[SOUNDSTAGE!] Marc Mickelson is the
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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
April 2005

Faith-Based Audio Reviewing

Audio reviewers get into this hobby for the same reasons audio consumers do. First and foremost, they have enthusiasm for music and the equipment used to reproduce it. This enthusiasm along with the glut of very good audio products on the market lead to reviews that are often filled with praise and short on criticism. Truly negative reviews are rare, and, as a consequence, when one is published, it usually generates feedback from a publication's readership. That feedback often goes something like this:

I am writing to praise Reviewer X for his insightful review of the Audio Sonics A1 amplifier. Seldom do I read reviews in the mainstream press that present the truth about a poor audio component. This review was refreshingly negative. It has restored my faith in audio reviewers.

Print and online magazines publish such comments as though they are badges of honor. The idea is that they validate the publication's editorial stance. But what if the reviewer who writes a negative review is simply wrong? I am not referring here to a difference of opinion -- that one person hears music one way and I, or another listener, hear it differently. I'm talking about an oversight, a mistake, a blunder. I won't speculate on the reasons for this happening except to say that some of the rumors we've all heard about reviewers' listening rooms, audio systems, tastes, professional affiliations, and biases are true. Whatever the reason may be, a reviewer has written a review that is simply in error, and a publication has printed it -- in fact, it may be propping itself up with it. What should readers think?

It's not difficult to be an audio ogre, especially given the Internet's preeminence. Just visit any of the online chat sites and you'll see people expounding on all manner of subjects, including the worth of particular audio products or the lack thereof. In these cases, those who read the comments consider the sources, some of which have axes to grind and others, to be kind, don't have a strong grasp of the facts. What they do have is an opinion, and, because of the Internet, they also have a forum in which to express it. Savvy readers know this and adjust their expectations accordingly.

But when a review is published in a longstanding and credible publication, there is a shift in perception. The writer has to be right, right? The logic here is tied into the fact that the reviewer has written something that goes against the grain; the minority opinion rules. Also, negativity brings with it an illusion of certitude on which the review can ride.

The goal of audio reviewing should not be to write positive or negative reviews, but rather to ensure that your published assessments are correct. Doing this carries with it tremendous responsibility, including the requirement of checking and rechecking results if any doubt exists. Given that so many audio products are worthy of praise, an overwhelmingly negative evaluation should encourage extra diligence by default, especially if the product is from a maker with a strong track record.

A negative review of a poor product is no more valid than a positive review of a good one. But in either case, a reviewer who is wrong serves no one, especially the readers of the publication that prints his or her work. I would like to think that my fellow editors believe this, but published reviews don't always support it. Sometimes chasing after a reader's faith is more important than simply being right.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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