HiFi Thoughts: How Much Time Is Enough Time to Write a Meaningful Review?

I recently asked this question on Instagram and opened up the comments to followers and people I follow. And I admit, it’s kind of a trick question.

Or at least tricky.

Imagine Company X is developing a new streaming integrated amplifier. Between the design process, testing, prototyping, parts choice, more testing, tweaking, revisions, more testing, different parts, listening, tweaking, testing, listening, and so on let’s say we’re talking about a process that takes a minimum of months, sometimes a year, sometimes more. And if you talk to people who design and make commercial products, you’ll know that many of the changes and tweaking made during product development directly impacted the way the thing sounds and it’s only through rigorous testing and listening that a design is finalized and put into production.

Now imagine Listener Y who feels they can suss out the merits of any piece of hifi gear in a few minutes or a few hours and write a ‘meaningful review’ about it. That is a trick. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no way anyone can listen to an unfamiliar piece of gear and know everything there is to know about it after a few hours of listening. No way. Yet some people believe they can and here’s what I think they’re actually doing—listening for differences from what they’re used to.

Of course the ONLY way to listen for differences that can tell us anything about a single unfamiliar piece of hifi kit is to use it in our system(s) in our home. Otherwise we’re just guessing, more or less. And listening for difference for a few minutes or hours can only really tell us if there is one, a difference, not whether this difference is a plus or a minus.

If I’ve learned one thing from writing reviews as a full time job for 13 or so years it’s this—we may think we know the sound of “The Best” but there’s always something out there that sounds better, even if we can’t imagine what that better sounds like. What’s more, some gear sounds so different from our norm it takes real time just to get acquainted and understand how these differences affect our ongoing musical engagement. Over time.

the Barn’s A-Side today

I need at least a solid month with a piece of review gear before I begin writing anything about how it sounds. Ideally two months, longer is even better but practical concerns, i.e. a publishing schedule, demands a certain pace depending on the rigor of that schedule. Here on Twittering Machines there’s typically a new review posted each week except when I travel (which rarely happens) or if illness intercedes (I wish that never happened). So we’re talking about a review a week.

One practical approach to maintaining this schedule and spending real time with review gear is the Barn’s two sides—the A-Side and the B-Side—where there’s always two systems set up and at the ready. This simple thing, having two systems in the same space, has been a boon to my productivity. Another practical productivity matter is I review speakers, integrated amps and stacks, and digital sources which allows me to mix and match gear between the two sides as well as use review gear in different system settings so most every pair of speakers, every integrated amp or amplification stack, and every digital player gets to play with a bunch of different gear. I also typically rotate reviews so if it’s a speaker review this week, it’ll be an integrated amp next week, and a DAC the following week.

the Barn’s B-Side yesterday

Just this process of listening to let’s say a pair of speakers with two or three different integrated amps takes real time, more than a few days to set up, settle, and suss out the system sound. Which leads me to another thing I’ve learned from experience—we’re always listening to systems even though we may be focusing on just one part. Of course the room is part of every system’s sound but the Barn’s influence on sound is a constant so I’m downplaying its role in this setting.

the Barn’s B-Side last month

Truth be told, I am a slow listener. I like to take my time. For me, two months is the ideal amount of time I need with a piece of review gear to write what I hope will turn out to be a meaningful review. The last point I’ll make is a meaningful review does not culminate in telling us if the reviewer liked or disliked the thing under review, something that can be accomplished with an emoji (👍). A meaningful review, here on TM our reviews average around 2000+ words, gives us some idea of what its like to live with the thing under review, how it effected our relationship to music, how it compares to like-gear, and how listening through it made us feel over days, weeks, and months.

A review written after a single day of listening could be swayed by a bad ham sandwich.