Colloms on Magazines:

Many readers of audio magazines have enquired why these days, after decades of prolific output, my audio reviews and features are rarely to be found in news stand magazines?

A glib response might explain that my approach has gone out of date, that I am too technical, that I am too critical of second rate product performance, that I overly prefer content to attractive photography and page presentation, that my detailed and long established approach requires too many words, is expensive. Finally it is said to exceed the attention span of modern readers!

There is an element of truth in this. I am aware that communication is important. Complex technical ideas must be rendered accessible, and that the pages of magazines which are often be bought on impulse must look fresh and attractive. Moreover, for news stand magazines the purchase price represents only a small component of the overall cost, one dominated by advertising revenue. Moreover the ads themselves may be visually appealing and informative. They certainly contribute to the weight and feel of the product.

Traditional audio magazines have generally supported well researched independent opinion, where a continuity of assessment and defined freedom of expression helped maintain a critical stance for new technologies and for product performance. While quality audio enjoys a respectable turnover and remains a viable activity, the market is well matured and sales continue to decline. In my view this has resulted in a progressive squeeze on the news stand magazines, which are competing for a diminishing advertising spend. This is at a time when paper and editorial costs are continuing to rise. I consider that there are two main consequences. Some Hi Fi magazines, aware of their shrinking established readership, appear to be constantly trying to make the content more readable and jazzy in order to attract new readers. But in my view this dumbing down has the effect of reducing the authority and power of the editorial content, and inevitably and progressively alienates the established and more experienced supporter..

The second outcome is a perceived increase in the influence of advertisers on content. Editors will protest that they are well aware of the dangers, that they can resist the pressure, that their advertising department is entirely separated from the editor’s office, but the content of many journals would suggest otherwise. Major advertisers appear to extract undue editorial attention, more news copy, a greater number of reviews and these at more depth. After a third of a century in the business I personally know of a number of occasions where the power of a major advertiser has been brought to bear on freedom of editorial expression. This can take many forms from threats to withdraw advertising revenue, to injunctions to halt the printing, and even lawsuits for claimed damages. Business is business and magazine editorial departments have to tread a fine line. This is where great editors can show their worth. It seems that many editors and contributors are under a tacit agreement not to rock the boat, either that of the audio business in general, and in specific not to imperil their journal. Other more subtle influences may occur.

Contributors, this author included, may enjoy foreign ‘fact finding‘  trips, others may find their attendance at shows, including Japan and the States are paid for by advertisers and show organisers, in return for some report of their sponsor’s activities. Audio journals are by no means alone in this respect.

A very few magazines have made it public policy to try and avoid such influences, though the tendency to play safe in review generally holds while that strong financial dependence on audio manufacturer advertising remains in place.

We do not have to look very far to see the effects on much published review opinion. There is frequently a depressing sameness to the review writing and descriptions, a uniformity of approval for nearly everything, a clear lack of committed discrimination for variations in product character, build quality and objective performance.

It is certainly well known that most Hi Fi reviewers are generally poorly paid and that much is written as much for love and enthusiasm as for a viable income.

Unfortunately reviews with weakly expressed opinions may then be dressed up with pseudo scientific bar and pie charts, largely based on guesstimates of aspects of technology, sound quality and technical performance, and taking all into account, both the test lab and the critic are all too often seen to be playing safe.

Most of my colleagues, when working with a high quality replay chain, can readily discriminate between a top audiophile power amplifier and an ‘also ran’. The differences are not trivial, the perfection of image depth and focus, of low level detail, of dynamic expression, the sense of a live performance can, in a critical context , be dramatically and rewardingly different.

Taking the example of a vehicle. It is like comparing a Golf 1.4 with the GTI.

Sure, they are both have four seats. The 1.4 does the job very well for the price, but it is clearly not a high performance vehicle nor is intended to be. For a keen driver the GTI version is probably worth double because it feels about twice as good in the important, driver perceived aspects.

Thus on a hundred point scale for driver satisfaction the 1.4 might get 42 and the GTI 85.

I score the sound quality of audio electronics very much on a similar basis. However most news stand magazines dare not do this due to the pressures they are suffering and I think that it is because they must respect the relationships which they have so carefully built with the industry. Thus for the example given, when translated into audio terms, you would be lucky if such a magazine dared to differentiate performance by as much as 7%.  Defending their position, editors will say that their readers will of course get used to it; that they can and should read between the lines.

Why should they have to? Why can’t the contributors tell the truth as they find it?

So, with the various blobs and charts and bars there is a narrow range which the contributors are allowed in practice. Statistically analysed for many magazines and products nearly every product gets 4 out of 5, or 80%, plus or minus a few percent.  As there are almost no duds, we must suppose that in many cases these are censored. No less than three editors have explained to me that if a product does really badly they would voluntarily pull the review rather than get into a dispute with the manufacturer. Some editors have even explained in print that they value a pleasant relationship with the manufacturers, see the advertising as a necessary part of the deal, value their ministrations, trips and extended product loans, and very likely would not dream of severely criticising their products. Indeed one web journal explains that they actively censor in advance copy constituting a poor review, and will only print positive reviews. They explain that they are doing the readers a favour.

I consider that this play safe attitude shown by much of the audio press constitutes a betrayal of the reader, who ultimately is the reason the editorial content appears at all, regardless of who pays for it. The paying reader must be the critic’s friend, not a manufacturer or supplier.

Any film, book or theatre or music critic who behaved like many hi fi reviewers would be laughed out of the business. What price A. A. Gill’s reputation if he were to sink so low. I value his opinions because he tells it how it is. I expect no less from a good audio critic.

Editors and contributors must endeavour to set the highest standards for independent opinion, and must earn deserved respect for their integrity and authority.  They must respect the intelligence of their readers and encourage objective opinion which will guide the reader to fairly differentiate between the diverse creations of audio designers. It a deception on the industry and the public to try and maintain the perception that nearly all audio equipment today is well designed ‘fine’, more or less, and thus  that we do not need to try very hard to differentiate differences in performance.

For example, nearly all tubed equipment gets the ok in review, and while most are pleasant sounding, in my experience there is actually a huge range of performance from the very best to the merely average. Personally, I consider that a failure to discriminate between them is an insult to the designers of the superior product.

I’m shocked as to just how poor the sound quality of multi-channel HT receivers remains, no better that £100 stereo integrated amplifiers of 30 years ago, and in some cases even worse.

 I also note that many digital amplifiers have serious sound quality shortcomings which appear to have passed largely unnoticed in many reviews by the major magazines.

Frustration with much of the status quo has finally prompted me to establish a new independent subscription title so I and my freelance colleagues could publish audio copy of the quality and depth that we ourselves would like to see in print. By adopting an advertisement-free subscription model, we aim to write objectively, freed from the pressures which seem to be experienced by many editors and contributors to news stand magazines.

Independence from the financial targets of large publishing establishments is one thing, but such independence also confers responsibilities, the title must also discharge its obligations both to the editorial team and to the subscribers.

Without the usual the advertising subsidy the cover price must be higher than usual. Conversely, the readers and not the advertisers have effectively paid for the content, under a trusted relationship with the editor. I think that this initiative is well worth the effort and the cost.

I decided that it would be a disaster if I were to be editor, my particular influence would have to be diluted in order to find a good overall balance, and accordingly Paul Messenger agreed to take on that role. In this respect I remain a contributor and have to take my chances with the rest of the team. I do provide technical support to the other authors when required.

Contributors are queuing up to write for the new journal, so relevant do they find the concept. As an author group we take the view that Home Theatre has its place in the industry but not in a high quality audio system devoted to music replay. Here stereo is king. HIFICRITIC is devoted to stereo.

I have found my experience working with and for the new title quite liberating. It has reinforced my awareness of just how much pressure had been applied to make me conform to more recent editorial styles, and how that has marred some of the pleasure that should result from the investigation and auditioning of new product.

Each new product presents a challenge, can it challenge the art, can it challenge the author to find its measure, and would it present more complex conflicts which would need resolution through reasoned investigation, argument and explanation?

It was speculated by some that this new journal could be seen as a threat to the industry, which could result in a boycott by manufacturers in respect of the supply of loan product for review, an ongoing favour which we still must accept. Thus far we have seen no sign of such censorship and we appreciate that indication of good faith in us as a team on the part of the industry.

The editorial team is more than sufficiently experienced to turn out a respectably professional product. I think that the product looks pretty good. It is well turned out, in full colour on fine paper. Of course it feels thin, not for lack of editorial content, which is impressive, but because the usual 90 or so pages of advertising are absent.  However it can only succeed if the founding premise is valid. And an independent audio publication devoted to stereo has to remain interesting, informative, relevant and respected by its readers.

So you will now find the bulk of my published articles, and technical product reviews are now published in HIFICRITIC, the audio journal.

The HIFICRITIC.COM website has afforded further opportunities. Ostensibly the billboard for the journal it has proved possible to find space for much additional material. This includes my 30 year numerical archives for sound quality, covering pre and power amplifiers, integrated amplifiers and CD players. That numeric scoring tradition is largely continued within the journal itself. Some past reviews and features will be reprinted here, and eventually past issues of the magazine.

In addition contributors and readers can upload material on shows, past reviews, independent comment, reports on audio conferences, interviews with industry majors, and the like. This material may be accessed free of charge and represents the news and readers’ feedback pages for this bi-monthly printed journal.

Martin Colloms

HIFICRITIC.COM Stereophile Magazine Hi Fi News COLLOMS.COM