As Reviewers See It
In addition to myself, present in Stereophile's dedicated listening room that sunny Saturday afternoon in late July 1991 were Larry Archibald, Arnie Balgalvis, Bob Deutsch, Jack English, Corey Greenberg, Larry Greenhill, Bob Harley, J. Gordon Holt, Richard Lehnert, Guy Lemcoe, Lewis Lipnick, Peter Mitchell, Tom Norton, Dick Olsher, and Sam Tellig, with my old friend Will Hammond acting as Moderator. The meeting having sorted out the "Recommended Components" listing due to appear in the October 1991 issue, I primed the pump by reading a number of prepared statements to the assembled editors and scribes, pundits and gurus, for them to discuss. The general topic up for grabs was the responsibility of the equipment reviewer. I have split the transcript into the four natural sections into which the conversation fell, with the appropriate axioms appended to the beginning of each. I hope you find it entertaining but also illustrative of the sometimes intense arguments out of which Stereophile's editorial policy emerges. (And if anyone wants buy the film rights...)—John Atkinson
Reviewing & Responsibility
• Any magazine which publishes reviews has a primary responsibility to the truth.
• Any magazine which publishes reviews has a primary responsibility, not to its advertisers, but to its readers.
Peter W. Mitchell: Is there any contradiction?
Dick Olsher: I think they're synonymous.
Lewis Lipnick: I see it very simply. If you're going to review a piece of audio equipment, assuming you know something about the source material, which hopefully you do, then you're going to be faithful to the reader by being honest to the equipment. You review a product: if it's good, okay; if it comes out bad, well then okay...Otherwise you shouldn't be in the business of reviewing.
Arnis Balgalvis: You tell the truth; that's the bottom line...
John Atkinson: But what if that truth can eventually hurt the reader? For example, say we find that a $12,000 D/A processor sounds better than any other processor or CD player. It has been argued that we still shouldn't recommend our readers buy that processor because it is possible for something then to come along which is either better still or cheaper. It was even argued in a letter in our August issue [as well as in the September and December "Letters" columns] that it is immoral for us to recommend components that are so expensive even if they do sound better.
Lipnick: I disagree. I don't believe this is a problem...
Richard Lehnert: I think when it comes to the issue of the morality or immorality of recommending incredibly expensive equipment, you have to draw a fine line: what you're recommending is the sound; you're not necessarily recommending the purchase.
Lipnick: Correct. I'm not telling readers to buy something, I'm just saying this is the way it sounds.
Larry Archibald: I think the thing that is left out of "by telling the truth, you inevitably benefit the reader"—which I agree with—is the fact that our readers are not only asking us for the truth about the equipment, but also for our counsel. For instance, I go to a diamond merchant and the diamond merchant shows me all the diamonds on the table and they're ranked at $5000, $10,000, $15,000, $50,000, $100,000. He says to me that the $100,000 is much better than the $50,000 diamond because the $50,000 diamond has a minor flaw which almost nobody can see and the $100,000 has no flaw whatsoever. He's told me the truth, but at that point I would probably ask him whether or not it made any sense for me to buy the $100,000 diamond since the $50,000 diamond looked the same to me.
I would expect his counsel in that situation. And I think that when we discuss whether or not to recommend very expensive digital devices, the reader might be asking us for our counsel as to the wisdom of investing a lot of money in an expensive digital device. That's a legitimate question. I still think we must tell the truth about the fact that a Stax is better than a Rotel. Exactly as it appears.
Footnote 1: The transcripts of the previous discussions appeared in Vol.12 No.11 and Vol.14 No.2. This conversation was recorded in stereo using a pair of AKG cardioid mikes, an EAR tube microphone preamplifier, and a 12-year-old Sony TC-D5 cassette recorder. My thanks to Anne Peacocke for her accurate transcription of the two hours' worth of tape. A note on the editing of the transcript: I conformed to Stereophile's usual style with interviews, which is to correct grammar, remove all the verbal throat-clearing that clutters and obscures spoken English, and eliminate repetition and irrelevance. Significant omissions (in terms of length) are indicated with ellipses (...), and where something has been added for necessary clarification, the editorial interjection is contained in brackets.—JA