Back in the days when I owned XLO Electric, I wrote a manual for XLO dealer salespeople. This wasn't just about how to sell XLO cables. Instead, on the twin assumptions that:
1) Selling is a skill that can be taught, and
2) The more people who buy and enjoy high fidelity audio equipment of any kind, the better off everybody – the customers, the dealers, the salespeople, and our entire industry – will be, it presented a broad overview of how people think; how and why they buy; and the best way to sell to them.
That best way was simple and remains true even today: If you want your customer to buy from you, find out what he wants, and give it to him!
The difficulty with that is, of course, that until you've helped the customer to clarify his needs he may not really know what he wants, and until you've made him aware of the options available to him and helped him to understand why and how those may or may not meet his needs, he may not be able to make a choice.
When it finally gets around to making that choice, the most likely thing for most salespeople to do is an "A/B" test ― having the customer actually listen to both (or all) of the possible choices, one-after-the-other or switching back and forth between them, and then having him pick the one he likes best.
The problem with that sort of comparison , and the reason why my sales manual specifically advises against it is that A GREAT MANY CUSTOMERS, WHEN PLACED IN AN "A/B" TEST SITUATION, FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE, DON'T TRUST THEIR OWN EARS, AND RESENT THE TEST AND THE PERSON IMPOSING IT!
What they don't realize is that it really IS the equipment that's being tested, and that they, and only they are the ultimate authority on how that equipment sounds. Interviews with many customers and salespeople conducted over more than a decade revealed that a surprising number of customers are afraid that the test is not of the equipment, but of their own knowledge and hearing ability. Those customers often have little confidence in their own senses or experience; often think that the salesperson, as a Hi-Fi "expert", must know which of the products being compared is the best and will think badly of them if they pick the "wrong" one; and often would prefer to just have their "expert" salesperson tell them which product to buy!
That's the truth, and if you're an audiophile, you've probably run across that same kind of thinking when you've tried to talk about high fidelity audio with your non-audiophile friends: How many times, when you've described something new and wonderful to them or bubbled gleefully about your latest system mod or acquisition, have they looked you right in the eye and said with great but mistaken humility "Well, that may be fine for you, but I'm sure that I could never tell the difference."
In fact, though, they can tell the difference and so can almost anyone who isn't profoundly deaf. One quite literal proof of this is that Anthony H Cordesman ("AHC"), a long time reviewer for the absolute sound used to have a "listening panel" that included people who were admittedly hearing-impaired to help him with his equipment reviews. According to him, even people with quite noticeable hearing losses were still able to perceive differences in equipment performance and their observations were an important contribution to his reviewing process.
Equipment reviews, whether or not written with the assistance of a listening panel, can certainly be helpful in deciding what equipment a potential buyer should audition. There are literally thousands or even tens of thousands of products out there to choose from, and IT WOULD BE QUITE SIMPLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR ANYONE TO LISTEN TO ALL, OR EVEN ANY SIGNIFICANT PERCENTAGE OF THEM AS PREPARATION FOR MAKING A BUYING DECISION. Reviews, HiFi shows, audiophile forums on the social media, input from friends, neighbors, and even salespeople, the stocking decisions made by knowledgeable dealers, "product placements" on television or in the movies, and many other sources of information and recommendation can all help to screen those thousands of products down to a manageable few and give you a clue as to which to listen to before making your final buying decision.
The key to it, though, is to use them only to help in the screening process, and never in deciding what or whether to buy.
Many of the reasons for this are obvious: For one thing, the odds are that no one else's ears and no one else's tastes are exactly the same as your own. For another, it is absolutely certain that no one who might offer you input or advice will ever have both a system and a listening room identical to your own. As for Shows or even dealer showrooms, no matter how good the acoustics of the demonstration room may be or the other equipment that they're using to show off the product you're interested in, the old saying that "There's no place like home" holds true 100% of the time.
Consider this: Whatever you buy, you're going to have to listen to it ― hopefully for a good number of years ― in your own system, on your own choice of music, in your own listening room. At the cost of practically any new HiFi toy or goodie these days, it's important that the listening experience you buy be a good one!
To ensure that what you buy is the best possible choice to meet your own needs and budget, wouldn't it be nice if you could have your own personal "reviewer"? Even better, why not BE your own personal reviewer? Once you understand and accept that NO ONE ELSE WILL EVER KNOW YOUR OWN TASTES, PREFERENCES, BUDGET AND EXISTING SYSTEM AND LISTENING ROOM AS WELL AS YOU DO, that's easy enough to do.
As a "reviewer" you'll need to set yourself a listening and/or system goal and use it as your standard for evaluation: What do you want your system to be or do? Do you want it to sound the way you like it and think that music ought to sound? Or do you want it to exactly reproduce whatever is on the recording, whether that sounds good or not? It is your system, your money, and you're the one who's going to have to listen to it, so yours is the only opinion that matters.
Not only that, but the fact of it, pure and simple, is that even if you choose "exact reproduction", you're still going to be listening to (more or less) what you like! As I've written before, nobody – not even the engineer who did your favorite original recording (who was sitting there at the time, either in a control room listening over monitors or out at the venue listening through headphones) knows what the original performance actually sounded like; no recording, even if they did know, ever got it exactly right; and no home or other playback system ever got what was recorded right, anyway.
Isn't that terrific? Isn't that liberating? Don't you feel encouraged? If there's no "right", then there can also be no "wrong", and as both Reviewer and Audience, you can both set your own standards and be sure that you are meeting them!
One reader of another article I wrote asked in a FaceBook comment "Are we (audiophiles) also not reviewers? Do we not 'review' our own systems, systems of acquaintances, friends and of course systems in shows?" I can only answer "Of course", and "Who better?"
Do set you own standards and do abide by them. Do judge things with your own ears, through the filters of your own system, your own room, your own music, and your own tastes and preferences. That's the only way to get it the only kind of "right" that matters. Other reviewers – the ones who review for the blogs and the magazines – learn what's interesting out there and what they might want to review from reading other reviewers, from their friends and colleagues, from hearing things at Shows and from all kinds of other sources. You should do the same, in reviewing for yourself. Then they – when they can – take it home to listen to under familiar circumstances. If that can be arranged with a dealer (some dealers do offer home auditions or limited return privileges) or as a swap with a friend, do it; it is your best evaluation opportunity possible. Finally other reviewers, after making their review selections and listening to them as well and as critically as they are able, make their decisions and communicate them as well and as truthfully as possible, knowing that their reputation with their readers is the most important thing they have. You should do the same. Do be critical. Do be exacting. Do try always to determine the absolute truth and communicate it to most important audience of all – yourself. The one thing never to do is to be critical of your own judgment.
Then, when you've finished, take off your "reviewer" hat, put on your "audiophile" or "music lover" hat and...
Enjoy the music!