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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 20
 
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Auroville 37: Where are your bad reviews?
by Srajan Ebaen

Glad you ask. Actually, I'm being a bit facetious. The fact that this question comes up seems to demonstrate a lack of properly relating to or understanding the process involved. Audio reviewers are supposed to describe what something sounds like to the best of their ability, then incorporate personal opinion and experience to create the surrounding context in which a particular piece of gear should be considered. Final judgment of what such personal opinions should mean to individual readers is left up to those readers. Critics aren't judges but expert witnesses. They use the evidence (their personal observations) to make a case for or against the subject, then the jury (the reader) is expected to do the rest.

Reviewing requires two mandatory and absolutely fundamental qualities: Respect and applied responsibility. Those are inextricably intertwined. Respect means you recognize that those who can, create; that those who can't create teach (how to create); and that those who miserably fail at either criticize those who can. A credible amplifier designer would arguably make the perfect amplifier reviewer. She can assess circuit design and implementation, conduct extensive measurements, weigh parts costs and execution against asking price and performance and back up subjective listening impressions with far more multi-angled corroborative evidence than most any reviewer alive. The pertinent question remains, why would a creator stoop to spending his time criticizing someone else's creations?

No, that dubious privilege falls to those of us who can't design an amplifier nor teach others how to do it.

As a reviewer, you're entrusted not only with somebody else's creation but also wield considerable influence over that person's ability to make a livelihood. For example, one of our pending reviews stalled multiple large international orders. Those importers awaited the outcome of the review before signing off on bringing this particular product into their markets. As is proper, I didn't find this out until afterwards and the reviewer never did. Still, it should signal to the cynics that a small-time manufacturer could lose significant business as a direct and immediate result of a review. Applied responsibility means you hold that power and trust sacred and be sure beyond any reasonable doubt before you proclaim grave and terminal judgment on anything.

A respectful and responsible reviewer recognizes that results are shaped by two factors: synergy and personal taste. Synergy means that results are dependent on context. Personal taste—among other things—means that your context of hardware has been preselected according to individual bias. How to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that a review subject is terribly flawed and "bad, period", not just performing poorly as a function of lacking synergy?

Say you were a manufacturer's rep considering to add a new loudspeaker to your lineup. You take it to 10 different dealers. That's 10 different rooms, 10 different amplifiers, 10 different preamps... you get the picture. If this speaker fails to perform in accordance with its price and market competition, to your ears and everyone else's, in every single dealership? Now you have earned the right and outright duty to write a scathing review.

How many rooms, amplifiers, speakers, sources, cables etc. does the average reviewer have at his or her disposal? Even if you have multiples of certain categories, chances are extremely high that all of them conform to certain baseline requirements of personal taste. Only a true eccentric or independently wealthy person would purchase and keep around things he doesn't like. Anyone else will preselect staying acquisitions through the filter of their personality. That seriously undermines a completely open scenario for synergy to occur.

If a review component falls short, how many fundamentally different scenarios can you create to cast the widest net and eliminate possible mismatches? Unless manufacturers extend you endless loans of items you don't really fancy—and your home in turn becomes a junk yard of inactive just-in-case hardware—a reviewer's best intentions to perform due diligence are for all practical intents and purposes limited. If that is so, how can you ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular piece of equipment is flawed beyond recommendation?

Consider next the counter psychology. Each time a reviewer becomes harshly critical, she is applauded for gumption and honesty. Considering the above, this seem more ego gratification than any true and comprehensive assessment based on our rep example. Should a reviewer pen the occasional bad review to protect perception? On what basis should he pick his victims? Should he take on the big firm whose business wouldn't be much impacted if at all while the sheer nerve to go up against a Krell or Wilson promises massive applause? Should he target a small manufacturer whose product nobody knows and hence couldn't disagree with?

Such thinking is in utter and reprehensible violation of respect and applied responsibility. All it does is give credence to outside influences (the critic's critics) that need to be utterly disregarded. Reviewing isn't about reviewer ego, self gratification or reputation. It's about telling the truth as you hear it while remaining mindful of how filtered and personalized this truth could be. The perhaps best example is the product that does get a highly unfavorable review with one publication only to rise, Phoenix-like, with another review in another publication. Or, such a product continues selling like hot cakes in the wake of its bad review, indicating that paying consumers don't agree with its findings at all. "Fair enough" you allow while you launch the counter argument: "If this reasoning stands, how can you turn tables and pen any truly positive reviews? Don't synergy and personality apply just the same?"

The answer to that question should be quite obvious. If you've bought something for keeps, chances are exceedingly high that you'll get it to eventually sound even better than when you first bought it. You keep adjusting, tuning, voicing and tweaking. Put differently, it's highly unlikely that all the planets of your sonar system would line up perfectly the moment you inserted a new component. If a reviewer gets results that are stupendous within the limited period of time that's fair to manufacturers (and if you want to pen more than 2 reviews a year), one can reasonably predict that given more time, one could make things better yet, hence there's comfort that one's own results will translate without too much trouble.

Here's what the press hears a lot. They just protect their advertisers. They don't want to get blacklisted as the guys who find fault with everything and close off the review loaner pipeline. Don't bite the hand that feeds you. It really gets tiring. The simple truth is this: Knowing how variable results can be depending on little and big things—from speaker positioning and break-in to cables, resonance control, impedance mismatches, AC line filters, room interactions and non-simpatico load behavior—makes a responsible reviewer hesitant to feel 100% certain. Add into this equation the limited flexibility of getting out of your own way to hear things in a fresh light and from a different perspective. You like what you like. If you've been around long enough, you also know that certain likes aren't immutable and have morphed over time. What's more, unless you've been doing this for decades and have deliberately disassembled your system and rebuilt it with a new approach each time—horns and SETs; planars and high-power; mini monitors with subs; single-driver and vinyl—your contextual overview suffers tremendous blank spots on its map.

Then the question becomes, should personal preferences and limited context/synergy ever be mistaken for ultimate truths? A mature reviewer who is quite certain (or perhaps full) of himself will say that a particular amplifier was soft on top. He won't necessarily say "soft in my opinion". He presents things as fact and the reader feels reassured by such unwavering and unambiguous conviction. So tell me—is it really possible to make such a solid statement when no component makes a sound of its own and is always modulated by those preceding and following it? Measurements here would certainly help to prove that this amplifier is 3dB down at 20kHz.

When King Solomon was asked to distinguish from the distance which of two flowers was real and which silk, the story goes that he asked a window to be opened. When a bee entered and descended on one of the two, he pronounced that the real flower and was proclaimed the wisest man alive. If only things were as simple in audio. We'd have wise men and women and irrefutable truths surviving millennia to be whispered in awe to the remote descendants of our great grandchildren. As it is, all we've got is personal opinions tempered by modesty. Enveloped in this modesty is a desire to do no wrong unless we're compelled by fierce conviction to warn one and all about a true and utter component disaster that's overpriced, under performing and must be avoided like the plague as an utter waste of money. Frankly, that's bloody rare.

One has to read between the lines to really get at the criticisms. They're always couched in diplomacy. This again presupposes ultimate truths. Unless you're convinced beyond a doubt that a component deserves deep-sixing or is seriously flawed, you'll have to couch your criticisms in qualifications (the language of personal preferences rather than absolutes). If that's diplomacy, so be it. In the end, those who ask the opening question—directly or by insinuation—are predominantly folks who want things spelled out to the letter. They neither trust their own decision-making abilities nor their personal sensory impressions. Critics at least create reviews based on hard work and best intentions. Critic's critics who've never published a single review to step on the other side often simply don't have enough personal experience to fully appreciate the particular reality they're talking about yet are quick to speculate, disagree and condemn.

Consumer Reports really might be the most useful bible to be told what to buy and what to avoid. To come full circle, what is a bad review, really? A bad review is one that's poorly written, poorly argued, inconclusive, riddled with oversights and mistakes and boring to boot. A good review is neither, regardless of findings. By that definition, one should hope that PFO will never publish a truly bad review. (you can read the PFO Editorial Philosophy at http://www.positive-feedback.com/philosophy.htm.) By the same token, you'll read about outright criticisms—although most of those will pertain to features, fit'n'finish, ergonomics, cosmetics and pricing as aspects that are more universally applicable and consistent than sonics. You will also read about personal aural preferences and when components exhibit the temerity to not conform to them. Alas, this will by necessity tend to be qualified rather than presented as fixed fact. Based on all of the above, it couldn't be any other way.

Naturally, you're entitled to disagree with the entire approach. The point of a clear statement is not to pretend to infallibility but to allow polarization of opinion. At least you'll know one particular view and approach to this subject. If you find fault with either, simply don't read those who practice them. If you think you can do better, become an audio writer and show us all how it's done the right way. Who knows, you might just revolutionize things...

Visit Srajan at his site www.6moons.com

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