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AVRev: In a recent Stereophile letter to the editor, one reader wrote he felt his own high end playback system sounded more "real" as compared to his experience in great seats at Carnegie Hall. Do you think something has gone wrong when audiophiles start thinking about frequency extension, sound staging, and bloom, terms often used to evaluate domestic playback, while listening to live music?
MF: He must have crappy seats! Live music always sounds better and more real. I have a 20th row subscription to the New York Philharmonic... I go once a month and while Avery Fisher Hall is not a great sounding venue, live always sounds better. That said, if I listen to a piano concerto and I have a great recording of it, when I get home and play it with the lights out late at night it can sound remarkably convincing....but definitely not LIVE! It's ironic that Avery Fisher Hall funded by a vacuum tube amplifier manufacturer sounds like a bad solid state amplifier and the Meyerson Hall where the Dallas Symphony plays, funded by a chipmaker (Texas Instruments) sounds like a great tube amp!
AVRev: You are one of the few highly respected reviewers that own all your reference gear, eschewing long term loans. I think that is tremendous. Do you think there are any issues with reviewers who don't own any of their own gear, as far as their ability to have good judgment on a products value? Or is comparing similarly priced products and assigning a value not really part of the job?
MF: I've heard arguments in both directions like "well you bought your stuff so you're 'invested in it' and will never say anything is better than what you've bought," but that's ridiculous for many reasons. My favorite "charge" from skeptics is about Stereophile's "Product of the Year" award. We get emails saying "Oh, you just gave them that because they advertise in Stereophile." And when we give it to a company that has never advertised with us, like VPI, they say "Oh, you just gave them the award because you want them to advertise in Stereophile."
As far as "long term loans" versus purchasing, since experienced, long time reviewers can borrow pretty much whatever we want on a "long time loan" basis, we have no reason to hold onto something unless we really think it's that good. But if a manufacturer doesn't want to loan something to a particular reviewer, it can get ugly. I could tell you stories but won't! I feel I should invest in the industry in which I work. I've build up my system over time. The industry accommodation prices we get are very good (not the $1 some idiots claim I pay just so I can say "I've paid") and so I never lose money when I sell something to buy something else. Over time I've been able to move up to a great system! I bought the Continuum turntable. That took 3 years to pay off, aided, appropriately by the success of my two DVDs....I've sold 10,000+ of the first one, which astonishes me and it continues to sell steadily about 100 a month. It's like an annuity. And the feedback is great. Everyone appreciates and enjoys it so it was a win-win situation.
The only products I don't own in my system are some cables and accessories because I keep various sets around, some of which are better fits with certain gear than others and cartridges. I own some but have loaners on others. The job really causes more than normal wear to both cartridges and cables and I think it's fair enough that I don't have to pay for wearing out cartridges or for cables and their repairs (the constant in and out does take a toll). However, I've never broken a cartridge and the Continuum has been battered and abused for 5+ years now and has been completely reliable.
I always enjoy reviewing budget gear. I think it's essential to maintain perspective and to give people choices within limited and reasonable budget constraints. I definitely think part of the job is assigning value based up what something's worth physically and what it costs (taking into account profits, expenses, dealer mark-ups, etc.). I really get annoyed by the dipshits who look at a product, figure out what it might cost in terms of parts and then rant that it's a "ripoff" because they can build it for so and so much money. Really? Then do it! It's not that easy. Plus clearly they've never owned a building, or paid the rent, the utilities the employees, their health insurance, the packaging costs, the taxes, etc. that it takes to run a business and make a profit....and so on.
It's unfortunate that the hobby has gotten smaller and economies of scale aren't great so that our products are more expensive relative to mass market stuff---and don't offer the same "value," though value is in the ears on the beholder. I mean we had our entire heating system replaced this week with a state of the art, super efficient one. It costs under $10,000. There are 1 meter lengths of cables that cost more and that's ridiculous....unless you have invested in a really great and expensive system and someone brings over a length and it profoundly improves your system. Then perhaps it's worth it to you. Some systems come alive with a $4K power cord. Other people think that's NUTS. No one is forcing anyone to buy such products but many do because it's the final touch to their great system. Others think such folks are "delusional." Fine, that's their issue.
I don't know why some people, particularly those not even involved in this hobby fetish on this so. I think buying $1000 knives for food preparation is nuts, but the people who are into that don't. Hell, people buy $5000 bottles of wine and after they drink it all they're left with is memories and urine! And then just the memories. But who am I to tell someone that wine wasn't worth $5000? I was in Greece last month to listen to a guy's MILLION DOLLAR SYSTEM. Mine is really good but this guy's made me want to quit the business. The scale was life-size and so convincing...it was amazing! I've heard "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall" since it was first released but there I heard stuff I've never before heard on that record and I mean more than the guy who basically coughs through the first song that I never heard before. I'm talking about musical events....
AVRev: Musicangle.com has just been redesigned and looks great. Do you enjoy reviewing media as much as hardware?
MF: I got into hi-fi to play tunes. I'm not a hardware freak as anyone who knows me, knows. I like it to sound good but I'm not always looking and searching for the next great thing.....they're usually assigned to me unless I find something at CES or Rocky Mountain or a show overseas.... and that's the truth. I don't "churn" gear either. I tend to keep things a long time.... I love running the website but I need another of me to keep up with it!
Special Thanks to Michael Fremer for taking time to answer our questions. We strongly urge you check out Michael Fremer 's fantastic music review site, www.musicangle.com .