Accentuate the Positive? Page 2

My reading of Mr. Carpe's essay coincided with a statement from someone whose opinions I respect: that every time Stereophile publishes a negative review, particularly of a high-profile component like the Martin-Logan Sequel II, the entire high-end industry suffers because the typical audiophile's overall confidence in it is diminished. The role of a high-end magazine should not be to concentrate on the negative, according to this viewpoint; rather, it is to increase the level of enthusiasm for reproduced sound in high-end land. Then and only then will this industry grow as it should.

The point here is not to give everything a positive review. Rather, when a product is deemed unacceptable, then the review should be aborted in an early stage before the reviewer has wasted his or her time. This would have the benefit of freeing up space in the magazine's pages to allow reviewers to promote a larger number of products that were good enough to be recommended. The manufacturer of the unsatisfactory product would also then have a chance to improve it without the audiophile public ever being aware that there had been a problem. I understand that this is the policy of Audio and Gramophone regarding hardware reviews that would otherwise be negative. Certainly Larry Klein told me that this was Stereo Review's policy when he was that magazine's Technical Editor back in the early 1980s.

I agree that an important role for Stereophile and the other high-end magazines is to generate enthusiasm for listening to music with as good a sound quality as possible. This, for example, is why this magazine gets involved in hi-fi shows, and why I try to visit audiophile societies whenever possible. We have a duty to put back more than we take out from the audiophile community. But to me, this is a matter unconnected with equipment reviews, be they negative or positive.

It would seem that it is the judgmental nature of reviews that is actually being questioned here, first because it endangers the livelihoods of small but sincere manufacturers, second because it endangers the growth of this supposedly fragile industry.

But why do these people think a magazine like Stereophile exists in the first place, if not to pass judgments on components? And if we pass judgments on how close or how far a component approaches the paradigm outlined above, it follows that those components that do not approach closely enough will be downgraded accordingly. Saying that a component is perceived as having "minor deficiencies in sound quality" makes it sound as though the reviewer is being unnecessarily harsh. But it's a harsh world out there, Mr. Carpe, particularly when you know that someone is going to spend some hard-earned cash based on what you say. If a reviewer finds that a component's deficiencies are greater than those typical of competing products, then I can't see how it can be recommended if the reviewer is to be true both to what he or she believes and be responsible to the needs of the magazine's readers.

Take the Amrita loudspeaker that I review in this issue. Both in comparison with the unobtainable ideal and with competing products from other manufacturers, I felt it to have a significant level of midrange coloration, coupled with poor imaging, that precludes any recommendation. In his "Manufacturer's Comment" letter, however, Amrita's John Andre says that the "man who says that all coloration is bad exhibits an extremist musical taste which is at variance with the mainstream of America today." In other words, it is unfair of me to stick to my value structure, to be judgmental, given the more relaxed critical standards of others.

Sorry, Mr. Andre. If the component doesn't strike those responsive sparks in the reviewer, fails to excite those mental resonances, it must be rejected no matter how sincere its progenitors' love of music. No matter if it could be said that the reviewer's values are more critical than those of others. No matter that the effect of the review on the manufacturer's livelihood could be "devastating." Otherwise, we would offer no more of a service to our readers than those cynical hacks who write with an equal lack of enthusiasm in every review that "of all the products I have reviewed, this is one of them."

Far from being the pejorative term implied by Mr. Carpe, "consumer advocacy" is actually a powerful mechanism for products to improve, to more closely approach the unapproachable. (It isn't the only mechanism. High-end dealers, too, have a powerful incentive not to sell poor-sounding or unreliable products—they lose customers by doing so!) Larry Archibald has said on more than one occasion that the disservice done by the likes of Julian Hirsch to his readers is not that he fails to tell them when a product is bad, it is that he fails to inform them about components that are excellent. Yes, when reviewers are true to what they hear and what they value, it is inevitable that some manufacturers will suffer, but those who design components in which, as John Ruskin said, "the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together," will benefit. (The heart alone is not sufficient, Mr. Carpe.)

Don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that to publish negative reviews is a particularly enjoyable task, only that it is necessary. Personally, I much prefer to publish justified praise of products that allow the music to more closely touch the listener's soul. I certainly do not go all the way with The Audio Anarchist, who once said in a first draft of one of his columns that "Reviewers should be required to produce a certain number of negative reviews—like police given quotas for handing out speeding tickets." But I do agree with Sam Tellig that the role of the magazine is not so much to move products from dealers' shelves as to keep them there unless they are terrific. And that means publishing negative reviews when the product deserves it.