Listening #28 Page 2

As to the latter: Well, yes, it's understandable that most or perhaps all reviews of such products will be positive, because those are the things we've sought out, aren't they? And no one in his or her right mind goes out of the way to seek awful things, dung beetles and vultures excluded. It's the ones we don't seek out that mess things up—or at least they do for me.

In 20 years of writing about domestic audio, I've never once been hassled or harangued by a company that any reasonable person would consider established. Yes, as mentioned above, my requests for review samples have been turned down from time to time, but with only one exception (an unusually snotty PR person who represented Denon for a very short time in the mid-1990s), established companies have treated me with courtesy, professionalism, and a welcome lack of weirdness.

I wish I could say the same about the crazy little startups: The best of them are responsible for some of the most inspiring playback gear on Earth. But like the girl with the curl, when they're bad, they're horrid.

Here's something that has, up to a point, happened to me and to some of my reviewer friends: a startup company sends me a product, unsolicited, perhaps in response to my having praised a product from a company they see as their direct competitor (read: mortal enemy). The sample arrives with a note either requesting a review or requesting that I promise not to review it but rather to offer my opinion of it, in confidence. I always politely decline the latter, because I don't do consulting on a per-fee basis, and I don't have time for charity work. In the case of the former, I write back with polite thanks and my assurance that I'll listen to the thing as soon as I can.

Then, no more than a week later, the person writes or calls and asks what I think of the product he sent. I respond by saying that I'm very sorry, but I haven't tried it yet. One week later he calls again. I still haven't tried it. Now he gets huffy—and follows up with a long, rambling note describing in detail the insults he has suffered at the hands of others in trying to launch his company. I ignore it. Two days later an even longer note arrives, in which he compares himself to Pope Urban II and me to the King of the Turks. I ignore it. One day later he writes again, demanding the immediate return of his product, or else he will See Me In Court. I make a note to return it as soon as I reasonably can, shipping charges collect—but today is out of the question. Three days later, not having received his thingamabob, the manufacturer goes on the Internet and accuses me of one or more of the following: 1) keeping his product for my own enjoyment; 2) keeping his product so I can sell it and pocket the money; 3) keeping his product so I can prevent others from writing about it; 4) giving his product to his competitors, who are my "buddies," and whom I'm trying to assist/protect/whatever.

That is why some reviewers are reluctant to accept products from companies they've never heard of. I hope you'll bear it in mind whenever you're tempted to criticize one of us for what you see as a lack of adventurousness in selecting gear to review.

That is also why I make it clear that I am not responsible for unsolicited equipment. It's not that I lack respect for other people's property—despite the girlishly fevered fantasies of a few of the Internet's very saddest cases, none of the audio writers I know would ever dream of treating a review sample irresponsibly, let alone stealing it—but rather that I refuse to be used.

I sing the blender electric
In any event, I do believe my colleagues and I work hard to make every issue of this magazine a little better than the last. But that doesn't mean I'd like to see Stereophile resemble a hi-fi–only version of Consumer Reports. In fact, I'd have less respect for the person who would want such a thing than for the fans of corrupt magazines that review products in which they have a financial interest, or products that contain parts in which they have a financial interest. Compared with blandness on a criminal scale, even larceny seems forgivable.

Well, okay—that's not really true. Still, can you name a worse magazine than Consumer Reports—a passionless, humorless, faceless waste of paper that seeks to reduce all consumables to the level of a water softener or a Waring blender? The magazine that flunked the Alfa-Romeo Milano because its rear bumper didn't resist cracking when whapped with a shopping cart? The magazine that said all CD players sound the same, so you might as well just buy the one whose remote-control features you prefer? The magazine that praised the Durex Extra Sensitive Lubricated condom because it takes the most punishment? I can't name a worse rag, and that's because I'm an enthusiast—which is something that the people who publish Consumer Reports don't understand. They know absolutely dick-all about enthusiasm.

Stereophile, on the other hand, whether one enjoys its editorial style or not, is an enthusiast magazine. It even says so on my pay stub every month: Primedia Enthusiast Media (that and cash really soon). Enthusiast magazines are a pastime, first and foremost. They exist for people who love a given hobby, profession, or lifestyle so much that the time they spend doing it simply isn't enough: They want to read about it during their downtime. If I were a standing rib roast and I really, really enjoyed being a standing rib roast with all my heart and soul, then I would want to sleep in a bowl of gravy every night. That's what being an audiophile and wanting to read audiophile magazines is all about. More or less.

I love fishing so much that I read Fly Fisherman all year round. I especially enjoy their product reviews, which I consider honest, well conceived, and well crafted. And I've never bought so much as a single tippet on the basis of their recommendations: I pretty much buy whatever's recommended by the man behind the counter at Stevens' Hardware, in Oneonta, New York. He also knows better than anyone which flies seem to work from one week to the next.

I very much admire the periodicals I've seen from the Taunton Press, such as Fine Homebuilding and the aforementioned Fine Woodworking. I enjoy thinking of myself as a woodworker, even though I qualify only under the most liberal and fuzzy definition of the word, and I don't have anywhere near the skills needed to execute the projects they publish. But I love reading about them, and thinking about them, and hoping that some day I might actually pull one off.

I enjoy Dwell, a newish consumer magazine that focuses on all aspects of modern home design—and which recently contained a review of five high-quality, high-performance sauté pans. The piece was written by the magazine's New York editor, Virginia Gardiner, who in researching her review traveled to the top-rated Brooklyn restaurant Grocery to enlist the aid of chefs Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter. The article was a model of its kind—brisk, informative, entertaining, reasonable, relevant—and the photography was superb. And there's little chance I'll ever buy a high-end sauté pan.

I read Bluegrass Unlimited in the winter months, and I especially enjoy looking at the ads for festivals being held in other, warmer parts of the country. It's not the most well-written or well-produced magazine in the world, but it's sincere, it comes out on time, and it's the next best thing to attending a bluegrass festival. (In the case of some festivals, it's actually a little better.)

In short, consumer magazines are entertainment, but that doesn't let us reviewers off the hook. It doesn't mean we have the right to be careless or ill-informed or dishonest. Because, from time to time—there's no telling when!—people will take our advice. When they do, that advice has to be damn good. It has to be better than everyone else's.

I'm often sincerely pleased when someone writes to tell me they bought something on my recommendation, and that they love it. But I can't pin everything on that, because inevitably someone else will write to say that the product that worked for me just doesn't do it for them. That's life.

It's the risk of being uninteresting that keeps me on my toes—that and the challenge of making the magazine so good that only the experience of actually listening to music is better.