"But I Thought You Were My Friend!"
The relationship between audio reviewers and equipment designers is tricky at best. Reviewers judge a company's products and report their impressions to equipment-buying readers, often with significant consequences---positive or negative---for the manufacturer. Conflicts often arise because the manufacturer and reviewer have completely different agendas; the reviewer is responsible to his readers, the designer to his company.
This relationship is even more complex when a reviewer and manufacturer establish a friendship. With contacts made during visits to the magazine's headquarters with a new product, Consumer Electronics Shows, Stereophile shows, and other industry functions, it is inevitable that friendships will develop between people who share a similar passion for music and audio technology. Such friendships are not uncommon among writers for all magazines and are usually genuine and spontaneous. Sometimes, however, they are premeditated and contrived by the manufacturer in an attempt to exert influence on the reviewer.
Reflecting this often uneasy relationship, reviewers are sometimes treated according to what they've written lately rather than who they are as people. These inappropriate reactions range from expressions of anger at a negative review to the manufacturer falling all over himself to show his gratitude for a positive one.
At this last CES, I was confronted by a wide spectrum of manufacturer reactions to my recent equipment reports in Stereophile. Virtually all the comments and attitudes were entirely inappropriate, reflecting fundamental misunderstandings of the reviewer/manufacturer and reviewer/reader relationships.
At one end of the scale, a manufacturer was quick to "thank" me "for saying nice things" about his product. Reviewers shouldn't be "thanked" for praising a worthy product. The product earned the positive review---it wasn't given by the reviewer. I see a strong parallel here between a reviewer and a baseball umpire: both "call 'em as they see 'em." If a runner is called "Safe" at home plate, the team's manager doesn't come out to thank the umpire---he congratulates his player for having the skill to beat the throw. Similarly, a manufacturer's marketing representative should congratulate his engineers for designing a good product---not thank the reviewer for "giving" a positive review. The umpire did nothing for which he should be "thanked"---and neither did the audio reviewer. If a product is worthy of praise and a recommendation, the reviewer is merely performing his duty of serving his readers. If the runner was safe at home, the umpire was just doing his job, serving both the fans and the interests of truth and fair play.
Conversely, a reviewer shouldn't be treated as a pariah for writing a negative review any more than an umpire should be attacked for calling the runner out. If the runner didn't make it to the plate in time, it's his fault---not the umpire's.
One manufacturer at the CES reacted to me with genuine hostility. One representative of the company completely ignored me, while another grunted with suspicion and anger when I naively greeted him. Why? I hadn't written anything about that manufacturer's products. What had happened since the last time I saw them?
Then it hit me. In the interim I had written a rave review of a competing product. This manufacturer's treatment of me was just as inappropriate as that of the manufacturer who thanked me for my positive comments. Both reactions reflect an ignorance of the fact that the reviewer's responsibility is to his readers. If a better product comes along, the reviewer must express that opinion to his readers without regard for either the commercial impact to that product's competitors or the personal repercussions it may cause. If criticizing a product or praising a competing product causes ill-will and destroys a friendship, then that association was based on the manufacturer's marketing strategy and not on genuine affection. The offending editorial expression merely stripped away the thin veneer of subterfuge.
Footnote 1: This essay's title is a manufacturer's verbatim quote, made after reading the preprint of a Stereophile review.