Opinion: Read All About It
David Price recalls how he learned to read hi-fi reviews, rather than worship them…
Any fifty-something reading this will remember how amazingly important Compact Cassettes once were. In my teenage years, they were most people’s ticket to become a serious music fan – you either bought new ‘pre-recorded’ tapes or taped your friends’ LPs onto new blanks. For yours truly, it was the latter – as a cash-poor fourteen year old, I soon figured out that I could get three times as much music for the same money, this way.
Naturally then, I began to wonder what type of cassettes to buy. I’d been messing around with an old mono portable for several years, but had plans to procure a proper stereo cassette deck and wanted to start investing in high-quality recording media (as we say today). Some reading this might remember how many choices there were back in the early eighties – TDK, BASF, Agfa, Fuji, Maxell, Memorex, Scotch, and so on. Short of buying one of each and making my own comparisons, I couldn’t possibly know which was best. Thank heavens then for What Hi-Fi, which came to the rescue!
Browsing around my local newsagent, sometime in the summer of 1980, I noticed an issue of the aforementioned magazine, which showed a whole stack of cassettes on its front page. Naturally, I picked a copy up and tried to read the cassette group test as fast as possible. I couldn’t take it all in, so was forced to buy a copy – and as soon as I got my new mag home, I read it from cover to cover. What I needed to do, I gleaned from the test, was to starting buying TDK OD tapes – a high performance ferric that cost £1.80 for a C90. It was serious money in those days, but you’ve got to think big!
Image: What Hi-Fi? / Future
I was fascinated by the reviewer’s description of all the different tapes, how they sounded and what they felt like to handle. I combed his words like someone with a metal detector on a beach; I tried to read deep into the reviews to get his every last nuance. Soon after, I bought my first cassette deck – a Pioneer CT-F500, a well regarded budget design of the time – and embarked on my very own home taping spree.
Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t hear much difference between TDK OD and my older, cheaper, bog-standard TDK Ds? I’d been buying one new tape per month with my pocket money – and had amassed quite a few, already. I felt cheated and confused; I could have purchased TDK Ds for 50p cheaper, and saved enough cash to buy my very own LP record. Okay, there was a small difference, but I grumpily felt the reviewer had exaggerated it…
So began the complex relationship that I – and likely everyone reading this – has with hi-fi writing and consumer journalism at large. I began to put the reviews that I so loved reading into perspective, and as I got older and more expert on matters hi-fi and tape, I began to figure out what was really going on.
That What Hi-Fi writer had after all been right – TDK OD was in truth far better than its cheaper D sibling. It’s just that my cassette deck, and indeed the rest of my system, wasn’t good enough to show it at that time. As a total tape nut now, I’m well aware that tapes need to have their bias levels and record equalisation set. I hadn’t – and couldn’t – do this on my basic Pioneer, and so wasn’t getting the best out of that fancy cassette tape. Even if I had set up my deck for the fancier tape, I’d still not have had a serious enough system to really unlock its potential.
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Therein lies the rub – reviews can be very useful – but only up to a point. No hi-fi reviewer can legislate for the individual circumstances, preferences, music tastes, hardware choices and system synergies of the reader. That’s why it’s necessary to take such reviews in context; they’re not tablets of wisdom, speaking some universal truth that the reader hadn’t previously gleaned. Instead, they’re – hopefully – informed and open-minded, factual accounts of what the reviewer heard in their particular system, with those ancillaries, at that time, with their tastes. In other words, we should think of them as a useful ‘way in’ to a debate about buying a product, rather than some sort of holy writ from on high.
In my three decades of hi-fi reviewing, I’ve always tried to write what I hear and put it into a wider context – nothing more. I’m not pretending I know what’s right for you, better than you yourself do – instead, I’m there to help you decide, weighing up the options. That’s how hi-fi journalism should be done, because ultimately it isn’t sole arbiter of what’s good and what’s not. In the end, that’s down to you and your ears.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.