Listening #28

"Spread out."—Moe, addressing Larry and Curly

During the first weeks of 2005, the people who publish Consumer Reports magazine turned a new literary corner: They began testing condoms. So far, the CR editors have given their highest ratings to the Lifestyles Classic Collection Ultra Sensitive Lubricated, the Durex Performax Lubricated, and the Durex Extra Sensitive Lubricated—the latter because it "takes the most punishment," although that's not the way I'd have phrased it.

Well, that's it, then: Game over. As far as I'm concerned, product reviews in consumer magazines are now obsolete—just as Tom Lehrer once said that political satire became obsolete the day they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. If the world's most prominent reviewing organization is that clueless on the subject of condoms, how can they or anyone else be held to a rational standard when it comes to reviewing something more complex—such as an automobile, an air-conditioner, or an amplifier?

Condoms, in case you're wondering, are meant to be bought only in haste, and usually by the anxious. They should not be subject to concerns other than size, color, and nearness to the checkout counter. The idea that any adult capable of using one would consider buying it on the basis of a magazine review is absurd. And when the idea isn't busy being absurd, it is busy being terrifying. People who would buy a product on that basis should not be allowed to buy that product—just as people who would be interested in owning a car or a truck with an enormous decal of a ram's head or an eagle on it are probably not smart enough to operate a motor vehicle in the first place.

But now I've brushed up against the great irony that lies at the heart of my profession: It's okay to act on the advice of a reviewer every now and then, but you shouldn't make a habit out of it—because that's not what reviewing is supposed to be about.

And what does the average person expect to get out of his or her relationship with the printed page? At least some portion of the answer can be discovered by strolling through the great newsstands of New York, Toronto, London, or wherever else you happen to be, to see what sorts of articles appear in today's most popular magazines.

The cover of the latest issue of Men's Fitness (I'm writing this in January) makes the sober promise, "Lose Your Gut in 12 Days!" Alrighty, then: How many of their readers do you think actually will lose their guts in 12 days? One in ten thousand? One in one hundred thousand? And how many of the full-gutted readers who remain will whine that Men's Fitness devotes too much editorial space to things that are unobtainable by the average man? Mathematicians have recently devised a way to express quantities that small, and that number is: dick-all. Or, in instances where the quantity is even smaller, it can be described as: dick-all/100. And how many men will complain because Men's Fitness publishes some variation on the "Lose Your Gut in 12 Days!" theme at least twice per year (which they do)? You know the magic number already.

Now let's take a look at the new issue of Golf Digest, in which someone reviews the Poipu Bay Resort golf course, in Kauai, Hawaii. How many of their readers will actually play that course? Well, let's see, Golf Digest has about 1,000,000 readers, multiplied by 0.0001%, bring down the zero, carry the one . . . Hey, it works out to dick-all! Which is also the number of GD readers who will complain about it.

Fine Woodworking? "Building a Sleigh Bed!" Gourmet? "Moroccan Dinner for One!" Condé-Nast Traveler? "Gold List: World's Best Places to Stay!" The new issue of Cosmo? "Land That Man, Ace Your Job, and Look Your Sexiest Ever!" Add 'em up, boys—but you already know the answer.

No bad amps

Another portion of the answer can be gained by stepping to one side and considering: Should there be more negative reviews in Stereophile?

That question comes up every now and then on the Internet forums that serve our hobby—most notably Audio Asylum, a well-run organization that still manages to attract more thoughtful, imaginative, positive hobbyists than nasty, life-bereft dipshits. Some people on AA say that a relative lack of negative reviews connotes corruption on Stereophile's part: There is crap sound out there, but mostly only reports of very good sound in here—and thus a disconnect exists that may be venial but is likelier mortal.

On the other hand are those observers—well-intentioned ones, for the most part—who say that a scarcity of negative reviews reflects only the inability of the reviewing community to write about every product available: With so many products out there, and not enough time to try them all, why bother with the bad ones?

I'll take a sort of middle road, radical moderate that I am—but I can only tell you what I wish Stereophile's balance were all about, in some idealized version of our hobby: I wish we could divide our editorial time and space more or less evenly between newsworthy products by established companies and weird, edgy things from crazy little startups.

As to the former: Think of this as similar to the appliance market, where you have x number of established players: Maytag, Frigidaire, Kenmore, Whirlpool, Magic Chef, G.E., Bosch, and maybe a couple of those weird high-end Danish makes. Those people are all going to come out with new products every year, and in that context, two predictions are germane:

1) The mags that cover the industry should and will try to cover them at least reasonably evenly—which is to say, one or two new Maytag reviews per year, one or two Kenmore reviews, etc.; and,

2) At least some of those products will be badly conceived, badly designed, badly made, or some effervescent combination of all three—and so, in an unbiased review publication, some reviews thereof will be negative.

I think that we—I as an individual, Stereophile as a magazine—can do better in performing on that aspect of our jobs. There are obstacles, of course, as when established manufacturers decline to loan products to reviewers who've written negatively about their things in the past. (I can think of at least two speaker manufacturers in particular who are as likely to send me new samples as I am to build a sleigh bed or cook a Moroccan dinner for any number of people), but that's no excuse for not trying.

My own wish is that we would all try harder to write about things outside of our milieux, and to decline, on occasion, to review products that fall too neatly and squarely into our love-it piles. Thus can we educate ourselves as individuals even as we confound and, ultimately, improve the system.