The Absolute Sound December 2022
A few months ago, I was speaking on the phone with a manufacturer who was pitching me on the idea of the magazine reviewing the manufacturer's ambitious new product. After learning about the product during the call, it was obvious that Jonathan Valin was the ideal reviewer. Jonathan has extensive experience in, and enthusiasm for, the category; he has a large reader following; and his writing ability and style would perfectly fit with this potentially groundbreaking product.
But when I proposed Jonathan for the review, the manufacturer balked. Why? Because Jonathan had favorably reviewed another product in the same category. The manufacturer assumed that Jonathan had some sort of allegiance to the other manufacturer. In the manufacturer's mind, his product simply couldn't get a fair shake. In fact, the manufacturer explicitly said he believed that even if his product were better than Jonathan's reference, Jonathan would never say so out of loyalty to the other manufacturer. I tried to assure him that this wasn't the case, but I couldn't convince the manufacturer who was sure that the deck was stacked against him. I suggested another reviewer, but I got the same response; the manufacturer said that the reviewer's previous praise for a competing product disqualified him. This manufacturer's new product remains unreviewed.
Fast forward a few months. I was speaking to the principle of a high-end company ("Company A") who told me about a comment made to him by a long-time employee of the company. I had recently reviewed a product by Company A, followed by another review of a competing product by Company B. I decided to keep on extended loan the product from Company B as my reference, and return the review sample to Company A. When the employee of Company A learned of this development, he said to the principle at Company A, with a mixture of shock, anger, and outrage "How could he betray us like that?"
Another example: I was speaking with a manufacturer about the company's upcoming product introduction, a product perfectly suited to my interests and playback system. I proposed that I review the product, but the manufacturer hesitated. He said that I would be a good choice, "But now you're a [company name redacted] guy," naming the company whose product I had recently enthusiastically reviewed. Again, the manufacturer assumed that a previous positive review is tantamount to some loyalty to a brand that would preclude a potentially glowing review for the newer product.
Finally, upon reading a less-than-stellar review I had written, the product's manufacturer called me and exclaimed in an anguished voice "But I thought you were my friend!"
The common thread through these examples is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the reviewer and of the relationship between reviewer and manufacturer. To take the example of a manufacturer believing that reviewers have some loyalty to previously reviewed products, if that were the case, I'd still be listening to an 18Wpc Naim Nait 2 integrated amplifier, my first published review from 1989. If a product comes along that sounds better than what I had considered the state of the art (an inevitable and ongoing process, by the way — that's the nature of the industry), I'll embrace that new product without reservation. The idea that I or any other TAS reviewer would discover a fabulous product but downplay its quality or shade our opinions in deference to a competing manufacturer is laughable. We rejoice in discovering great products and bringing them to the attention of our readers, whoever the manufacturer might be. We have no dog in the fight.
What all these manufacturers don't understand is that our allegiance is to our readership, not to their marketing plans. The perceived reviewer "loyalty" to certain manufacturers simply doesn't exist. Of course, all reviewers have an affinity for certain brands that have a track record of creating great products that we happen to like. But if a better product comes along, we don't hesitate to embrace it. The offended manufacturers' feelings are of no concern. I learned a long time ago not to allow personal associations or manufacturer expectations to cloud our mission of reporting what we hear.
The industry marches forward, with TAS at the leading edge of reporting on what's possible in reproduced music. As groundbreaking new products come along, old references will undoubtedly be supplanted. When they do, we'll continue to report on them without fear or favor.