Being asked ‘What do you listen to when reviewing?’ is one of the constants of my job. And I’m sure my usual response, along the lines of ‘Anything and everything,’ might be seen as less than helpful, given that the Internet forums are full of similar discussions. A popular hi-fi magazine standby when things are a bit slow has long been the ’10 killer tracks to test your system’ thing.
Please Keith, Go
My point is that the best music with which to assess a new piece of equipment is the music you listen to, not tracks artfully chosen to make the set-up sound as good as possible: that’s why auditioning at a hi-fi show, or in a shop where they insist on playing only their favourites, is hardly useful in choosing the right components for your set-up. We’ve all heard Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Daft Punk and more played to death at shows, and – as someone said to me recently – ‘If I hear Nils Lofgren’s Keith Don’t Go or that song about the coal train (that’ll be Hugh Masekela’s Stimela) one more time, I’m going to give it all up and just listen to music on my telephophone’s speakers.’
Yes, we all have favourite tracks we’ve played a million times, so we know how we think they should sound. And I must admit I have something of a playlist handy to form a quick impression of what a system is doing. But is it composed of those ‘show favourites’? Hardly: it runs from Benjamin Britten to The KLF, and from early 1970s Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer to solo piano, with a fair smattering of rough-sounding rock and jazz along the way – it’s all part of my attempt to cover all the bases, and give the reader some idea of how something will sound with the kind of music they enjoy.
After all, there’s little point in trying to impress with one’s grasp of obscure folk or mid-20th Century musique concrète, if you’re writing for people who are into everything from live Motörhead to medieval plainchant. So yes, I may suggest some tracks you might want to try when listening to something new, or give references for the music I’ve used in a review, but not only will your mileage vary, as the saying goes, but this time next month I might well be listening to a completely different range of music, as the mood takes me.
In the early days of digital recording, when CD-Rs became popular, I remember one reviewer (no names… ) who had a single disc for all his reviewing, containing not even selected tracks, but snippets of tracks, total running time about 15 minutes. Faced with a review to do, in went the disc, the play button was pressed and – bish, bash, bosh – quarter of an hour later he was ready to write the definitive assessment. Time-efficient, agreed, but not a lot to do with why we buy hi-fi equipment – which is to enjoy hearing our music delivered in the best way possible.
So, take the tasting notes on the reviews here as just that: suggestions of what you might like, and a snapshot of a few of the tracks the reviewer played when listening to the product in question, pulled out to illustrate some aspects of its performance. Me? I’ve been playing some New Orleans blues while writing this, and I am now going to fire up a spot of Rachmaninov for solo piano…