ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

March 1, 2007

Reviewers and Equipment Loans

There has recently been some editorializing in the high-end press about reviewers and the associated equipment they use to evaluate products. High-profile writers and editors from some of the various publications have weighed in on what they feel is acceptable practice when it comes to how reviewers acquire their reference systems. As a reviewer and editor of some ten years and counting, I have some thoughts of my own.

Today I’ll cover the most obvious point of disagreement: Editor-in-chief Robert Harley stated, in February’s The Abso!ute Sound, that "long-term equipment loans are not only essential to delivering accurate reviews, but serve the readers’ best interests." He went on to say that "The reality is that reviewers have access to long-term loans on just about any product they want," and surmised that "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’m reminded something Yogi Berra is said to have said: "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." While I do understand Harley’s theory -- and respect his opinion as a seasoned audio journalist -- there are problems in the practice of it.

The first is Harley’s assumption that the playing field is equal because a writer can basically have anything he wants, and that therefore he would choose only the best components for his system and room -- and that that, by default, is good for the reader, who therefore has a surefire recommendation. From the perspective of audio writers, that sounds great: the world is your audio shopping mall, and everything is free. But from the manufacturers’ points of view? Some large (in high-end terms) companies would have no problem lending out a batch of expensive gear on long-term or permanent loan. But many smaller companies simply can’t indefinitely write off $20k, $30k, $40k, or more worth of equipment. Other companies would oppose this practice on other grounds, such as ethics.

So when an advertising avenue -- and make no mistake, companies see reviewer loans as advertisements -- is open to some and closed to others, can the playing field really be equal? The unfortunate fact is that if a company feels compelled to give equipment to a writer, the system has failed. I would hate to think that, if a manufacturer denied a reviewer’s request for the long-term loan of a piece of gear, there would be repercussions from the reviewer. But power corrupts.

Harley then says that because reviewers can’t afford to buy the best stuff, without long-term loans, how could they do a proper job of reviewing? The trouble with this is that a liberal "policy" of long-term loans will inevitably attract the wrong type of person to the field. Might not a would-be writer see "the reviewing gig" as a perfect way to "acquire" equipment he or she would otherwise never be able to afford? Is that really the motivation we want embedded in the reviewing community? I’ve bought the vast majority of the high-end components in my system at industry-accommodation prices, which in most instances was, basically, dealer cost: Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 speakers, electronics from Boulder, Esoteric, Vitus, Krell -- the list goes on and on. This is the same gear I’d be buying were I not a reviewer. I’ve worked hard to be in a position to afford these items. Granted, the accommodation prices are nice, but nonetheless, I write big checks for this stuff. My take on it is that a reviewer purchase is an endorsement by the reviewer, while a long-term loan is an ad by a manufacturer. These are very different things.

I don’t think it’s healthy for writers to seek out long-term loans of equipment. Asking for something to be given to you that you can’t afford but would "like to have" doesn’t make the reviewing process more pure or more accurate, but that it has at least the potential to taint that process can’t be denied.

Paying for something out of your own pocket is also critical to remaining grounded in reality. After all, consumers must pay for their stereo components. Handing over your own money helps define a sense of what constitutes value, even when considering the most expensive gear. And while I don’t claim that all of these long-term loan arrangements are corrupt, or that the people involved are somehow crooked or bad, I do think it is the wrong road for us to travel down. Writers are entitled to be paid by their publishers for writing their articles, and nothing more. Reviewers who have developed a sense of entitlement because of "who they are" in the field need to remember that what this is all about is providing the reader with useful information and informed opinion, not procuring for the writer the next expensive freebie.

...Jeff Fritz

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