The first time I became conscious of audiophiles, I knew I wasn’t one. At least not then. I met someone who remains one of my key music buddies. Although he didn’t make a big deal out of it, he was an audiophile as well as a music lover, and so was his roommate. It was the roommate whose disdain made me aware of my shortcomings when I confessed that I had KLH speakers and a Kenwood receiver. “So,” he smirked, “do you enjoy your toys?” He then went on to rave happily about the hand-machined parts in his tonearm.
If anyone had told my younger self that someday I?d be the audio editor of Home Theater, that long-haired kid would probably have replied: ?Hah. Next thing you?re gonna tell me I?ll be wearing a buzzcut.? See blog photo above. Enough said about that.
When I was offered the job in August 2005, it didn?t come entirely as a surprise. I had already been reviewing audio gear for the magazine on a freelance basis since 2001. My earliest audio reviews were published around 1990 in Rolling Stone?a nice way to get started?and I had been a freelance writer since 1986. My first job on a tech publication, then known as Video Magazine, was offered and accepted on December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was shot.
Still, I had misgivings about the new job. I was confident in my writing abilities?a perpetual misfit, I often say it?s the only thing I do well. But wouldn?t my editor prefer someone with an engineering degree? Or younger ears with tip-top high-frequency perception? She responded that I had the experience to do the job and that trumped all other considerations. Sure enough, she was right, and I?ve become an audio editor.
Actually I?m more of a glorified staff writer slash cherished pet. The main power of my office is priority in assignments?if I want something, it?s mine. In practice I think too highly of the magazine?s remaining freelancers to yank things away from them. There?s enough for everyone.
Like component audio itself, audio editors may be an endangered species. I make myself useful by writing a news column for the magazine and a daily news blog for its website. But part of my job is to fight for my job?to convince my readers both inside and outside the audio industry that there is a need for a guy who uncrates audio gear, serves as a surrogate for the consumer, and discusses (diplomatically, of course) how it works and sounds.
Readers tell me I?m relevant by finding one of my five active email addresses?it?s the one given on my personal websites?and desperately asking questions. I?ve also advised two neighbors over the past few months. Queries generally follow one of two paths. The first is picks: I?m buying a receiver (or a speaker package). What do you recommend? The other queries I get seek validation for a purchase decision: I?m thinking of buying this receiver, these speakers. Are they good?
Consumers depend on critics or I wouldn?t have a job. Of course, your own ears are the best guide, and getting validation from a inkstained wretch who gets paid less than a schoolteacher is no substitute for doing your own homework. But I get these queries because the evolution of the audio industry in the last decade or two has been away from the demo room where people can listen and make informed decisions. There are efforts to reverse the trend by helping people find specialty dealers. Even some of the larger chain stores are returning to the old-fashioned the demo room, letting consumers listen before they buy.
Still, my readers have reason to feel insecure. If you go to a lousy restaurant, you have one bad meal and it?s over. Buy a lousy audio product and you may suffer for years.
I know exactly how excruciating it is to make a poor audio-buying choice. Oh, I was happy enough with the KLH speakers my friend?s friend disdained, but the AR speakers I bought to replace them (when the company was going through a bad patch) were not nearly as good. I bought them because a nationally recognized critic writing for a major newspaper recommended them in print.
Betrayed by a fellow scribe, I came to realize this attempted upgrade was a downgrade. Not having a lot of money to spend, I had to live with those awful speakers for seven long years. Finally I dumped them for some Snells that made me much happier. The latter were recommended not by a critic but by the friend mentioned above.
That experience has made me careful about what I recommend. I don?t mind discussing casual impressions of things heard at trade shows?after all, that?s often how review assignments get started?but when corresponding with people I stick with either my reference pieces or things I?ve lived with and listened to at length. I don?t want to become the guy who commits audio-critical malpractice and condemns some poor kid to seven years with a pair of speakers that mess up his relationship with music.
There?s a story about a famous audio critic who wrote a review of a product and sent the carton back to the manufacturer?unopened. I try to be the opposite of that guy.
So what does an audio editor do? An audio review begins with an idea. My editor sometimes supplies good ones but I find most of them myself. I feel more comfortable moving forward with a review if I?ve gotten a quick listen at a trade show or press event. When working with manufacturers I?ve reviewed before, I?m more inclined to take a chance. I actually love following successive generations of a model or genre, hearing the continuation of a train of design thought.
Stuff is shipped. I unpack it. I try not to pay much attention to it for the first day or two because some things mutate as they break in. Eventually the product becomes part of my listening life. A few test tracks flow through everything I review, but serendipitous listening is the kind I value most, and I have a large enough music library to support every whim. I rarely use test tones because the measurements are made by a consulting technical editor at the magazine?s studio (where the gear is also photographed). He does the objective part. My job is the subjective part.
I pretend I?m you. When a product enters my life, how will I feel about it after a few days? A week? If time permits, a few weeks? The perfectionist in me would like this to go on for months, especially when a product really clicks, but magazines have budgets and I have a quota.
Eventually everything goes back into boxes and I pray the styrofoam will hold out long enough to get the product to our studio intact. Bad packaging is the bane of my life. It?s more likely to force me to lift heavy weights at an awkward angle. Having already got plastic mesh holding one side of my lower abdomen together, I am loath to repeat the process on the other side.
As a matter of fact, every day begins with abdomenal exercises and pushups, followed by blogging, followed by reviewing and other writing. I check email often and use the phone as little as possible to preserve my hermit-chic image. I keep normal business hours just like any other wage slave: I?m at my desk shortly after nine a.m. and at five p.m. a clock/radio starts blaring ?All Things Considered? to signal the beginning of the end. I keep emailing until seven.
The hardest part of my job comes when my powers of description are face to face with a review sample. That is what takes the longest. I never write a first draft of the ?how it sounds? portion of a review in fewer than three sessions on separate days. Later there is much subsequent editing and second-guessing. On a good day I might find a new way to describe something. Visual analogies are a strength of mine (or are they a weakness?). The rest of the time I use an established terminology, most of it shared with other reviewers, and hope for the best.
I like my job. Will I go on doing it forever? Who knows? Magazine publishing is a highly cyclical business and the addition of web publishing only makes it more tumultuous. I?m a writer first and a reviewer second. If I had all the money in the world, I?d live in Venice or Amsterdam and write novels. In the meantime, there?s always another carton coming through the door, saying in an almost Alice in Wonderland fashion: open me.
You can purchase Mark?s book Practical Home Theater directly from Amazon
Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).
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