Negative Bias: the Impartial Reviewer

For a subjective equipment reviewer, whose writings are based as much on impressions as on observations, it is very important to approach a product without personal bias. Of course, all of us lay claim to this ideal, and some of us even manage to maintain the appearance of impartiality most of the time. But just under the reviewer's veneer of urbane professionalism and deliberative restraint lies a darker force—a leering hobgoblin of anarchy and mischief which scoops usually forbidden adjectives from a well of calumny and offers them for the writer's consideration as the perfect word to describe what he is trying to express. It's an ever-present temptation to accept the suggestion, because every critic harbors a secret urge to be another Dorothy Parker, trashing mankind's most earnest endeavors with devastating bon mots that will endure long after the writer has ceased to. Most of the time, the reviewer is able to resist the temptation to broadside a product, but some products, and the people they represent, make this very difficult. In fact, sometimes it is impossible.

Here are a few of the things that are likely to bias the most resolutely impartial reviewer against a product before he's even had a chance to take a listen to it (footnote 1):

1) The instructions are laughably illiterate or, worse, inaccurate. While this has no bearing on the intrinsic quality of a product, it does give a bad first impression.

2) The product arrives along with a fat package of reprints of rave reviews from other magazines. It is easy to understand why a manufacturer who feels his product is the best thing since the wheel likes to provide evidence that some reviewers agree with him, but most reviewers don't give a damn what other reviewers think about the product, and may even be a little annoyed by the implication that their judgment might somehow be swayed by other, less astute opinions about the product. (The reprint package also raises the question of why the hell this reviewer should be getting his sample of the product months after everyone else has had a crack at it.)

3) The product arrives without any paperwork at all. A Cardinal Sin, akin to spray-painting obscenities on a marble Madonna, this necessitates an urgent phone call to the president of the company, who (it turns out) is the only person in the universe who knows anything about the product and is, unfortunately, in Monaco for an important business meeting but will call the moment he gets back, three days after the report is due. The acute irritation (and uncertainty) of having to write up a product without knowing anything more about it than how it sounds is guaranteed to produce, at the least, a cautiously noncommittal review.

4) The product is dead out of the box, and its replacement works for two hours before going kaput in a puff of smoke. A reviewer's reaction to this oft-repeated scenario will depend on whether the manufacturer is a small upstart firm that's trying to get its act together and not succeeding very well, or whether it's a highly successful one that's been around for years working diligently to convert an anecdotal reputation for unreliability into a corporate image. In the former case, the review will be sympathetic; in the latter, the reviewer will be rewarded by the privilege of unleashing his hobgoblin and composing a devastatingly sarcastic review. (The manufacturer will then pull his advertising from the magazine and threaten to sue for libel and the whole brouhaha will blow over in two months.)

5) The factory did something dumb. Like wiring the input receptacles backwards or putting the output binding posts in some ridiculously inaccessible place, perhaps at the bottom of a deep recess between two of the heatsinks. These come under the category of faux pas rather than Unforgivable Offenses, so while they rarely warrant torpedoing the product, their irritation value can nonetheless temper a reviewer's enthusiasm for an otherwise-superb product, and earn for it, at the least, a caustic comment or two.

6) An important part is missing. This is particularly irksome when, after three hours spent setting up some incredibly tweaky phono unit, comes the last sentence of the instructions: "Thread the belt around the uppermost drive-shaft pulley and the perimeter of the platter." And there's no belt. This always happens in the evening or over a weekend, when it is impossible to make an outraged phone call to the person responsible. (He'll be in Monaco tomorrow anyway.)

7) The product is a nightmare to install and then turns out to sound absolutely abominable. Here we have irritation compounded by outrage (at the time wasted in getting the thing to work at all), giving the reviewer virtual carte blanche to pull out the stops with a truly devastating review. The perverse pleasure he will derive from writing this will increase in direct relation to the price of the product.

8) The product must be returned three times during the first six weeks for "last-minute upgrades." When it still proves to be seriously flawed, one more upgrade is guaranteed to fix it. This can make the most imperturbable reviewer see red, because it is clear to him that nothing he writes about the product can ever be conclusive. Worse, it threatens his credibility as a critic, because if he reports a serious sonic flaw, it will probably have been corrected by the time a reader auditions the product himself. ("Rough highs? He's full of it; the highs are gorgeous!")

9) The unit is unnecessarily difficult to service. Five-year warranties notwithstanding, all audio products will require servicing eventually, and it is always better for the dealer (or, better still, the owner) to be able to do it than to have to send the thing back to the factory, from which it may well never return. This is particularly true of such a simple exigency as a blown fuse, but some manufacturers like to make this more difficult than it has to be by burying the fuse inside the chassis and then making it a pigtail type, which must be soldered into the circuit. Serviceability is hardly a major issue, but a shortage of it is always worth a curmudgeonly comment.

10) The manufacturer is arrogant, sleazy, or has shifty eyes set too close together. While considerations of personality have no place in our equipment reports, it is inevitable that a reviewer will associate a product with its progenitor. If its manufacturer or his representative does not have the personality of a Johnny Carson and the demeanor of a Sean Connery, it is best that the product be delivered to the reviewer by an impersonal UPS or by a trucker whose sullen rudeness can be blamed on the Teamsters Union.

There are other things that turn a reviewer off before he even gets started, but the foregoing sample will give you an idea of what I'm talking about. However, there is also an obverse to impartiality: Some things predispose reviewers favorably toward a product. Such as:

1) The instruction manual has an index that actually refers to the page where a subject is discussed. Many direct you to the wrong page, and often send you to a place where the topic is mentioned in passing but not discussed.

2) All the proper tools necessary to set a product up are supplied with it. Even though a reviewer owns every tool needed to do any job relating to audio, the one he needs is never where it belongs, so it's nice to have another packed with the product. The tool, of course, will not be returned to the manufacturer. (How can you expect the reviewer to find someone else's tool if he can't lay his hands on his own?)

3) All the controls are in the places you expect them to be. This is called Zengineering (footnote 2); it's a joy when you encounter it, and the Japanese still do it best.

4) There is no sound of a small metal object rattling around inside the chassis when you turn the unit upside down. If there is, it is probably a homeless lockwasher which, if not located and excised, will inevitably manage to lodge itself between the chassis and a power supply rail. (See #4, above.)

5) The loudspeaker terminals do not unscrew when you loosen their caps. The simple expedient of using lock washers where they may be needed contributes much to a reviewer's confidence in the reliability of a product.

6) The product weighs too much to move singehandedly. This is a carry-over from the days when output and power transformers were judged by how much iron was in their core. Three-quarters of a modern preamp's weight may be due to the two large blocks of lead inside its chassis, but there is no doubt that impressive weight heightens a reviewer's expectations of a product's performance.

7) The last three products the manufacturer produced were superb. Good track record positively affects expectations.

8) The thing works the first time it is turned on, and is still working three weeks later. This is especially impressive if it is the most expensive product of its kind on the market.

9) The product arrives with a friendly note that says "There's no hurry returning this to us." Translated, this means "Keep this as long as you can use it, but return it to us when you're done with it." Equipment bribery is of course prohibited by publisher's decree, but then an open-ended loan isn't a gift. And the reviewer isn't going to want to hang onto the thing unless he likes it and would have given it a good review anyway (footnote 3). Unless, of course, his daughter needs a $7000/pair speaker system for dance parties.

10) The manufacturer phones a day after the product is up and running, not to ask what the reviewer thinks of it, but to ask if he may be of any assistance. This comes under the category of doing- something- nice- that- isn't- specifically- against- magazine- policy- because- the- question- hasn't- come- up- before. The same category also includes packing a bottle of vintage Chateau LaFitte Rothschild with the product, or flying the reviewer's son to Disneyland to celebrate his hamster's birthday.

Under the circumstances, it is hard to see how any reviewer could possibly resist all of these temptations of personal bias. But we do the best we can.

Footnote 1: My use of the male pronoun here may seem sexist, but the fact is that audio reviewers are almost universally male. My apologies to the two exceptions, Judy Davidson and Enid Lumley.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: I call your attention to this word because it is so clever and because I invented it myself. It should be a part of our language, for which reason it never will be.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 3: Ah, but a corollary of Murphy's Law operates here to keep subjective reviewers as penniless as their readers. In general, I have found that the products that one would want to keep on extended loan are the ones which the manufacturer needs back urgently. Those that their maker is happy to have hanging out in the reviewer's listening room often tend to have less good sound. Ultimately, if the reviewer wants the best sound, cash has to change hands somewhere down the line, just as in real life.—John Atkinson