The High-End Review Page 2

In an ideal world, the only possible outcomes would be 1 and 4. Reviewers and your store's buyers would have opinions and philosophies so closely aligned that magazines would only give positive reviews to products that dealers had already determined would make their customers happy.

In the real world, magazine reviews have all of the outcomes I've outlined, with an apparently unpredictable and arbitrary correlation with supposed product quality. In addition, if reviewers knew and told all, then all that audiophiles would need to satisfy their buying needs would be magazine reviews and a computerized warehouse. Yet it's obviously true that such omniscient writers do not exist. As Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn Products has said, magazines---even good ones---practice power without responsibility. If customers find that a highly recommended product doesn't meet their needs, do they ask the magazine that published the review for their money back? No, they take it to the dealer they bought it from and expect him or her to sort out the mess.

Reviews are therefore regarded with hostility by many dealers. (I know of one dealer who tells customers whom he sees enter his store carrying a magazine to take it back out to their car before he'll talk to them.) At best, an uneasy truce exists in which retailers try to make use of what reviews generate---increased customer interest, even excitement---and try to downplay their dark side.

This awkward and antagonistic relationship between retailer and magazine doesn't have to exist. High-end retailers and review magazines may deal with the same products and may employ similar people with similar skills to assess those products, yet their agendas are different. Conflict only arises when that basic fact is not appreciated---by either party.

The high-end store's primary responsibility is to its customers. It sells them products that give them long-term satisfaction, the result being---if the profit margin on the products sold is sufficient but fair---that the store stays in business.

The review magazine's primary responsibility is to its readers. It publishes reviews so that readers can short-list components that they might be interested in purchasing and therefore should audition for themselves. As well as being informed, readers need to be able to define what they want in terms of their personal tastes before they can make buying decisions. The magazine must also educate its readers, therefore, in how to listen and how to identify what is important to them (footnote 1).

An important part of the magazine's role is to inject excitement into the market. This is not altruistic; without such excitement, the market will shrink and magazine readership along with it. Yet, a few exceptional retailers apart, magazines like Stereophile appear to be the only ones seeding the field for the next year's harvest.

It has been my experience that too many retailers act as if they are fishermen or hunters. Yet if there is an appropriate analogy for what retailers do, it is to act as farmers. If you don't prepare the ground and sow the seed, then you are at the mercy of whatever customers fate brings you---or doesn't bring you. Randy Patton of PS Audio is fond of saying, "If you live by the review, you die by the review." But if you've prepared your ground, the bad review is a passing storm. As Lyric's Mike Kay once said, "If you can't sell against a negative review in a magazine, then what kind of salesperson are you?"

The magazine assumes that, once the reader has defined his or her tastes in sound reproduction and has then chosen a small number of contenders to audition, its task is over. Those readers go into retailers, perform their auditions, and, with the help of the retailer, choose what is going to be right for them in the long term.

Footnote 1: People do not willingly read textbooks, so the third part of a magazine's role is to entertain. The three things required of any successful magazine in any field are that it informs, educates, and entertains its readers, with no part being subsidiary to the others.