The Absolute Sound May / June 2023
How do we choose products for review in The Absolute Sound? Why do we review certain products and not others? What are the criteria for inclusion in the magazine?
I'm sure that many readers have asked these questions, so I'll share with you some of the decision-making that goes into the process. I'll also let you in on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that sometimes occurs as manufacturers jockey for position in the magazine.
Although we publish many more product reviews than other magazines, TAS can review only about 80 to 90 products per year. That math dictates that we must be very selective in choosing review products out of the many hundreds of new-product introductions every year.
The selection criteria start with whether we have reason to believe the product will be outstanding. That initial indication can be based on hearing the product at a show, the company's track record, or positive word-of-mouth from trusted sources. Other criteria include whether the product is readily available for audition and purchase; many worthy European and Asian products are excluded simply because the manufacturer has no representation in North America. You can, however, learn about these products from our coverage of the Munich show, which appears in our September issue.
Another factor is the company's longevity, reputation, and market presence. We tend to focus on established companies that have proven themselves worthy of your attention. Yet, at the same time, the magazine needs to be open to promising newcomers. Today's fledgling manufacturer could be tomorrow's powerhouse. Our strategy is to focus on the reliable brands with solid dealer networks, but with an eye to nurturing the next generation of designers and manufacturers. When Jonathan Valin reviewed the Magico Mini in 2008, Magico was a one-man show, with Alon Wolf building the speakers himself and packing them in the shipping cartons. Similarly, esoteric products from little-known companies are included as "seasoning" rather than as the main ingredient. The occasional presence of these offbeat products — some of them sonically outstanding — gives our readers a more comprehensive picture of the field than if we stuck strictly with the familiar brands.
Within these general guidelines, there are two additional considerations when choosing products to review, the micro and the macro. The micro-perspective considers each issue as a self-contained entity that stands on its own. I strive for a product mix that will likely appeal to the most readers — some electronics, some analog, some digital, some cables — along with a wide variety of price points and inclusion of different reviewing voices. It's the "something for everyone" approach.
But then there's the macro consideration; how our product selection reflects the magazine's values when viewed over the long haul. The products that appear in the magazine are, in aggregate, a statement of who we are and what we believe in — the magazine's ethos.
Once I determine that the product is a good fit for the magazine, there's the question of matching the product with the reviewer. Each of our writers brings different interests and sensibilities to their reviews. Steven Stone doesn't review $100k turntables, and Michael Fremer doesn't evaluate the latest music-management software, for example. A new tube amplifier? That would be our tube maven Dick Olsher. We are fortunate to have a "reviewing bench" that is astonishingly wide and deep. No matter what the product, we have an extremely experienced reviewer who can expertly evaluate the product and write cogently about it. Our reviewers' systems range from entry-level to state-of-the-art, with all stops in between.
The intense competition for a review slot, along with the tremendous value that a review in The Absolute Sound brings to a company, encourages some manufacturers to try to game the system. After 34 years in the field, I've seen all these sneaky methods firsthand. The oldest trick in the book is for the manufacturer or distributor to send a product to a reviewer (unbeknownst to me) under the pretext of the product being "not for review, just for you to listen to," and then a month later he starts asking when the review will appear in the magazine. This tactic is popular because it has the advantage of plausible deniability.
We've recently overcome the space limitation in the magazine by launching our own YouTube channel with product reviews and more. Our video channel greatly expands our ability to cover more products than is possible in a print magazine. The video medium also allows us to share the joys of high-quality music reproduction with a new audience.
However, you access our reviews, know that much thought and consideration goes into curating a product selection that best serves our valued readers.