I’ve been reading your reviews for years.
Wojciech Pacula: Please tell us about yourself, your career, occupations etc.
But first, let me back up a step and introduce myself. My name is Scot. I am an introverted geek.
Twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I ditched my PhD program in Philosophy in search of fame and fortune. More specifically the “fortune" bit, because I had none and the credit card companies were become rather insistent about that whole repayment thing. I fell into technology, because in the 1990’s, that was the thing to do. It wasn’t by choice, or even reasonably “a plan”, I just lucked into a series of jobs that paid rather better than my graduate stipend. For much of that time, I truly intended to go back and finish the program. Get my doctorate. Teach, even. I imagined myself a professor, somewhat perpetually and charmingly disheveled, beloved by many and feared by more, putting shape to the ideas that would craft a generation. Yeah, that’s me, the buffoon, though I’m still a bit whimsical, foolish, and romantic about that missed connection. Instead, Life sunk its teeth into me, shook me like a toy, and spat me out into the ragged pile I now currently animate. Still an introvert. Still a geek. Albeit with a slightly better wardrobe than my visions of myself as a prof.
How Part Time Audiophile started – why and when?
I quickly noticed I was battling my own sense of attention deficit. I kept almost unconsciously flipping through to the end of a review. Did they like it? Did they not? What was the basis for the judgement? And then, bam, on to the next. It was all just a bit dull. Where was the fun? Anyway, being something of an idiot, I eventually said, “Hey, maybe I can do better!”
So, I started writing reviews.
By 2012, Part-Time Audiophile was starting to get traction. Two years later, we’re drawing over a million readers a year.
Is it a “periodic” magazine or “portal”? How do you see web magazines, like magazines at all?
Pivoting a bit, I find the magazine format challenging and a bit restrictive. Paper is expensive, which means space is expensive. For me, the web is precisely the place where you’re not penalized for following an idea down a rabbit hole. Not saying that an editor isn’t a handy, useful or necessary thing (I’m looking at you, Stephen King and Neal Stephenson), but only suggesting that arbitrary abbreviation is not a requirement or even a desired goal. Online, I can add as many words as required, and still have space to add visuals. And that’s key.
What do you write about in PTA?
About a year-and-a-half ago, PTA evolved a bit. I was encouraged to get a bit more commercial, and as this coincided with my wife’s irritation that this unpaid part-time jobby (job + hobby = jobby) was consuming quite a bit more of my time than merely “part”, I started recruiting other writers to help me expand the site. With this inclusion, I’ve been able to bring in some interesting new voices and give them a platform. That change also marks a bit of a shift in that PTA went from a think-piece site to a more mainstream review-site, and that’s the preponderance of what you’ll find there now.
You just announced that you start The Audio Traveler – what it is and why did you do this?
There are a lot of reasons for that growth, I’m sure, but allow me to wave my hands a bit. Economic downturns since the Dot-Bomb bust, and the rise of online competitiveness, have made the audio show an interesting sales venue. Audio shows have always been a great marketing opportunity, but the explosion of the regional shows, at least in the US, have added a new twist: the audio show as a social event.
This last bit is pretty interesting. At least, it is to me. You see, it turns out that I’m a wild, thorough-going, introvert. This is very different from saying that I’m shy, which I feel reasonably confident in saying that I’m not. It’s just that being around other people is a challenge for me, and one I routinely manage poorly. The more people potentially involved, the more poorly I manage it. I offer this not as a confession, but more of an invitation. High-end audio, I submit, has quite a few folks like me, hidden away in our man-caves and perfectly content and comfortable to reside there.
What’s interesting is that the audio show is a tailored opportunity to do that thing that we introverts are far too likely to dismiss or find an unconscious excuse to avoid: get out of the man cave and share. At an audio show, we can stretch. Mingle. Enjoy a meal, lift a pint, and swap snarky comments in person and not troll each other , facelessly, on some forum. And it’s at an audio show that we realize that, as audiophiles, we're not any weirder than anyone else — there are lots of us out there in the Real World. That’s not why I started going, but it is why I kept going once I started. As a result, I met a lot of people. I got a chance to see beyond the product to the artist behind it. Learn about their passions. Meet others just as bent as I, and rub elbows with those wildly different. My own fascination with headphone-based audio began at a show.
Sadly, not being wildly wealthy, I was unable to make as many shows as I would have liked. So, in those cases, I turned to “mainstream media” to get my vicarious jollies. And that’s where the wheels came off the wagon.
Turns out, most magazines either ignore the audio show entirely, or relegate it to a couple of paragraphs with some tiny, blurry photos. Worse, some will only skim the show, pulling a dozen or so highlights out and offering them up to the readers as “coverage”. But this isn’t a show. Capturing the party in words and safe-for-work images is hard enough, but one photo for every three or four rooms or product announcements was more frustrating than not covering the show at all. So, I started covering the show as I saw it. As I experienced it, at least to some extent. It was hard. It was overwhelming. Pretty much exactly like a show, actually.
The problem was that audio show coverage on Part-Time Audiophile was swamping everything else. A single article, a review on a high-end loudspeaker for example, would be completely buried by the fifty or more articles that would come from a single audio show. I needed to do something to make the content stick around a bit longer, so I broke out the noisiest part — show coverage — and landed it in it’s own space to make it easier to read.
Please tell me, do you believe in future for perfectionist audio? 7. What things let it down and what can help rise it?
In many ways, I think we’re very close to the industry’s height when it comes to real sound quality. Right in the middle of the “Golden Age”, if you will. If you believe in “the absolute sound” as the one, legitimate target for in-home audio reproduction systems, then I think we are closer now than we’ve ever been. That said, I’m not convinced we’ve come terrifically far — those vintage Altec/RCA systems did something that modern systems seem to have forgotten. We talk now about bringing a performer into our living spaces, when those older systems clearly took us to another place entirely. It’s a gap, to my mind, and one we’re not adequately addressing.
But yesterday’s innovations are still unfolding. Napster and the iPod have profoundly changed the way new hobbyists are approaching the industry. That impact has not been fully felt yet, and more change will come.
Home Theater, as a segment, seems to have commoditized itself out of relevance. This is incredibly disappointing to me, as I’m a huge movie fan and love movies even more than music. Achieving immersive reality escapism at home was one of my earliest “true audiophile” experiences and was utterly formative to my interest in the larger hobby. But I don’t see the sound bar as anything other than a colossal mistake and industry-collapsing dead-end. Unless something revolutionary happens, and I’m not sure Atmos qualifies, I can’t see this as a viable market for boutique manufacturers some twenty years from now.
Personal audio, by contrast, is just now gaining steam. With Beats, we have a market-anchor heavy enough to swing broader interest and I think many “traditional” hi-fi manufacturers are now, or will be soon, exploring this segment. With that shift, I expect headphone-based audio will experience something of a Renaissance. By that, I mean that innovation will accelerate and sound quality will make dramatic progress, but perhaps most importantly to the high-end as a whole, this shift may provide a bridge toward growth. In the near term, portable audio gear will get radically better. It will also get a lot more expensive. And eventually, there will be another disrupt and personal audio will face its own “home theater moment”.
Vinyl, as a segment, will continue to grow. If I had to guess, it’ll be a least another ten years. Downloads were a catastrophe for the music industry, and not due to piracy. Vinyl requires an investment, both in time and in gear — and vinyl is the path forward, at least in part, for both them and for audiophile manufacturers. Albums, a charming anachronism, are suddenly a requirement again with vinyl. Good “album making” is an art, and if the music industry can pull its head out of its ass long enough to stop with the formulaic construction of song-making and band-construction, it might find relevancy again due in part to the requirements that vinyl bring to sales. We’ll see.
As for the long term, who knows. I think the problem with prognostication is that very little ever changes very much, or very quickly. So, I suspect that “audio’s high-end” will be around much longer than anyone expects.
Are you listening vinyl, CDs or files. Why?
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of streaming. Where iTunes with playback and room-correction software like Amarra kicked it up to a whole other level, streaming was perfectly good for background music. Ambience. I got hooked on Pandora shortly after it’s launch, and I’ve been using it regularly since. I really wanted to like Spotify or Beats, but the sound quality was so dull, it didn’t keep my attention any better than Pandora did. Tidal HiFi, a new service I just started using carries a dramatically better sound experience, so I’ve been doing more with that.
What are the biggest sins of web magazines?
What the Internet lets us newcomers do is explore. It also allows us the freedom to do things we cannot do within the confines of traditional media — perhaps because we’re changing the paradigms, but more likely because there’s really no room up there at the top. Web-based publishing lets us all bang around, get better at the craft and to gain the experiences that only writing will bring. A proliferation of venues has a means writers now have a lot more options, too — it’s now much easier for a writer to cobble together something approaching a living, even when focusing on a tiny niche like high-end audio. And all this means that there are lots of voices to choose from, and the chances of any given reader finding a writer that lines up with their taste and preference is dramatically higher. That’s a good thing.
The downside, of course, is that not all of that material is actually worth the time it takes to consume it. It was a trivial thing to keep the quality of journalism quite high when there was a small number of outlets. Now, the bar to entry is quite low. There are no agreed upon standards for what a “good review” is or should be, what baselines or references are or could be, or even what commonly used terms should mean. This makes value unclear. Worse, there are now players in the pool that really ought to be remaining on the sideline. New writers with excellent potential are on equal footing with shills with obvious conflicts of interest. And they’re forced to compete with all of the noisily outraged and the aggrieved, those with no sense of restraint or interest in doing more than railing at perceived injustices. It’s all a bit of a muddle. The web-based magazine that doesn’t offer a clear alternative, with obvious editorial standards, will find itself lost in a sea of noise. In fact, even those with those lofty ideals, most are swamped. Welcome to the free-for-all!
Right now, I think the biggest challenge facing web-based publications generally is one of relevance. What makes a site good or useful or worth the time it takes to visit and consume the content? Quality content! But in the Wild West of Internet publishing, good writers with real skill and a unique voice are a hot commodity. Which is a problem for magazines! This requires finding a way to keep that talent interested and invested. Which means finding ways to keep them happy. Which means, usually, money. Or prestige. Or something. Web magazines are at risk of seeing their talent flee, and with that talent, their value proposition, and soon after, their reader base.
Which brings me back around, almost full circle. The biggest sin, then, that a web magazine can make is by letting itself become boring. Both to the readers, and to its contributors. In the end, it isn’t enough simply to “be out there” or “to have been out there for a while.” You have to keep it interesting. For me, that means keeping it fun. Time will tell if my formula works. But I’m paying attention to it.
What is your audio system? What you dream about?
Are you happy? I mean - are music and writing something that can give happiness?
But writing is a little different. It’s not painful, per se, nor is it cathartic. Writing is just a natural way for me to order my thoughts. To translate the things I’ve learned and to approach the things I haven’t. I love words! I’m always reading, always absorbing, but also diversifying — I’m an omnivorous consumer of information. But the essence of writing is hard to capture with its own tools. I love it. I hope to get good at it, one day. In the meantime, I bang away.
But to peel off that last layer … yes, I am happy. In my own way. I could be happier. I could also be wealthier. I’m not sure those are unrelated. But I’m certainly happy with what I’ve done with Part-Time Audiophile. I’ve written for some of the biggest names in the audio publishing business. In the US, at least. I have my sights set on one more. And then I might write a book about the whole sorry, weird, tangled mess. Something with monsters or robots, maybe. Who knows. But what I do know is that I’m not quite done. Not yet.
Please tell us 10 albums that readers of High Fidelity should listen right away. Please tell a few worlds about them.
Thank you very much!
In “THE EDITORS” series we have interviewed so far: