The Upside of Negative Reviews

Most readers of Stereophile are in it to read about great products—things that make the hobby and art of home sound reproduction exciting. In this respect, reviewers aren't too different—we love sound reproduction and music in general, and products that help bring this to life are the cat's meow. Reviewers that can't respond with this kind of excitement don't have a place writing for this magazine.

There still remain, however, those occasions when the reviewer has to conclude that a product is of marginal value, or simply unsatisfactory in spite of its (perhaps) great virtues. Not surprisingly, manufacturers of such products frequently experience ill will in the face of such conclusions. (It may seem axiomatic, but I've yet to know of a manufacturer in this sector of the industry that sells a product he knows to be terrible. Yet the fact is that some are!)

At this juncture, how helpful is a bit of reflection on the merits (and possible demerits) of the product in question! After a decent interval, this can even result in real improvements. For the reviewer, this is the ultimate antidote to the bitter pill of writing negative reviews—not only was he correct in his judgment, but announcing the judgment ultimately helped the manufacturer, and, more importantly, his customers and the magazine's readers.

There's another possible response, one that's been chosen by at least one manufacturer reviewed in this issue. This victimized creature assumes that the magazine is simply out to get him—in spite of numerous positive mentions of the products this company makes. It's of course impossible for the product to be flawed; if it is, this should presumably be communicated to the manufacturer privately to avoid embarrassment and commercial effect.

In general, though, our errors tend in the direction of enthusiasm about products that aren't as good as we say—or that later prove unsatisfactory in the light of new developments. It's very rare that problems are heard that are in fact imaginary. And, in spite of how political this business allegedly is, it's virtually unheard of that we review a product on anything but its own merits.