The High-End Review Page 3
First, let me examine the rave review given a product that has no profile in the marketplace. Stereophile tries to avoid this situation by only reviewing products that are available from five or more retail outlets. Though many manufacturers regard this policy as unduly stringent, it does ensure that products we review are at least partway real. Magazines have the responsibility not to frustrate their audience by recommending products that don't exist (footnote 2).
Second, how about the negative review the magazine gives to a product that, until then, had been virtually selling itself? This, I believe, happens when the product offers outstanding performance in certain superficial areas but fails to give long-term musical pleasure. In the trade, such products are sometimes called---with apologies for the offensive language---"big-tits" products. They do well in short-term demonstrations because of their superficial qualities, but they either have quite ordinary performance overall, or major design flaws that drive their owners crazy after just a week or two. I try to ensure that my reviewers dig deep enough into a product's overall performance to get past the superficialities and reveal these products for what they are: airbrushed centerfolds who can't hold a conversation.
This brings up something that is not fully realized: how much work a responsible magazine puts into ensuring that its review conclusions are correct. The popular image is of the reviewer sitting in his La-Z-Boy, handing down inspired judgments to an adoring world. Sometimes he might even get the product out of its box to hear whether it sounds the way he described it.
The truth is that reviewing involves a lot of grunt work---of careful setup, of listening with as open a mind as possible, of being fooled, of finding out you've been fooled, and of hearing through the "burn" to the truth of a component's sound.
And then, when a Stereophile reviewer submits his copy, he is put through the mill by the editors. A reviewer is involved in a continuing process of self-education if he or she is to make reliable value judgments. It's an essential part of an editor's role, therefore, to nurture his reviewers. I try to visit all of Stereophile's equipment reviewers to get them to do "show-and-tells." I listen to their description of the sound we are hearing and then correlate it with what I hear. For one review a few years back, I even flew to Washington, DC for a day to listen to speakers that the reviewer had described as having "no significant flaws." It's true that some reviewers have informal support groups in which they can test their opinions in public before committing them to paper. But in general, the high-end magazine editor is the first line of defense against irresponsible, inaccurate reviews.
In an ideal world, magazine reviews give audiophiles supporting information and help bring them into your store. It is up to retailers, however, to put on a good demonstration and help your customers choose what is right for them. But if they do buy what is going to be best for them in the long term, they'll be back---and so will their friends and relatives.
A letter in response appeared in Vol.16 No.11, November 1993.
In his "As We See It" in September, it seems that JA inadvertently left out the sixth possible outcome from a review in a high-end magazine:
6) The product gets a deservedly positive review, and customers flock to your store to spend hours auditioning the product with every CD they own. Then they leave the store and you never see them again. Why? Because they decided they could buy it at a discount from a mail-order dealer that invested no time with the customer. Then, Mr. High-End Retailer, you get to go out of business.
---Paul J. Rosenberg, Mondial Designs Ltd.
It may be my puritanical streak, but I feel that the scenario outlined by Paul Rosenberg amounts to theft, the time the retailer devotes to the demonstration being equivalent to money. Audiophiles should remember that a retailer with good listening facilities and a wide range of excellent components who doesn't make any sales is a resource with a limited life. Those who feel that Paul's scenario amounts to no more than sensible shopping should read William Poundstone's book The Prisoner's Dilemma, which covers at length the conflict between self-interest and social responsibility. (The two, of course, ultimately coincide.)---JA
Footnote 2: We ask the manufacturer approximately how many retailers they have when we check the current price just before the review goes to press. We have to accept what we are told at face value; sadly, there have been one or two occasions when it later become apparent that this information was incorrect, leading to such frustration.