Listening #5 Page 3

We are the nudists next door
I just got off the phone with an electronics designer I admire: a bright, friendly guy who designs amps and preamps for a number of small audio manufacturers. I was calling to decline an opportunity to review one of his products, because the company he designed it for is run by someone I think is a dimwit.

Not everyone who knows the manufacturer in question shares my low opinion of him, of course, and that's cool: What matters is that I've removed myself from a situation in which it might have been impossible to appreciate and communicate every aspect of a product's appeal.

I've written a few negative reviews in my day, and a great many more that were mixed. Looking back, I'm confident that none of my criticisms were motivated by issues of personality. In fact, readers who are pained whenever I express a liberal point of view will be cheered to know that I've given raves to at least one product from a person whose politics would make Hermann Göring blush (no mean feat for a man who, like Ronald Reagan, was given to wearing rouge in public). How's that for objectivity!

But I've come to where I do require a certain minimum of courtesy, or at least a lack of overt rudeness, before I'll go out of my way to write about someone's product. The manufacturer in question has failed me in that regard on more than one occasion. As far as I'm concerned, he's a serial dimwit.

There are a few interesting questions in there, not the least of which is: Why would someone who dislikes a certain reviewer seek that person's opinion in the first place? The most obvious answer, of course, is that he wants the publicity—the free advertising that any review, good or bad, amounts to.

I understand that, but I add a clause of my own: Just because I have a job in the lunch line doesn't mean I have to keep serving the kid who shows off for his friends by spitting out his food.

That taken care of, here's another interesting question: Have I ever been influenced by kindness or good manners into writing a better review than a product deserved? I don't think so—but I can't say for sure. The trouble is, like most people, I prefer to think of myself as someone who's more easily swayed by goodness than by badness. Unfortunately, to the person who sells opinions for a living, that's not necessarily a good thing. If I recommend a product that shouldn't even be allowed to ride on a UPS truck, then in doing so I've pleased one nice guy and failed the 80,000 others who turn to Stereophile for good advice, among other things.

Recently I gave a mixed review to a product from someone I consider to be just this side of sainthood—not only one of the most good-hearted people I've met in audio, but one of the most good-hearted people I've met, period. The review wasn't all that bad, and in fact it was more positive than negative: His product had some relative shortcomings, but was recommendable overall. Still, describing those shortcomings was not a job I relished. I would rather his product had been perfect. I'm only human.

I really do like most of the people I've met—regardless of their politics or faith or whatever—and I make friends fairly easily. Since I work in audio, that's where a lot of my acquaintances come from. I've joined my audio friends for christenings, funerals, and everything in between, and if I ever walk away from audio, as a profession or a hobby, I certainly won't be able to turn my back on the people who live there.

So if I were to take some silly vow and forswear reviewing products from people whom I consider friends—and don't laugh: this suggestion is regularly made on the Internet, without irony—then there wouldn't be many people left whose products I could write about at all. And most of them would be in the cable business. (Joke.)

I could do it. I could also publish the graphs from my semiannual hearing tests, make all my listening notes available online, notify my readers every time a manufacturer picks up the tab at lunch, and have all my reviews notarized before I send them to poor, longsuffering John Atkinson. But the people who think they need those sorts of things won't believe me anyway. In fact, the people who think they need those sorts of things wouldn't be reading this column in the first place, if their disdain for hi-fi magazines is to be believed. As with those Puritans given to peeping through the hedgerow at the nudists next door, it isn't.

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