The Five Dealer Rule

Surfing the Usenet newsgroups and the Web audio forums recently, it struck me that the old wisdom is correct: If you keep your mouth shut, you won't say anything with which anyone can disagree. A topic that seems to be of perennial interest is how Stereophile chooses the products it reviews. Yet the more I have explained how it's done, the greater the criticism that is heaped on the magazine.

A continuing complaint is that Stereophile favors products from established major companies rather than opening its review pages to exciting, bleeding-edge components from tiny entrepreneurial companies of whom no one has heard. A typical criticism was posted last November by "Vinylly" on the Audio Asylum: "Have you ever wondered how large the audio universe actually is? If you read all the popular audio magazines, they seem to pick a few [brands] that are reviewed over and over again....If it wasn't for the ads placed by small, independent companies, you wouldn't know they even existed....But what about the small, independent companies that don't advertise? They don't get any reviews and they don't advertise [so no one will know they exist]." [My interpolation from a subsequent clarification.—JA]

Vinylly's argument has some validity. Like all magazines, we have to restrict our review coverage to what we have the space to review. I look with envy at our Primedia stablemates Motor Trend and Automobile, which have to cope with, at most, a mere 100 new models each year. By contrast, literally thousands of new audio products come down the pike annually, and Stereophile's reviews can do no more than scratch the surface of what is being offered its readers. Inevitably, some brands will be overlooked.

Where Stereophile differs from its peers is that, instead of the criteria whereby products are chosen for review being concealed behind closed doors, I make them public knowledge. Dating back to soon after I took over the editorial reins of Stereophile in the 1980s, I imposed a rule that a manufacturer's product must be available through at least five US retail outlets before it qualifies for a formal review. (I make exceptions for mail-order or Web-based companies.) This is for four related reasons:

1) I strongly believe that a review magazine's findings are not pronouncements carved in stone but are opinions—admittedly well-formed ones—that readers should be able to test for themselves. If readers can't audition the product, they have to take what we say solely on trust, and that makes me uncomfortable.

2) I don't want to recommend to our readers that they buy equipment from a company that has not yet demonstrated any ability to design quality products, to build them in quantity, or to stay around long enough to service them. Stereophile's review space is reserved for products from companies that have taken at least the first step on the road to becoming responsible businesses. Even then, there are unavoidable casualties—see this issue's "Industry Update" for a sad example.

3) I want the products we review to be real. Giving manufacturers a small commercial hurdle to overcome—the first person other than its designer to audition a high-end product should not be a magazine reviewer—goes a long way toward ensuring that this will be the case. This is also why all of a reviewer's experience with all samples of the product is reported on in a Stereophile review.

4) I don't want Stereophile to become an intrinsic part of a new company's marketing effort—or, indeed, its only marketing effort. If a company wants to crack the US market, then they will first have to do the legwork of setting up distribution and signing up dealers before their products can be considered for a full Stereophile review. In addition, dealers who stock a new product only on the back of a positive review will not be particularly committed to it. They will therefore be likely to abandon it when the next component-of-the-month comes along, which too often leaves a small company precariously in debt, having borrowed heavily to finance the purchase of parts to make products for which demand has evaporated.

Once a company has five or more dealers, that still doesn't mean their products are automatically selected for review. The second mechanism for winnowing down the list of potential review candidates is the enthusiasm of Stereophile's writing team. They seek out what excites them musically—the products that get their creative juices flowing. This automatically means that the products that get ink spilled on them tend to be the ones that hold the most promise of sounding good.

I won't deny that there are downsides to this process. First, and the one to which "Vinylly" seemed to be referring, is that a large, successful company has a greater chance of getting its products reviewed than a minuscule startup with no track record. This is correct. In our defense, if we were to base our choices of review equipment solely on the brands that readers are most likely to encounter in stores, we would be reviewing Sony, B&W, Denon, Boston Acoustics, Polk, and the Harman brands, with perhaps some Paradigms occasionally making an appearance. That such brands don't dominate our pages shows that we already do throw under-arm pitches to the small guys. And the "Five Dealer Rule" doesn't apply to the magazine's regular columns, which is where Sam Tellig, Michael Fremer, John Marks, and now Art Dudley (footnote 1) are free to shine the light on whatever catches their ear.

Second, the policy tends to result in the magazine reviewing expensive components. I believe this is because the stakes of a Stereophile review have become very high for manufacturers. They understandably try to maximize the chance of a positive review by ensuring that we audition their cost-no-object flagships, such as Canton's admittedly very-fine-sounding Karat Reference 2 DC in this issue (p.72). And it is also such models that whet our reviewers' appetites. Let's face it: If you were a reviewer, which Ford would you rather write about—a Taurus or an Aston Martin?

But I haven't lost sight of the fact that only a small number of people will be able to afford the hi-tech dream machines compared with those who settle for the bread'n'butter models more commonly found in dealer showrooms. So we will try harder to leaven the review mix with products like the Kirksaeter Silverline 60, which Brian Damkroger reviews in this issue (p.91), and which offers more music than you'd expect from its price.

Footnote 1: As promised last November, erstwhile Listener editor Art Dudley makes his Stereophile debut in this issue, contributing a review of three products from Final Laboratory in Japan (p.97) as well as the kickoff installment of a monthly column, "Listening" (p.45). I've wanted to work with Art for many years, and it's a shame that it was the demise of his magazine that has made that possible. But now many more audiophiles will be able to appreciate the sensitive ear, the observant eye, and the keen wit with which Art informs his writing. Now all I have to do is persuade him that him being referred to as "AD" does have an upside.