Frankly Speaking

    Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 14: The Reluctant Reviewer

    Issue 158

    I don’t think I really have the temperament to be an audio product reviewer.

    That’s because I don’t like saying bad things about products or people. Even if they deserve to be said, it stresses me out to be put in a position of having to say them (other than confiding with trusted friends).

    Maybe I’m too nice. Maybe I’m a chicken sh*t. Maybe, like all of us right now, I already have enough stress in my life and don’t want to add to it. But in my audio career I’ve shied away from doing product reviews whenever possible.

    Doing a review properly – with the emphasis on properly – is hard work. You have to set the component up, which, especially in the case of computer- or networked-audio-based gear, can be complicated. Setting up a piece of gear is certainly time-consuming, especially if it’s a turntable/arm/cartridge or loudspeakers. Then you’ve got to allow for break-in, sometimes on the order of 200 or more hours as recommended by the manufacturer. That can be, shall we say tedious, and you have to hold off on making any definitive judgments.

    For the purpose of example, let’s say we're reviewing a pair of loudspeakers. They need to be set up exactly in terms of room placement and geometry – and even then there will likely be inevitable compromises – and auditioned using a variety of amplifiers, cables, source components, and listening material. Ideally, the speakers should be evaluated in more than one room, though this is usually impractical or impossible and the reviewer has to depend on the intimate knowledge of their listening space and the ways in which loudspeakers interact with it.

    And even then, how do you know if you’ve gotten it right? I envy the reviewers who, with spectrum analyzers and measurement software and decades of experience and the unshakeable courage of their convictions, do their evaluations, and write their reviews with the confidence of a James Bond. Well, I’m a little more of a Woody Allen-type in this regard, even though I do have decades of experience in hearing hundreds of components in an equal number of listening situations, and may in fact be more qualified than most. I’d like to think that my judgments are accurate, although, like my memory, or my ability to, well, never mind, my high-frequency hearing ain’t what it used to be.

    Consider the stakes involved. A review can make or break a product or even a company. And, what if the reviewer simply flat-out gets it wrong? It won’t exactly enhance their professional reputation when the consensus of other reviews comes rolling in. I admire the stones of the reviewers at Stereophile who write their reviews first, then hand them in for measurements.

    Some reviewers and audio mags get around the conundrum of having to write a bad review by only reviewing products they like. If you’re an audiophile who has been around, you’ve undoubtedly read statements from editors and audio writers like, “we only have so much space for reviews, so why take it up writing about bad equipment?” They do have a point. Also, I think high-end gear has gotten much better overall than it was back in the day, classics like the Quad ESL loudspeakers or Audio Research SP-11 preamplifier notwithstanding. But, aside from performing the valuable service of warning readers about any potential dogs out there, or products that may not be worth the money (a subject of an entirely separate article: how does one determine value?), adopting a position of only reviewing good gear also lets the reviewer off the anxiety hook.

    I know many reviewers who don’t suffer from the kind of stomach-churning, insomnia-producing reluctance to write critical or out-and-out negative reviews as I do, and I raise my bottle of Tums to them. Certainly, my former boss, the late Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, didn’t have any qualms. Say what you want about the guy (and lord knows, he was an imperfect man) – when it came time to write a review, he wrote it like he heard it, unflinchingly, with no hand-wringing about what the manufacturers might think.

    One time he wrote a review proclaiming the Versa Dynamics 2.0 was the new King of Turntables, dethroning the mighty Goldmund Reference. The very day that the issue came out, Goldmund president Michel Reverchon and Bill Peugh (then with the US Goldmund importer, now with Wilson Audio) came out to visit us at Sea Cliff TAS HQ – and Harry insisted that the two of them get the issue and read Harry’s review on the spot. I was a basket case. We were going out to dinner with them that night (at Zanghi’s, a favorite spot of Harry and Michel's) and I pleaded with Harry not to give them the magazine. Michel Reverchon read the review, and with a Gallic shrug, said...very evenly...“well everyone is entitled to their opinion.” (Later, Bill Peugh told me I looked so bad that he was really worried about me and felt he'd better take me aside and calm me down. We laugh about it now. I hardly found it funny then. Ask Bill to tell you the story too.)


    The Goldmund Reference turntable.

    The Goldmund Reference turntable.


    During my tenure at TAS Harry would sometimes assign an equipment review to me. He knew I didn’t like doing them. Most of the time he’d do this because a component he’d originally been enthusiastic about had lost its appeal to him in favor of the newest bright and shiny object, and he passed the review along to me. An FD review didn’t carry the weight of an HP review – perhaps nothing in the world did at the time – but it was a consolation prize that no manufacturer would complain about. And sometimes Harry would want me to review components he knew I wasn't crazy about. Maybe He did it to groom me as a reviewer. Maybe he did it to “build character.” Maybe to make me squirm. But, since I was the Silver Surfer to Harry’s Galactus, I obediently did his bidding. (After seven years at TAS, I could do it no longer. Again, another story for another time.)

    But, criticism is useful, and, well, critical if you’re an audio manufacturer. If you’re going to sell a product in the marketplace, it had better be good. (OK, many consumer electronics products these days are near-disposable garbage, but I’m talking high-end audio here.) Leo Fender, the genius behind the guitar and amp company that carries his name, used to quickly get impatient with the yes men and the flatterers, and looked to trusted confidants and working musicians to tell him what they really thought about a product. His designs have stood the test of time for 75 years and counting.

    Call me The Reluctant Reviewer. On the other hand, when I hear something I like, my enthusiasm is boundless, as is my desire to share a good audio or musical find with others. And here I am.

    5 comments on “Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 14: The Reluctant Reviewer”

    1. The stress you use to have when working for Harry was epic, everyone who knew you worried about you in those days. So glad you have found peace with a low stress job like editing a magazine that comes out every two weeks! Much love Buddy

      1. Hi Jim, the differences are...Harry was my editor at TAS and Paul is my main man at PS Audio. Quite a contrast. Also, back in the day, TAS never published on time, whereas Copper runs like a digital master clock in a recording studio by comparison, although we haven't quite reduced jitter to zero yet 🙂

    2. Who cares the findings of a theatre critic or a film critic or music critic? Isn’t it all about individual and highly subjective tastes and preferences?

      1. Hi Paul,

        I mostly agree. People need to remember that the opinions of critics are exactly that -- opinions, and not some word from on high. That said, there are audio reviewers who I trust. They're experienced listeners and reviewers, and I tend to know where they're coming from. If they like something, it piques my curiosity.

    3. I appreciate your honest thoughts and thoughtfulness. In a world of lots of choices where in-person access before purchase is very limited, spotting reviewers that seem to have similar tastes to mine or write in terms that allow the reader get a decent sense of what a piece of gear sounds like is invaluable. The same can be said of paying attention to those posting on forums and the importance of asking pointed questions, including of developers. Most of my gear has been chosen “blind” in this way, i.e., unauditioned. While I don’t trust “positive people” in everyday life, and am thus not inclined to do so when talking about something as intimate as my audio system, for clues I do pay attention to their descriptors, as well as what they don’t say. But I prefer unvarnished thoughts.

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