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Disclosures: the things you ought to know about Stephen Dawson, the equipment reviewer

Some ramblings about my equipment reviewing philosophy and some things to take into account when reading my reviews. You may also wish to take into account the equipment I use and the environment in which it operates.

In my Outlook contacts list I have hundreds of telephone numbers and email addresses of people who make, distribute and sell home entertainment equipment in Australia. I have gotten to know quite a few of them over the years. So it may not surprise you to hear that there are certain perks associated with this writing trade.

I do not believe that these have influenced my writing. Still, it seems to be common practice to level accusations against people who receive benefits from corporate sources. After all, it is far easier to attack the person ('oh, he receives funding from the tobacco lobby so you can't believe his passive smoking study') than to address the arguments one puts forward in a particular case.

Disclosure is a two-edged sword. By doing this, I can never be accused of underhandedness. But, equally, if I write something nice about a product from one of the companies mentioned below, the fact that these benefits have been made public can be used to cast doubt about the honesty of my stated opinions.

All I can say is: take all reviewers' opinions (including mine) with a grain of salt. Not because we are a corrupt bunch, but because we share the same flaws as everyone else. We are influenced by our expectations (a reputable brand must sound better than an unknown or cheap one); manufacturers and distributors can be persuasive in the just the right way to push our buttons; other reviewers share an opinion about some gadget or other, so surely the consensus is correct.

Part of the problem is that home entertainment equipment consists of engineered products designed to deliver an aesthetic experience. There is no point at all in an audio amplifier, except to produce music (or, if you must, the sound of movies). The amplifier is merely a conduit. Yet both the invention of amplifiers and most advances in their designs have come from the hardest-nosed of engineering types. Many, no doubt, care little for music.

There has long been a trend towards high fidelity mysticism. Sometimes it is dressed up with a pseudo-scientific facade, but in the end it boils down to unadulterated subjectivism and is based on the silly notion that the listener's ears and heart are calibrated, stable, measuring devices. Else, how could they be so certain that amplifier A sounds different in some way to amplifier B, when the listening takes place days or weeks apart.

As an example of this extremist mysticism, consider this little insert that was published with the May 1989 edition of the English magazine Hi-Fi Answers. The insert is called 'A Decade of Tuning Tips, Part Two' and here is an example of one of its 'tips', derived from the exceedingly strange notion that anything with even numbers makes a hi fi system sound worse, but odd numbers make it sound better:

A similar technique can be used to treat LPs and books. Just take a piece of plain white paper and slip it inside the sleeve of an LP, or between the pages of a book. Use only one piece of paper per LP or book ... If you have two or three hundred LPs in your listening room, I promise that a piece of paper in each (except where a wordsheet or poster is provided -- here you have to take care) will greatly improve the sound of your system. [my emphasis]

The honest reviewer will approach his or her task with humility, and a proper understanding of the variability of all humans. That a particular recording causes one to tap one's foot with the music today, using System A, unlike yesterday, using System B, says much more about the reviewer's mood on those two days than it does about the differences between the systems.

Objective measurements of equipment are also of very limited value. Take speaker frequency responses, for example. Manufacturers measure them in anechoic chambers, but no listener uses them in an anechoic chamber. I measure them in a more-or-less regular room, but no other listener's room will be quite like mine.

Or take amplifier power outputs: both manufacturers and I measure them into purely resistive loads, but in the real world speakers present reactive loads to amplifiers. Unfortunately, the characteristics of the load are different for every different kind of speaker, so there can be no definitive power output measure that would necessarily be achieved in all cases.

Nevertheless, these measurements can act as proxy markers for quality, good design and the like, when balanced against subjective impressions. For me, the main reason for conducting these measurements is to keep myself honest, so that I don't wander off into a subjectivist fairyland that will assist no readers.


I have been flown from Canberra to Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide or even (on one memorable occasion) the Gold Coast on numerous occasions for product releases by the following companies: The benefits I derive are Frequent Flyer points and contact with suppliers and my peers. The costs are lost days of work (I sell articles - if I'm not writing, I'm not earning). I go to the events which seem to me to be valuable -- around 50% of those to which I'm invited.

I have also been flown overseas on six occasions:

Same benefits, plus a little tourism. Same costs.


I have obtained equipment from the following brands at excellent prices:

My purchases, in all cases, have been made on the basis of me choosing equipment based on my own assessment of quality and value for money, and then negotiating the best possible price. Don't take the absence of a brand to mean anything.

In addition, I have received a large number of free DVDs and Blu-ray discs over the years.

Last updated: 25 September 2009