_evolution not revolution: What Hi-Fi magazine

Taking a cold, hard look at a long-standing reviews mag

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Brief/ How could the magazine be evolved?

Overall, I think the title lacks personality. Once it’s finished and you’ve put it down, you don’t feel anything for it. Endless shots of black and grey boxes give it a cold and austere face, even though the writing can be entertaining. It fulfils its job to inform and undoubtedly provides the most authoritative view of the market bar none but there seem to be few real peaks, no tangible excitement in an issue.

Warming her up
The magazine kicks off with First Tests, where normally there would be news. This makes sense in terms of giving readers the big info first but it creates a front end that’s very cold. If there were space in this front section for small quarter- or eighth-page regulars, identified though clever design elements, it would help to make the magazine more approachable. These regular elements could work to explain much-used terminology, they could show exploded diagrams that reveal – for example – differences in resolutions, speaker setups, screen technology and many other problem areas.

Taking this idea further, the mag could introduce elements where industry experts are quoted or maybe just talk about their own setups at home. Readers could be invited to vote on topics on the website and the results could feed back into the magazine. And sales charts and graphs could show the boom in different technologies. All these items would help draw attention to the best kit, they would make readers feel good about their own systems and they would add an entertaining touch to the front end that would draw readers in.

More agenda-setting
As undisputed leader of its market, it would be good to see What Hi Fi taking a more proactive role in the industry. There is a feeling that the title merely follows what is going on and doesn’t really lead it. It lacks passion. The publication should give a sense that it champions causes, makes things happen, shakes things up. It needs a slot to make this work – perhaps an interview where they get to talk to someone passionate about a cause. That regular feature in Q magazine springs to mind: ‘Who the hell does XXX think he is?’. Maybe this could be something like ‘What the hell does JVC think it’s doing with rear-projection?’ Every month it changes, sometimes the title revisits popular causes. This gets faces into the mag, makes it feel human and – most importantly – gives it some bite.

Even if this doesn’t sound feasible, the magazine could still champion relevant consumer causes.

Intros don’t sell
In terms of the writing, I think opening paragraphs need to be thought about more carefully. It doesn’t excite readers to know that this is the third product in the range, but it does excite to know why the product is special, what it does, why it’s here in these hallowed pages. As a reader, I want to know this information first. I also think conclusions should put products into perspective more often. The Also Consider box draws attention to the best in the market but if conclusions talked about how the features in the reviewed product compare to the features in the best in the market then it would be more helpful to newcomers who haven’t read every issue.

I also wonder if the magazine’s reviews would benefit from little tags saying ‘Budget’, ‘Mid-Range’ and ‘High-End’ so that readers could get a sense of how each product tested fits into its market.

Balance
I suspect home cinema should be a bigger priority, even if there is more hi-fi kit around. The title should find ways to talk about screens more often. There should be more emphasis on screens in Contents – at least in terms of size of imagery, if the number of screens reviewed can’t be increased. Screens should be given more space in the front section generally – and there should be more attention given to explaining differences in technology types and the pros and cons.

New readers
The magazine is fundamentally hard to approach for new readers, laden as it is with techie jargon and references to products covered in past issues. Imagine a reader coming to the title in search of a big screen then being forced to make a choice between LCD, plasma, rear-projection and projectors… not to mention HDMI, 1280x720, 1080i, 1080p – a zillion terms that only confuse more. The magazine doesn’t think enough about these readers and should find elements which enable it to cover these basics on a regular basis.

Flatplanning and the big event
I feel the magazine could be a little easier to use and would have a better sense of pace if there were some tweaks to the flatplanning. The front reviews section would feel more of an event with some full-bleed, close-up shots to liven it up and smaller regular elements as mentioned above. The How-To and Help features all belong together at the back (ideally the section should be expanded – this is where readers get more out of the kit they already own, it keeps them coming back). Features generally should be given more thought so as to break away from the endless procession of kit. The group tests should be given more of a feature-feel, each one with a different basic template and big, bold intro imagery. They should feel like an event, not like wallpaper – even if this is only achieved by showing products tested in situ and with a different style of photography rather than treated like a series of First Tests. For example, I want to see a group test of noise-cancelling headphones executed on a plane because it’s the only way I will believe they work!

Community
I think the magazine would benefit from building a community-feel – particularly good for maintaining readers. The readers should appear to be more involved in the magazine. This could be achieved by getting them to comment on kit reviews and then to feed these comments back into the pages. Much like Amazon’s Reader Reviews. The website would be ideal for this as a starting point. As well as giving What Hi Fi the opportunity to revisit the best kit, it gets readers fired up when they agree or disagree (particularly in this type of community) and then when they put the mag down they feel something about it – which, I would argue, they don’t at the moment. This idea could work as a regular stand-alone element in the front section but would ideally fit better in the rear with Help. Or it could be the magazine’s last page each month – instead of the officious-looking directory. .

-MARK HIGHAM