On a radio
talk show today, the host went into a whole rant about the recent 60% drop in
by-the-barrel oil prices, and how it was a total surprise, even to the
"experts". He went on to say that those experts not only included all
of the top executives in the oil industry – men whose career and fortune (read
that however you want) were directly dependent on their ability to know what oil
price trends were going to be – but also experts in banking, in foreign
policy, in economics, and in virtually every other area of business, government,
Not satisfied with just pointing out that one
multi-billion (or even trillion) dollar ball-drop, he went on to remind his
listeners that the oil price situation was by no means unique: In practically
every area of endeavor, from business to the climate, to politics, to health
care, to fashion, to the viability of alternative and renewable energy, there
always are, and always have been "experts" to predict what's coming
next (Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the show's host said,
gets a million bucks a pop for his opinions), and almost all of the experts, he
said, are almost always wrong.
So what else is new?
In case you're not already aware of it, my professional training was as an economist, and, before becoming a Hi-Fi manufacturer (XLO cables), I consulted to some of the country's biggest and most important firms. Do you want to know an old saying among us economists? "If you put any dozen economists into any room to discuss any issue, they'll come out with two dozen opinions!" (Don't you agree, Bill and Lew?)
Did you know that, although nobody's ever
actually met a visitor from another planet (unless those stories about Area 51
are true), the United States government still maintains a full staff of
"experts" on communicating with interstellar aliens?
The fact of the matter is that "Opinions are
like [noses] – everybody's got one."
That applies to just about everything, including
high fidelity audio, and it's both a good and a bad thing: It's nice to be able
to consult with someone -- a friend or a professional reviewer, about the
things or music that we are interested in, and sometimes it's even helpful.
Other times, though, the opinion, like that of all those
oh-so-high-priced-consultants-and-experts about the future of oil prices, isn't
any better or more applicable than you could find free in a fortune cookie.
And it may even be a lot worse than what's printed on that little piece of
paper: At least no one is likely to take the random pronouncements of a fortune
cookie seriously and spend (read waste)
money or time or other resources on following it.
Don't get me wrong, there really are
times when expert input is necessary: If I'm sick, I will most certainly go to
an expert – my family doctor or even a specialist – for a professional
evaluation and recommended course of action. But even that is an act of
faith on my part, and there's no guarantee that the doctor I'm seeing will
accurately diagnose and treat whatever's bothering me. To cite just one
example to illustrate this, a lady friend of mine came down with "The Show
Plague" after attending CES one year and, for whatever reason, went to
someone other than her regular doctor for treatment. During his examination,
that doctor asked if anything other than just the "plague" was
bothering her, and she told him of a set of symptoms that she had suffered
and been unsuccessfully treated for by a number of other doctors over the last
After she had finished, the new doctor asked her
– quite without warning – how long she had had her parrot. When she --
flabbergasted because she had made no mention of any pet at all – replied that
she did have a parrot, and that
she had had it for about the same
time as she had had her symptoms, he told her that she had psittacosis
("parrot fever"), prescribed medication for her, and suggested that
she get rid of the bird. She did as he said and, lo, in just a short time, the
symptoms followed the bird out the door. The point here is not that that
one doctor was able to spot her problem instantly and effectively treat it, but
that none of the other "expert" and experienced physicians had been
able to, and yet all had offered diagnoses, prescribed medication, and charged
for their services.
Sometimes, too, even a "right" opinion
can be a wrong one. Back in the early 'nineties, when I was reviewing for Sounds
like… Magazine and my pal Tony DiChiro was President of Kinergetics
Research (in short, at a time when we were both what other people might have
described as "Hi-Fi experts") I was running Acoustat 1+1s as the
"mid-top" speakers in my system, backed-up by the still-world-class
Kinergetics subwoofers. Tony liked the sound I was getting and, because our two
listening rooms were virtually identical except for one seemingly small detail,
he assumed that a pair of Acoustats would be good for him, too. At the time,
Acoustat had just come out with a new transformer design, so when Tony told me
that he was going to order a pair, I asked him to also order a second pair for
When the speakers came – both identical models,
shipped at the same time, from the same production run – I moved my old ones
out of the way, set up my new ones, and let them "burn-in", which for
that model was about a one-week process. Tony had also gotten his and
hooked them up at the same time, so after a week or so, when mine were sounding
great, I called him to find out what he thought of his.
His answer was disappointing. He said that they
apparently had not fully burned-in yet, because they sounded "thin and
hard". I suggested that maybe his pair was, for some reason, just being
recalcitrant, and that he should continue to let them "cook" for a
When after three weeks, though, they still didn't
sound good, I went out to his house to see what was wrong, and found that, even
though they were perfectly hooked–up, in almost exactly the same positions
that mine were in my room, they sounded awful! It made no sense, so, to try to
find out what was really happening, we loaded Tony's speakers up and carried
them to my house for a direct comparison with mine, and... SURPRISE, they
sounded wonderful. The only conclusion that we could draw, because both
our rooms and our other equipment were – except for that one small thing
mentioned earlier – nearly identical, was that there was either something
about my room that Acoustats liked, or about Tony's room that they didn't, and,
so that Tony wouldn't be stuck with speakers that simply didn't work for him, I
bought his pair, too, which is why I still, to this day, have three pairs of
A month or two later, Tony called me and said
that I needed to come over to his house and hear his latest acquisitions: To
replace the Acoustats, he had bought a pair of Bruce Thigpen's Eminent
Technology Model 4 speakers, (sort of like Magnepan panels, but driven from both
sides of the diaphragms) and they sounded terrific!
When I got to Tony's house and listened to the speakers, I was so impressed by them that I thought I might get rid of all three sets of my Acoustats and buy a pair of ETs. To that end, we loaded-up Tony's speakers and, once again drove to my house for a direct comparison and... the ETs sounded awful!
Now, here's the important part: If I, as a working audio reviewer at the time, had reviewed the Acoustats at my house, I would have waxed positive and bubbled-over about how great they were. And if I had reviewed the ETs, the review would have had nothing good to say at all, and would, instead, have truthfully expressed my disappointment with what I would have honestly believed to be a seriously flawed product.
THE PROBLEM IS THAT IF I HAD WRITTEN THOSE SAME TWO REVIEWS OF THOSE SAME TWO PRODUCTS AFTER LISTENING AT TONY'S HOUSE INSTEAD OF MY OWN, MY OPINIONS OF BOTH SPEAKERS WOULD HAVE BEEN COMPLETELY THE OPPOSITE.
That was when I lost faith in reviews and the
entire reviewing process. If two truly good products can be honestly regarded
completely differently by the same two experts in the same two different rooms,
how can I, or any of us trust the opinion of even the most truthful,
experienced, and honorable reviewer?
We could always fall back to the tried and true
method of measuring things electronically or, for speakers, in an anechoic
chamber, but the problem then would be that we don't listen with meters or in
specially-treated acoustically "dead" rooms, so the test results
would, like the opinions of the experts or, in fact, of anyone other than
ourselves, listening on anything other than our own system, in our own listening
room, with our own personal tastes and preferences, be completely irrelevant and
Far better to just let the experts say what they wish and have their own fun while we sit back, relax, and...
Enjoy the music.