ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

October 1, 2003

Obligation and Integrity in the Audio Community

Only two factors can destroy the audio community: a dearth of creative energy and a loss of trust. Industries can and do rebound from bad economies. Communities do not endure without trust.

By all accounts, the early 1990s were marked by robust sales and optimism across the entire audio industry. The pages of the best audio magazines were devoted to hotly contested disputes about the legitimacy of single-ended-triode amps and horn-loaded loudspeakers as viable alternatives to solid-state muscle amps and low-efficiency dynamic speakers with complex, power-hungry crossovers.

These are not nearly as good times for the audio industry. Sales are down, and relatively fewer new enthusiasts have been brought into the fold. The optimism of a decade ago has given way to pessimism about the future, and confidence in the value of reviews and the importance of the discussions that take place within them has been replaced by cynicism about the integrity of the review process itself. A healthy dose of skepticism is desirable, but while the audio community can absorb some cynics, it cannot survive a culture of cynicism.

What is the source of this cynicism?

There are a lot of products. Many of them are good, often quite good. There is neither enough space nor enough reviewers to evaluate them all. At the same time, some manufacturers advertise actively, and many of their products are reviewed. Moreover, many manufacturers work very hard to maintain good relationships with reviewers. Reviewers dine on the manufacturer’s dime, and some keep the manufacturer’s products on long-term loan. Occasionally, products have been known to "disappear" altogether. Manufacturers offer reviewers products at so-called "accommodation prices." Reviewers sometimes take advantage of accommodation prices as a way of parlaying purchases into hours of listening enjoyment, and perhaps a nifty profit a few months down the road. In addition, most published reviews are, on balance, favorable; very few products receive outright pans.

Many audiophiles and manufacturers infer from these facts that published reviews must be tainted -- that they are less than fully candid or objective. Many suspect, and others are convinced, that stroking reviewers and advertising are the keys to a manufacturer’s success. In the end, too many have become convinced that reviews in even the most prestigious audio magazines are little more than glorified paid advertisements. For the cynic, the only question is whether to be depressed about the current state of affairs or to resign himself to it.

Once skepticism hardens into cynicism, even plain facts are seen as partisan representations. Few fears about the review process are calmed, few doubts quieted by the fact that many companies advertise but do not have their products reviewed with anything like the frequency that would support the cynics’ charges. Nor does the fact that the best audio reviewers are equal-opportunity critics alleviate underlying doubts about the overall integrity of the process. From the cynic’s point of view, all that matters is that the "facts" are proffered by those who have the most at stake in preserving the status quo: magazine publishers, editors, and reviewers on the one hand, and manufacturers on the other.

The audio community is just that -- a community. We share certain common goals: improving the quality of music reproduction in the home, the office, the car, and, heaven help us, even in the elevator (why else would God have created Kenny G and Boy George?). Like any community based on the interdependence of its members, we are brought together by common aspirations and goals. Achieving our common ends requires that each of us plays his part and that we enable others to play theirs. Acting for the good of the whole comes at a cost to the unhampered pursuit of personal interests and goals. Therein lie a personal tension and a collective vulnerability.

I cannot know in advance that, when faced with conflict between the collective good and personal interest, you will forsake the latter in favor of the former. Nor can you know in advance that I will do the same. Neither of us has the resources to monitor the other’s compliance -- we simply have to trust one another to do our share. But trust is hard to attain and, once secured, remains fragile.

Many on whom all of us rely to do their parts have lost faith in the integrity of the review process. As a result, they are increasingly unwilling to do their share, preferring to sit on the sidelines and bash the process. Are they right to have lost their faith? Are they right to have withdrawn? Is their disdain warranted?

This is not an idle concern, for the integrity of the review process is, if anything is, essential to the survival of the audio community as we know it. Vigilance and skepticism are always warranted; disdain and cynicism are not.

I am no apologist for the status quo, but the following has always struck me as not only a plausible explanation of why most reviews are positive, but pretty close to the truth as well. Over time, competition in the market has worked to weed out weaker products and unsustainable projects. Of course, the costs of entry into the market are sufficiently high that some very good products and noble efforts that should be rewarded and encouraged do not survive; and we can all list a few products of dubious audio merit that not only survive, but flourish. In the main, though, the quality of products has simply improved.

Two reasons the market works are that there are lots of talented people in audio and that consumers are well-informed. Consumers are well-informed in part because the reviews about which the cynics complain are generally informative and useful. Good reviews contribute to the market’s success in at least two ways: by helping to inform consumers, and by giving critical feedback to manufacturers.

Moreover, there is now a healthy competition among the various venues for reviews; reviewers and their reviews are under the spotlight. Bad, uninformative reviews are pretty much seen as such. Reviewers have ample incentives to remain credible (which is not to say that all are).

Most reviews are favorable on balance because most products are good. The audio market works more or less as other markets do: We have reached a point in the industry where most of the changes, most of the time, are incremental. Most differences in performance among products are subtle (despite hyperbolic reviews that refer to almost all perceived differences as "not subtle"). Incremental improvements and subtle differences are marginal, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable.

I, too, lament what appear to be so many plain-vanilla reviews of so many products, each of which seems little more than a variation on one or two all-too-familiar themes. If there is a failing in the reviews, it may be far less in the integrity of the process than in its conventionalism. But that is a call for reviews of more distinctive, risk-taking technologies -- reviews of equipment designed by folks who walk to a different beat. I’m all for that.

Objectivity should not be confused with hostility. The integrity or credibility of the process is not enhanced by the mere fact of unfavorable reviews. Reviewers won’t make the process more believable by writing highly critical reviews, or by picking out products they suspect to be of dubious merit simply in order to write a bad review. That’s disingenuous, and encourages the view that the process is a sham. Now, that’s cynical.

But what explains the cozy relationship between reviewers and certain manufacturers?

In the first place, though such relationships do exist, they are far fewer than one might suppose. But reviewing a product and then publishing the results takes lots of time and money, and it is unsurprising that those who support the audio community receive more attention. Given the expense of equipment and the time it takes to review it, it is altogether reasonable that reviewers pay attention to those manufacturers who try to help them do their job.

For their part, reviewers and editors are too quick to dismiss concerns about their trustworthiness. It is necessary that the review process be credible and reliable, but it is not sufficient. In addition to being trustworthy, the review process must be perceived as trustworthy. Some reviewers no doubt abuse the privileges of their positions. Others are not vigilant enough in maintaining the distance between the personal and the professional necessary not only to promoting objectivity, but to instilling confidence in others of one’s objectivity.

To deserve the support of others within the community, the review process must have integrity. That integrity is, in the long run, best guaranteed by the disclosure of relationships with manufacturers, honesty in reporting, and an increased tolerance by manufacturers of criticism. Reviewers and publishers have the obligation to review honestly and to disclose fully, if politely, all forms of manufacturer support, including especially long-term product loans, and even lavish meals toasted with fine wines. (As yet, no one has even taken me out for pizza.)

Nor is it appropriate for audiophile consumers and disgruntled manufacturers to sit on the sidelines, comfortable in their cynicism. For as long as there is reason to believe that we are all better off having a robust review culture, then those who benefit from the process -- manufacturers, shop owners, and consumers -- must support the practice.

Ironically, perhaps, manufacturers who would rather complain than advertise run the risk of being seen as little more than free riders. They come across as wanting to have their products reviewed, but as unwilling to sustain the forums in which reviews occur.

For their part, audiophile consumers have yet to display an inclination to support a Consumer Reports approach to high-end audio: no advertising, and all review samples purchased at retail outlets. The price to consumers of an advertisement-free journal would be much higher than the costs consumers have to bear to purchase any of the current crop of advertisement-based print and online journals and print-media outlets.

The problem threatens to unravel our community. Manufacturers don’t buy advertising because they complain that the process is corrupt and they are left out. Reviewers naturally attend to those who do support the process and enable them to do their jobs. This cycle only reinforces charges of corruption. In the absence of steps taken on both sides, it’s easy to see how it all might unravel. But neither side trusts the other enough to make itself vulnerable by taking the first step.

What we need to achieve is trust for both sides to take steps simultaneously. Reviewers must become more sensitive to the ways in which their positions give them a power that they must exercise carefully with concern for the interests of others. They must be especially vigilant in conforming to the norms of integrity that govern the process.

Manufacturers must support the forums in which reviews are published if those forums are to survive and become more inclusive. No one can sit on the sidelines complaining while at the same time expecting a free ride. The same is true of audiophile consumers. Subscribe; criticize by voice, not exit.

In short: Publishing costs money, and reviewers must have access to equipment. No publication or combination of publications can possibly pretend to be comprehensive and independent of manufacturer support. All they can do to survive and to continue to be useful is to accept support and disclose it, choose interesting products to review, and review them as objectively as possible. If manufacturers and audiophiles want to be able to secure and read equipment reviews, they must provide the resources to create and publish them. Bashing the process because it has real-world constraints is simply unhelpful. No consumer or manufacturer is entitled to a free ride on the contributions others make to the audio community. On the other hand, publishers and reviewers must be responsive to concerns about the integrity of the process by adopting practices of full disclosure, and, perhaps by forgoing some of the perquisites of the practice.

We will rebound from this bad economy. Whether we survive as a vibrant audio community depends on our willingness to forgo personal advantage for common goals, and our willingness to trust that others will do the same.

...Jules Coleman

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