The Goodness of Your Heart: A Tragedy in One Act

Note: All dialogue quoted verbatim from e-mail exchanges to which I am privy; the stage directions are imaginary.

Dramatis Personae:

bill, director of marketing for PS Audio

randy (footnote 1), amateur reviewer for a commercial audiophile website

dick (footnote 2), professional reviewer for an established audio magazine (not Stereophile)


The stage is completely darkened, save for a small pool of light L. and another R. At L. we see randy in his office, sitting with his feet up on his desk. Other than a computer and a telephone, his desk is barren. At R. is bill, sitting in his office. On bill's desk are an "I love Colorado" coffee mug, a half-eaten croissant, several piles of paperwork—one of which mostly obscures a small laptop computer—and a telephone. As the curtain rises, bill is dialing his telephone; a few seconds later, randy's telephone rings. He answers the call.

randy. Hello?

bill. Hi, Randy. It's Bill, from PS Audio. I got the message that you want to buy a Bridge II network server card for your DirectStream DAC. You can order it from our retail manager—I'll give you the number—and pay with a credit card.

randy. Thanks, Bill, but I've decided that I'll likely wait until the Bridge II is Roon-ready before I place my order.

bill. Okay. But if you wanted to give the Bridge II a test drive, our DirectStream Junior has a Bridge II built into every unit: You could review two products at once!

randy. Well, Bill, evaluating a product like this and writing the review is a considerable amount of work to do, just so I can try out the Bridge II. Then, sending the product back and still having to buy a Bridge II, even at a discount, seems like a lot of work without a lot of incentive . . . [Absentmindedly twirls telephone cord around index finger of his free hand.] Now, if you were to include a Bridge II for my DirectStream for free, I might consider that incentive. What do you think?

bill. [Rolls eyes in disgust.] Randy, I'm really not comfortable doing that. Let's just forget about the Junior then.

randy. That's fine. But you must understand that I don't even get paid for writing my reviews. So, since I feel I'm providing a potentially valuable marketing tool for manufacturers, I try to get something out of it from the manufacturer. Most companies understand that. [Pauses.] I'm sure you don't do your job for free out of the goodness of your heart, do you?

bill. [Stares, mouth agape, in horror. Then regains his composure, rises, walks downstage. As he does so, the lights over both desks fade to black, and a single, small pool of light follows him. Stops at C., turns, and addresses the audience.] In the dozens—maybe hundreds, at this point—of reviewer interactions I've had over many years, this is the only time such a solicitation has occurred. But years ago, an editor at another review magazine . . .

[Fade to black. Curtain descends.]


The curtain rises on the central room of a suite in a nice metropolitan hotel. Upstage, the room is filled with loudspeakers. A steady stream of men and women, some in business attire, file back and forth, examining the wares, chatting soundlessly, and entering and exiting the scene from L. and R. Downstage, bill stands next to an obviously expensive loudspeaker; he is dressed in a blue blazer, flannel trousers, shirt, and tie. As the scene begins, all of bill's attention is fixed on the smartphone in his hands, on which he appears to be typing a text message with only intermittent success.

dick enters from L. and walks toward bill. dick's entrance is accompanied by sparks and a puff of smoke, though not everyone in the audience can see this. dick wears a suit and what appears to be a distinctive hat. He is closer to the loudspeaker than he is to bill, and as he approaches, it is obvious that dick is salivating.

bill. [Noticing dick's approach] Hi, Dick—I see you're admiring our new speaker. Would you like to review it?

dick. Well, you know, Bill, we take care of our own first.

[A peal of thunder. The stage goes instantly black, except for a single spotlight downstage. bill walks to the pool of light and turns to the audience.]

bill. The manufacturing company I was representing that day didn't care for that tactic any more than I did: They didn't advertise in that magazine, and a review never occurred. In addition to that magazine, there are several review websites that are overtly pay-for-play; I don't deal with them, nor does any manufacturer for whom I've worked. They, at least, are forthright: one knows the deal.

Being asked to give a gift is different. That was someone I've dealt with many times, and while I sympathize with his plight . . . well, to turn around and imply that my receiving a salary for my work justifies him receiving a bribe—that's sophistry, and that's bullshit.

[Exit R. Fade to black.]

Footnote 1: Not his real name.

Footnote 2: Not his real name, either.

AaronGarrett's picture


Part-Time Audiophile's picture

I want to say that there are a few issues embedded in here: What is a reviewer? What makes a good one? What about bias? What about ethics? What is a morally acceptable business model? What is a viable business model -- and is that the same as a moral one? These are all interesting questions, I think. Not convinced that many readers tend to agree with me, however; I hope they do, but I suppose we'll see.

I think that Expertise has value, and Experts are worth paying for their expertise. On the flip side, Experts giving away their expertise for free not only devalues their own expertise but also devalues the expertise of everyone else in their industry.

But ethical challenges likewise sap value. When an expert is seen as "on the take" (through payola, or other pay-for-play, or quid-pro-quo "programs"), the value of the expert -- and all other experts -- is devalued.

That's why the "bad actors" get so well-known. And, eventually, avoided. Hopefully, as sponsors get more and better choices, they will continue to find value in "good" reviewers and choose to "vote" accordingly with their ad dollars.

-Scot Hull

Herb Reichert's picture

Ok Art, of course it is no surprise, but you win the Grand Prize: Best 'As We See It' - ever!

Jana Dagdagan's picture

^ Agreed.

michaelavorgna's picture

...for a price.

;-) Bravo, Art!

Anton's picture

Reginald the Reviewer: I say, Arnie, this new Sansuchi amplifier is the best thing I've heard in many a moon. The midrange is so liquid, I feel I could drink it from my claret glass.

Arnie: Sounds pretty good. Let's switch it with another amplifier and compare them without knowing which is which!

Reginald: My dear boy, why would I do such a thing. If we did that, I wouldn't be able to hear the order of magnitude improvement the Sansuchi offers, nor notice the night and day differences between the two. Silly prat. Now, be a fine fellow and pour me some of that delicious Screaming Beagle cabernet. Parker gave it 110 points, so I know it's good by looking at the label.

michaelavorgna's picture much more tragic when based on reality.


Allen Fant's picture

Funny stuff- AD. May you never lose your sense of humor!

Bill Leebens's picture

Kidding! Kidding!

Robert Deutsch's picture

Or is it Randy?

Anton's picture

I meant that as a compliment....with word play involved.

Cheers to Bill!

Bill Leebens's picture

...who needs enemies? ;->

Thanks, Anton! (I think)

Bill Leebens's picture


The Federalist's picture

I think, given that Stereophile isn't an audio blog but an audio magazine with a print subscription as well, that if this story had enough merit and truth behind it for Stereophile to write up and to post then Stereophile should've maybe operated with a more journalistic standard.

Giving the real names of the "good hearted" but failing to give the names of the bad hearted allows readers to fill in the blanks and by proxy implicates any and every other audio review site there is. That could be construed as a bit self serving and ironically calls into question the integrity of the piece.

May have been more appropriate to leave PS Audio's and Bill (I am assuming Leebens) name out of it, and give the names of the websites, magazines implicated. As it is, seeing Scott Hull respond in comments I'm like "Is Scott Hull Randy?" Is that why he's suddenly taking such an interest? And that is the problem... By not naming the would-be corrupt hearted people, everyone but Stereophile, PS Audio and Bill Leebens is fair game... That is kinda chickenshit.

It's either a trashy gossip piece that shouldn't have been posted or needs to be written to a true magazine editorial standard... Call them by name and stand your ground!

One of the enduring qualities of Stereophile is that it plays it straight and doesn't devolve into blogosphere game play.
My knee jerk response is that this article doesn't live up.

With All Due Respect


makarisma's picture

Having been a reviewer for a professional on-line magazine some years back, I have encountered manufacturers who, and only after the review is over, offer the reviewer the option to retain the product as a way of thanking them. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion, as the review is already submitted for publication by then.

trynberg's picture

If you don't see anything wrong with that, you're part of the problem.

makarisma's picture

How is post publication a problem? Unless there is an understanding that a positive review will be rewarded. In which case, would a biased review not diminish the reviewer's standing which is not what reviewer's are usually aiming for with their readers? If a manufacturer offers the reviewer to pay for the product discounted or retain it after a review has been published, it is merely their way of saying thanks as in most cases the product has already been in use for shows, demos, etc. Furthermore, not all manufacturers do it and not all reviewer's accept it. To ensure this does not turn into a non-beneficial blog for the readers, this post is the end of my response on the topic.