Part of the fun of being an audiophile is reading reviews of audio gear. I’ve read audio reviews for 60 years, starting with Stereo Review, leading to Gordon Holt’s Stereophile and Harry Pearson’s The Absolute Sound, continuing with several print and online magazines to the present. As an author, I’ve written reviews for 14 years, starting with Positive Feedback Online and moving to the SoundStage! Network’s suite of online magazines and The Absolute Sound in print and online. In the process I’ve formed some strong views about how a reviewer should go about his or her business. I thought I’d share some of them with you.
1. Use your own system to review equipment, not someone else’s and certainly not equipment in a dealer’s or manufacturer’s facility. And forget attempting to review something in a trade-show environment—yes, some reviewers have actually done that.
2. Replace only a single item in your system with the item you’re reviewing; otherwise, you won’t be able to tell what item produces a particular sonic characteristic. Avoid testing several components at once.
3. Review the equipment exactly as the manufacturer provided it. Don’t make any sort of modification, even easy ones; they can change the nature of the sound into something unique, which may not resemble what a reader is likely to hear. If a modification makes a big improvement, write a comment or a sidebar about it after you review the item in stock form. No-no mods include:
- Using a third-party power cord. Yeah, I know; many stock power cords are junk, but unless the manufacturer doesn’t provide any cord, the stock cord is what many readers will use.
- Replacing stock tubes with new old stock (NOS) tubes from your personal stash. NOS tubes might make improvements, or maybe just changes, but can be expensive and the models you substitute may be impossible for readers to find. Many tubed components are optimized for the sound of the stock tubes anyhow.
- Using aftermarket footers. These can make big improvements, but most readers won’t use them. And each footer has a different sonic, ahem, footprint.
- Using a power conditioner. Plug the review item into your wall socket. Power conditioners can make a huge improvement, but can also degrade the sound. I might make an exception if the power coming out of the wall is trashy, but as my mother-in-law used to say, it’s making the best of a bad situation. I hope she wasn’t talking about me.
4. The reference system you use in a review should be comprised of reasonably current equipment; you need to show readers how the equipment you’re reviewing sounds in the context of a current system. That’s why reviewers get manufacturer’s accommodations, or discounts. Vintage gear is fine and fun for audiophile hobbyists but isn’t for reviewers. Who cares how good a turntable sounds with 78 RPM records? [I think Jeremy Kipnis might—check out the feature from Copper #76! –-Ed.]
5. When reviewing speakers, use an amplifier capable of driving the speakers. Don’t try to drive inefficient speakers with a 20-watt amplifier. Make sure the amp can handle the speaker’s impedance swings.
6. Use a wide variety of music to demonstrate sonic characteristics of review item, not just the stuff you like. Ideally, music should include solo instrumental, solo voice, orchestral, choral, rock, jazz, classical. Don’t just use solo singers or small vocal groups with band backings. Use currently available recordings, if possible; your review could prompt a reader to want to listen to a recording you mentioned. If you don’t own a wide variety of music, subscribe to Tidal or Qobuz.
7. Compare the review item with comparable items if possible, even if you have to do so from a spec sheet. Readers appreciate knowing how an item stacks up against its competition.
8. Be reasonably proficient using your word processor. Pay attention to spelling and grammar checkers.
9. Have a logical structure for your reviews. Don’t wander about aimlessly. Here’s the structure I like to use, although it’s not the only acceptable format. It’s essentially the format specified for SoundStage! publications.
- Section 1 — Description of the equipment. Explain in easily understandable terms what the review equipment does, if it’s something unusual. It’s surprising how many manufacturers can’t manage to do this, but instead, lapses into industry slang that confuses the reader.
- Section 2 — Setting up the equipment for the review; problems encountered. This is especially important for turntables, where the sound is quite dependent on setup. Mention what equipment you used with the review item; that has a big effect of the sound quality. Believe it or not, I saw a major reviewer review a tonearm without mentioning what cartridges he used with it, or how easy setup was.
- Section 3 — Sound; how the equipment sounded, with plenty of musical illustrations. But don’t just list a bunch of recordings and say the review item sounded good on all of them.
- Section 4 — Comparisons; how does the equipment stack up against its competition? Readers really want to know this information—they read reviews to help them sort out which equipment to buy.
- Section 5 — Conclusions and recommendations; whether you’d recommend the item you reviewed, and any limitations for its use.
10. Stay on point. Readers don’t want to know a lot about your family, your hobbies, your food and drink preferences, or your pets.
11. Don’t go overboard about your emotional reaction to a review item. Emotional reactions are hugely dependent on the music played. For example, if you play hip-hop music for me, even through a fantastic system, my emotional reaction will be to puke. OK, that’s a physical reaction, but you get the point. Hey, if you like it, great, but it’s not appealing to me. There is no emotion track on a recording. Emotional responses result from how the listener reacts to some sort of sonic characteristic like timing precision, harmonic accuracy, or microdynamic tracking; discuss that instead of emotions. Yeah, I know, it’s easier to talk about how music moved you, as if everyone would react the same way.
12. If you discuss technical issues, know what you’re talking about. Get help from the manufacturer if you’re allowed to talk to him.
13. When you review an item you don’t like, try to find good points as well as bad to write about. The manufacturer didn’t set out to make a POS and a vicious review can damage his business, which can be fragile. This doesn’t mean you can’t write bad reviews.
14. For reviews published online, respond to reader comments if your magazine allows it. People took the trouble to read your review and may have further questions. Maybe you weren’t clear about something, or they’d appreciate more info on something you mentioned. But be polite. There is no excuse whatsoever for abusing those who leave comments, even obvious trolls. Just ignore them if they are just trying to stir things up.
15. Don’t use foul language in reviews or responses to reader comments. Young children might read that language. If you can’t express yourself without using foul language, find another job.
16. Provide a list of the equipment in the system you used for the review, but don’t list every accessory you own or equipment you own that you didn’t use in the review. No one besides yourself will be impressed. For example, if you’re reviewing a DAC, don’t list your turntable unless the DAC has a phono input.
17. If editors let you see the edited version of your review, take advantage and look it over carefully. They may have misunderstood something you wrote and edited it to read much differently than what you intended. Check the art they chose to illustrate your review to be sure it illustrates points you’ve made. I’ve seen reviews where the pictures shown were not of the equipment reviewed; fortunately, not any of my own reviews.
18. If the review item uses tubes, mention what types of tubes are used; e. g., 12AX7, 6922, KT88. Interested readers need to know if replacement tubes will be readily available, or if the designer used some sort of exotic, rare, and expensive tubes that may be hard to find. If exotic tubes are used, find out replacement costs.
19. If you’re reviewing a speaker, don’t use subwoofers with it. Readers want to know how the speaker performs in the bass region, not the subwoofers. The same applies to amplifiers; don’t use subwoofers, at least powered subwoofers. You’ll be listening to the amplifier built into the subwoofer, not the amplifier you’re reviewing.
OK, that’s my list. I’ll admit to violating many of those guidelines at one time or another but have generally tried to stick to them. I hope they’ve made my reviews more valuable.