As Reviewers See It Page 3

Bob Deutsch is starting out as an equipment reviewer for Stereophile and asked me—I'm paraphrasing here—"Give me a detailed brief of what I need to do." I said, "No. Why should I arbitrarily impose a strict set of rules and guidelines on you when I don't yet know what you're capable of doing as a writer and as a describer, and as a maker of value judgments? I will tell you what I want—I want you to describe as accurately as possible what you hear. I want you to be a responsible reviewer with those components, and use them in ways which make them perform at their best. I want your review to bring out the ways in which that equipment can be made to perform at its best and the ways in which it falls short of perfection. I want you to write the review as clearly as possible, and I want you to illustrate every value judgment you make with enough information that your review opinion is both transportable and testable by the readers. Apart from that—do whatever you like." [laughter]

Robert Deutsch: I wrote it all down, too! [laughs]

Atkinson: I offer no detailed guidelines on the this and the that, the how and the why of a review, but if you take Sam Tellig's column, Corey's reviews, Gordon's reviews, Tom's reviews, Bob's reviews, take all of your reviews, they're as different as different can be—yet the very broad specification I just outlined lives in all that writing. That, to me, is what Stereophile is all about.

Reviewing Cheap vs Expensive Components

• It is easier to make value judgments on cost-no-object equipment than it is on inexpensive equipment.

Atkinson: I often get letters from people who want to write for Stereophile. They tend to say one of two things: either something along the lines of, "As I don't have any writing experience, I thought I could start out by writing something humorous"; or "I want to be an equipment reviewer; start me off with a cheap component before I get on to the expensive stuff." Just as it takes a very talented writer to be able to write humor, the most difficult thing a reviewer has to do, in my experience, is to make accurate value judgments on affordable equipment.

Robert Harley: I agree with that.

Archibald: I don't disagree with that.

English: I think it's difficult because as price becomes more of a consideration, a comparative frame of reference comes into play. It's a different thought process.

Archibald: I think that very expensive products either meet the standard of being the best available at price-no-object or they don't. It's that simple.

English: When cost is no's the device vs the sound. When it's a $400 speaker, it's the device vs the other $400 speakers. It's a different issue.

Hammond: Are expensive components easier or tougher to review?

Archibald: I think they're harder. The review process is harder and takes longer. The review is easier to write.

Hammond: Should the duration of the review process bear some relation to the cost to the consumer?

Archibald: It depends. In a way it should, because before you can condemn a $10,000 product, you really have to make it work right. If you're reviewing a $400 loudspeaker and you've got your house loaded up with great electronics, probably those electronics are not what's making that $400 speaker sound bad.

Sam Tellig: I think that sometimes the cost-no-object products tend to get harsher reviews than the lesser products because any flaws that they do have are all the more obvious. Products in the $400 speaker range sometimes have so many flaws that many of them just get swept under the rug.

Mitchell: A complex answer. On one hand it's easier to review cheap equipment because it's very easy to distinguish the real dog, the really wretched stuff, from the stuff that's competent. But among reasonably good products, it's very difficult to know what to recommend, because all affordable equipment is by definition compromised. It's hard to make sure you're making a sensible compromise, and even harder to take the responsibility of suggesting that somebody else make the same compromise that is right for you.

Hammond: Gordon, do you agree with the proposition put forth by the chair?

Holt: Yes I do. I agree with Larry in that it often takes quite a bit longer to review the stuff which is really good because the differences are not usually humongous and the failings are not usually awful. But once you do hear the things, I think the reviews are easier to write.

Hammond: Harder to review, easier to write.

Holt: They take longer to review. It's not so much harder...Among the really low-priced components, very often they sound so different that you can't even begin to compare them. And that itself can make it hard.

Olsher: After listening to high-end equipment and living with an ultra-high-end system, I find it very difficult to stomach cheap gear. Ten years ago I was much more enthusiastic about cheap equipment because that's basically what I could afford to buy. I didn't know any better. I was reasonably satisfied with the illusion of "live" I was getting at that point in time. As I was able to accumulate a more expensive system, I was really spoiled, and I find that I have little interest for systems that compromise performance for the sake of making a sale at a particular price point. For that reason it would be very, very difficult for me to generate a lot of enthusiasm about a product that wasn't very expensive.