Opinion: Read All About It

Posted on 8th August, 2020

Opinion: Read All About It

David Price recalls how he learned to read hi-fi reviews, rather than worship them…

Any fifty-something reading this will remember how amazingly important Compact Cassettes once were. In my teenage years, they were most people’s ticket to become a serious music fan – you either bought new ‘pre-recorded’ tapes or taped your friends’ LPs onto new blanks. For yours truly, it was the latter – as a cash-poor fourteen year old, I soon figured out that I could get three times as much music for the same money, this way.

Naturally then, I began to wonder what type of cassettes to buy. I’d been messing around with an old mono portable for several years, but had plans to procure a proper stereo cassette deck and wanted to start investing in high-quality recording media (as we say today). Some reading this might remember how many choices there were back in the early eighties – TDK, BASF, Agfa, Fuji, Maxell, Memorex, Scotch, and so on. Short of buying one of each and making my own comparisons, I couldn’t possibly know which was best. Thank heavens then for What Hi-Fi, which came to the rescue!

Browsing around my local newsagent, sometime in the summer of 1980, I noticed an issue of the aforementioned magazine, which showed a whole stack of cassettes on its front page. Naturally, I picked a copy up and tried to read the cassette group test as fast as possible. I couldn’t take it all in, so was forced to buy a copy – and as soon as I got my new mag home, I read it from cover to cover. What I needed to do, I gleaned from the test, was to starting buying TDK OD tapes – a high performance ferric that cost £1.80 for a C90. It was serious money in those days, but you’ve got to think big!


Image: What Hi-Fi? / Future

I was fascinated by the reviewer’s description of all the different tapes, how they sounded and what they felt like to handle. I combed his words like someone with a metal detector on a beach; I tried to read deep into the reviews to get his every last nuance. Soon after, I bought my first cassette deck – a Pioneer CT-F500, a well regarded budget design of the time – and embarked on my very own home taping spree. 

Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t hear much difference between TDK OD and my older, cheaper, bog-standard TDK Ds? I’d been buying one new tape per month with my pocket money – and had amassed quite a few, already. I felt cheated and confused; I could have purchased TDK Ds for 50p cheaper, and saved enough cash to buy my very own LP record. Okay, there was a small difference, but I grumpily felt the reviewer had exaggerated it…

So began the complex relationship that I – and likely everyone reading this – has with hi-fi writing and consumer journalism at large. I began to put the reviews that I so loved reading into perspective, and as I got older and more expert on matters hi-fi and tape, I began to figure out what was really going on.

That What Hi-Fi writer had after all been right – TDK OD was in truth far better than its cheaper D sibling. It’s just that my cassette deck, and indeed the rest of my system, wasn’t good enough to show it at that time. As a total tape nut now, I’m well aware that tapes need to have their bias levels and record equalisation set. I hadn’t – and couldn’t – do this on my basic Pioneer, and so wasn’t getting the best out of that fancy cassette tape. Even if I had set up my deck for the fancier tape, I’d still not have had a serious enough system to really unlock its potential.


AURALiC's Altair G1 Awards Page 

Therein lies the rub – reviews can be very useful – but only up to a point. No hi-fi reviewer can legislate for the individual circumstances, preferences, music tastes, hardware choices and system synergies of the reader. That’s why it’s necessary to take such reviews in context; they’re not tablets of wisdom, speaking some universal truth that the reader hadn’t previously gleaned. Instead, they’re – hopefully – informed and open-minded, factual accounts of what the reviewer heard in their particular system, with those ancillaries, at that time, with their tastes. In other words, we should think of them as a useful ‘way in’ to a debate about buying a product, rather than some sort of holy writ from on high.

In my three decades of hi-fi reviewing, I’ve always tried to write what I hear and put it into a wider context – nothing more. I’m not pretending I know what’s right for you, better than you yourself do – instead, I’m there to help you decide, weighing up the options. That’s how hi-fi journalism should be done, because ultimately it isn’t sole arbiter of what’s good and what’s not. In the end, that’s down to you and your ears.

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David Price

David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.

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