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The Absolute Sound

The Absolute Sound      March 2023


From The Editor
Long-Term Equipment Loan To A Reviewer: A Win-Win For Everyone
Robert Harley looks at the practical and ethical considerations of longterm equipment loans from manufacturers to reviewers.
Editorial By Robert Harley


The Absolute Sound March 2023


  In this issue's Letters column, reader Henry Kleeman expresses concern over the magazine's policy regarding long-term equipment loans from manufacturers to reviewers. He writes: "I have always thought that the ‘extended loan' of high-end gear to reviewers is the dirty little secret of the audio-reviewing community. I'm hard pressed to understand how it doesn't create, at the very least, an appearance of a conflict of interest. If Company B has graciously given a reviewer its new state-of-the-art, half-million-dollar, ultimate speaker on an ‘extended loan' (so the reviewer can incorporate the speakers into his reference system), how does that reviewer then approach a review of Company B's new $50,000 speaker?"

I fully understand Mr. Kleeman's perception that a reviewer would feel beholden to a manufacturer who had lent the reviewer an expensive piece of equipment for an extended period. But that perception doesn't comport with the reality of how such loans work or the benefit the manufacturer derives from the arrangement. Moreover, long-term equipment loans are essential to writing the most accurate and insightful reviews, present no conflict of interest, and serve the best interests of everyone — readers, reviewers, the magazine, manufacturers, and the industry has a whole.

I'll start with the practical reality of reviewing very-high-end products. Most of us at The Absolute Sound who review very expensive equipment cannot afford to buy the reference-level components that are necessary for evaluating the product under review. For example, I'm about to review the new $133,000 Rockport Orion loudspeaker. To discern the Orion's capabilities fully and accurately, it must be judged in a system of commensurate quality, including sources, amplification, cables, equipment racks, power conditioning, and accessories. Those components should be as neutral and transparent as possible so that the loudspeaker's characteristics can be fully revealed, untainted by colorations from the rest of the system. Because I'm the editor of a small niche magazine and not a hedge-fund manager, providing such a system of superlative components is possible only through long-term loans.

It's not enough that the associated components be of commensurate quality to the product under review; the reviewer must also be thoroughly familiar with the sound of the reference system. Inserting a new product into a highly transparent reference system whose characteristics are known intimately by the reviewer is the gold standard for writing an accurate and insightful review. Anything less is a compromise. A reference system is the reviewer's test bed; the better the quality of the system and the more stable it is over time, the more accurate the reviews of products evaluated in that system. Without long-term loans, reviewers must either evaluate expensive products in systems they can afford (i.e., that are not up to the sonic standard of the product under review) or change the entire playback system with each new product evaluation.


The Absolute Sound March 2023


But doesn't the long-term product loan create a conflict of interest as Mr. Kleeman suggests? No, because the reality of long-term loans is very different than what Mr. Kleeman imagines it is. The assumption is that the reviewer is beholden to the manufacturer providing the loan, when it is the manufacturer who benefits more from the loan. In fact, manufacturers are disappointed (and sometimes angry) when a reviewer returns a product — see my editorial "How Could He Betray Us?" in Issue 334, which precipitated Mr. Kleeman's letter. The benefit to the manufacturer from having his product chosen for inclusion in the reviewer's reference system far outweighs the cost of leaving a review sample with the reviewer for an extended period.

Reviewers, at least those who write for a prominent publication, can select just about any product they want for long-term loan; it is not bestowed upon them by the manufacturer. Many products flow through a reviewer's system; only the crème de la crème remain as references. The inclusion of a product in a reviewer's reference system—chosen purely on the basis of performance — is the ultimate praise, conferring significant prestige and commercial advantage on the manufacturer. Consequently, reviewers owe the manufacturer nothing for the loan.

This arrangement also benefits readers by identifying those products that are truly exceptional. If you see a product listed in the reviewer's "Associated Components" section, you can be sure that that product is the finest example in that product category the reviewer has encountered. Another benefit to readers is less tangible — the reviewer's long experience with great sound and how that experience affects his standards. If you are considering buying a product (of any price) that you've just read about in a review, would you feel more secure in the reviewer's judgment if that reviewer had spent decades listening to the very best products the industry has created or if the reviewer's experience with state-of-the-art audio was limited to brief auditions in unknown environments?

For this system to work, we adhere to the iron-clad rule that the review sample must eventually be returned to the manufacturer. Although the reviewer may use a product for several years, it belongs to the manufacturer.

While it may appear at first glance that long-term loans create a potentially unhealthy relationship between reviewers and manufacturers, the reality is that these loans are a win-win for everyone.



— Robert Harley




The Absolute Sound
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