The Other Side of Audio Reviewing

by Roy Gregory | August 27, 2014

o many an audiophile, reviewing must seem like a dream job. All those companies lining up to deliver expensive, exotic products for you to play with -- what could be better? The reality is somewhat different. Leave aside pay scales that most people who can afford to buy high-end audio would never remotely entertain, the day-to-day process itself doesn’t come close to the dream.

Take a look at some high-profile wide receiver scoring a touchdown. You might well think you’d like a slice of that. But those end-zone celebrations are few and far between as well as being the product of a lot of on-field donkey-work and even more time spent training. It’s very much a case of 1% elation, 99% perspiration, and audio reviewing ain’t that different. For every high point there’s a lot of legwork, logistics and basic housekeeping.

This is a point that was really brought home by the recent arrival of the massive, massively impressive and massively expensive Living Voice Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian system. Talk about living the dream -- how often does someone present you with a million-dollar speaker system to put through its paces? Does it get any better than that? Well, when you sit down to read the forthcoming review, before you start thinking, Lucky blighter (or something less polite) -- I wish somebody would lend those to me, here’s a little background that applies not just to this review project, but to any review of major audio components.

First up, I refer to this as a project because as an exercise and an experience it extends way, way beyond the simple and highly enjoyable act of listening to the speakers. On the most basic level, the product needs to be available (we’ve rescheduled twice because one or other of the units earmarked for review has been sold) and then it needs to be delivered and installed. In this case, that involves four people and a tail-lift truck. It also involves a couple of days of heaving and grunting to get the speakers in and perfectly positioned -- that and unpacking the massive heap of associated kit, including a full freestanding Li-ion battery power supply capable of running a complete system, as well as a suite of Kondo amplification to run alongside the other equipment that I have in-house.

Okay, so this is a physically big and complex speaker system, but this level of time and effort isn’t that unusual, and installing equipment for review regularly takes up a couple of days, multiple hands and a big truck. Which brings us to the nub of this particular conundrum. For every piece of equipment that comes for review, you’ll need additional pieces to explore its capabilities and system-matching requirements. Rule of thumb: for every speaker, you’ll need two or three different power amps. Some of that equipment will be your own, some will come with the review product and some will be other products that are also under review but promise to offer an interesting match or additional insight. So, in the case of the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian combination, as well as the Kondo Gaku-Oh monoblocks, I also had access to my own Berning Quadrature Zs and Jadis JA-30s as well as the Border Patrol P20 EXD EXS and the Engstrom & Engstrom The Lars II, both of which were in for review. You can begin to see how the whole operation starts to resemble some weird three-dimensional chess game, with pieces coming and going, their arrivals and departures all mutually interdependent, and each involving its own set of other related components. You can also begin to appreciate the knock on impact of rescheduling a product, especially one as demanding as this.

Now, consider the fact that high-end audio is more of a hobby than an industry, with more than its fair share of flakiness built in. Throw in the potential for companies falling out with each other (which happens all the time), already not talking to each other (too often the case), failing to deliver products (surprisingly frequent) or those products having transit damage or reliability issues when they do arrive (always happens at the worst and most critical times) and you have all the makings of a logistical and organizational nightmare. One product failure -- whether that’s a no-show or a breakdown, a shipper who dropped the box or another reviewer or magazine that dropped the ball -- and the whole complicated cat’s cradle of interlocking arrangements risks collapse. And that’s before you get to sit down to listen.

But with a speaker as big, heavy and complex as the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian pairing, even that’s no simple matter. Normally, if you swap amps you’ll be considering whether to adjust speaker position at the same time -- only with the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian system that’s not possible. Not only are the individual speakers and subs heavy enough to prevent easy movement, the cost and quality of the finish makes me reluctant to even touch them. The cost of refinishing a pair of Vox Olympian cabinets doesn’t bear thinking about. Look closely at the picture: that string across the room in front of the speakers isn’t a joke -- nor is the warning sign hanging from it. It’s got nothing to do with the battery supply in the background and everything to do with protecting those expensive cabinets. The last thing I want is some uninitiated visitor walking straight up to the speakers and getting grubby, corrosive fingerprints all over those expensively finished metal surfaces. Death? If I don’t finish the offender off, then I’m pretty confident that designer Kevin Scott will!

Now, don’t get me wrong -- having the big Living Voice speakers here has been a fantastic musical and listening experience. This is one seriously expensive speaker that really does deliver on its promise. But the reviewing process is different from and alien to the simple enjoyment of recorded music at home. So yes, while one part of me (the music-loving audiophile part) loves having these speakers here, another (the part of me that has to organize my workload and supervise comings and goings) keeps asking when they’re leaving -- because so many other arrangements and deliveries revolve around that departure date. Price, practicality and the specific matching requirements of this big speaker system all play their part, but if this really were a chess game, then these speakers would represent a king that takes up a block of squares four by four, dominating its surroundings and limiting the movement of all the other pieces. Big speakers are always a logistical challenge. Big horn speakers throw in an additional complication because of their sensitivity and what that means in terms of amplification. But a speaker like the Marten Coltrane Supreme II or the Wilson Alexandria XLF, the Focal Grande Utopia EM or the horn-hybrid Avantgarde Trios each presents its own challenges and equally specific system-matching requirements, with downstream matching being just as critical when reviewing power amps and other product categories each imposing their own demands.

Having the Vox Olympian/Vox Elysian system at home has been a revelation in terms of musical enjoyment. Just don’t ever underestimate the physical and organizational demands involved in achieving it. That’s the reality of reviewing: every fantastic product that comes your way extracts a heavy price in terms of physical effort, practical challenges and organizational frustration -- and the heavier the product the higher that price becomes. Fortunately, Living Voice takes their responsibility just as seriously as they should, and they’re happy to help shoulder that burden. But just in case you fancy becoming a reviewer, be aware that that isn’t always the case. So next time you read a review that marvels at the musical wonders such and such a product can produce, be careful what you wish for and just remember all the time and effort it takes to make it happen.

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