Reviewer In Focus
Tom Lyle Performing At City Gardens In Trenton, NJ 1985.
To get to the point of my short diatribe, I have to give a bit of background information about myself. Please bear with me. At first it might sound a bit narcissistic, but it will help put my discourse into perspective. For a long time, I considered myself an audiophile. Even before I knew what the term audiophile was. I did know that I was a lover of the equipment that reproduced the music I listened to. But because of the types of music I listened to I always felt as if I was an outsider.
If one reads my (mostly true) biography on the Enjoy the Music.com website, it will confirm that I was more or less always into audio. I've had a "decent" system since high school – it was nothing like my peer's store-bought systems usually consisting of a source connected to receiver and a pair of speakers. Instead, mine was made mostly of DIY gear, but still, I doubt that many would call it a high-end system. Still, most thought it sounded better than any what my friends were using at the time, that was for sure.
At one point I was using a pair of McIntosh MC-30 monoblock amps that one of my friends "borrowed" from his parents and loaned them to me that ended up driving drove a pair of homemade speakers. They sure sounded good to me at the time when I cranked Humble Pie's Rockin The Fillmore double album. I was in heaven. But, if I heard that system now, I doubt I would think it was any good.
During my last year in high school and into my college years I sold stereo equipment at a local hi-fi chain, never being able to afford the gear I listened to when I was alone in the store. But I loved listening to The Beatles Abbey Road through the large Sansui integrated amplifier through the Klipschorns. Even that set up would probably make me cringe if I heard it now. But like my system at home, I thought it sounded pretty damn good, especially compared to anything else I'd end up listening to. To me, this system, and my system at home sounded closer to what I heard in concert. Which mostly meant that it was loud.
But that part of my life was curtailed when I joined a touring rock band, and ended up not having enough time to devote to that pastime. The band's schedule while touring allowed plenty of time for me to go record shopping, and I'm still enjoying many of the excellent vinyl prizes I found during those years, but I wasn't home enough to warrant assembling anything more than a rudimental audio system at home. It was certainly decent, but it wasn't one that would made me want to start citing the components that it was made. I would have to wait before I would want to talk about what I heard from my system while spinning a first pressing of Joy Division's Closer album.
It was about that time when I discovered that I still was listening to the music I first discovered when in high school and my first years of college. My record collection would grow larger with additions of newer music, but I never discarded the old, only adding to my tastes in music.
The band didn't last forever, and so around the year 1990 I began taking my love of music and its reproduction much more seriously, since I found myself at home 12 months out of the year for the first time in a long while. And I quickly began to earn the title "audiophile" rather quickly, now that my "hobby" was also taken by many more people than it was before I gave it up for a stretch of time. And as if the last ten years never happened, I began to assemble a much more serious audio system.
To keep myself connected to what was available I would buy and read every word of the two audiophile magazines I would pick up from the newsstands, Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. This was still back in the day when they were "digest-sized". I used to joke that they pressed the magazines in this format so those wearing lab jackets could fit the magazine in their front pocket!
Yes, I considered myself a serious audiophile, but it sort of bugged me that in the reviews in these publications I was reading that when the reviewers would described the sound of a component by using musical examples, they would always, without exception, use classical music. Every once in a while, they would use some obscure world music, or perhaps a female singer's very tame, light jazz recording, or once in a blue moon they'd get under my skin buy using Steely Dan's Aja. But 95% of the time it was a classical LP or the occasional CD.
J. Gordon Holt's print magazine Stereophile schtick was that they claimed they were the first audiophile magazine to have the majority of the review talk about the component's sound, making their measurements secondary, which I had to admit was very cool. Back in the days when I was selling stereo equipment, we'd very often quote a component's specifications, and there were many times that a customer would purchase a piece of gear not because it sounded better than the others, but because it had, for example, a lower total harmonic distortion (THD) percentage.
The Absolute Sound magazine, created by the brilliant Harry Pearson, had a philosophy that inferred that the "perfect" system would realistically reproduce "real music recorded in a real space", which meant recordings of non-amplified acoustic instruments recorded on a stage in a hall of some type. But then there was me.
Sure, in my late 20s I started listening to some classical music and more jazz than I did when I was much younger, but at that time 95% my musical diet consisted of types of music that were much more aggressive than any of the classical music that was used as musical examples in those high-end magazines. As I mentioned before, I wouldn't do away with my musical past, just add to it. Which meant lots of rock n roll added to the modern selections. Even the classical music I was listening to was rarely mentioned in those magazines, such as Mahler, and post war composers such as Georgy Legeti.
Plus, I was listening to lots of metal, including 70s hard rock, and NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Also frequently on my turntable and CD player was lots of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), electronic music including Kraftwerk, hardcore punk rock, punk from 1977-79, rock from the 1960s and 1970s, and alternative rock, which included bands such as The Birthday Party from Australia and Einsturzende Neubauten from Germany. What was a mother to do? Listen to my type of music on high-end audiophile system, that's what!
And as I continued to listen to the music I liked, I eventually started writing for an audiophile publication. The Sensible Sound, which was a smaller magazine at the time, was obviously willing to take a chance on an audiophile that was not only much younger than anyone else on the staff, but had to a much more varied musical diet.
I don't want to be too crass here, but as time went on many of the old farts from those other magazines died or retired. And as time went one, I lucked out and started writing for Enjoy the Music.com, and as time went on I eventually became the Senior Editor at this magazine. And so, guess what? In a way, I'm in charge. And I get to use any type of music I want in my reviews.
And at the same time, others of my age group also listen to music other than classical music on their high-end audio rigs. Our esteemed Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin often uses one of my favorite Kraftwerk albums, The Mix, in his equipment reviews. It is an excellent selection that can display the abilities of a component to be able to reproduce its extended frequency extremes and huge macro dynamic swings.
And so now there are many more like me that listen to what I consider real music for real people. It's no coincidence that when I use these musical examples in my reviews, other audiophiles are listening to this type of music in their systems, too. I've mentioned it many times before – but who is to say what is "real" music? And who is to say what is a "real" space? An electric guitar played through an amplifier with a microphone stuck in front of the amp's grille is a real instrument recorded in a real space, that instrument being an electric guitar, and that space being the recording studio. Audiophiles that I know have been listening to this music for so long we know very well how it is supposed to sound. And we can discuss the details and other minutiae in the recordings that we now can hear that we've never heard before.
So, when I use The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Electric Ladyland album as a musical example in one of my reviews, and I cite hearing more of the 60-cycle hum coming from Jimi's amplifier on the track "Come On", many audiophiles will know exactly what I'm talking about. Even when I play Electric Wizard's 1997 album Come My Fanatics album, there are at least a few who are reading the review that have that double album in their collection, and even if they have never heard this particular album, they will likely have heard something like it before.
So when I say that it sounds like Jus Osborn is playing his guitar with an overdriven Sound City 200 Plus amp head rather than that Marshall JCM 800 head that he was using at the Roskilde open-air festival, there as many that don't think that is so odd, and might even know what I mean when I'm using it to describe a certain sonic feature of a component I'm reviewing.
Sure, I use plenty of classical music, jazz, and other recorded music that features real instruments recorded in a real space. It's just that I rarely limit myself to any type of music. I never have, and I never will, only because that's what I listen to, and that's how I can best evaluate a component or a system that I'm listening to.
Things have certainly changed since I first became bewitched by music, and so has the equipment that reproduces it. Things have changed for the better, I think. At least I feel that my musical tastes are a benefit, that it helps me describe the equipment that I'm reviewing. I finally feel as if I'm a welcome participant, rather than someone who is watching elite audiophiles from the sidelines.