The Law and the Prophets: Stereophile's Review Policies

I began writing this essay on New Year's Day 2007. The passing of the old year reminded me that I am now in the 21st year of editing Stereophile, my 25th of being the editor-in-chief of a mainstream audio magazine, and my 31st of working full-time as an audio journalist. (Prior to joining Stereophile in 1986, I had worked for 10 years at British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, the final four as its editor.) Back in the innocent 1970s, reviewers and editors generally picked and chose what products to review based on their own interest and what they felt appropriate for their readers to know about. Back then, there was only a tiny fraction of the audio brands now available to the audiophile, and even with fewer review pages than we now have, it was possible each year to cover a representative sample of the products being offered our readers. But such was the explosion in high-end audio throughout the 1980s that, by 1989, I felt it necessary to impose some restrictions on what products we choose for full review coverage in Stereophile.

A full review represents a considerable investment in resources and pages on the part of the magazine, and I wanted neither to waste that investment on products that are demonstrably not ready for prime time nor, more important, to publish reports on products that the magazine's readers could not audition for themselves at specialty retailers, and with which they therefore could not test for themselves our reviewers' findings. We could still cover the more esoteric and experimental gear in our regular columns and departments, but the bright light of a full review would be reserved for the products that deserve it.

A few recent episodes in our own pages, as well as the explosion of webzines—very few of which seem to adhere to the traditional journalist ethos, let alone have actual policies in place—suggest that it is high time to restate in one convenient place Stereophile's editorial policies regarding both equipment reviews and the behavior of our reviewing team (footnote 1).

Products are chosen for review in Stereophile on the basis of their relevance to the interests and needs of the magazine's readers. Reviewers and editors have no role in selling advertising for the magazine, and whether or not a given manufacturer purchases advertising space in Stereophile is irrelevant to a reviewer's conclusions. There is no connection between a product's being selected for review and whether or not its manufacturer advertises in the magazine (footnote 2).

It is not Stereophile's role to help brands without US distribution become established in the US. For formal equipment reports (as opposed to news-item or regular column reporting), products that are distributed through conventional retail channels must be available at five or more US retail outlets (footnote 3). Please note that meeting this requirement does not guarantee a review—many more new products are introduced each year than the magazine has space to publish reviews. I am also starting to feel that even this restriction is too lenient for some high-priced, flagship products that may be available for audition at only a very small number of their manufacturers' franchised dealers.

It is the editor's decision whether a product distributed by mail-order or via the Web qualifies for review. However, at minimum the company must have a formal US presence and must offer a 30-day, money-back refund policy. (Many companies charge a restocking fee for returned products; I believe this is a legitimate practice.)

Stereophile does not review prototypes, nor does it accept samples of product to try out without any subsequent review coverage.

Stereophile reviewers and editors do not act as paid or unpaid consultants for audio companies. During the review process, reviewers confine their interactions with manufacturers to logistics and social pleasantries. The purpose of the review process is to inform the readers, not to assist in behind-the-scenes product development, no matter how flattering that may be. It should go without saying that the usual rules of journalistic integrity apply. Other than meals, and travel expenses for factory visits, Stereophile's reviewers and editors do not accept from manufacturers payments or gifts worth more than $100. (See Art Dudley's "Listening," on p.39.)

All products sent to Stereophile and its reviewers that meet the above conditions are deemed to be for review. It is also assumed that they are representative of current production quality.

Reviews prepared for publication in Stereophile are never aborted. If a manufacturer, with my approval, submits a sample for review, the review shall be published.

The manufacturer is not made aware of the review findings until sent a confidential preprint of the final text prior to publication so that they can submit a "Manufacturer's Comment" letter, to be published in the same issue as the review. The fact that the manufacturer saw the review before the magazine's readers did does not constitute special treatment for the benefit of the manufacturer, but rather enhances the accuracy of the review process and gives readers the benefit of the manufacturer's comments. If the manufacturer or distributor claims that poor review findings were due to a manufacturing fault or to the sample being broken, at my discretion as editor they may submit a second sample. The publication of the review may then be postponed, but all of the reviewer's experience with all samples will be reported on in the review when it eventually sees print. (See Robert's Deutsch's Silverline review on p.83.)

Review samples remain the property of the manufacturer, and are promptly returned to the manufacturer following publication of the review, unless a longer-term loan, for reference purposes, is agreed to. Stereophile writers and editors can buy review samples at the usual industry accommodation price (this is usually close to the dealer price), provided they agree not to sell the item within the time period specified by the manufacturer, and that they are willing to abide by whatever other terms the manufacturer might insist on.

The entire contents of Stereophile magazine and its website are the copyrighted intellectual property of Source Interlink Media. (The copyright in its cover photographs reverts after publication to the photographer.) Stereophile magazine does not charge manufacturers for the use of brief quotations from reviews in the manufacturers' advertising or literature. However, Stereophile does expect and insist on the courtesy that, before each such use, the manufacturer request permission in writing and that all such quotes include a standardized attribution,. Manufacturers cannot quote from a Stereophile review in their advertising until the month following publication of that review. Advertisements from a manufacturer whose product is being reviewed in the same issue cannot appear adjacent to or within that review.

Many manufacturers feel that these rules are too stringent. Conversely, some manufacturers feel the rules are not stringent enough—that Stereophile's editorial content is already slanted too far away from what audiophiles will find to audition at their local specialty dealer. As long as my policies are criticized from both directions, I will continue to believe that they represent the optimum course for the magazine to follow.

Footnote 1: My thanks to John Marks for collaborating with me on the first draft of this essay.

Footnote 2: Currently, around 47% of published reviews are of products from advertisers, 53% from nonadvertisers. As about 40% of all audio manufacturers currently advertise in or have advertised in Stereophile, a 47% figure does represents a slight bias in favor of advertisers. This is due, I conjecture, to the fact that manufacturers who meet our rule regarding the minimum number of dealers will be more likely to be successful enough to advertise in any publication, not just Stereophile.

Footnote 3: Home-based dealerships that are legitimate business enterprises do qualify as dealers. Private individuals who are willing to welcome the curious into their homes to hear an obscure product do not qualify as dealers.