Essay - "On the Nature of Equipment Reviews" - March, 1999

Karl Suager


After sending my two darling familial units off in the morning, before my own day job began, I gave a call to a manufacturer to thank them for sending me a particular piece of equipment. After pleasantries ensued, they raised a question about a previous review in which, according to a consumer who had read the item in question, Secrets had trashed a surround processor of theirs. It took me by surprise, as I thought the review neither unanimously glowing or bitterly spiteful at all. I went into an uncomfortable defense mode, assuring the manufacturer that we didn't portray the unit in a manner undeserving of the quality and performance exhibited, thought the presentation fair, and if anything, on the positive side. After reading the article in question quickly, they stated that they had no problem with it, other than they obviously felt that the product was, of course, far superior to everything else at that price, mentioning that every system they inserted it into had resulted in some of the smoothest Dolby Digital available.

Truth be told, it was a very smooth-sounding processor. Perhaps that should have been made more evident. Regardless, what bothered me more, though, was not that I "had a problem," so to speak, but that we failed to convey the intention of the review. I would, then, like to perhaps clear any air that needs filtration, and hopefully help to make future reviews, done by our magazine or others, more useful to our readers. After all, if you are going to take the time and log onto our site, you might as well get the most out of it. Half of any language weaves in significant implication. The key interpreting implication is context. Context includes not only the equipment in question, but the publication's editing policies, the writer's style, and how the review itself relates to other reviews by that writer. A few general statements on that…

Equipment -

Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. The ratio varies. Merchandise includes not only materials and assembly, but research, design, warranty, customer service, dealer support, marketing, and company overhead. There's no free lunch. A manufacturer may do things to maximize efficiency in many areas, such as finding the best manufacturing facilities for the task, hiring the most competent engineers they can afford, shopping for good deals on parts, having the circuit boards, chassis, and enclosures built by someone else, and scooping up marketing genius. Nevertheless, it's always a balancing act. Although there are a few gems that glow in subjective audio performance (often merely a matter of opinion), and overpriced dogs abound, don't expect fine wine for the cost of Mad Dog 20/20. Anyone who claims a champion in all aspects, including price, lies. Good stuff costs money. It's just the way things are. It's unfortunate that occasionally marketing and company overhead devour the lion's share of the MSRP, and junk ends up costing just as much as the good stuff, often more. That's where an audio/video magazine can help. We are not here to sell you anything. Our function is to show you new and interesting stuff. We make an evaluation, but you have to make up your own mind when you go see and hear the equipment for yourself.

The Publication -

A salesman's job is to introduce a prospective customer to a product in a manner that creates desire so that the salesman can convince the customer to eventually buy the product . . . read that as, "I'll take it." The salesman must then reinforce that buying decision down the road by assuring the customer that he or she made an excellent choice, but also plant a seed which grows into an itching suspicion that by purchasing another box in an "upgrade" path, a glimpse of nirvana shall follow. Remember, this is a store salesperson's job, not ours. Some magazines might take the review-as-hidden-advertising approach, intentionally or not, keeping those lucrative full-page color advertisements rolling, or perhaps satisfying the ego of a writer who can't hold back from showing off his/her use of hyperbole and/or discriminating taste. Since we find that a waste of bandwidth, of your time, and downright embarrassing, we make an effort to simply provide honest and hopefully helpful information on what we ourselves find interesting. That's probably why you don't see quotes from our reviews printed in very many magazine advertisements. We don't use the kind of adjectives that make good ad copy. Because we do respect the fact that these products form the livelihood of the people who sell them, and that many might take a comment more seriously than intended, we try not only to qualify, but do so constructively. Every product has good and bad points. If something has a catastrophic flaw, we bring it to the attention of the manufacturer so that they might correct it. Fortunately, we're usually lucky and selective enough in choosing products for review to avoid real lemons.

The Writer -

Some writers like to bestow praise in abundance and use lots of words that don't really have meaning in audio. Some of the words just can't be avoided because it's difficult to describe how something sounds in print. However, most of them are just journalistic nonsense. Other writers conserve their exuberance. All have different subjective preferences. The difference between the styles simply arises as a matter of entertainment, even including the writer entertaining himself/herself. But unless one knows how the writer's tastes relate to his or her own, the opinions stated don't really do any good. Sure, reviewers have more experience than most when it comes to listening to audio equipment, but a lot of them are also boneheads. I prefer to believe, making good use of my own biases, that our reviewers as a whole do a pretty good job, as do a select group of writers who happen to work for the printed paper world. But, the best evaluation can only happen through the end user, not an "expert interpreter." To me, the most useful reviews are those by people I've come to know though previous articles and common experience. The writer might love what you could do without, and vise versa, which is absolutely fine. Consider the soapbox open, as I've stepped off it, and occasionally step in it. Please do entertain the notion of stepping on it yourself, as we do like the feedback so that we might improve or maintain what needs the most attention. If we seem to contradict ourselves at Secrets, leave something unclear, or otherwise make a goof, tell us! We're far from perfect, but we sure don't mind getting a little closer with your help.

Karl Suager

© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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