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My wife, Andrea, and I have two kids, Abigail, 17, and Ian, 15. The two of them grew up training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), a grappling-based martial art that I studied and taught for many years. Abigail started at age seven, Ian at six. Abigail still trains BJJ—mostly with me—but Ian transitioned to the sport of wrestling at the ripe old age of ten. He wanted to do a sport that he could pursue in college one day, and he loved life on the mat.

The first year Ian wrestled, he competed in a number of tournaments, mostly local and regional, although a few were statewide competitions. He did great that first year, ending the season with a winning record and placing second at Rookie States in North Carolina. His second season started off really strong—after all, he had committed to training year round—and he gained some attention around the state as an accomplished youth competitor. In November of that second year—the season started around mid-October—I got a text message from a coach asking if Ian would be “interested in going to VAC.” VAC, I would come to find out, actually meant Virginia Challenge Wrestling’s annual National Holiday Duals. It turns out that VAC was—and still is—one of, if not the, toughest wrestling competitions for elementary- and middle-school kids in the USA. We decided to go and set off on what turned out to be a great road trip, starting just outside Wilmington, NC, and ending up in Virginia Beach, VA. Oh boy. It was a long weekend—Ian went 1-8. He was literally run over by the competition. The ride back down to NC was longer than the trip up to VA. About an hour into it, Ian said to me, “Dad, we gotta practice harder,” then he drifted off to sleep for the remainder of the trip.

VAC

The hard truth was unavoidable: we did not know what national competition in the sport of wrestling—which drew the very best kids in the country—was all about. We found out the hard way. Most audio reviewers and equipment manufacturers are in similar circumstances. They don’t know what the broader field of competition looks like, who’s out there, and what they bring to the game.

Context is everything

It’s 100% true that the price of entry into the world of reviewing audio gear is lower than ever. Anyone can start a YouTube channel or a blog. Almost anyone can find an existing outlet that will publish their audio reviews. Gone are the days when landing a gig with one of a handful of print magazines was the only way to make a name for yourself in the business of audio equipment reviewing.

Contributing anything that’s actually relevant to the world of audio reviewing is another matter altogether. So here’s the big reveal: the biggest problem with audio reviewers is that most of them can’t get the best equipment sent to them by the manufacturers that make it. And that fact alone severely limits their base of experience. As with Ian’s experience, not understanding the caliber of the competition outside your normal field of play is akin to not realizing there’s an entire world out there beyond your current reality.

I spend a few hours a month perusing the other audio reviews various print magazines and websites publish. Occasionally, I’ll run across something that catches my eye and that I find interesting to read. I tend to skip most of the links I run across because, honestly, I spend so much of my time in the trenches reading and editing SoundStage! reviews that I don’t have much of a desire to read still more audio reviews for entertainment. And let’s face it: most audio reviews these days are pretty similar. The dude was interested in product A, dude sets up product A, dude discovers product A is really good, and dude recommends that you shortlist product A. You know the drill.

I do wonder about these reviews, though. Or more to the point, I wonder about the reviewers. For the most part, I think many of these reviews are honestly keyed in. But are they accurate? The secret to determining this is to look at a couple of pieces of information; these are usually things that you can spot pretty easily. First, look at the associated equipment in the review. Second, look at comparable products the reviewer has written about. Are the associated components high quality? Has the reviewer written about a respectable cross-section of equivalent products by the best manufacturers over a reasonable period of time? This will tell you almost everything you need to know.

Brass tacks

As you folks know, my beat for many years has encompassed the upper reaches of the quality spectrum: the ultra in audio, so to speak. And I love reviewing loudspeakers. There are myriad reasons for this, perhaps the most important being that there is more variability among speakers than any other component type. Speakers have personality. The more expensive speakers usually have the greatest range of differentiators, and I find that impossible to resist. If someone were to ask me today what speakers they should consider north of $20k per pair, I’d start off by listing probably four brands (in alphabetical order): Magico, Rockport Technologies, Sonus Faber, and Vivid Audio. I’ve reviewed models by each company in the last few years and know the product lines, the designers, and something about the engineering that goes into each company’s offerings. To say that I hold these brands and their products in high regard would be an understatement. Does this short list include all the best speaker companies? No, of course not. I have holes in my experience, too. Perhaps the most glaring one is a lack of any recent in-home assessment of Wilson speakers (although, in years past, I owned a pair of X-2 Alexandrias, among others). Still, the four brands I just named all make top-tier products, and I feel safe recommending that someone in the market could do a lot worse, and probably no better, than auditioning and choosing a speaker from one of these four manufacturers.

Rockport TechnologiesThe Rockport Technologies Lyra loudspeaker under construction.

What if a reviewer hasn’t experienced any of these brands in their home? And yet they write a review of an expensive speaker whose performance, for the sake of argument, in reality falls below the quality of these top-tier speakers? They might just proclaim that a second-tier product is “competitive with the best” or issue a similar conclusion when, in fact, that’s just not the case—at all. And following this line of thinking, what would a reader derive from such a proclamation? An inaccurate assessment, that’s what. I see this all the time.

Vivid AudioVivid Audio’s Laurence Dickie hard at work.

If a reviewer has not experienced a solid cross-section of components in a particular product genre, you just can’t trust their assessments. Full stop. And that includes me. If I got a wild hair and decided to publish a turntable review next month on SoundStage! Ultra, I can tell you right now it would not be worth the keystrokes it took to write it. I don’t possess the proper context to review a TechDAS Air Force Zero. I’m sure I’d rave about it, and that rave would be worth, um, zero.

MagicoA Magico technician polishing an M2 loudspeaker cabinet.

I said at the outset that the same argument applies to manufacturers. If you don’t know what your competition is all about, you might miss the mark completely. Haven’t seen the craftsmanship of a recent Sonus Faber? Don’t know that Vivid speakers exclusively use drivers developed from the ground up by Laurence Dickie? No clue that Magico’s latest speaker was developed using a Klippel Near-Field Scanner and other state-of-the-art tools? Don’t have a clue what obsessive quality-control protocols are in place at Rockport Technologies? You may want to check these things out if you’re going to be competing with them—or trying to.

Sonus FaberCrafting Sonus Faber Electa Amator III loudspeakers.

Context is everything.

My son, Ian, upped his game by his third year in wrestling. The very next year at VAC, he turned a 1-8 record into an 8-1 record, becoming an All American in the process. He’s been into the sport for over five years now, and we travel to national tournaments every year. The competition doesn’t rest, and neither does he.

Ian FritzIan earning All American status for the fifth time.

Reviewers and manufacturers alike need to come face to face with the top-performing products out there in the larger marketplace, especially if they’re going to claim that something can compete with the best. If they don’t know what the best companies are doing, their claims aren’t worth, as we say in the South, a hill of beans.

. . . Jeff Fritz
jeff@soundstagenetwork.com