!

Steven Stone looks at how subjective reviews became the norm…

“If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it,” humorist Art Buchwald once observed. Obviously he was referring to politics, but during the course of my career in audio I’ve watched this very thing happen to our hobby.

AR-establish1.pngBack in the 70’s and 80’s the primary audio publications were Stereo Review, High Fidelity, and Audio. They all included information on ergonomics and specifications, but almost no mention of how anything sounded or how a component would interact with a system were included in their reviews. While none of them ever stated “all components sound the same if the specs are the same,” that was implicitly inferred. That was the audio establishment.

 J. Gordon Holt’s little magazine, Stereophile, was the first publication to discuss how components actually sounded in a system, and used reference recordings to establish sonic benchmarks. This was all new, radical, and it deeply offended all the conservative we-only-measure folks at Stereo Review, High Fidelity, and Audio magazines. Stereophile was a revolutionary publication that defined the style and focus of subjective audio publications to this day.

 The first time I attended the Las Vegas CES it became quite clear that anyone from The Absolute Sound or Stereophile was a not considered on the same level as journalists from mainstream audio publications. We didn’t get the invites to press conferences or industry events. Except for the outpost for “enthusiast audio” at the Sahara, as far as the CE world was concerned, “High-End” publications were of no consequence.

 AR-establsih2.jpgBut a funny thing happened over the years – the outside, subjective publications became the norm as the “mainstream” audio publications passed away or morphed into websites. The “last men standing” were the subjective magazines, The Absolute Sound and Stereophile. Stereo Review, Audio, and High Fidelity were all gone. Almost overnight, merely by the fact that the objectivist magazines had folded their tents, the subjectivists “won” the battle and became “the establishment.”

At first subjectivists were amazed – all at once, instead of being radicals, they were the mainstream. During the 90’s and into the new millennium, subjectivists had the whole hobby pretty much to themselves. New subjectivist publications came and went – FI, Listener, and others. Yes, there were a few old-school objectivist holdouts that you could find on lonely websites, whose posts became increasing bitter and vitriolic over the years as they saw the subjectivist’s power and influence grow ever stronger.

But since no establishment remains in power without challenges to its authority, subjectivist audio has had to weather the regular attacks of objectivist backlash in the form of A/B/X testing absolutists, and screes about how cables can’t have an effect the sound of a system. On some sites any mention of the sound of a component is greeted by choruses of  “How did you test that?” And “If it doesn’t test differently it must sound the same.”

AR-estab lish3.jpgNow, readers familiar with Hegelian logic might begin to see where this should be headed (but very possibly could just as well not be headed) – some sort of synthesis between subjective reviews and objective tests. Stereophile have been publishing test results ever since their inception, but no one, even the most avid specs-reader, has managed to correlate test results with sound. And perhaps until that can be done, there will never be a synthesis between the two extremes.

As an unwilling, card-carrying member of the audio establishment (although I’m not sure how that card even got into my pocket) I’ve gotten used the inevitable objectivist potshots and ankle biting. But it is tiring to have to keep fighting the same battles over and over – sort of like having to kill zombies – but even when you blow their heads off they keep rising again. After someone tries to have the same “discussion” that you have had with the same kind of accusatory person more times than you can count, it’s very tempting to just blow them off with a simple middle finger salute.

And truth be told, being in the audio establishment was never my goal, or that of any of the other writers I know who write for one of the subjectivist publications or sites. Our goal, since the beginning, has always been to find the best sounding gear. And we didn’t “win” the war, or even choose to become the establishment, but the other side abandoned the playing field.

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