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My Ethos/Review Process

by Stuart Charles Black
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Shoutout to John Seaber and JDS Labs for the inspiration to write this.

I wrote one of these conflabbed things years ago and recently realized I haven’t updated it in quite some time. So instead of doing that, I’m going to make a new post and consolidate all the information here. This will be the main page that contains it all.

As most of you know, the only thing change in life is constant.

Strike that. Reverse it.

The only thing constant in life is change, and while my review process/ethos over the years hasn’t changed, the way people look at audio has (and not necessarily for the better). 

Bear with me as I unpack everything and share with you exactly why I do the things I do, say the things I say, and sometimes come off in the manner I come off.

While you still may not necessarily like it (and trust me, a lot of folks don’t), you’ll at least have an understanding of me, my motivations/belief system, and what keeps me going after 10 years immersed in the trenches.

Here is where I’ll also chronicle my thoughts and overall philosophy on various types of gear I’ve used and owned since I started making beats in 2007. 

Honesty Is The Best Policy?

Honest bloke in the making.

I suppose the first thing you should know when evaluating how I review is that I’m completely honest, and though you may be rolling your eyes, it does come at a cost.

Any company I work with may decide that it’s not in their best interests to continue paying me if I don’t paint their product in a positive light and/or ultimately help them sell units.

Of course, they know this upfront because I send them a document that outlines my protocol, but the point remains.

What incentive do I have to lie? Money?

What is money if it only hurts my credibility in the long run; something I’ve fought to maintain over these last 10 years dating back to 2014.

2007

My frank disposition about audio stems from the fact that I came up as a beatmaker and not an audiophile. When I decided to start this website, I had already made/mixed beats for 7 years.

In other words, audiophiles have trouble understanding this thing called the frequency response. It’s that thing that runs from 20Hz to 20kHz.

You know, the threshold of human hearing?

Beatmakers, by contrast, have to LEARN the frequency response in order to make a value judgment on how their music sounds.

Seems simple, right?

WRONG.

The Audiophile Boom of somewhere around the 2010s (or something) tells us that if you listen very carefully, you can actually hear the ghost of Ronald Reagan whispering sweet nothings into your ear – WITH the right setup of course. 😉

Before sitting down to listen to music, you should have many things for your Asynchronous DAC, including but not limited to an Air purifier, an independent power supply, full decoding capabilities for master-quality sound, a small coffee maker, a handjob giver, dual femtosecond clocks of excellence, and explosive, diarrhea like power.

The issue with all this, to a beatmaker, is not the fact that it’s bullshit. Because the concepts aren’t. I’ve written about a lot of them, but don’t expect anything on explosive diarrhea. That’s not quite my specialty.

The issue is that audiophiles assign more weight than is necessary to things that are, in the grand scheme of things, incredibly trivial.

And this is exactly what companies feed off of.

They understand “Shiny New Object Syndrome” very well, and appeal to your inner desire for something new and trendy.

Even as I write this, I’m still human and still enjoy that feeling whenever I buy something, but it’s a trap.

In 2014, I wasn’t worried about any of this stuff. I was focused on making music and helping others do the same.

And that’s what’s so bizarre looking around, understanding what’s going on, and being powerless to stop it.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love music, make music, and enjoy helping people. That’s why I started this website. I also started it to make money, but it’s something that I’ve always been extremely passionate about – even after all this time, all the ups and downs my site has gone through, and everything that comes along with it.

So when I observe people emphasizing the wrong things out of sheer ignorance, it irks me. Badly.

Audiophiles, in most cases, do not actually understand how the frequency response works, because if they did, they wouldn’t be talking about how a DAC makes their headphones sound better – they would instead be focused on the quality of their source material and how important that is.

An engineer laughs at an audiophile because he knows the audiophile’s belief system is rooted in placebo. Feelings. Cognitive Dissonance. Denial. Justifications for massive quantities of money spent.

No, really. Someone once told me he spent $25,000 on gear and still wasn’t happy.

Does anyone not see a problem with that? Sure, it’s an extreme case, but the point is that your so-called “gear”, can only take you so far.

The track and the way it was recorded… is what it is. Beyond a certain point, there’s nothing more left to hear. Your headphones or speakers, if they’re good, should have taken care of all that.

All that extra shit that audiophiles obsess over amounts to very little.

Hilariously enough, there are actually rules (I know, crazy) in place to prevent us from going off the deep end and sounding ludicrous.

But don’t tell that to an audiophile.

“The Audible Spectrum? What’s that?”

“The Limitations of Human Hearing? Rubbish!”

And this is why I’m snarky. It’s because these people just don’t get it. And they never will.

My reviews are the same way.

They’re full of snark and humor not because I think I’m funny.

Rather, it’s a way for me to vent my frustration and be completely transparent regarding my thoughts and feelings about people. About products. Companies. Lame audio trends that seemingly never die.

And please don’t call me Dan.

You’re right, Dan Rather. Audiophilia is indeed not normal.

Being completely transparent is going to rub some people the wrong way. I get it. If you think there are huge differences in the way DACs sound, more power to you. But I don’t. And science is on my side.

That said, I’ve always stuck to my viewpoints:

There are subtle differences in DACS, yes. Absolutely. Not all DACS sound exactly the same. It would be silly to claim that.

I’ve demoed over 70 at this point and I have heard differences. The Sabre Chip is the most notable example per my experience.

In my opinion, most of these discrepancies in “sound” can be attributed to Output Impedance and some extent the DAC chip/Analog Output Stage, but nowadays I’m a lot more wary of placing too much emphasis on even those things.

I’ve simply heard more than enough DACS at this point to come to this conclusion. It’s not like I woke up one day with a pitchfork and decided to rail on audiophiles. That wouldn’t make much sense.

No, this has been brewing for many years.

I started this blog to discuss the home studio and now find myself reviewing way too many DACs that all do exactly the same thing.

Are you starting to understand?

If not, I can keep going.

Since I came up evaluating sound as is, I don’t have any tolerance for people who think, for whatever reason, that they can ignore basic engineering principles and say things that are based on nothing but emotion.

There’s a time and place for emotions, but it ironically should happen when you’re listening to music, not analyzing the gear used to provide you with the experience.

My reviews, by contrast, aim to help you make a sound, well-informed decision based on the ultimate value that the product does or doesn’t provide. And if that means I wouldn’t buy it, I’m certainly not going to tell you to.

I once joked with Lawrance over @ iFi, “I’m surprised you all still send me units.”

At times it can feel a little strange, continuing to receive free products despite shitting on all of them, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

A friend in college once joked, “Stu says out loud what everyone else is thinking”.

I’m as candid as they come, but I’ve learned to have a little more tact than I did in my 20s. 😉

Speaking of tact, how do I go about discussing gear?

What I Believe In

“But.. what am I supposed to believe in? What am I going to leave behind when I’m through?”

-Raiden to Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

As much as we all teased Raiden in MGS2, the above question is very profound.

What do you believe in? Do you stick to your guns when the going gets tough? Or do you follow the crowd? I’ve never been a follower and never will be one.

My kindergarten teacher, all the way back in the very early 90s, once told my mom, “Your son? He marches to the beat of his own drum.”

This isn’t to toot my own horn but rather to share with you that, whether I’m “right” or “wrong”, whether you agree with me or not, I’m always going to let you know exactly how I feel about something.

That’s what I believe in because I feel that it’s important to help people make good decisions and save money if it’s necessary to do so (and in most cases, it is).

As I’ve told companies time and time again, I’m NOT here to shill your products. For that just watch some popular YouTube channel or something.

So first and foremost, I believe in transparency.

Upgrades/Value

The only time I recommend new products is either,

  1. When the company discontinues the old one and leaves me no choice.
  2. There’s something cheaper that provides the same (or better) value.

Value is something you’ll find littered throughout my articles and videos, and it’s just about the #1 thing I look for in any product I’m reviewing or deciding whether or not to buy for myself. 

That said, there are over 800 posts on this website. While I try to update and revise everything, old recommendations/inconsistencies still slip through the cracks.

So, if you spot something inconsistent with my philosophy, kindly email me, link the article in question, and I will fix it.

Examples:

FiiO K11

FiiO K11 Review

At $130, the K11 turns out to be a better value than my long-time K5 Pro recommendation at around $150, so I’m recommending it until something better comes along.

Hidizs S9 Pro

Hidizs S9 Pro Review

The S9 Pro provides the ESS9038 chip at roughly 1/3 the price of the overrated DragonFly Cobalt; just about the most despised DAC here at HomeStudioBasics. So I’m recommending S9 as a feasible portable option.

What I don’t believe in

So now you know that I believe in value and transparency first and foremost.

What do I not believe in?

Snake Oil

Sorry, Snake. Gotta make a point here.

Snake oil runs rampant in the audio niche, and encompasses quite a lot of things; including but not limited to the following: overpriced optical cables (and cables in general), Burn-In, DSD, MQA (this is a touchy subject), high PCM files (generally anything over 44.1 can be safely ignored), etc.

For my article on MQA, click here. I’m still a bit indecisive on this one, but I’d probably lean towards snake oil.

As for cables, I remember demoing a $4000 optical cable from Audio Advice and thinking to myself “I hope people don’t actually pay for this shit.”

That would be tragic.

Because there was no difference between it and a regular cable you’d buy on Amazon. I was actually offended.

If you think you can hear a difference, well, I’ve got some… snake oil here at the house I’d like to sell you.

Overabundance of Products

I’ve discussed the overcrowded nature of the market on many occasions, and it’s only gotten worse over the years since I started this blog. 

That is to say that there’s no real reason for the thousands and thousands of products that flood and saturate an already oversaturated industry.

So I don’t believe in it. Period.

You may happen to think differently, and that’s OK.

Before you respond, go on Amazon right now and comb through the endless amounts of DACS all competing for your money.

If there were 20 of me I still wouldn’t be able to review all of them.

My Philosophy On Audio Quality

JDS Labs ATOM 2 Review

What I Believe In

Nyquist Shannon

The Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem says that the upper magnitude of a piece of digital audio will only top out at roughly half the sample rate.

This means that even a standard 44kHz file (FLAC) is only 22kHz.

This, in no coincidence just so happens to be right above the threshold of human hearing when discussing the frequency range.

Now some may say, “I’m not talking about the frequency spectrum, I’m talking about the speed of the conversion.”

Yeah, and?

You still can’t perceive anything over 44.1, no matter what anyone tells you. Combine this with the fact that we now have companies advertising 768kHz DACS as a selling point and you can see how it’s gotten completely out of control.

Anything above 44.1 that you think you’re hearing (whatever that is) is a placebo effect and nothing more.

In other words, there is no REL-EV-ANT information above 44.1. Even 48kHz doesn’t matter. The MQA article goes into a lot of this, so check that out.

Bit-Depth

Some may argue with me on this, but I believe Bit-Depth is more important than sample rate as Bit-Depth represents the amount of information being sampled. Generally, more is better in this case, so I typically do seek out 24-bit files when I can.

Why?

Well, because a 16-bit file contains roughly 65,5356 unique values, while 24-bit resolution contains upwards of 16,777,216.

I’ll take my chances with the latter, and do believe that 24-bit files typically sound better FWIW. Light years better? No, but it’s certainly clearer and more refined in my mind.

Remember that this too could also be a placebo.

Most DACS provide plenty of power

One of the absolute most irritating things on the planet is when someone new comments on my blog in a state of utter confusion because of some bullshit they heard.

They’ll say something like, “So and so said this DAC is underpowered” or “These headphones need a lot of power” when in reality, most of the time it’s utter nonsense.

The irony of people who come to my blog claiming my hearing is damaged are likely the same ones jacking up the volume on their 50W DAC and then complaining that it’s not loud enough.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s your hearing that’s damaged and not mine. Because from where I sit, I hardly have to pump the dial on any DAC to achieve a listenable level.

So the next time someone says a DAC is underpowered, just smile and nod. And then get as far away from that person as you can.

My Philosophy On Headphones

HIFIMAN X Dekoni Cobalt Review

What I Believe In

Frequency Response

Because I’m a producer, I believe that the audible spectrum is the only thing you should concern yourself with when evaluating sound. This is so rudimentary yet so many people gloss right over it.

Sure, other factors like Resolution, Timbre, Soundstage, Instrument Separation, micro detail, driver type, etc. all come into play – but to a lesser extent.

The way a headphone is tuned is hands down the most important metric to gauge whether or not WELL-RECORDED music actually sounds good.

The other stuff is icing on the cake.

If you’re new, tuning just means the overall construction of the bass, mid-range, and treble, i.e. are there any strange cuts or jarring peaks? How is the bass handled? Is there enough presence in the mid-range where there should be? Do the lower registers of piano/organ notes etc. come through in the lower mid-range? Is there a nasally or boxy quality anywhere? This usually indicates some sort of unnecessary peak in the mid-range.

These sorts of things help you develop a clear overall picture of how the headphones would perform in a long-term relationship – if you will.

If I listen to something and it doesn’t pass the basic eye test (tuning), nothing else is going to matter all that much. It would be akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

Diminishing Returns

Audeze LCD-XC

The Law of Diminishing Returns is an incredibly important concept that I think is likely the most crucial component to consider when even so much as thinking about upgrading headphones.

The basic idea is that the more money you spend, the less of an improvement you’ll receive. This goes for most things you buy – even outside of audio.

For this article, we’ll use headphones as an example.

I believe that once you start getting past the $300-400 range, the prices of headphones become outrageous while the improvement in sound is fairly minuscule.

Grado headphones are a prime example of this phenomenon.

This is why I typically don’t recommend a lot of stuff over $500, but there are exceptions.

The Focal Utopia is certainly one of them, though I’ve always said it would still be pretty hard for me to pull the trigger and buy it.

Focal Utopia Review

What I Don’t Believe In

Burn-In

I’ve talked extensively about Burn-In, and I believe it’s nonsense.

Headphones don’t need any sort of “Breaking in period” to sound their best. This is a headphone, not a baseball glove.

In fact, your very first impression of the sound is likely the most accurate.

This is because your brain hasn’t yet become acclimated to what you’re hearing. So if you put on a pair of headphones and find the sound to be bad, it probably is. Trust your ears and evaluate based on that – not some arbitrary number that has no basis in reality.

Don’t be one of those people who plays white noise for 300 hours thinking something inside the headphones is going to “open up” or “warm up.” That’s patently absurd.  

Burn-In, to me, is just another way for audiophiles to justify expensive purchases.

In other words, “I paid a lot for these, they HAVE to be good! I’ll just burn them in for the allotted amount of time and everything will be fine.”

This sounds good on the surface, but in actuality, they might just be poorly tuned or have some other issues – glaring or otherwise.

And once you figure that out, you’ll probably look something like this after spending your life savings and ultimately being let down:

With that said, worn-out pads can absolutely change your perception of the original frequency response, so it’s wise to invest in a new pair about once a year depending on how often you listen.

This is because padding wears down, changes shape, and can even change composition depending on the material.

If there’s one thing in audio no one should argue about, it’s probably pad swapping. Even a minute difference in a pad shape could mean a difference in sound – however small or large just depends.

I know this because, again, I’ve demoed 130 of them while using countless different types of pads.

My Philosophy On Microphones

Mics to me are similar to headphones in that it’s fairly easy to hear the differences. That said, I just did a shootout of the MXL V67G/770/990 and they sounded closer than I thought.

So if I had to rank it in terms of most amount of differences to least, it would look something like this:

Source File > Headphones/Monitors > Microphones > Amps/DACS/Interfaces > Cables > Insert More Snake Oil Here ______________


Closing Thoughts

My Review Process

My process involves taking all of the concepts and things I believe in and combining them with the stuff I don’t believe in (basically everything you’ve read up to this point) to formulate a well-thought-out conclusion on the ultimate value of the product.

Simple enough.

Because I’ve demoed over 130 headphones and over 70 DACs at the time of this article, I typically don’t need a lot of time with products to gauge an opinion.

I let my experience and trained ears (Producing) help me make the ultimate determination and go from there.

I also have a plethora of headphones here and use one or 2 as the barometer for my evaluation while sprinkling in others for good measure.

For instance, both the K702 and HD600 are my benchmarks for the diffuse field target/reference, as both provide a fairly neutral sound with excellent overall tuning, resolution, timbre, etc.

As far as music is concerned, I test with an array of sources including Tidal, Spotify, FLAC, DSD, my PS4 for console gaming/film, my phone (iPhone), and whatever else I want.

With all that said, I truly hope this article has helped to clarify my thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about the hobby – but more importantly about music and recording.

Without a good recording and/or solid engineering techniques, you have essentially nothing. All the gear in the world can’t make a poor track sound good no matter what you heard.

And I’m out.

Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you enjoyed this discussion and came away with some valuable insight.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please leave a comment below or contact me! I would be happy to help in any way…

Until next time…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

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