Occupy Hi-Fi Part III: The Mission, The Music, and Worthless Distractions

I wasn’t going to write this piece until Tyll Herstens – a founding father of the personal audio community – wrote and asked to read my mission statement. I was psyched. Especially, because the request followed Tyll’s recent essay, “Mission Trumps Bias”, published on Innerfidelity, a brilliant response to a blog post by a younger member of the personal audio community.

In this aforementioned blog post, entitled Review Units Kill the Audio Industry, the member personally called-out Tyll, and it wasn’t exactly a complementary mention – but that’s not the point. Besides, I think the whole premise is nuts. Do the test drivers at Road and Track buy the Porsche they’re test-driving? I could go on for days there, but the bottom line was that a younger reviewer, with far less experience than Tyll, was taking a big chance in writing a shit-starting essay about how gear review kills the industry.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe the author had any malicious intent with this article. However, I don’t think he thought long-term about the way he shared his work. He didn’t just post in on his own blog, of which he is completely free to do. He also posted it as a thread in a forum at Head-Fi.org – the largest personal audio community/forum-based website. The other person he wrote about? It was the founder of that very website, Jude Mansilla! And Jude is another pillar of the personal audio community. Now, I don’t want to get involved in the personal and petty matches that crop up on the Internet amongst the press. Why? Because it’s self-absorbed bullshit, that’s why. As music and audio writers, I believe it’s our job to try and turn our readers on. Serve the readership. That’s the only priority.

However, in the past few months, many audio websites and blogs have focused their concerns on discussing other reviewers and ethical debates ran wild. Now I’m all for ethical debates, but I’m not down for all the negativity. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. The high end audio community has always been a hotbed of contentious peanut galleries.

Many articles between reviewers in the industry concerned what many are calling “transparency”. Mainly, transparency about associations, whether it relates to the industry or not. Basically, it smells like a conflict-of-interest witch-hunt. And now, we had a recent flare-up in the Head-Fi.org forum where the Review Units Hurt the Audio Industry article was shared. This all just seems a huge waste of time for everyone involved, especially the readers.

Tyll Hertsens and his friends...

Tyll Hertsens and his friends…

I was psyched when I read Tyll Hertsens direct response to the aforementioned article, because he didn’t spit back venom – he just called it as he saw it, as a more seasoned hobbyist and reviewer should do. Tyll’s reply described his own personal mission in this industry, as a reviewer of headphone gear and avid hobbyist, and suggested that the proper forum for the Review Units article naming him was on the other writer’s “own side of the street” (his own website – not a public community-based site like Head-Fi). I agree completely, as our communities, both the high end audio two-channel world, and, in this case, the personal audio community, are not all that massive. Many of us have relationships with the people writing about products, the people designing and building the products, and the people throwing conventions where we all gather. Many important manufacturers used to be writers and writers used to be manufacturers and so on. But I just don’t understand the recent obsession with writing about other writers – at least, the living ones. We should be focusing on serving our readers and our hobby, first and foremost. Turning them onto new music and the vehicles to that music: Gear! And that brings me to why I felt it necessary to write this response: I’d like to offer a glimpse of my mission in this thing and to say, seriously: What the fuck fellas?

As a confessed music addict and Hifi enthusiast, I don’t want to read how a certain writer feels about another writer. Or even a critique of methodology. I want to read about music and gear. You want to know about my integrity and whether I’m a straight-shooter? Call my references, be an investigative journalist and do your homework. Don’t make presumptions and waste your readers’ time writing about me, or Tyll, or Jude, or anybody! Focus on your own work, and the hobby will be the better for it. This obsession with other writers has gotten ridiculous. What makes us so special that some reviewers are stuck on either attacking other writers or questioning their character, or even mention them at all (useless, even when covering an event)? It’s like Warren Chi said: “We’re a small enough hobby where the corrupt reviewers are going to be exposed eventually anyway.” Focus on that piece of music or Hi-fi that’s turning you on, and let your readers know about that! The rules are simple. No writer is getting rich in this thing, at least nobody that I know of, so most of the people do this because they love it, plain and simple.

I’m upset because we’re living in the most exciting time to be a music addict and hi-fi hobbyist, headphone hobbyist, enthusiast, reviewer, designer, manufacturer, whatever. The innovation is remarkable. Our gear is evolving and etching closer to many of the sonic goals, dreams, and aspirations of the early audio pioneers. And while all this is happening, some of our best minds are focused on climbing over the bodies of others in order to seemingly achieve some sort of moral superiority: To try and gain credibility by shredding the credibility of others.

At the conclusion of his report on T.H.E Show Newport and T.H.E Headphonium, Tyll explained how he sees us all as “co-operators” and not competitors. I’ve always seen it that way. Why? Many reasons, but the most important one is that there’s plenty of room for all our collective voices, and you don’t need to step on somebody else in order to excel in this field. Haters are always going to be lurking.

head10Instead of hating, we could be moving forward. We could be forging new paths to some of the great music being produced today (yes, it exists) for our readers. We could, and should, be expressing how close a new headphone brought us to that music, or how an amplifier achieved the same. We could be sharing info about live venues or tube rolling, basically anything other than this industry drama. Let’s pull the focus back on what turns us on about listening to music on high performance playback systems. Explore anything, but if you’re so focused on others, maybe you should bring your focus back to our collective task at hand as audio reviewers. That’s what you’re here for, right? If not, go write for a tabloid website. We should be turning people onto the very things that keep us so engrossed in this world of sound reproduction. Let’s work together to grow this thing. I feel like I’ve been saying that for years (well, I have).

My mission hasn’t changed since I was working for Harry Pearson at The Absolute Sound, and conjured the guts to play some of my musicduring one of his epic listening sessions. Hearing Tori Amos cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (from the Crucify album on Atlantic Records)was nothing shy of a religious experience. Hearing a recording sound that huge, that dimensional, on a Genesis One loudspeaker system, driven by Audio Research Reference 800s. I never knew hearing music that way was possible. It was like hearing the best sounding concert in a living room. Thinking about the feeling I got then still sends shivers up my spine. Before that, Harry always made fun of my music when he heard it from the upstairs while I worked on a system in one of the rooms on the first floor – where all three main reference systems were. I thought he was going to freak out on me, playing Tori Amos as he was ready for The Symphonic Dances, but instead he asked me who it was and then he stole the disc. We began exchanging music more often after that. He turned me onto great ambient stuff, and Kraftwerk, not to mention classical and jazz, and I turned him onto contemporary pop music and underground electronic stuff – he even enjoyed some early 90’s hip hop! I relished in the fact that at one point I could show up to Harry’s place and there was usually a copy of A Tribe Called Quests’ Low End Theory nearby to grab and bump on that huge system!

Before that, I was into making mix-tapes. I was a DJ with two turntables and a clunky, cheap Numark mixer. I loved sharing music. And that’s been one of my primary missions ever since: To seek out new music and spread the love. When I started writing for HiFi+ magazine in the late 90’s (where my Sonic Satori column was born), Roy Gregory asked me to find music that was different from the other writers – as I was the only American music reviewer. It was a UK publication then, and that was such a great place to learn how to convey feelings about music, not just describe its sonic attributes. So that’s another part of my mission: Trying to share the experience while listening to the music. Because music is such a powerful art form, it does all sorts of things for me: Triggers memories, helps change my mood, and provides the great accompaniment for me in my life. I can’t live without it, and I want to share that feeling with others – especially through a sound system that transcends the componentry, leaving nothing but you and the music. That still challenges me today: Describing how music makes me feel. If something really moves me, I want to share that with my friends and my readers. There’s so much stress in our every-day lives, music can be such a much-needed salve for the soul. Those of us who get to write about music and earn a readership are lucky. That doesn’t mean it was easy to earn a spot, but it’s still a blessing to share these experiences with the world.

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So, if getting to write about music wasn’t cool enough, I get to hear the music I love through new audio gear. I wake up every day and speak my gratitude out loud for doing this. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to work with many great men in Hi-fi and the music industry. And there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing now. I don’t want to or need to get dragged down in ego battles over product or music assessments with other hi-fi scribes. I’m too busy looking for new tunes and different ways to experience them. We should all be spending our time crate-digging, listening, and sharing. Leave all the bullshit behind. We’ll infect more people with this wonderful hobby that way.

This is another objective of my mission: Evangelizing the magic of great sounding music. Don’t you love turning a friend, a friend of a friend, or even a stranger onto great sound? I never get tired of that feeling. We still need younger people walking the halls of these hi-fi shows. Right now they’re all at our Head-Fi Meets or the headphone shows. They’re still experiencing high fidelity. And don’t be afraid to stray from the standard audiophile favorites. At Newport this year, I heard Dan Meinwald and Wes Bender playing a couple of amazing tracks off Four Tet’s album, Pause. Sure, we were playing it because Dan knows I love it, but it sounded terrific – like liquid, and it the soundstage was enveloping, deep and wide. Next thing I know this sixty-five year-old man asks me “what’s this amazing music”? I only knew his age because I asked him. It was great. He made a note on his cell phone to purchase the record after the show!

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Turning people onto memorable and impactful ways of experiencing music is the goal. We’re alive during an extraordinary time for the audio arts. There are so many things the average consumer doesn’t know about that’s commonplace in our industry. And the business aspect of high performance audio – again whether high end two-channel or high end headphone playback – are centered on hobbyists! My friends in the community look forward to getting together and sharing audio experiences as much as anything. My mission is to keep moving the passion forward, through sharing music and holding onto the enthusiasms that bring me closer to that music. Just put down childish name-calling and bring the focus back to the art. I know the music is what keeps me going. By the way, heard the new Eno & Hyde record: High Life yet? You should. It’s amazing.

 

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