The Reviewer's Lot Page 2
• The relationship between reviewers and manufacturers can be complicated. The Abso!ute Sound, for example, has a policy of refusing to allow manufacturers to communicate at all with the writer reviewing their product. We feel that this is too restrictive. It can only help the reviewer to know why a product is designed the way it is—education is a lifelong process—and, in turn, the manufacturer deserves to have his or her component auditioned in an appropriate manner. However, once the review is under way, we do not allow manufacturers to know details of its outcome until they receive the preprint.
• We do not allow manufacturers to dictate which reviewer carries out a review on their product. It is an unfortunate fact that it is always possible for a reviewer to become "tame" regarding a specific manufacturer's products. This is only natural; reviewers, like anyone, are susceptible to "falling in love" with the sound of particular products, or becoming overly enamored of certain design philosophies. It is also often impossible to completely separate respect for a particular designer from a review's findings. Such personal factors can also work against a company's products. If a reviewer hates panel loudspeakers on principle, for example, then it would not be fair to the manufacturer of such a model to choose him to review it.
We work to minimize any such extraneous factors by careful choice of reviewer. We pick and choose our passage through this thorny thicket basically on the premise that whoever ends up reviewing the product will reveal its virtues and its faults.
Manufacturers do not like this, in general appearing to prefer reviews that are wholly positive—which isn't all that surprising. Relationships have even turned sour when a reviewer, in the midst of a paean of praise for a component's sound quality, mentions that he found its aesthetics distasteful. However, it seems self-evident that even the best products will have some negative aspects or some idiosyncrasies that need to be pointed out. If you read a review that reads like it was written by the manufacturer's marketing department, then it is likely the reviewer didn't probe deep enough. Note that this is not an instruction to writers to produce negative reviews; only to be thorough.
• Regarding financial benefit: This standard is simple. No form of financial reward given to a reviewer for a review, by anyone other than the magazine, is acceptable. To the best of our knowledge, no Stereophile reviewer has so benefited, but were it to happen that reviewer's relationship with the magazine would immediately cease.
• Trips abroad, fancy dinners, and other such benefits are often offered by companies' public relations staffs in order to attract attention to the company's product. Stereophile's policy is that, when a staff writer is asked to attend a press conference or any other event at the company's expense, we write copy only when it's relevant or informative to our readers (in other words, the same standard we apply to all copy). Mere attendance does not imply any deal to give the company or its products editorial coverage. We draw the line at accepting invitations to attend general events such as consumer electronics shows and conventions at a specific company's expense. If we think these events are worth covering, again in terms of relevance to our readers, then Stereophile picks up the tab. Otherwise, the magazine's staff members do not attend.
• A question that concerned The Audiophile Society was when does a long-term loan of a product to a reviewer become a gift? This is a complicated subject, as reviewers do need to keep reference products at hand. We do not have a hard-and-fast policy on the subject of long-term loans, every case being considered on its merits. In general, however, if we have a real need to hang on to a product for longer than a year, we buy it, which is the case with the Versa Dynamics turntable and Sound Lab loudspeakers used by Gordon in his reference system.
This raises another important subject: How can a reviewer do a fair evaluation of a product's merits without any firsthand knowledge of the performance of its peers? It is essential that a reviewer to be able to place the component being tested both in its context in the marketplace and in that of its ultimate sound quality. To quote from Larry's essay in September, "The review must give you buying information. You must be told what significant products compete with the piece under review, whether the price differentials make sense, whether the company in question has a good reputation for service and reliability, excellent or shabby dealer networks, and whether it's likely they'll even be in business when the time for service or resale comes (though accurately predicting the latter is almost impossible)."
In fact, one of the things about the slicks which really gets me going as a fellow Editor is that, in general, their reviews never do any of this, never comparing a product's performance, pedigree and price with those of its immediate competition. For example, it has been said about Julian Hirsch that whenever he reviews a loudspeaker, a precis of the conclusion would leave the reader with this bald statement: "Of all the speakers I have reviewed...this is certainly one of them." Manufacturers, of course, are happy always to have a product reviewed against its specification, with no recognition that there is a world out there in which the product is going to have to compete on its sonic merits. But readers, as potential purchasers, have a real need for hard buying information.
A secondary point is that readers, if so minded, should be able to follow the reviewer's reasoning from first principles, and test the validity of his or her statements for themselves. Too many reviewers for all magazines, in my opinion, tend to hand down Olympian judgments, apparently intended to be taken as fact without the writer supplying any of the scaffolding or supporting information which would inform readers as to exactly how he or she arrived at such conclusions. As I see it, this is a cop-out, aimed more at preserving the writer's need always to appear right than at the magazine's need to serve its readers. The reviewer's duty is to provide an informed and educated opinion that can serve as a basis for readers to make up their own minds. The more support the reviewer gives readers as to how he arrived at his views, the more he helps them clarify their own.
• The bottom line for Stereophile's equipment reviewers is the question: "Would I spend my own money on this product?" If the answer is "No," despite the piece of equipment in question performing well, then an otherwise positive conclusion must recognize this fact. And if the answer is "Yes," even if the reviewer has pointed out flaws, then the conclusion must be positive. However, to give a good review to a mediocre product, for whatever reason, is worse in some ways than giving a mediocre review to a good product. The latter can damage a manufacturer's profitability, but not only does the former fail to keep the reader informed, it may make him spend money on a product that fails to keep him happy—the worst service Stereophile can do him.