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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
June / July 2004
By Robert Harley

  There's a certain cynicism among a minority of audio-magazine readers regarding the integrity of the review process. This view, sometimes expressed on Internet forums, goes something like this: because reviewers enjoy the use of expensive equipment without paying for it, there's a quid pro quo with the manufacturer that guarantees a favorable review. Those holding this belief mention this alleged arrangement casually, as though corruption were an automatic and integral aspect of magazine reviewing that everyone knows about and tacitly accepts.

When I come across such comments, I don't know whether to laugh or be outraged. Those holding such views have absolutely no basis for their position except an a priori assumption that something untoward must be going on. As someone who has written more than 350 product reviews, and presided as editor over the publication of another 400 or so, I'd like to share my experience, as well as outline The Absolute Sound's policies regarding equipment loans.

In my eleven years as a full-time reviewer and four years as Editor (two-and-a-half years at TAS), I have never been approached by a manufacturer offering equipment, long-term loans of equipment, or any other compensation for favorable coverage. It just doesn't happen. If such a practice existed, I think I'd be aware of it considering the large number of products I've reviewed over the past fifteen years. Of course, I can't speak for other reviewers or publications, but this is my experience.

The cynics may respond that even if there's no overt quid pro quo, a favorable review makes the manufacturer amenable to a long-term loan of the product, and thus influences the reviewer. The reality is that I could spend an afternoon on the phone and assemble a reference-quality system of components on long-term loan -- components entirely of my choosing, before a word was written, and with no promise of a favorable review. If virtually all products are available on long-term loan, how can there be any coercion by a single manufacturer to write a favorable review?

But are long-term loans ethical? Absolutely. Reviewers need reference-quality equipment with which to judge other reference-quality components-equipment they could never hope to afford. Moreover, equipment changes and is updated, and reviewers need to use the latest gear. Manufacturers see the value in lending equipment to reviewers after the review period has ended; not only is the product mentioned in subsequent issues, but the reviewer's use of the product is an endorsement far more powerful than the review. Because reviewers can have virtually any products they want on a long-term basis, the ones they choose to live with are special indeed. Everyone wins: the manufacturer gets the exposure; the reviewer has the best tools available; and the reader is alerted to those products so good that the reviewer has chosen to live with them.

There are two prerequisites that make this policy work. First, the magazine's official stated policy must specify a time period from when the reviewer acquires the product to when the review appears in print and the product is ready for return to the manufacturer. At TAS, that period is six months. Second, when the manufacturer makes the inevitable call for the component's return, the product goes back immediately.

Products receive favorable reviews in TAS (and The Perfect Vision) for one reason-they deliver exceptional performance, value, or both. Anyone who says otherwise simply doesn't know what he's talking about.




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