Opinion: Matter Of Trust
The hi-fi and home cinema industry has not traditionally partaken in paid-for reviews – where manufacturers give money to 'journalists' to 'review' their products. That's partly down to the liberal publishing ethos that prevails in the English-speaking world and because hi-fi tends not to be sold on platforms such as Amazon, where this practice is commonplace. Until now, that is.
StereoNET makes no secret that we are funded by the industry – including retailers, manufacturers, and importers/distributors. That's because we are a commercial business with salaried staff and freelance contributors to pay, the latter being our major expense. We're proud of this, as the particular way it is done gives us the last word. We can review anything we like from anyone, and conversely, any brand can approach us to request a product review. We get to decide what we write about and how we write about it, always with our readers in mind.
Sometimes we upset manufacturers and distributors, but that's life. Yet, we're generally able to maintain a productive relationship with the industry and have earned trust from both it and our readers for our reviews' quality. If something is innovative, interesting, revolutionary or cutting-edge, it gets featured, regardless of what our advertisers think. We also strive to give the best coverage of products that the industry wants to talk about. That's how the wheels go round.
This symbiotic relationship is a delicate balance. We have to maintain our journalistic integrity whilst supporting the hi-fi and AV industry as a whole. It's certainly not impossible to do, but we have to focus on accuracy and quality of reviews – otherwise, what's the point? That's why we're picky about who we let write for us and have striven to build a large and trusted team over the years.
Recently, however, we've seen one local distributor break the mould, transgressing the normal relationship between the industry and the press. Bizarrely, the industry member in question called our senior staff into their office on the other side of town for a business meeting recently. They duly kept us waiting for over an hour – asking us to sit in a cafe across the road – and then spent the next hour criticizing StereoNET and other members of the local press. They finished the lecture by saying, "and this is why we won't work with you", leading us to wonder why they'd requested a meeting in the first place...
Of course, hi-fi reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. They're there to offer the reader some meaningful insight into the product being reviewed, one that goes far beyond its marketing spiel. It should be used at the very least as a 'way in' to considering buying a product, something to provoke more thought on the part of the prospective purchaser. If you believe then the product could be for you, it can go on your auditioning shortlist. The rest is then up to you.
So when a well-known local reviewer announced that he would be leaving freelance journalism to work for a local hi-fi distributor, we wished him well. He had decades of experience and had worked for every local publication, including StereoNET. Yet despite him moving from one side of the great divide to the other, his job description continued to be 'journalist and reviewer'. And he's now 'reviewing' products that his employer exclusively distributes – for the company's own retail website.
There's nothing illegal about this per se, but indeed it is misleading for consumers. Because he's 'reviewing' his employer's products, it amounts to paid advertorial rather than a traditional, notionally impartial review. It's akin to an influencer receiving a free product in return for a good review, except in this case, it's an ongoing salary. The fundamental problem is that the reviews do not state any commercial interests or that this well-respected reviewer is now under the distributor's employ.
This distributor's relationship with the press and various fellow industry members has become fractured. By upsetting the delicate balance between press freedom and mutual support within the industry – one that delivers for the industry, the press and consumers alike – a bad precedent has been set. I cannot see how this is good for the industry, whichever way I look at it.
Marc Rushton is StereoNET's Founder & Publisher and still buried deep in the review room auditioning everything from docks to soundbars, amplifiers and headphones. Marc is also the founder of the annual International HiFi Show.