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Positive Feedback ISSUE 27
september/october 2006


Trash Reviews - Dr. Sardonicus

Something has been annoying me long enough, I decided to say something about it.

As I have read what others have to say about Positive Feedback Online, I have often seen comments to the effect that it is a "cop out" for us not to print negative reviews. It is portrayed as some sort of ethical lapse or absence of courage on our part, somehow connected to supposed worry about losing advertising dollars.

The policy of "no trash-'em reviews" has always made perfect sense to me, even when I have been provoked to actually want to write one. But it has never had anything to do with advertising. If a positive review translated to advertising dollars, PFO would not have to have struggled along, hand to mouth, as it has all of these years.

But, this is about me, so ….First, I am hugely selfish, so as an audiophile I find uninteresting equipment and uninteresting music unworthy of my extended attention, either as a reader or a writer. If I can't work up any enthusiasm about listening to the stuff, I certainly cannot work up any positive enthusiasm for writing about it.

Short of getting paid incentive ducats (I wish), to do a negative review, it requires that one derive some sort of satisfaction from it. I think that doing a trash review requires more of a mean streak than I have, and I actually have a fairly wide one.

I know, I know, there is the old sock of "protecting the consumer," but let me see a show of hands for how many of you buy that rationale? Is a reviewer 'protecting' the consumer by trashing the Squallenholler IV, because that reviewer thinks it is significantly inferior to the Moanngroan SE?

I think PFO serves to protect the consumer when we do educational pieces or write about gray-market issues and the like, and most especially when we direct readers to products of true merit …not through writing negative reviews.

Secondly, I am convinced there is profound musical and neurological-perceptual variation among us. I believe this variation is significant enough to allow me to be utterly repelled by something another listener finds deeply musically fulfilling. Otherwise, there simply is no rational explanation for Kenny G, "modern" classical music, and Celine Dion, oh …and my second wife.

But herein lies the danger.

We audiophiles live with some onerous nonsense (e.g., no tone controls) because at one time this nonsense was in the form of some respected reviewer's passionately stated preference. There is a regrettable tendency for preferences to migrate to principles in human thought, and it almost always results in bloody conflict. We continually pull each other down into the mud of internecine death-cage matches over topologies and what goes with what …with the blood spatter ennobled with the high moral tone of scientific or ethical certainty.

I don't think anything in my audio experience has been quite as revealing of this fact as my determined, but unsuccessful stint with single-ended tube amplifiers. With some effort I can get my head into a place where intellectually I can accept that others find nirvana therein, but my heart and soul will not follow. C'est la vie.

I used to feel the same way about horns …hated 'em, hated 'em, until I heard the execution of a JBL compression driver/horn combination on the XLH Reference 1812 speakers. Also, c'est la vie. Or rather …vivez et apprenez.

So …it probably seems sometimes that I like everything, because I only write about things I feel enthusiastic about. The reality is that I am extremely selective about what I will bring in for review, and I am very willing to send a component home without review if I am not impressed. Rather than being the Gwendolyn one might infer from my sunny write-ups, I am really a grumpy old miscreant—just ask around.

And talk about grumpy! Imagine all the work it takes to set up a review, get the danged thing through the Sargasso sea that is modern shipping, heft it into place, try to give it what it needs, listen through the break-in, break-down, whatever, only THEN to find you are just going to re-box it, make that uncomfortable phone call, and once again face shipping hell. If THAT doesn't make you grumpy, nothing will.

So, now, to finish the neat little bow in this diatribe …not once in about a decade of association with Positive Feedback have I heard a single comment about my decisions about what and if to write …based on ANYTHING …let alone some form of economic impact to the magazine.

Like it …don't like it, write about it, or don't write about it …nary a word said. My call.

So you conspiracy theorists look elsewhere. The choice not to do trash reviews at PFO is an aesthetic and philosophical one on the part of the magazine, not an economic one. And as a long term associate it is one I heartily support.