Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
February 2007

Do Equipment Loans
Corrupt the Review Process?

  A recent post on the reader forum at our Web site AVguide.com (main thread: "High-End Audio Industry;" sub-thread: "Reviewers, Manufacturers and Prices") suggests that the reviewing process is somehow corrupt because reviewers routinely accept long-term equipment loans. The forum-poster posits that reviewers provide favorably biased coverage to those manufacturers willing to leave the equipment in the reviewer's home for an extended period of time.

I can see how this system might at first glance seem suspect. But a more considered and thoughtful analysis suggests that long-term equipment loans are not only essential to delivering accurate reviews, but serve the readers' best interests. Moreover, a little insight into the reality of the relationship between reviewers, manufacturers, and review samples reveals that no favoritism or bias could possibly exist.

I start with the fundamental quandary that long-term loans solve: Reviewers need reference-quality equipment to accurately judge the component under review — reference gear that they couldn't possibly afford to buy. It would be a great disservice to everyone involved (particularly readers) if reviewers tried to evaluate a piece of equipment in a system whose colorations obscured the qualities of the component under test. How could one evaluate a top-notch digital front end, for example, if that front end were driving a low-resolution, less-than-transparent preamplifier and power amplifier? The greater the review system's transparency, the more precise, detailed, and accurate the description of the component under review Moreover, reviewers need access to the latest gear to make comparisons to the product being evaluated. Readers would not expect us to compare a new power amplifier to what we considered the reference five years ago. It's simply impossible for reviewers to continually buy the latest reference-quality components in every product category so that we can do our jobs.

Long-term loans also benefit the reader in that they alert the reader to those products the reviewer believes to be reference quality. If you see a product listed under a reviewer's Associated Components month after month, you can be assured that the product is special. We're exposed to a wide variety of gear; only the crème de la crème remains in the reference system. Sharp-eyed readers can identify the truly exceptional products among all those that pass through our listening rooms.

But what about the forum-poster's assertion that this system is ripe for corruption? Do reviewers really give overly favorable assessments to those companies who agree to lend the equipment for months or even a few years?

Absolutely not, and here's why. The reality is that reviewers have access to long-term loans on just about any product they want. I could pick up the phone right now and have virtually any piece of high-end audio equipment delivered to my home for an indefinite period. I don't say that in a boastful way; it's just the reality of the industry (which I believe is far too review-driven). In fact, there's often a conflict with a manufacturer when a reviewer wants to return the gear; the manufacturer would rather see it stay in the reference system and have the product mentioned every month. With reviewers having long-term access to nearly any piece of equipment, there's no incentive to provide biased coverage in a quid pro quo arrangement. Furthermore, why would a reviewer want to keep in his system any product that he or she didn't believe was truly reference quality? Remember that we don't just use our systems as test beds for reviewing; our hi-fi systems also provide us with musical enjoyment when we're not specifically conducting listening evaluations (which is most of the time).

A key idea to making this system work is that the product is eventually returned to the manufacturer, either when the manufacturer wants it back, the product is discontinued, or when the reviewer is ready to move on to another product.

There will always be a few cynics who see this system as fundamentally corrupt, but the fact remains that long-term equipment loans are not only a win-win-win arrangement for readers, manufacturers, and reviewers, but essential to publishing accurate and informed product reviews.


Be sure to join us on the Web at AVguide.com for lire coverage of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, complete with video segments on the most important product introductions, starting January 9. While you're on AVguide.com, tune into my new weekly blog on high-end audio, which debuted December 1.





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