I’m probably not going to be the most popular guy walking the halls at this year’s High End show in Munich, Germany, because I’m about to reveal something that a growing number of reviewers don’t want you to know.
I’ve been doing this reviewer thing for about 20 years. I’ve made mistakes. There are reviews out there that I wish I hadn’t written. One was of a speaker from a company that, it turned out, wasn’t much of a company at all -- it was one guy who, as I learned too late, didn’t know much about speakers. The product was expensive, and my report was positive, but I hadn’t taken into account that there was little chance this speaker maker would survive. I would hate to think that someone bought this product based solely on my recommendation. If they did, and if they ever need support for their speaker, I know now that they’ll be out of luck. I wish I could take that one back.
I can say that all of my reviews were actual reviews, as I define the term: a product auditioned over a generous period of time -- eight weeks is typical -- in my home, and with my reference equipment. It’s a pretty simple formula, and I can guarantee you that, at SoundStage!, that’s how we review audio gear.
Of course, we also do other things. In 2009, I traveled to six audio companies in just over a week’s time to audition their best loudspeakers. That trip and the resulting series of articles, “The Great North American Loudspeaker Tour,” were a lot of fun, and got a great response from our readers. But those articles were not reviews.
In recent years, Doug Schneider has traveled the world and has heard a multitude of audio products, and he’s written about them in detail on SoundStage! Global and in his “Opinion” column on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. What he hasn’t done is label any of these “demonstrations” as “reviews,” or included them in the Equipment sections of any of our review sites.
So when it comes to reviews, I take a traditional stance: Get the product shipped to my home, audition it in my room with my gear, and write about what it is and how it sounds. That’s the kind I write, and that’s the kind I like to read. Again -- sounds simple, right?
Apparently not. In the last year I’ve read several reviews that, to put it mildly, are not reviews, though they’re disguised as such. Though it’s stated nowhere in these “reviews,” they’re conducted not in the reviewer’s home, but in one of several alternate locations: in a demonstration room at a manufacturer’s factory, in a distributor’s demo room, or in a store by a dealer. The problem isn’t that the writers of these articles are reporting their findings -- I enjoy reading these types of articles as much as anyone -- but that the location and review context are not disclosed, and that the reports appear in the equipment-review sections of the magazines and websites that publish them.
Such “reviews” can be spotted in several ways. First, if a list of associated reference equipment is conspicuously absent, you should wonder why. Maybe because it was all gear owned by the dealer and unfamiliar to the writer? Second, no description of setup is provided -- because the product was never set up in the reviewer’s home. Third, there are no photos of the gear in the guy’s room -- because it was never there. Any or all of those omissions should make you wonder if what you’re reading is actually a review, as I’ve defined it here.
I’ve heard the arguments about why this can be acceptable behavior, because I’ve brought up the subject at the Secret Reviewer Meetings (aka manufacturers’ dinners) I’ve attended at audio shows. Reviewers who do this sort of thing state two reasons for it. First, they assert that no one cares. Maybe that’s true -- but only you, the reader, can say. Second, they tell me that it’s important to get the scoop, and that it’s easier to be first in print with a review if all you have to do is write about what you heard without having to actually do all the work required by a real -- by which I mean responsible, controlled -- reviewing regimen.
So now you know. Perhaps it’s just the way of the world, and I should get over it. But in audio reviews as in so many other areas, I’m an old-fashioned guy, and I’ll keep reviewing gear the way I always have. Even if I don’t get the scoop. Even if no one cares. But I’m betting that some of ya’ll care a lot.
. . . Jeff Fritz