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Date: 2nd January 2013


Winespeak is a curious language. Sometimes derided, often entertaining in its archness, it has a florid vocabulary much mocked by people who drink beer with twigs in. But it is designed to do one thing, describe something which essentially defies description. It relies on making connections with the reader by dint of shared experience.

We may not know what an Alaskan Pinot Noir would smell like (though we may have our suspicions), but we are much more likely to be able to characterise something if we are told it is redolent of raspberries, or new-mown grass. Interestingly, though, I never analyse a bottle of wine in this way when I drink it and, I suspect, neither do most people. I will take a first sip and know immediately if I’m going to enjoy it, I will probably comment if it goes well with the food we are eating, I may, if I’m feeling so inclined, notice how the character of the bottle changes in the hour or so it takes us to drink it. I will even make a mental note if the bottle was particularly memorable, but what I will not do is attempt to categorise the wine in winespeak terms, to myself or anyone else.

Hi-fi reviewing has also coined its own peculiar lexicon, and for exactly the same reason. It is hard to put into words how something sounds, so alluding to some common experience is the most effective way to get one’s message across. Hardly surprising then, is it, that many people auditioning hifi equipment seem to concentrate on deconstructing the sound being produced, rather than listening to the music coming out? Talking to hifi dealers, customers say things like “The bass is a bit flabby” or “The treble is very clean and crisp”. Now you may argue, and I’d agree, that reviewers bear some responsibility here, but it doesn’t explain why the same doesn’t happen with wine.

When reviewing a piece of equipment, I tend to notice some immediate first impressions, then leave the kit installed in my system and simply listen uncritically for quite a long period before settling down to conduct the review. Based on what I then think are the salient attributes, I’ll pick out some music which I hope will test my observations, and take it from there. But I’m doing this largely to allow me to characterise the nature of the equipment, to give a prospective customer some inkling of where this particular box sits in the hi-fi continuum. I’ve already formed an opinion of the kit during the uncritical listening stage, by simply listening to music and enjoying, or perhaps not enjoying, the experience. The review needs to communicate that enjoyment, or lack thereof, but needs to do so in an illustrative way: a review which says “I like this, you will too” or “I don’t like this, see and avoid” is a waste of ink and readers’ time. You still have no idea whether you might like it even if I don’t, or indeed if you might hate it even though I want to marry it. When you, as a prospective purchaser sit down to audition equipment, you have no need to deconstruct the sound in this way, you merely need to listen to the music and decide whether the kit is communicating with you or not. Then you have to decide whether the communication is worth the asking price. Then you have to go home and enjoy your music. Simple. Job done.

Frankly, if you’re playing music you know and love, yet find yourself listening to the bass or admiring the treble, you might be wise to ask yourself some searching questions like, for example, “Do I like the music this equipment makes, or do I merely admire the noise it is making?” We find it easy to do this with things like wine, it should be even simpler with something as powerfully emotive as music. The equipment’s job is to draw us into the musical event, to connect more directly with that part of us which responds to music. If it can’t hold your attention for longer than the average teenager in double history, then it isn’t working. It is easy to try too hard, when auditioning equipment, far better just to take it as it comes and see what happens. Why not listen to something unfamiliar, something you think you ought to like (because lots of people tell you they like it, perhaps) but which doesn’t do it for you. If the equipment manages to suggest that those people may have a point after all, then you are really getting somewhere. You may still not like the music, but if you can at least empathise with those who do, then the system is working on some important level. It matters not a jot whether the bass is tight, or the treble flawless, these are means to an end. Try not to lose sight of that.