Column: How I do what I do PDF Print E-mail

One of the questions I'm often asked is, how do I review equipment? The simple answer, of course, is that when I have to review audio equipment, I listen to music; and when I have to try televisions and projectors, I watch movies.

I know, I know, it's a tough life, but I'm prepared to put in all those long hours of having to endure good music and Oscar winning titles to ensure that I come to grips with the intricacies of the equipment I have to review. Joking aside, there is quite a lot that goes on behind the scenes and just as with any other job, being an audio and video reviewer has its ups and downs.

The first thing that has to happen is that equipment has to be unpacked. I do this as carefully as possible and sometimes even take pictures of how components were slotted into a box. You would be surprised at how creative some manufacturers are at getting ten bits of equipment to fit into the tiniest packing container! I’m convinced that there are specialists out there whose sole job it is to ensure that once unpacked, nothing will ever fit into the same box again.

After being extricated from the confines of their shipping cartons, components have to be installed, positioned, run in, calibrated, and in the case of some fussy high-end components, sometimes whispered sweet nothings to, before you’ll even be able to turn it on. Are your valves glowing correctly, dear? Have those transistors warmed up enough to let all those electrons flow? Have I filtered the incoming power enough for you, sweetie?

You may scoff at this last point, but just like you have to warm up a Ferrari before caning it down a road, some top-end gear needs a little time before it will respond and deliver the kind of performance you've paid a lot of money for. 
Of those factors mentioned above, positioning and calibration are the most important.
Speakers interact with rooms and need to be carefully placed to deliver the best acoustic balance possible, and even video projectors are fussy about where it should be placed in relation to a screen. Keystone correction is to be avoided at all costs, and if possible, you don’t want to set up a projector using the extremes of its zoom ratio.
After positioning comes calibration. This is particularly important for home theatre systems and video devices. You need to run the auto calibration systems that are available on most A/V receivers, to set speaker levels, distances and crossover points. If there is no auto function, you have to do this manually. I always do a little of both, and after the auto set up is complete, I tweak settings to suit my tastes. In my opinion, there is no way anyone can properly review a display device if they haven’t first adequately calibrated it.
For televisions and projectors, I use some of my sophisticated test equipment to ensure that the colour, contrast and brightness are as close to international standards as possible. For the record, I use CalmanV4 software and a Spectracal C6 Colorimeter to set up video devices.
It is only after all the above has been completed, that I can even begin to review equipment.
For audio devices, I listen to how closely it comes to recreating the real thing. Do drums sound like drums? Dogs barking like actual dogs? Thunder like real thunder?
Next, I use another sophisticated piece of test machinery. It is one that I always have close at hand (so to speak) and it is available, for free, to practically every human being alive. I call it my right foot (although I sometimes use my left foot too). If this is tapping along to the music, I'm having fun and I like what I'm listening to. If it's not tapping, it doesn't matter how expensive the review equipment is, how technically brilliant it measures, or how fancy it looks. If it lacks the capability to move my foot, it’s not moving my soul either, and I probably will not give it a great review.
For visual device reviews, I do the following: Once a display device has been set to deliver the best picture I can get it to, I look at how well I can see shadow details (quite a few devices are good at displaying bright whites and deep blacks, but fail when asked to deliver anything in between). I also look at motion smoothness, checking to see if I get eye strain after watching it for a while.
Things can and do get fairly technical. I'll often look or listen to the same music track or video clip many times to determine whether the review equipment does what its manufacturers claim it should.
As you can see, there is just a little more to reviewing than simply watching movies or listening to tunes, but if I’ve done my job correctly, the result should be a review that you can use before making your purchasing decision.
Of course, not everyone will always agree with me, and I'm fine with that. In fact, I welcome it when someone readers don’t.  At least it reaffirms that someone has taken the time to read my review, digest it and then formed their own opinion.
I'm always happy to chat about my reviews too, and as soon as I remember my Twitter name, feel free to chat to me there.
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