In-Ear Fidelity Year One: A Reflection

The entrance to E1 Personal Audio, one of my main hangouts

One year ago on the first of February 2019, almost out of a whim, I decided to drop everything I was doing and start my own website.

There was honestly no prevailing reason on why I did so, though officially I did say that I was tired Head-Fi’s BBcode messing with the structure of my original ranking list. Perhaps you could say I wanted to expand my name beyond that of “that guy who has a forum thread”, and not be constrained to the rules and regulations of a third party website.

More accurately, I was dead-bored at the time and had a rush of motivation to migrate all of my content to a domain that I could definitively call my own, which included everything from the ranking list, my long form articles, reviews and the most painful of all… the graphs. Which took nearly 3 months to fully upload and categorise.

I didn’t expect much out of IEF’s first month but my expectations were completely blown away. At the very beginning I only had the ranking list and a few articles posted, yet I managed to break almost 40,000 pageviews that month which was nearly double of my projected estimations. It’s a feeling that I can never forget, and probably the first time that I genuinely thought to myself that all these could be the start of something truly big.

So, a big Happy Birthday to In-Ear Fidelity. Now, a retrospective reflection in the form of a FAQ.

Why the name “In-Ear Fidelity”?

The most obvious would be that the name is a tribute to the website of my most respected critic in the audio industry, Tyll Herstens. The reputation of the name “Innerfidelity” has diminished considerably ever since Rafe Arnott took over, but make no mistake: I never visioned In-Ear Fidelity to be an “Innerfidelity 2.0”; in fact I know I can never hold a candle to that of Tyll’s legacy. Basically, the name is purely a tongue-in-cheek reference to my once-inspiration that is simultaneously a pretty accurate indication of my website’s content.

Despite my recent decision to move into headphones in addition to IEMs in the future, the name still represents my specialisation and, to a certain extent, my roots. Even as my reviews inevitably branch out to more kinds of equipment and product types in the future, I don’t think I’ll be changing the name anytime soon.

Why did you start reviewing?

I know I’ve joked before in a video that I started reviewing because I hated the style of overly positive, extremely flowery reviews that were popular at the time. While that’s not too far from the truth, that’s also not the full story.

My life on Head-Fi began in early 2011 where I wrote my fair share of “user impressions”, which weren’t the best and I cringe whenever I look back at my early work. I wouldn’t consider myself as being a “reviewer” during this time period since I was still only a few years into the hobby at the time and basically a greenhorn compared to everyone else.

At some point I stumbled upon a post detailing how one could take measurements of IEMs with nothing but a cheap split microphone, some vinyl tubing and an iPhone. I forgot exactly what made me go out and measure literally hundreds and hundreds of IEMs, but I did. And for a while, my measurements database was the talk of the town.

Of course, the extra attention also meant that there were many users who began asking me for impressions on certain IEMs in my database, since there weren’t many reviews on some of the things I’ve measured and I was basically one of the few public figures who had access to these exotics. Over time, the questions piled on (most of which asking for comparisons on which one is the best out of a selection of a few IEMs) and at some point, I just decided to create a “master list” that I can redirect readers to.

But unfortunately the whole “ranking list” business is, at its very core, an extremely summarised version of my opinions as a whole. As traffic towards the ranking list thread picked up, so did requests for longer form, more “formal” reviews and so I started dabbling in short articles as a compromise. And with the creation of the In-Ear Fidelity website, I could start writing true “formal” reviews as more and more manufacturers and brands started to take my work (and influence) much more seriously.

What were your biggest difficulties?

I’d be lying if I said that I struggled, because IEF is more of a part-time commitment than a full-time job at this point in time. My schedule is pretty free and easy and I’m not personally bogged down by deadlines, which means discipline is of the essence (of which I lack).

That said, my biggest difficulty (and arguably my biggest learning point as well) would be the active design and maintenance of the website. IEF, for the entirety of its life even till today, has been a one-man operation in terms of running the site. I do not have any experience in coding or web design and I had never studied in these fields either, as you can clearly see by the horrible design and optimisation of the website.

For now, it’s all a learning process. I may hire professionals in the future to fix, redesign and maintain everything on the back end, but for now my income simply cannot justify the expense. At this point in time, I’m just thankful that I didn’t accidentally delete the entire website.

Criticisms

It wouldn’t be a true reflection if I don’t address the criticisms that some have made of me over the years. Here are three of the biggest ones I’ve seen that are legitimate, so my apologies if I did not address the time you said I was being a big meanie for criticising your favourite IEM.

Over-reliance on measurements

I’ll start with the easier-to-debunk of the criticism I’ve seen around: that my content ignores subjectivity in personal listening in favour of an interpretation of an FR measurement.

I honestly don’t get this particular criticism since it’s extremely easy to disprove: my cliffnotes are largely subjective impressions and I hardly ever make references to the measurements that I take. I believe that the hobby is inherently a subjective one and while FR measurements can tell a lot in terms of the signature (if you know how to read them), nothing beats actually listening to them yourself. I think this misunderstanding stems from the fact that I run one of the largest public database of IEM measurements, and so people simply assume that I don’t take subjective impressions.

So in terms of “do I think that my reviews are too focused on graphs?” I would say no, with pride. Feel free to argue (with civility!) in the comments.

Ethics of review units

In recent times, the conversation within the audio reviewing community has shifted quite drastically. What was once an ignored, overlooked or even taboo topic is now thrust back into the limelight as manufacturers are being more brazen with using reviewers and influencers as part of their marketing campaigns, which throws a shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of many positive reviews out there.

If you would ask me personally if the act of receiving a free review unit constitutes as a breach of integrity on the reviewer’s part, I would say no. But of course, everything is a case-by-case basis and while I don’t think it automatically means that a reviewer is not trustworthy simply because they get free review units, I also don’t think that they are completely off the hook in this regard. The concept of receiving free product in exchange for a “fair review” is an extremely slippery slope, and to pretend otherwise would be a massive point of suspicion.

As far as I can, I would take impressions off of store demo units as I feel that this is the most bias-free method of reviewing a product. There is no obligation to write review (whether positive or negative) and there is no personal investment in the product that can influence you. I’ll break down the various ways one can obtain a product for review purposes, their benefits and the reasons why they can be concerning.

Store demo units
+ No obligation to manufacturer
+ No deadlines
+ No personal investment
Subject to environmental conditions
? Short listening times

(The claim that impressions from store demo units are unreliable because you can’t listen to it long enough is a criticism that I don’t understand, particularly perpetrated by the people who receive freebies all the time and are threatened by the insinuation that impressions based on in-store auditions can be just as reliable as theirs. After all this criticism can be applied to review units as well; somebody could just as easily be spending very little time on said unit before churning out a review.

Getting a free review unit does not automatically mean that the reviewer has invested many hours into listening to the product in question, so I don’t know why there’s this assumption that impressions based on store demo units are always based on short listening sessions.)

Review units
+ No personal investment
Fear of losing future freebies if a negative review is released
Deadlines/embargoes (situational)

Review loaner
+ No personal investment
Deadlines
Reviewing time is restricted
Troublesome to send packages back

Personal purchase (includes “reviewer’s discount”)
+ No obligation to manufacturer (situational)
+ No deadlines (situational)
Personal investment (post-purchase rationalisation bias etc.)

On that note, I will still seek out review units in the case of products that are not available at the stores that I frequent. Many of my readers will continue to request a lot of these kinds of products (chifi in particular, where their distribution is mainly online and not physical) so while I acknowledge that the practice of receiving review units is not a wholly unbiased one, it is also a “necessary evil” if I ever want to actually listen to these products.

Monetisation and conflict-of-interest

At the end of the day this reviewing business is three things to me: a passion, a hobby and eventually, a job. While others may have the income to supplement their hobbyist ventures, I do not (currently) have this privilege and would rather have my hobby be my income, and so provide content to my readers at a full-time capacity. As opposed to if I were to take on a separate and unrelated full-time (also likely corporate) job, which means measurements and reviews can only be done at my leisure which drastically decreases the rate at which I can create content for my loyal readers.

This ties back to the ethics conversation, wherein my monetisation strategies will heavily influence my biases in future. Currently, my income is diversified into three main components:

  • General advertising (Google Adsense)
  • Specialised banner advertising
  • Patreon

With a fourth component, product collaboration revenue, also on the horizon.

Of the three currently active, the ones that have the least conflict-of-interest would undoubtedly be general advertising and Patreon. In general advertising, I do not manage or control the ads being shown on my website and so is completely unaffected by whether or not my reviews are positive or negative. Patreon is a membership platform that allows my own readers to support me, which is probably the most conflict-of-interest-free way to get money off my content.

The big issue, that many of you have raised, would be in the specialised banner advertising.

As of today (01/02/20) there are three online retailers who pay for specialised banner advertising on my website, namely Headphones.com, Linsoul and HiFiGo. Now, Headphones.com is probably has the least conflict-of-interest out of the three considering that they don’t send me any review units, so the big concern would be Linsoul and HiFiGo who actually provide the majority of my review units (but not the majority of my impressions, that still goes to store demo units by a total landslide). So, consider this as me being completely transparent on my relationship with these two retailers and why I believe it does not affect the integrity of my reviews.

Over the years, I’ve received quite a few review units from many different retailers and manufacturers. As you can tell, I’m not quite “repeat customer” material as my reviews tend to get rather critical and almost scathing at times. Linsoul and HiFiGo were the companies that continue to send me review units despite my numerous negative reviews on previous products, and so I began to trust that they would be acceptable as banner advertisers.

Again I have to stress, the payments that these retailers make to me are purely for banner advertising and nothing else. They have zero say in the content I publish and they have never once asked me to amend or edit any of my reviews of their carried products.

Brands and manufacturers of the products I review will not be accepted as banner advertisers on IEF.

The Future

So… what now?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ll be branching into headphones as well so do look out for more updates to the headphones measurements database after July. Don’t expect that database to be anywhere close to the IEM database due to the late start, but it’s definitely going to go far. 

I’ll also be committing to YouTube in the future, especially after the unexpected acclaim that my 3 videos got. 1,800 subscribers with only 3 uploads, that’s crazy! And I’ll be a fool to not continue. But I want to make sure that I can commit to a regular upload schedule before posting another video; I don’t want to be one of those YouTubers that post a video and then disappear for a year after.

Basically the kind of YouTuber I am now, but I digress.

Collaborative IEMs will also be coming soon, with Fearless being the first in line. These IEMs will be tuned by me and I will be credited under a “x crinacle” suffix in the product name, and will also be earning a “collaboration fee” with each unit sold (which acts similarly to royalty fees). It is for that reason that I will not be reviewing these collaborative IEMs, but I will be measuring them (because a microphone does not and cannot lie) and perhaps talking about my tuning processes for each of these IEMs.

I’m in this for the long haul. So get used to seeing me around.

A big thanks to all my fans and readers who have supported me over the months and years. Your faith in me and my opinions are a big part of why I’ve been pursuing this as a full time job.

First, a big thanks to Marshall Lochbaum, the legend behind the Graph Comparison Tool. Without his help, we’d probably all be comparing squiggly lines by swapping browser tabs.

Next, special shoutouts to my special longtime patrons:

  • “McMadface”, my top donor. Someday I wish to taste his stews.
  • Denis, the silent shadow. Not very active, but still the longest Beryllium patron who has been here since the very beginning.
  • “SpaceR0bot”, or as I (unfortunately) know him: “Mr Soekris”. Don’t worry, he only sells them.
  • Phil, the guy who carries my butt in Apex Legends.
  • “caravan”, the Discord Deserter. (jk ily)
  • “Ship”, the one who keeps me afloat.
  • “animus”, because we all need some chaos in the world.
  • Mong, a member of the audio illuminati.
  • “Jason Todd”, Andreas, Amit, Luigi & Teddy: the silent shadows whose quiet support is noted and appreciated.

12 thoughts on “In-Ear Fidelity Year One: A Reflection”

  1. Congratulations on your anniversary, and thank you for the work you do! You’re brought a lot of enjoyment to many people, including me. Best wishes.

  2. Oh crap. Did I forget to turn off my Patreon subscription?

    Just kidding. Your measurement database, rankings list, and impressions have lead me to IEMs that were totally off my radar but have subsequently brought so much enjoyment to my life. Your discord has also been fantastic and you’ve really built an amazing community. Your work has a huge impact on our community and I’m glad that I can give back by supporting your work.

  3. Hey Crin – You’re doing great and it’s awesome to see how you’ve grown from a couple posts on a few forums to being the premier IEM critic and source on the internet. Congrats on one year on this website and hopefully more successful and more exciting things to come!

  4. With the retirement of some reviewers like Metal571 is up to you to continue the most excellent tradition of keeping this hobby in solid ground with unbiased measurements and good subjective reviews. I sincerely wish you all the best in your endeavor.

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