That’s a good question to pose to someone who has spent the last quarter century earning his living by reviewing stuff, a good proportion of it hifi gear (and most of the rest hifi-adjacent, such as home theatre gear).
So, should you trust us? The short answer is: no.
Let me rephrase that, hell no!
And that includes me.
I’m not saying don’t read us. We do have useful insights to offer, at least some of the time. But don’t trust us. Read what we have to say sceptically. Very, very sceptically.
I will give some tips shortly on how to read hifi reviews, because you can often glean some useful information from them. Even from some of mine! And I can help you tell which bits you should ignore, that is, the bits which suggest that the writer is merely an imaginative blowhard.
But first, what brought on this … well, rant I suppose.
Going back into the past
Occasionally I look to eBay to see if there might be any amazing bargains on quality hifi gear from yesteryear. The other evening I checked out CD players. My main interest is in a fine transport with digital output, since I have a lovely Simaudio Moon 280D DAC on order to look after the actual decoding. Yes, I’ve already got an ancient Denon DCD-755AR with optical out, but that’s just about 21 years old.
I quickly came to a used Yamaha CD-S700 CD player, on offer for $449. I have to say it looked rather nice. Some years ago Yamaha re-entered the respectable hifi ranks with its Sxxx series of components. And it had both optical and coaxial digital audio out. It seemed promising.
So I googled to find out more. Yamaha Australia actually keeps old products online, marked “Discontinued”. That’s a nice service. Its specs for the CD-S700 looked pretty good (especially the weight of 6.2 kilograms. That’s serious build quality for a CD player.)
The googling also brought up four contemporary reviews, all from early 2009, which establishes the player’s age, more or less. They are real reviews by what appear to be professional (ie. paid for their work) reviewers. Let’s see what they had to say about this CD player.
The first one my mouse took me to the very popular UK site for What Hi*Fi, which bills itself as “The World’s #1 Tech Buyer’s Guide”, and which now also houses my former long-time outlets, Australian HI-FI and Sound+Image. (Declaration of interest: I lost a lot of work when AHF and S+I were taken over towards the start of last year. So feel free to consider me embittered, if you wish. For what it’s worth, I’m not and I’m very happy to be here writing for Addicted to Audio.)
Back in March 2009 What Hi*Fi published one of its characteristically short, snappy reviews of this player.
I was taken somewhat aback by the awarding of three out of five stars. Wow! I’m getting old and have long been cynical, but this did make me think I should steer clear of the player. What could be so wrong with it?
Well, here are the three “Against” points: “Pedestrian timing”, “bass lacks precision and solidity” and “soundstage lacks organisation”. That doesn’t sound good. Let’s see exactly what it has against this player (slightly edited for brevity):
… rhythmically, the Yamaha sounds blatantly inferior to its rivals. Where other players are pacey and capable of holding a beat, the timing of this machine is very vague. Listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 on the NAD C545BEE player, then switch over to the Yamaha and the music immediately shifts down a gear, throwing the timing off track in the process.
You find yourself urging the Yamaha to pick up the pace and follow a more natural rhythm, but it just ends up sounding rather ploddy and pedestrian. Spin Kanye West’s Love Lockdown and where other players hit every bass note with precision, snapping the music into place, the CD-S700 wavers, unsure of where to plant its feet.
To summarise, the Yamaha CD-S700 CD player has lousy “timing”, whatever that is. But it adds that, “Resolution and bass weight are acceptable enough for the money.”
Richard Black’s review in Techradar is dated 1 January 2009. It’s subtitled “Budget-price, but is the performance up to par?” That and the three out of five stars was ominous. Again, the complaints were primarily about sound quality. The “Against” list reads “Rather dry sound that lacks some detail”, “Could do with rather more bass control” and “Lacks some finesse”.
Let’s expand on that:
It’s not so much that bass is over emphasised, but it is not as well controlled as one might wish for and, as a result, has a way of dominating proceedings that isn’t quite natural.
Higher up the spectrum, treble is extended but a little dry, with less air to it than some. Midrange seems largely neutral, though there’s a hint of lift in the lower vocal register. In terms of rhythm and pace, this player is actually quite assured, especially in tracks which are not too extended in frequency range.
Detail, too, is a little less clear than most, with varying results depending on the music. In our solo piano example, the complex offbeat rhythms proved rather hard to follow, while the full symphony orchestra lost a good bit of inner detail.
To summarise, the Yamaha CD-S700 CD player has “assured” timing, whatever that is, but “detail” isn’t clear enough while the bass is “not as well controlled as one might wish”.
Alan Sircom’s review, also in Techradar, is dated two days later, and is a combined review of the CD-S700 and the Yamaha A-S700 integrated amplifier. First the negatives. There’s only one entry in the “Against” column: “May seem a bit dull for some”. But that’s offset by the “Verdict” on the CD player: “This is one of the most musically accurate players you can get for the money.”
Oh. That’s a bit different. Could Alan expand on that?
… you get a distinctly “right” sound. It’s a Goldilocks sound; not too exaggerated, not too dull … just right. And you can apply the same Goldilocks attributes to almost any part of the performance. Stereo? Not too big, not too small … just right. Detail? Not too much, or too little. Vocal articulation? Rhythmic properties? Porridge temperature? You get the message.
This freedom from grace or favour toward a specific musical type is the inverse of the initially impressive school of hi-fi.
It rewards a lengthy listen and does wonders for those whose tastes have matured beyond the plebeian.
What’s the bad side, then? Well, it’s fair to say that there are more dynamic sounding products out there (especially amplifiers), and this helps produce a sound that’s less exciting than some.
On the other hand, most of these more dynamic products make a more exciting sound at the expense of some other aspect of the musical presentation, usually the coherence of the sound. Many will look to the Yamaha 700 series as the more level-headed sound.
To summarise, the Yamaha CD-S700 is “just right” in its “rhythmic properties”, indeed, “to almost any part of the performance”.
Jorg Dames review is, like a lot of the stuff on 6moons, rather florid. Still, let’s see what he felt compelled by his ears to convey to us:
[The] qualities [of the Yamaha CD-S700] made for flawless transparency and timing. Just don’t expect soft focus. But the CD-S700 had more and Sand’s Still Born Alive showed it off nicely. The opulent construct of “Airlock” relies on a potent underpinning of bass and any low-fat interpretations simply don’t cut the mustard. Yamaha’s small spinner handled this challenge properly pressurized, scaled and extended, without artificial gelatin, just right on the money. Nice.
… staging was broad and open but additionally, nicely stable and well sorted. On Robert Wyatt’s “On the Town Square” from Comicopera for example, guitar, sax, steel drum and assorted percussion spread out and layered very realistically, a feat that escapes most competitors in this and higher price ranges to become a veritable Achilles heel.
There’s more of the writerly stuff which you can read for yourself if you can bear it. But there is a commendable summary list characterising the CD player, in part thus:
- Resolved transparency
- Impeccable rhythmic fidelity aka timing
- Good tonal balance that’s firm, not soft of control
- A nicely sizeable stage with sharp image focus
To summarise, the Yamaha CD-S700 has impeccable timing, a firm tonal balance, a resolved transparency and an excellent sound stage.
To summarise …
Two negative reviews and two positive reviews. Note, I didn’t pick and choose these. They came up on the first page of Google and the only other review there was also positive, but written with such deficient prose I couldn’t be bothered with it.
Importantly, the two negative reviews were negative for entirely opposite reasons. One said that the player’s weakness was its timing, while the other said that its timing was “assured”. The first one said that the bass and resolution were okay. The second said that they were the player’s deficiency. The first said that the “soundstage lacks organisation”, while one of the positive reviews reported that “staging was broad and open but additionally, nicely stable and well sorted”.
All of which means, what a load of … I shall withhold the appropriate word.
When I finish drafting this piece, I’m going to make an offer for that CD player. If I can negotiate an acceptable price (isn’t $449 a bit too much for a twelve-year-old CD player? This Cambridge Audio player – nice, shiny and brand new under warranty, is $699) I’ll test its performance objectively – something noticeably absent from all four of those reviews. And we’ll see if somehow the timing is off, if the bass is “dominating proceedings” and so on.
How to read hifi reviews
There is good stuff in some, indeed many, hifi reviews. If a reviewer isn’t totally in fairyland, he or she will pass on useful facts, like the practicalities of the product, whether the remote control has a useful range of keys, whether you have to stab 17 keys in sequence to achieve some relatively mundane function. They may pass on how a product feels, including things like fit and finish and product weight (which I maintain is a decent, although of course imperfect, proxy for quality). They may even give reasonable estimates of tonal accuracy on things like headphones and loudspeakers, in which frequency response variations are real and significant, and not merely imaginary.
If a quality is praised, or criticised, look to see if it’s accompanied by a plausible explanation for what might be causing the strength or weakness in question. The emphasis here is on plausible.
In that light, let’s examine one of the remarks above.
“rhythmically, the Yamaha sounds blatantly inferior to its rivals”
What this says to me is that the writer of the review – he or she is unnamed – simply knows nothing about the technology. Or he or she does know and is has decided to trust his or her momentary perceptions more than that knowledge.
Now, there are a bunch of things that can degrade the performance of a digital signal. There could be literal timing problems. This is known as jitter. It does not manifest itself as some kind of loss of rhythm. It manifests as a higher noise floor and distortion. There could also be mains breakthrough (noise), harmonic or intermodulation distortion (distortion), frequency response imperfections (colouration).
But there is simply no way a CD player can change the rhythmic performance.
Perhaps I’m wrong about that. If so, let me know. But I insist on a mechanism – what physical or logical thing is happening in playback that causes the claimed effect – or I won’t believe it. A plausible mechanism.
And plausible mechanisms don’t include things like the ability of the transport to pick up ambiguous data due to disc defects, leading to varying amounts of demand on the power supply (yes, I read that one somewhere). Look, I could see that this might cause something. But a specific effect? Across multiple discs?
I can go with things like “harsh treble”, especially if I can measure unusual levels of harmonic distortion or an unfortunate peakiness in the treble response. But sloppy timing? There is no way that can happen.
Use that as an example
Unfortunately, you cannot just trust we hifi reviewers. Some of us our grounded in a decent (although never complete enough) knowledge of the technology, and are constantly trying to tie what we hear to how we know things work. And some of us are in la la land. Those reviewers “hear” things and describe them, and seemingly never consider the fact that, as human beings, some music that was thrilling and moving and had us “foot tapping” yesterday, might leave us cold today. Even on identical equipment. Attributing such differences to the equipment rather than our rather variable disposition on any given day is really kind of ridiculous.
But how are you to know which of us is who? What about the chap who insists that inserting a particular series of “1”s and “0”s into one of the ID3 tags of your MP3 files can make them sound better. Sincerely. I believe that he believes that. What about the chap who is convinced that placing a piece of plain white paper – note, it must not have any writing on it – under one of the four legs of the couch in your listening room will improve the sound of your system? Sincerely. I believe that he believes that.
The first one of those chaps was some random dude on the Internet. The second was a respected writer for one of the major British hifi magazines in the 1980s. I took his claim that was published as an insert in the print magazine Hi-Fi Answers in May 1989. The insert was called A Decade of Tuning Tips (Part Two). Another suggestion from the same pamphlet is to “treat” any books or magazines in your listening room. How do you treat them? You “cut off the corner of one page … the technique works, and will produce worthwhile benefits.”
Don’t trust us. Some of us are sensible. Most of us have rather too high an opinion of our analytical abilities when it comes to listening gear.
So the best thing you can do is learn about the technology and understand how things work.
What we have to offer as reviewers is access to products that you may not be able to check out for yourself. So we can be useful.
Just read our stuff sceptically, applying your own knowledge of how things work. If you’re not quite sure, see if we have explained how some actual real thing in the real world could have reasonably resulted in the thing we are reporting.
(And if it makes no sense at all, a wise default assumption is that the writer is an over-confident blowhard.)
And in the end, try as much as possible to go to a real high-fidelity store. Take with you your favourite music. And play it through the components that you may be interested in buying.
And see what pleases you.