The Information Explosion
Considering the vast possibilities of the written word, it is unfortunate that every major audio magazine these days follows the strictly-commercial "formal review" format. Sure reviews bring in ad revenue and, true, most readers do like to read about new gear. Granted that some review content is both necessary and desirable, one can still argue that large circulation mags could be a lot more than just show reports, endless reviews, recommended component buyers' guides distilled from reviews, and pricey four color ads featuring quotes from reviews in fancy italics.
Back in the 1950s when Hi-Fi was getting started, newsstand audio magazines were focused on the practical ways of sound technology. There were lots of good entry-to-mid-level technical articles, often written by practicing engineers and manufacturers sharing the dope on their latest gizmos. Product reviews were rare and usually limited to a few crisp paragraphs in length when they did pop up. You could actually learn something from mainstream hi-fi mags back in the old days, even if 50% or more of what you were reading was total bunk, just as it is today.
Big audio mags went downhill when all them damn "professional reviewers" nosed into the act, filtering the whole discourse of audio electronics and audio aesthetics down to 2500 word diary-style confessions reliving the neurotic process of formally evaluating item x. Even when done well, reviews tend to be more about the psycho-drama of the author's mind than about the gadget under review. On the whole, the formal review is one bone-dry, overworked, and tedious literary formula. How many picky distinctions can one writer make in a single year? How many can you stand to read?
The ultimate tragedy of the formal review magazines is that in exchange for all that highly-skilled editorial effort, acres of fallen timber, and 50 gallon drums of color ink, next year all we'll have to show is a tall pile of boring out-of-date reviews and at most an xtra-slim sheaf of solid articles worth saving to re-view for educational purposes.
Thankfully, a popular revolution in audio publishing has been brewing these last few years. The info gates open wider by the month. Lively new labor-of-love small press magazines are popping up everywhere. Some focus on highly esoteric subject matter. Some do reviews in their own ways, some are like scientific journals, and a few are into personal essays, parody, and other literary genres. With some mags, you never really know what to expect upon turning the page. Of course, some of it is nonsense, but at least it's fresh nonsense. None of these small axe publications threaten to blow the big boys off the newsstand this year but the beneficial effects of a broadening public dialogue are accumulating.
I can't remember ever encountering such a w-i-d-e variety of audio opinion on the street as we have today. In the new magazines and in the online universe you get to hear a whole chorus of audiophile voices besides the steady nasal drone of the priestly class of pro reviewers. Thanks to the spread of PC communications and affordable desktop publishing, manufacturers, hobbyists, and experimenters — i.e., people who actually do things — are getting their ideas and insights into general circulation through the side door.
Ideas move progress and there are a lot of them flying around right now, faster and hotter and farther than ever before. As a result of this beefed-up information flow, we're getting back to a sense of wonder and the kind of productive confusion that can lead to a better audio future and a deeper understanding of our craft over the long run. That's the way it should be.
Note: Enjoy the Music.com highly encourages our readers to buy the Sound Practices CD filled with all 16 issues in high quality format from publisher/editor Joe Roberts' eBay store by clicking here. What is below is merely a small sampling of the many great articles within the CD.