Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest Page 2
The overview that came to my mind to discuss this afternoon is the heart of the way I've wanted to relate to audio all my life. When I was a small failing dealer in Portland, Oregon I had this idea that the consumer, the reviewer, and the dealer should ideally all have the same motivations, should almost be the same person. (By "dealer" I don't mean the salesman or the owner of the store but the buyer, the person who's responsible for listening to, evaluating, and deciding what equipment is carried.) The motivations of these three ideal people should be the same, though I think they are significantly different in detail and some fine tuning could be done in the ways in which they should be different.
I'll give an example: When dealers go to a CES these days, they go down the hall trying to find reasons not to go into as many rooms as possible. Cynicism prevents the dealer from finding about things that are new because he's essentially overloaded with what he already knows about—what he thinks is politically more important. At both a Stereophile show and at a CES, I notice that the reviewing community does somewhat the same thing. There is a selective process of prejudging rooms before they're gone into—how much time will it be worth spending in there? This is in sharp contrast to the consumer at a Stereophile show who goes into every single room with an open mind. In this case the reviewer is being too cynical, too jaded. Knowing too much ahead of time prevents him from having an open mind.
On the other hand, I've often complained about the reviewing community being too much on the amateur side, not being familiar enough with the business, and being too easily wined, dined, and impressed by a given manufacturer's ability to get his product into [the reviewer's] hands along with the song and dance that makes it more intriguing than an equally capable product from somebody who doesn't have the same personality or who the reviewer might not relate to as well. There's a fine line between all these things...
There are sometimes products from major manufacturers that have been out for years before they get any attention. I think those products deserve attention whether they're good or bad because they are out there and people want to know about them. But when the reviewer is writing about products that nobody's ever heard of and, in a sense, is the first person to bring it to the world...there's no point in publishing a bad review. There's too many products out there to review, why write bad reviews? Bad reviews are only justified when they are about products that otherwise will receive attention anyway, and it is newsworthy and helpful to the community to say about those products what needs to be said. But a new product that no one ever would know about because it isn't any good and that dealers weren't going to carry doesn't need a bad review. On the other hand, giving a good review to a product that also does not yet really exist, this is again a fine line. Because as a manufacturer, I was once an absolute nobody—who was going to be the first dealer and who was going to be the first reviewer to give my product a chance? It's a very, very touchy question. I certainly don't have an absolute answer, but I think that it needs more careful attention than it sometimes gets.
To give an example of the kind of cynicism that I learned to develop as a dealer, acting in a manner that I thought was intelligent for a consumer and a dealer, was when a new manufacturer came out whose equipment—amplifiers, preamplifiers—used potted modules. I learned to not care what that equipment sounded like. It's a fine line, but a product like that can't be fixed once it breaks if there's no manufacturer around to service it. A reviewer encouraging such a product into existence takes on a responsibility that I don't think is always taken seriously. When a store makes a bad recommendation about a product, recommends Armor All, recommends a preamp that sounds great but next month can't be serviced because the company's out of business, he has to live with that. It comes back and haunts him. He's responsible to the community in a very direct way. The reviewing community doesn't always act as if it had this degree of responsibility. I'm generalizing about my last 15 years of thoughts on the subject of reviewing. But there are some still very important issues I think every reviewer/magazine has to face when reviewing equipment that does not come from any established manufacturer. That door certainly has to be open to allow new equipment into the market. But there's still a heavy responsibility that in some ways involves the reviewer thinking more like a dealer: Would I carry this? Would I sell it to a friend?
Objective vs subjective is something that comes up in audio every time anyone ever talks about a piece of audio equipment. There are those who try to say that everything's subjective. And then there are those who say everything should be objective—if you can't measure it or put it in objective terms, it doesn't exist. As in most cases, the extremes are wrong and somewhere in between lies the truth. To me the design of a good piece of equipment involves knowing what it does wrong, knowing that it will have distortion, and choosing that distortion. That means making some subjective judgments about what forms of distortion are more or less acceptable than others. It doesn't mean that there isn't an absolute goal, that there isn't an objective criterion of live music—or, in the case of my own product, the cable you can't distinguish in a bypass test. (Which few people unfortunately ever do, where a cable can be compared to no cable so that there is an objective reference.)