Ah, the hifi reviews. Stars. Pros and cons. So much data out there, so easy to make an informed decision. Do your research, make a short list, and either pull the trigger, or visit a few dealers, play them off using price match promises, and you're done. That's how it works, right?
Maybe. What I can promise you is that if you make your purchases this way, you're almost guaranteed to get something perfectly good enough. But if you want something spectacular, you need a different approach.
Magazine reviews are not actually as useful as they seem. They beguile us with their sophistry, their convenient summaries, and their enticing photography. But in actual fact, it's deceptive.
The first port of call for many people is industry favourite "What Hifi".
Let's give it a go. Imagine you came into my shop and said you wanted an entry-level turnable, and had a budget of around £200. I might recommend you to get the Audio-Technica LP3. Suppose you were then to go away and do your research to see if I'm giving you good adive. What would you find?
5 stars! 2017 Award winner! "Expressive and musical", "Good amount of space and details for its price", "Built in phono stage" "Fully automatic tonearm", "Nothing against".
Hoorah! What Hifi agrees with me! Marvelous. You can buy in confidence.
However, maybe you're not sure, so you go somewhere else. Suppose you were to visit my brother. Knowing him, he would recommend a Rega Planar 1.
Again, skeptical that these hifi retailers actually know what they're talking about, and suspicious that he might be trying to pull the wool over your eyes, and sell you a dud, you consult the venerable guide.
5 stars! 2017 Award winner! "Good amount of detail." "Rhythmic and expressive" "Easy to put together." "Nothing against."
Oh ... ok. Now you can buy in confidence.
Well, just for good measure you pop into the local branch of Sevenoaks. Here the recommendation is the Project Primary. Not a Rega? Not an Audio-Technica? Surely this fellow is trying to pull a fast one. What does the comic say?
5 stars! "Easy set-up" "entertainingly clean" "balanced and up-for-it sound." "Well built". "Nothing against"
So hang on. They all get 5 stars. They all have no negatives. Two of them are 2017 award winners. They're all equally good?
What about the reviews themselves. Let's give it some thought. What do these things actually mean? What on earth is an "up-for-it sound"? What is a "rhythmic" turntable? What would be an example of an unrhythmic turntable be? Does this actually mean anything? Are you actually any wiser?
Basically, we've learned nothing. Nothing at all. In fact, you could have happily bought whichever turntable was recommended to you by whichever person you spoke to. They'd all do a good job.
However, I'm being unfair. Actually, from this little experiment, we've learned everything we need to know. Here are the things you need to know about hifi reviews:
- There are no bad reviews
- The copy is generated by a moderately complicated perl script, and a database of meaningless platitudes
- Other than the price and features, they tell you nothing at all
Out of 532 stereo amplifiers on the What Hifi website, a staggering 82% were given 4 or 5 star reviews. A dozen or so got 3, and six got two stars.
Are we really to believe that 8/10 amplifiers for sale at any price by any manufacturer are, more or less, as good as each other? That seems a statistically improbable distribution.
What about the wretched 3 star amplifiers? Surely these must be very very very bad indeed.
Curiously these include amplifiers that I've sold, very happily, with great results. Amps which my customers have been delighted with. This gallery of shame includes Arcam A38, The Project Maia, the Audio Analogue Crescendo and Fortissimo, the Rega Elicit and the Primare i32.
Imagine I relied on What Hifi when making my selections? These genuinely excellent products wouldn't even have been on my radar.
How did these get three stars? Well, I can only surmise it's because on the one day of the year that the hifi magazine decided to issue a 3 star review, that was the product under review. It's certainly not down to any shortcoming in the product.
Let me speculate about a possible reason why there are no bad reviews. I suggest it might be for the same reason that turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Hifi magazines, especially in the post-print world, rely almost entirely on advertising to survive. If they slate their customers, they will lose advertising revenue. And consequently, all products wallow around in an undifferentiated sea of very good and excellent.
What you do find is that amongst the big names, there's a merry-go-round of awards. It seems to be entirely random, or perhaps it just looks random, because we don't have any insight into the corporate hospitality budgets at the hifi shows, and the advertising spend.
I'll tell you a true story - the names of the parties involved have been redacted to protect the innocent. Once upon a time there was a large hifi distributor, who brought in a number of high profile brands into the UK. They spent a huge amount of money on advertising with a major magazine. Frustrated by the merry-go-round of "favoured manufacturer syndrome", they pulled out of advertising for some years. Reviews dropped off. Those still on the merry-go-round won the awards. After a while they decided to dip a toe back in the water, and sent in a single product for review. The result? 5 stars! Award winner! Canine Gamete Producer. Call be cynical, but I think you can draw your own conclusion.
But it's not just the sea of excellence that makes hifi reviews meaningless. They're also meaningless because the content is spurious waffle. One persons experience, listening to a piece of music, on a certain day, in a certain room, with a certain set of equipment, after a certain amount of sleep, a certain amount of breakfast, a certain number of glasses of wine, and a certain amount of time since visiting the bathroom is absolutely completely and entirely unrepresentative compared to the would-be customer. To then try to put that into words is even more pointless. That doesn't stop people trying, and the cliche generator kicks in with "inky black silences" and "measured dynamics".
Here's one completely at random:
"We get a huge sense of scale and an expansive soundstage populated with sounds and instruments that are firmly planted in position."
"Wonderfully clear and spacious, to a standard that’s impressive even when you consider that you’ve spent more than a grand..."
Much wiser? What if I were to tell you that the second one was from one of the handful of 3 star reviews?
No, the content of these reviews is as meaningless as the stars and awards.
Where these reviews are genuinely useful, is in giving an overview of the features, and sometimes of their ease of use. Sometimes the presentation of technical capabilities is better explained by a journalist than by the manufacturer, and sometimes there's a handy comparison with equivalently priced products. For this, a magazine can be useful. However, so too can your local dealer - that's exactly what they know about, and exactly what they're there to help with.
Actually, though, I'm being unfair. These reviews have given you a glimpse into one of the best-kept secrets in the industry. Because... actually, the sea of undifferentiated excellence is genuinely a thing. The fact of the matter is: 82% of hifi is actually, really very good.
Speaking as a person who has worked for three different retail outlets, and worked with many many different distributors, I can tell you - hifi salespeople will sell anything, as long as it's not genuinely bad. And less than 18% of things are really genuinely bad. And if they're bad, hifi salespeople won't sell them.
When I worked at Audio-T in West Hampstead, I loved selling Rega, Cyrus, Wilson Benesch, Proac, and Van Den Hul. Great products. Happy customers.
I moved to Cornflake. Of those five, we only sold Rega. I sold a lot of Rega. But I also sold ATC, Mark Levinson, AVI, and Naim. Cyrus and Proac didn't suddenly become bad products. I just didn't have them to sell. So I sold ATC and AVI instead.
Later I worked for Audio-T again. We didn't sell Rega in that branch, or Wilson Benesch, or Proac. We did sell Kef and B&W, and Cyrus again. So that's what I sold.
In all those years never did I feel like I was letting a customer down, because I couldn't sell them a Proac, or an ATC, or a Kef. No, I knew that the products I had were good, and I knew that I'd produce something that would bring happiness to my customer.
It's slightly different now I own the business. I have more of a say with respect to my products, but even then there are restrictions. Sometimes I can't sell a product because there's already a dealer nearby who sells it. Sometimes I can't sell a product because the demands made by the distributor are too great for a small business without a large amount of capital to invest. That doesn't make them bad products. It's just that I've chosen to sell other, equally good products, for a variety of reasons.
However, every product I do sell, I can, hand-on-heart say is excellent. It's not necessarily "better" than what my brother would sell you in Audio-T, or my old boss Chris would sell you at KJ. It's what I've got, what I've chosen, and what, owing to a complex interconnected web of circumstances, I happen to have in my shop at that time.
Here's what really matters: relationship, service, attentiveness, creativity, knowledge of the products that the retailer does have, and knowledge of those products they also don't have.
I said at the start of this article that buying online on the basis of a review is pretty much guaranteed to get you a good result. That's true. It's obvious, because 82% of hifi products are very good or excellent. You can't really go wrong.
However, to get an excellent result requires skill, expertise, creativity, a maverick spirit, patience, a willingness to try multiple options, a person prepared to try seemingly crazy combinations. And then to get the best possible results, it requires careful setup, consideration of room design, shape, and furniture. It also involves accounting for personal taste, musical taste, and a knowledge of the rest of the system.
That's where you need advice and expertise from someone who really knows their stuff, who is prepared to get to know you, and is prepared to out in the effort to make a good system great. You can't get that from a review.
That's why it's worth building a friendship with your dealer. That's why people go back to the same person again and again. That's why there's still a place in this industry for genuine experts.
Because of my expertise, and approach to helping my customers, I am completely certain that if a customer comes to me with any budget, I will be able to put together a system to meet their requirements, that will represent great value, and sound superb. I know that I'll have listened to their needs, and spent time helping them choose. If they live within about 50 miles, I'll also deliver and install it for them free of charge. If they ever need any help or advice, I'm always available to help.
That isn't a function of the products I have. It's a function of my attentiveness, expertise, and the portfolio I've built to ensure I can meet those needs.
There are a handful of other dealers I know that will give the same service, and I'd gladly recommend any of them. A hifi review gets you nowhere in this domain.
Going back to your budget turntable, all a review tells you is that the product is pretty good. You already know that, because your dealer wouldn't sell it if it wasn't. Everything else is down to the way you interact with the dealer, and their attention to detail, knowledge, understanding and creativity to make the products they have work for their clients.
So, next time you're thinking about buying a new system, or adding to an existing system, don't pick up What Hifi, or Google for reviews. Pick up the phone, and speak to a dealer you know and trust. If you don't have a dealer you know and trust, ask around for recommendations, and call them. Of course, you can always call me, and I'll do my best, but it's the principle that I want to emphasise. If you want a great result, trust your dealer to help you achieve it.
Listening to music, and investing in a system to get the maximum enjoyment from it, is a deeply personal, emotional, and creative endeavour. To do it well requires relationship, understanding, time, and patience. Reviews will give you almost none of that. One star. Avoid.