The Reviewer's Lot

"Time to write another equipment report," thought the Great Reviewer, aware that the IRS would soon require another small donation to keep the country running on track. Deftly donning his Tom Wolfe vanilla suit, he sat at the antique desk acquired on one of his many all-expenses-paid research trips to Europe, patted the bust of H.L. Mencken that invariably stood by the word processor, ensured that his level of gonzo awareness was up to par, arranged his prejudices and biases in descending order of importance, checked that the requisite check was in the mail, coined a sufficient number of Maileresque factoids appropriate to the occasion, and dashed off 3000 words of pungently witty, passionately argued, convincingly objective, and deeply felt prose.

Reaching for the Federal Express envelope, he sensed that something still was wrong, furrows of unaccustomed anxiety ruining the perfectly molded symmetry of his intellectual brow. "Heck," he remembered, "I suppose I'd better get the component out of its box to check if I was right about its sound quality."

This image of what was termed the Golden-Eared Subjective Reviewer by IAR's J. Peter Moncrieff—it is no coincidence, I am sure, that the derived acronym (GESR) is pronounced "guesser"—seems to be conjured up by the audio engineering establishment at every suitable opportunity. I can assure you, however, that in no way does it apply to any of Stereophile's reviewing staff. A reviewer's lot is not such an easy one.

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, "If you work in either journalism or will be flogged for being right and flogged for being wrong." A reviewer for this magazine is obliged to be right if he is not to be flogged. In his "Final Word" in the September 1988 issue, Larry Archibald defined what an equipment report needed to do and what it needed to include in order to be of use to our readers. That there is a need for more public discussion, however, was revealed when Larry and I paid a visit to The Audiophile Society (Westchester County, New York) in October; these audio enthusiasts were actively aware of what they saw as potentially serious problems with the manner in which high-end magazines cover the field. I thought, therefore, that I would share with you some more of this magazine's policies, philosophies, and attitudes toward the thorny business of reviewing hi-fi equipment.

Fundamentally, of course, as defined by J. Gordon Holt when he founded Stereophile in 1962, our reviews concern what a component sounds like. These days this seems so self-evident to any audiophile about to decide what to buy that it's hard to understand how revolutionary a change this represented a quarter of a century ago. (It was a primary factor behind The Abso!ute Sound's Harry Pearson's recently giving Gordon a Lifetime Achievement Award—see this month's "Industry Update.") The fundamental instruction to Stereophile's reviewers, therefore, contained in the letter I send to everyone about to start writing hardware reports for the magazine, is: "Describe the component's sound." But there's more, of course.

As well as grammatical instructions—I like our reviewers to be aware of the difference between "ambience" and "ambiance" (footnote 1), as well as being able to distinguish between heterogeneous and homogeneous comparison (ie, when it's correct to use "compared to," and when to substitute "compared with")—I discuss at length with our equipment reviewers such matters as ethics, relationships with manufacturers, and to whom a magazine owes its loyalty.

The answer to this third question underlies, in fact, everything we do. We regard it as axiomatic that our primary loyalty is to those who pay money every month to read our opinions. Stereophile's—in fact, any magazine's—underlying responsibility must be to its readers if it is not to become the poodle of the industry it purports to cover. The readers' needs must always be put above everything else. A magazine like Stereophile has a threefold responsibility to its readers: it must inform, it must educate, and it must entertain. If it fails in any of these three areas, the magazine lets its readers down. Here's how we instruct our reviewers in how to cope with those responsibilities:

• The relationship between the magazine and manufacturers: There is no connection here at Stereophile between the editorial content and such considerations as who does and who doesn't support the magazine with advertising. There is no correlation between who advertises and who receives good reviews. There is no correlation between who advertises and who gets review coverage of any kind.

We choose products for review on the basis of their relevance to our readers. If a manufacturer chooses to cancel advertising because of a negative review, that is their decision. We would choose to go out of business before corrupting the integrity of our editorial material. In any case, one of my mentors, John Crabbe, editor of HFN/RR from 1964 to 1982, always used to say that if your publication is any good, an advertiser who cancels out of pique will eventually have to return.

• Once a writer has embarked upon a review for Stereophile, nothing can stop that review from eventually appearing in print (provided that the review itself is to a literary standard worth publishing). The policy of some mainstream publications is to quietly abort reviews which will be negative on the grounds that the space in the magazine is too precious to "waste" on negative copy. This practice was also justified to me by a since-departed member of staff for one of the "big three" on the grounds that his magazine's primary loyalty was to the companies who support it with advertising revenue, not to its readers.

• If a product sounds bad but appears to be working properly, then we will proceed with the review on the grounds that it is typical of production. If it eventually turns out that a loudspeaker's crossover was wired incorrectly, or that the wrong transistors were installed, or that the hum was due to a production fault, we will happily review the corrected version, but you will always learn about the original problem. Such information is relevant to the review: the magazine's readers need to know that a manufacturer can't always supply a working sample, even when the user will be a reviewer.

If a product does turn out to be faulty, or just doesn't work out of the box, we ask for a second sample. If that one doesn't work, then we ask again. Similarly, when a manufacturer asks if he can send an updated version, we comply on the grounds that we need to be able to describe the most recent sample for the review to be relevant. However, the writers are instructed to include in their reviews all their experience with all the samples they've received, not just the most recent or best-functioning. Who's to say that a large number of the faulty or older versions are not already out there in the field?

A corollary to this is that it is often said that magazines receive nontypical, handchosen samples for review. Given the large number of failures that we experience, I can't believe this to be so. If it were so, then the failure rate in the field would be a disgrace to the industry. Occasionally we hear from readers that the amplifier or speaker they heard didn't sound nearly as good as the one we reviewed, in which case we make earnest efforts to obtain an additional sample for followup.

• Our reviewers write their opinions free of pressure from companies whose fortunes will be affected, positively or negatively, by those opinions. After a writer has submitted his or her review copy to the magazine, we send a preprint of the edited report to the manufacturer in time for them to send us a comment for inclusion in "Manufacturer's Comments." That is often when the cow cakes hit the fan. However, as all the communication involving the content of the review is fielded by the editorial staff, the writer is protected. (It has happened that a manufacturer has found the home telephone number of a reviewer and attempted to beat them up over the phone—"I'll see you'll never again be able to hold up your head in public!" Not surprisingly, we get upset by this behavior, but fortunately it has happened very rarely.)

• We allow manufacturers to reprint reviews of their products that have appeared in Stereophile only if the following conditions are fulfilled: that, if reprinted in full, Stereophile's production staff prepares the text and artwork in order that nothing be omitted; and that the reprint have a lifetime of only 18 months from the review's first publication in the magazine. That this has not always been the case was why we started to take a hard line over this matter in early 1987; some companies were making considerable PR mileage with Stereophile reviews that were getting decidedly long in the tooth.

Footnote 1: "Ambience" refers to the acoustic reflections and echoes that go to make up the reverberation and sense of space on a recording; "ambiance" is the pervading social or mental atmosphere.