An interview with Srajan Ebaen

by Dawid Grzyb / March 24, 2016 is one of the most influential audio sites on our planet according to many enthusiasts. Singular looks and well-written articles published there are the most prominent reasons. Yet behind every creation of such sort there are alive people. Srajan Ebaen is main man and undoubtedly an audio personality. Once opportunity appeared to interview said gent, we couldn’t refuse…

Over the years , you’ve gathered lots of audio gear and built many diverse setups. I’m aware that instead of merely one very expensive one, you prefer to keep several lesser priced setups and switch between them according to your needs or mood. But that aside, can you point out your all-time favorite combination? Is there one?
No, there is not. I’ve lived in and worked out of nine different rooms across three different countries thus far, soon to include a 10th room and fourth country. The room really has the biggest influence on the sound. As soon as you change that, everything else is affected. What might have been a great combination may need serious adjustments after a move. If you asked me what combination I liked best in any given space, I still couldn’t answer that. Sound comes in many different flavours just as restaurants or people do. There’s great Sushi, Thai, Indian. There’s the artist, the athlete, the scientist, the merchant, the healer and so forth. Specializing in any one sonic flavour would get boring quickly. That’s another reason why I keep on hand a small harem of hardware. I get to make sound I enjoy in a number of different ways; and I have a choice of matching partners when review gear shows up – which it does all of the time. And… we haven’t yet touched upon personal tastes changing over time. That factors as well.

If you had limitless resources and could pick only one system, what would it be?
As consumer or reviewer? As consumer, it’d be a hi-tech integrated solution with Devialet-type functionality driving a top-quality sub/sat system where the sub only handles <40Hz. As a reviewer, I’d never have just one setup because I don’t believe that’d be the right way to do the job properly.

In most cases, I would have expected inclusion of something really expensive, say top-drawer stuff from Kondo and Living Voice or something along those lines. Your reviews and answers here indicate that gear this expensive doesn’t float your boat?
I’ve heard very expensive gear and plenty of it over the years. Still, I’m perfectly content in the neighborhood I play and work in. When stuff gets priced out of all proportion to what it costs to make, I lose interest. That includes overkill for the sake of bragging rights or exclusivity. It’s especially apt when I enjoy constant exposure to more value-priced offerings. I know how one needn’t spend silly money to get perfectly good sound; and how beyond a certain level the differences become minute. And let’s be frank. Fundamentally, enjoyment and expense never belong into the same sentence. Most couples looking back remember very fondly just how happy they were early into their marriage when money was tight. Often later in life when the conveniences show up, happiness and engagement recede. So enjoyment and expense aren’t interdependent. If you love music, pretty much anything will do, even a crappy old car stereo that fades in and out with bad reception. If the song goes under your skin, you pull over and wait for the radio announcer to tell you what it was. Your imagination fills in the missing bits. Fretting over what hifi to own is a massive luxury. It’s something completely out of reach to those who are stuck in migrant camps or are otherwise displaced. It’s important to maintain a bit of perspective.

I’m guessing that reviewing massively expensive products isn’t in your line of interest? Or is it mainly related to disadvantages like requiring bigger rooms, logistics and such?
If you make €500’000/yr and adjust your life style accordingly rather than become a philanthropist, you probably won’t think twice about €2’500 custom loafers; or €75’000 for a pair of speakers if that’s what you really desire. If you make €100’000, everything scales back by a factor of 5. If you make €25’000, many luxuries will fall by the wayside. If you make €12’000, you’ll probably just cover basics. I’m using arbitrary numbers to make the point. I’m neither comfortable nor interested in playing with toys wildly beyond my own means. There are other reviewers who work the stratosphere and who, presumably, live the lifestyle to match. I focus on stuff that’s appropriate for our lifestyle. How relevant is the super-expensive stuff to the majority of readers? For many, the type of product we cover is already well beyond reach.

Let’s add some numbers to this mix. Is there a certain figure beyond which you won’t look at audio equipment at all?
How I work is very much like going with the flow. I believe that if you’re in sync with existence, the right things keep happening. That includes reviewing. My writing style, attitude, perspective and conclusions all act as a filter. The super expensive stuff doesn’t really show up. Manufacturers know of my comfort level and don’t approach me for the bleeding edge stuff. €20’000 seems to be my upper limit. That’s not self-imposed but a number I come up with when I look back at what I’ve done.Was there ever a situation which precluded a review because the gear was too pricey?
Yes. I’ve been asked to review ultra-expensive cables and I simply wasn’t interested. I then turned the solicitation over to my team and nobody else was, either. Or a manufacturer approached me for a really big expensive amp or speaker I wasn’t appropriate for to instead suggest another writer on the team better matched to the proposed subject.

Do you remember what happened exactly when you decided that you wanted to do audio reviewing full-time? Was it one factor or a much more complex process?
It wasn’t a single thing but a confluence of factors. When I asked myself what I enjoyed doing most at that juncture which I might turn into a job, I came up with listening to music and writing. Plus, I wanted to get checks in the mail so my wife and I could live anywhere in the world. Well, listening + writing = reviewing was obvious. Checks in the mail meant the Internet. I’d already contributed to Doug Schneider’s SoundStage! Network and helped relaunch his subsidiary site Flying solo became the obvious next step. I simply had no notion that it’d grow into what it has.

Is going to get a face lift in the near future? Or do you still enjoy that unique look after all those years?
I enjoy the look and our readers seem to as well. Hence I presently don’t see any need to change it. It’s part of our identity. Plus, too many such sites using WordPress look far more alike than not. I don’t mind being different. And in the end, it’s just words and pictures. How many different ways are there really to lay out and present this type of publication?

List the positive and negative effects of changing your policy at
If you’re referring to our ‘pay to play’ policy which I’ve outlined here, it’s been 100% positive.

Yes, exactly that policy. Do you think that over the next five years, the rules of operation in our profession will clarify?
I really have no idea. Everything is interconnected. Someone makes a change and there are ripples. Nobody can/should work for free so compensation must be part of the job description. The details thereof are up to each publication. I’ve chosen self-employment so I can write my own ticket. I’m very much focused on running my own thing which takes all of my time; and far less concerned about how others might run theirs today or five years from now. That’s why commenting on the bigger picture is beyond my ken. I’m not being evasive. It’s simply not where I have my attention. My attention is on doing the best job I know how to do on my own site. I expect others are doing exactly the same thing with theirs – which is how it should be.Has your policy change (which I find perfectly fair and honest btw.) met with critique from other audio journalists? Maybe they were supportive? Or did nobody give a damn?
If there was criticism from fellow writers, it didn’t arrive in my email inbox. So I couldn’t say. There may well have been forum threads which involved reviewers; or internal group discussions at other publications. If so, I wasn’t privy to them. No colleague has challenged me in person. A few however did say things to the effect of “about time”.

What do you think will happen several years down the audio road on price and products? Will prices continue to go up as is happening with headphones today; or will things take a turn in the other direction?
That’s another one for the crystal ball. Mine is cloudier than sour milk. Next, please.

Would you say that the recent expansion of mobile devices (headphones, DAP and smartphone ready sources) is merely a short burst and that things will calm down eventually? Or this is an indication of upcoming bigger changes in the market?
Again, I’m no oracle. Everything in life is cyclical. Fashions come and go, markets fluctuate with demand and respond to buying power and lifestyles. Where people live in tight crammed quarters and spend much time commuting, portable headfi is a very obvious solution. Listening to 2-channel boxes stuck to a sweet spot is an acquired taste and learnt habit. Today many people consume music on the go whilst multi-tasking. Will this cement the foundation for eventual legacy hifi consumption? Or will it instead create the desire to own a really posh portafi to never branch off into the “sit down” speaker triangle scheme at all? That I couldn’t predict. What I do believe is that music consumption or entertainment in general are at an all-time high. At least in my lifetime, I don’t foresee any of it waning. This is the Age of Aquarius after all. It’s about communication and interconnectedness. There’s so much money in the movie/music industry, it’s a self-perpetuating machine of enormous scale. That means listening appliances will continue to be in demand. What exact forms they’ll take is anyone’s guess. Miniaturization, integration, DSP and fashionable industrial designs should all factor I think.

Getting back to headphones, do you use them on a daily basis or only when review time approaches?
Listening to headphones is part of my regular music diet either on the desktop; or on the nightstand.

Despite the headfi experience being greatly different to speakers, do you enjoy it equally?
Absolutely. I appreciate that some people just aren’t wired to enjoy headphones and in fact despise them but I’m simply not one of them. It’s a different perspective but just as enjoyable. Plus, it can be pursued at a very high level of fidelity for pennies on the legacy hifi dollar. Finally, you can do it in places and at times when the regular stereo is either off-limits or plain unavailable. It’s a big fat slice of freedom to have a massive library in a coat pocket at your beck and call on a lakeside bench. What’s not to love? And there’s more. As a reviewer, headfi lets you know the true tonal balance of a recording unmolested by sub 300Hz room effects. By eliminating room reflections, the playback venue’s ambient field and its constant 30-40dB background noise, quality headfi will also unmask subtle detail that most speaker systems can’t resolve. So headfi can be a valuable educator. It can educate us about what’s actually ‘on’ our recordings.

Picture yourself in a bungalow on a lonely island for a month. You’re allowed one pair of headphones and a mobile device. What would you pick?
That’s easy. I already own the perfect pair: Questyle QP1R loaded with 5’000 AIFF tracks and HifiMan’s HE1000. For more compact headphones to be worn outdoors and cheaper for less pain in case of damage or loss, Meze 99 Classics.Could you answer the same question but for a hifi system instead?
Ditto – stuff I already own except for that particular sub. Vinnie Rossi Lio set up with DAC, 6.3mm headfi, tube/AVC module, 25wpc Mosfet amp, Boenicke Audio W5se plus Boenicke subwoofer.

You aren’t a huge fan of DSD?
I’m a music-first man. Whatever format or carrier the music lives on which I want to listen to, that’s the format or carrier I work with. As it happens, that means PCM 99.9% of the time. I have nothing against DSD at all. To me its library is simply irrelevant. However, if my musical tastes were different (say predominantly classical), my answer would be different, too.

What’s your take on open baffles?
No box, no box sound. No box, no box expense. Of course there are cosmetic and bass challenges inherent in the OB concept but to many, the sonic and financial advantages could well outweigh those.

Any particular fondness for specific vintage gear, like your first decent speaker?
No vintage stuff, sorry. But my first decent setup included a pair of Vandersteen 2ci speakers with their signature cloth wraparound which I purchased used at Music by Design, from Peter Litwack’s memorable shop in Sausalito. Needless to say, our cats had a field day.

What was your first real hifi?
I don’t remember. But it was from Circuit City in San Rafael – probably a Denon CD player and matching integrated with some Celestion or equivalent monitors wired up with Monster.
If you ran an audio manufacturing business, what products would you make?
I’m not an engineer nor do I have any technical training. My formal training was as a classical clarinet player. Hence that question is too abstract. I’d have to be a very different person altogether to answer it. As is, I have zero ambitions to get into audio manufacture. Having worked for three such firms in the past in a marketing function, I do have some idea on what would be involved.

Can you point out which group of products make you the most anxious when the courier arrives?
That question I don’t relate to at all. What are you smoking? I’m never anxious. I’m worried only when something inside a box rattles in a way which it clearly shouldn’t. About speakers or big amps, I’m vigilant about validating weight and dimensions beforehand to insure that I can manage. I don’t requisition gear I know I couldn’t handle.

Smoking aside, maybe you misunderstood my question. I was curious about your favorite piece of hardware or category?
I get most excited by potential über discoveries by which I mean, things that slam the price/performance ratio to the max. That could be an original Gallo Acoustics Reference 3, a Clones Audio 25iR or a Metrum Hex. The category doesn’t matter. If it’s something I sense has quite universal appeal because it’s “silly good and who really needs more” stuff, I get “anxious” if that’s code for “excited”.

In your case, did files dethrone vinyl and CDs for good?
CD yes, vinyl no. I never got into vinyl. I’ve never owned a single record.

Do you think you will at some point? If not, has it ever crossed your mind to at least try it? Absolutely not. It’s back to availability and music choices. My musical tastes are best served by 16/44.1 PCM. As a reviewer, there already are real vinyl experts with decades of experience working our sector. Nobody needs me to chime in on vinyl.
Have you ever tried DIY? If so, what was the result?
I haven’t. I prefer turnkey bliss to solder fumes.

What was the best concert you’ve ever attended?
As with the restaurant metaphor, I couldn’t pick just one. Standouts were Stevie Wonder in Los Angeles, Pat Metheny in Marin County, Dhafer Youssef in Vevey, The Taksim Trio in Pully, Natasha Atlas at the Paleo Festival, Lila Downs in Geneva and Andreas Vollenweider at the Montreux Festival.

Name one artist you’d like to see more than others during live performance.
Vicente Amigo.

Which audio exhibition do you feel most comfortable with and enjoy the most?
As a publisher, comfort, enjoyment and audio show are words which are mutually exclusive. I’m expected to see everyone and produce an informative report. That’s real work and very exhausting given how large these shows have grown. So I’d rephrase the question. What is the audio show most conducive to someone with my job description who lives in Europe? Without question, that’s the HighEnd Munich event. Everything is under one roof. Everyone who matters is there. It’s the one-stop shop of global audio events located in the heart of Europe. And because it’s German, it’s organized to the nines.

What do you dislike most about being an audio journalist?
Fundamentally, nothing. It’s my chosen profession. If I disliked it, I’d be doing something else, wouldn’t I? Of course manhandling equipment that’s too heavy to wreck my back wouldn’t be fun so I try my best to avoid it. Having total strangers tear you a new one on some forum isn’t, either. But then you needn’t go there and read it. Besides, all that is part of the job description. One learns how to manage it all and not feed its shadowy sides. Nothing is perfect. For me and my particular skills and interests, the job at the helm of 6moons is as perfect as I could imagine it. It combines artistry and freedom in a happy balance.
Why all the lack of social media integration at 6moons?
I’m a content creator with an established platform. Why multiply the number of platforms? Now I’d be committed to creating content also for FaceBook, Twitter & Co. That’d be pure dilution. One man can only write so much. Plus, I hate fluff content. The type of reporting I favour doesn’t lend itself to the shorthand of social media and their small screens. And, I’m still squarely from the generation where one talks to the person in front of one, not texts someone else who isn’t there. One makes actual friends, not “friends” someone in an app. When it comes to interactive forum content, there’s the endemic need to police the few miscreants. I have no time or tolerance for that. If someone has a serious question or feedback they want me to have, they can send me a personal email which I’ll do my best to answer. That filter of one-one-one engagement which steps out of forum anonymity saves me a lot of time. And time is a real commodity. I’d rather spend it creating quality content!

This one is probably rhetorical but at this point, would you rather be doing something else for a living?
At present, no. If one fine day I figure out something I like better or might do better, I’ll do it. But 14 years into it, I still enjoy it as much as when I started; probably more so since I feel I’ve gotten better at it.

And to follow up, what’s the best part? My guess is music but perhaps I’m wrong?
The best part is writing of course. I enjoy writing. Hifi is simply what I write about. That has to do with my background and the various turns my life took. Music has been an important part in my life since from before I was 6 years old. But relative to 6moons, it’s the creative process of writing that keeps me going. Critical listening and best part are an oxymoron. One should listen to music for pleasure, not to spit out a test score.

Knowing that you acquired a musician’s skills, do you play any instrument these days? If so, which one?
I no longer do. Without hours of daily practice, I’d not enjoy performing at a far lower level than I once was. It’d feel like raping the music and my own sensibilities; like playing with only half a deck. That’s no different from being a top athlete. To be at the top of your game requires total commitment and total fitness. It’s not something one does on the side and badly out of shape. Plus, solo clarinet is boring. You need an ensemble to play, at the very least a pianist. All of that was at an earlier phase of my life. That’s where it stayed. I’ve reinvented myself a few times since so you could say that playing the clarinet happened in a past life.

Could you share the origin of the 6moons name? Is it related in any way to your Zodiac sign? Your bio suggests it might be.
I’ve always felt that I’m not from here, here being this planet. So a more galactic identity for the site suited that perspective. The name came to me in the shower one morning and happened to be available as a domain. I didn’t want the name to have anything to do with hifi, audio, sound or the lot. 6moons it was. If one day I decide to hijack the site to write about something else altogether whilst already having an audience, the name itself is perfectly open. It can be defined to anything I like.
How’s life in Switzerland in comparison to other places you’ve lived before?
Switzerland has a very high quality of life and is unbelievably expensive. It’s very civilized in the good sense of the word; and very manicured and pristine. As such it’s also a sanctuary of sorts which is exactly what my wife and I wanted at the time.

How old is Blondie the cat : – ) ?
We aren’t exactly sure. She was a stray we picked up at the beach in front of our house in Cyprus. She’s probably going on 10 years now.

6moons readers know your work but very little about your other activities. What do you do besides reviewing?
I don’t really have other hobbies. Listening, writing, networking… those are my hobbies. I simply turned them into a job so I could do them every day, make a livelihood from them and enjoy the freedom of being self-employed and not tied to any place in particular.

It’s hard not to see that you’re a traveler. Your crib changes on a regular basis. Any new place in particular where you’d like to live next? And if there is any, what criteria must it met?
As it happens, my wife and I will make a big move later this year because Switzerland is getting too expensive to grow old in. Criteria for the new place (we already signed the lease) were English as the primary language, a 50% lower cost of living across the board, a moderate climate without snow, no shortage of clean water, low population density, a European location, an international airport within a few hours’ drive, a small town within a 10-15min drive to have access to all the basic amenities, mountain and sea views and unspoiled nature.

Any advice for beginners trying to get into audio reviewing?
In one of my ‘Keeping it honest’ columns for John Darko, I wrote about what I consider the job of reviewing to be. That covers a lot of this question. Beyond that, I’d say that those with the passion to do it are already doing it; or laying the groundwork for it as we speak. I’d say that to get good at anything requires about 10 years of hard consistent work. And I’d say that if you were wired like I am, audio would be just the excuse which you hang your writing hat on. It’s really about the creative process of self-expression per se, of communication, of refining one’s thinking to reflect clearer writing, the constant struggle to stay fresh and say it better. All of that plus networking—by which I mean, being a bridge between people, in this case manufacturers and consumers–become the grist for this particular mill, the glue which keeps the thing together, the engine which drives it. The hardware is merely incidental. If the hardware were the focus, I’d fear for a reviewer’s burn-out in a hurry. Hardware has no soul. But if instead the focus is on the people behind the hardware; and on refining and making more effective the person who acts as self-appointed bridge between them and the readers… then it’s an endless story with soul which generates endless opportunities to participate.
Being a writer now, have you ever written something not audio related? A book maybe? A short story?
During my teens, I loved reading Science Fiction and Fantasy and authors like Robert Zelazny. I did write a few short things in that vein but that’s ancient and burnt history. Like most, I did write some quite elaborate love letters in my time but you’d have to ask their respective recipients if they were any good.

In the eyes of many readers, professional audio sites aren’t credible sources of information because nearly all products reviewed score from good to very good. Not much is published about lemons. Any thoughts on that?
In my experience, it’s very rare to encounter truly crap gear. That being the case—and given that most writers do upfront research in their selection/acceptance process–you’d expect very few reviews about crap. As to the perception of “everything’s great”, I entirely agree how that’s a very real issue. Much of it has to do with fluff writing that’s insufficiently articulate to describe specific qualities. If you don’t describe how much salt, sugar, pepper and vinegar a dish has and instead just call it “great” or “awesome”, things quickly degrade. Now the writer mistakes the purpose of a review (which should be to convey what something sounds like) for whether he likes the sound or not. Writing with enthusiasm is a good thing. Doing it without hard listening data is not. Then readers have no sonic takeaway or mental image about what to expect. They only know that Mr. X loved it just as he did last month’s loaner and the one before that. Now they very logically conclude that either everything sounds more or less the same in which case none of it matters; that there’s some big conspiracy to whitewash flaws; or the keenest realize that most of us reviewers simply aren’t very good at our jobs – which ought to be describing the sound of things. I’d have to agree with the latter.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made as a reviewer?
I’m not sure. That would be for others to say who vehemently disagree with a particular one of my findings. As a boss, I’ve made any number of managerial mistakes that were based on not having prior training in those aspects. With my learn-as-you-go style, mistakes are unavoidable. But experience is the perfect teacher. After 14 years, I think I’ve probably already made most the typical mistakes you’d make being new to anything. Making mistakes is how one learns. It only takes admitting and recognizing the mistake, then doing it differently.

And finally, what is your biggest work-related victory or moment of greatest pride?
I’m happy with what our team have grown the site into over the years. It started very modestly. Certain early observers gave it zero chance at success especially with that name. Today I like to think that we’re making a quality contribution to our industry and hobby alike. We serve folks on both ends of the spectrum – the often newer smaller makers who need exposure wherever on the globe they may find themselves; and the English-speaking web-connected reader interested in honest hopefully entertaining enthusiast-type reportage. I’m certain that, despite whatever specific things people may dislike, most would be quite disappointed if we disappeared tomorrow. At the very least it’d give them one less hifi rag to bitch about. In the end, making a difference in people’s lives is something worth doing even when it’s not a cure for cancer. Whenever I suspect that writing about expensive toys for primarily boys is quite a juvenile way to spend one’s life, I’m being reminded that because of what we do, certain employees continue to have work, certain makers do break into the market to make a go of it. That alleviates the other suspicion and I’m back looking eagerly forward to tackling the next assignment.

And that’s it on my end! Srajan, thank you very much for your time and I wish all the best to you and
Thanks very much for the opportunity, Dawid – and the very best to you and Marek as well, for your new HifiKnights venture.