How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 18: Describing Music

I’ve always found it interesting how every review of audio equipment has to have the obligatory section where the reviewer mentions two or three recordings they listened to on the device (or with the cables, power transformer, or magic beans), and describes it in a way that could be cut and pasted from one review to the next. These descriptions tell the reader absolutely nothing about the equipment being tested.

Here’s on example. The “trustworthy” What Hi-Fi? has a review of the new Cambridge Audio CXA80 amplifier. Nothing against this product in particular; I have some Cambridge Audio equipment, and it’s always been excellent: well made, little exaggeration about any magical properties it imparts to the music, and it’s quite reliable. But here’s how its playback is described:

The biggest difference, however, is sound. What astounds us with the CXA80 is just how detailed and tangible it makes music sound. Play The Shadows’ FBI, and Hank Marvin’s pristine, twanging guitar playing comes through all golden, rounded and rich.

Each strum is satisfyingly solid, and packed with weight. The sound is so clean, so clear. It’s impressively precise, and the CXA80 makes every note sound well defined.

You get a proper sense that these are real, three-dimensional instruments being played. Drums are hit with the kind of impact where you can feel the tautness of the skin, while crashing cymbals reverberate long after they’ve been hit.

You can feel the pluck of strings, and the low basslines rumble on with layers and layers of texture and depth.

Now, from the rest of the article, it seems like the “biggest difference” is between this amplifier and the Arcam A19, a device at a similar price point. Here, you get the feeling that “these are real, three-dimensional instruments being played,” unlike other amplifiers, where they sound like synthesizers. And you can even hear the “tautness of the skin” of drums. What exactly does that sound like?

And it continues:

It’s not just the detail; it’s also the new found muscle and power that drives the sound of the CXA80. Compared with the CXA60, the bigger sibling is, well, bigger. In every way. The scale is large and grand, with songs given ample space to place each element in the mix.

That’s why you’ll find instruments and voices achieving the kind of solidity that you only get in high-end hi-fi separates.

So the smaller model doesn’t have “songs [that are] given ample space to place each element in the mix?” It must sound like crap, then.

Yet all is not rosy with this amplifier.

But with all that power comes a cost. For even as the CXA80 impresses us, that added muscle gets ponderous and weighs down the rhythm and dynamics. It doesn’t sound as agile as its rivals and, dynamically, it feels restricted too.

And, there seems to be a problem:

Those shortcomings are most clearly heard on folk-indie band Of Monsters and Men’s Yellow Light. Both singers have a similar tone through the CXA80, whereas the difference between the male and female vocals is obvious through the more expressive A19.

So with this amplifier, you can’t tell if a voice is male or female… That would be a big problem if you’re listening to opera. And, earlier in the review, it was stated that “the CXA80 makes every note sound well defined.” Apparently not.

The emphasis on the end of syllables — the drawing out of certain words — is subtly conveyed through the A19. The CXA80, on the other hand, doesn’t make too much of that distinctive Icelandic lilt.

Nor does it have the nimble-footed rhythm to express the sprightly, poppy nature of the song. Those bells have depth and sound like solid objects being struck, but that twinkling edge that gives the folksy tune its sweetness is damped down by the amp’s extra muscle.

I could go on. Pretty much every review has this same sort of audio-babble describing music playback. It reads like it’s just filler so the journalist can meet his word count.

12 thoughts on “How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 18: Describing Music

  1. I think the reviewer is confused. In my opinion, the problems with the folk-indie sound, which he blames on the amp, are caused by using a USB cable that wasn’t properly tuned for folk-sound performance. I’m sure Kirk has written on the importance of this, in previous articles.

  2. I think the reviewer is confused. In my opinion, the problems with the folk-indie sound, which he blames on the amp, are caused by using a USB cable that wasn’t properly tuned for folk-sound performance. I’m sure Kirk has written on the importance of this, in previous articles.

  3. Be careful throwing stones from your glass house Kirk.

    You’re writing about a world that’s not in your wheelhouse and it shows. More than half the readers of HiFi publications focus solely on the subjective writings of reviewers describing how specific music sounds through components. The first comment we receive, if we don’t do this, is “How did it sound?”

    In addition, I always respect another writer’s creative liberty to write whatever they want even though it’s not how I would do it or even something I respect.

    You do realize that you’re now making money from discussing how HiFi sounds right? It’s also quite opportunistic to create money generating content from an industry you so despise.

    • Wow, Chris, you’re saying quite a bit there.

      First, how does this sort of description tell someone how a piece of equipment sounds? Even more, how that piece of equipment would sound in your listening room, with your speakers and other hardware? It offers nothing at all which is in any way useful.

      Second, the description of the music is, in this particular case, quite surprising, to say the least. Suggesting that this amplifier makes it hard to tell a male voice from a female voice…? Seriously? I find it hard to believe such a thing. Or this part:

      “The emphasis on the end of syllables – the drawing out of certain words – is subtly conveyed through the A19. The CXA80, on the other hand, doesn’t make too much of that distinctive Icelandic lilt.”

      That is simple BS. I’m a writer, I know what it means to describe something and to just make up stuff. Sure, the writer has creative liberty, but it has to make sense.

      Finally, why do you think I despise this industry? I’m very much against the audiophile industry – and its press – that separates fools from their money, but I love music, and I find it essential to have good audio equipment. I just point out the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve come across in this series. If anyone should react against this type of journalism it’s audiophiles themselves; you’re being taken for fools by part of the audio equipment industry, and a lot of the hi-fi press.

      I know the stuff you write on your website, and you are very far from this type of writing and judgement. If only people with your point of view were more prevalent, there wouldn’t be so much to laugh at.

  4. Be careful throwing stones from your glass house Kirk.

    You’re writing about a world that’s not in your wheelhouse and it shows. More than half the readers of HiFi publications focus solely on the subjective writings of reviewers describing how specific music sounds through components. The first comment we receive, if we don’t do this, is “How did it sound?”

    In addition, I always respect another writer’s creative liberty to write whatever they want even though it’s not how I would do it or even something I respect.

    You do realize that you’re now making money from discussing how HiFi sounds right? It’s also quite opportunistic to create money generating content from an industry you so despise.

    • Wow, Chris, you’re saying quite a bit there.

      First, how does this sort of description tell someone how a piece of equipment sounds? Even more, how that piece of equipment would sound in your listening room, with your speakers and other hardware? It offers nothing at all which is in any way useful.

      Second, the description of the music is, in this particular case, quite surprising, to say the least. Suggesting that this amplifier makes it hard to tell a male voice from a female voice…? Seriously? I find it hard to believe such a thing. Or this part:

      “The emphasis on the end of syllables – the drawing out of certain words – is subtly conveyed through the A19. The CXA80, on the other hand, doesn’t make too much of that distinctive Icelandic lilt.”

      That is simple BS. I’m a writer, I know what it means to describe something and to just make up stuff. Sure, the writer has creative liberty, but it has to make sense.

      Finally, why do you think I despise this industry? I’m very much against the audiophile industry – and its press – that separates fools from their money, but I love music, and I find it essential to have good audio equipment. I just point out the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve come across in this series. If anyone should react against this type of journalism it’s audiophiles themselves; you’re being taken for fools by part of the audio equipment industry, and a lot of the hi-fi press.

      I know the stuff you write on your website, and you are very far from this type of writing and judgement. If only people with your point of view were more prevalent, there wouldn’t be so much to laugh at.

  5. I’m with Kirk on this. I’ve been reading (far too many) hi-fi mags on-and-off since about 1970 and things have changed a lot over that period but what we have these days is just laughable.

    You don’t need any knowledge of hi-fi to know that what appears in the “mainstream” mags and websites is rubbish. You just need to apply very basic logic. Notice how much the journos exaggerate differences to the point of absurdity. One such example is the quoted “Both singers have a similar tone through the CXA80, whereas the difference between the male and female vocals is obvious through the more expressive A19.” Now, I haven’t heard either of these but: really? Does anyone believe that this could happen with 2 current competent amps?

    This sort of exaggeration is always there but expressed in different ways. I’m sure that without this these articles would not grab the attention of readers and therefore not make any money for the scribes, but consider: if A is so much worse than B and B so much worse than C, in turn so much worse than D, etc., etc., just how bad was A? Obviously something from the primitive early days, so bad you could barely make out what the music was, but no, this would be the Awards Winner from just a few years ago.

  6. I’m with Kirk on this. I’ve been reading (far too many) hi-fi mags on-and-off since about 1970 and things have changed a lot over that period but what we have these days is just laughable.

    You don’t need any knowledge of hi-fi to know that what appears in the “mainstream” mags and websites is rubbish. You just need to apply very basic logic. Notice how much the journos exaggerate differences to the point of absurdity. One such example is the quoted “Both singers have a similar tone through the CXA80, whereas the difference between the male and female vocals is obvious through the more expressive A19.” Now, I haven’t heard either of these but: really? Does anyone believe that this could happen with 2 current competent amps?

    This sort of exaggeration is always there but expressed in different ways. I’m sure that without this these articles would not grab the attention of readers and therefore not make any money for the scribes, but consider: if A is so much worse than B and B so much worse than C, in turn so much worse than D, etc., etc., just how bad was A? Obviously something from the primitive early days, so bad you could barely make out what the music was, but no, this would be the Awards Winner from just a few years ago.

  7. I am one of those fools, who has waved goodbye to much too much money at the alter of HiFi. And I think I actually blame this type of writing…. It is not nearly so “impotent” as you think Kirk. The religious juices of wanting to hear “more” run, whilst we poor (in both senses of the word) fools read these magazines. And we get addicted. And it is exactly the – what you call useless writing – that sells the sizzle. The only solution I can see is not to read anything at all about “good sound”. Then there is a chance that you can listen to “good music” without any signs of nervous breakdowns….. and I unfortunately think that your well meant criticism does nothing to dissuade the very poor addicts….it actually encourages them!

  8. I am one of those fools, who has waved goodbye to much too much money at the alter of HiFi. And I think I actually blame this type of writing…. It is not nearly so “impotent” as you think Kirk. The religious juices of wanting to hear “more” run, whilst we poor (in both senses of the word) fools read these magazines. And we get addicted. And it is exactly the – what you call useless writing – that sells the sizzle. The only solution I can see is not to read anything at all about “good sound”. Then there is a chance that you can listen to “good music” without any signs of nervous breakdowns….. and I unfortunately think that your well meant criticism does nothing to dissuade the very poor addicts….it actually encourages them!

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