In the early years of high performance audio, the hobby, predominately, was most aptly characterized as local. Dealers were in almost every city of any notable size and in most smaller ones as well. It was not uncommon for buyers to routinely visit their friendly dealer up the street to see what new gear awaited. They spent time hanging around the dealership and became friendly with the staff. It was almost an outing.
As years passed, the hobby changed. Gear got better and most would perhaps agree more expensive. Although I would submit our hobby has always been a little on the expensive side relative to median income – regardless of the time frame or year.
As prices increased, dealers, always under constant pressure, in many ways felt caught in the middle. They needed to make a profit to remain in business and make a living. Yet at the same time, they wanted to move product out the door and that required making concessions. One was irrevocably intertwined with the other.
Today, the dealer business model ranges from very successful to almost a polar opposite. Consumers, who predictably are looking to save money, have turned to other creative methods to purchase gear. We know that sales outlet as the Internet.
I enjoy talking to dealers and if there is one universal, incontrovertible gripe they all have it is the customer who comes into the dealership, plays with and listens to components, spends inordinate amounts of time asking questions, gets quotes and then buys online. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? Dealers will universally tell you it is not. No way. Consumers may feel differently. In car parlance they are called “tire kickers.” Audio dealers are helpless because they never know who will buy online or become a paying customer.
Regardless of how one secures a new purchase, it goes without saying it has become a process. Many feel a long and arduous process. For others, it is no more difficult than placing the order and writing the check. However any audiophile may end up with new gear, the first step of the process usually begins with research.
It has been said a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. While buying a new audio toy is not, for most anyway, a journey of a thousand miles, it does invoke a certain amount of trepidation and hopeful expectations of sonic acceptance. For quite a few of us, step one is reading a review.
Typically, if we have in mind a particular product, we are naturally curious about how it will perform. So, let’s be clear, there is no better substitute than demoing a perspective product in your home, on your system, playing your music. None. As true as that may be, it is not always an easy thing to accomplish. Dealers may not be conveniently located. They may not have the product in question. While all that is known and understood, it does not relieve the indecision in buying a new and untested product.
Reviewers bring a measure of reassurance to the buying process. Most reviewers, particularly the more well-known ones, are in many ways like a trusted expert. Many have remarkable systems and have had years of practice learning how to diagnose and dissect exactly what a song is doing on an audio system.
It is quite common for a reviewer to have multiple speakers, amps, turntables – whatever the case may be – the main function being variety in order to facilitate well rounded guidance to curious readers. Some systems will be very much on the budget side, some will be hyper expensive. What these systems provide the reviewer is a platform for reasoned, technical observations along with listening experience.
Reviewers, however, are not infallible. It should be understood that to a certain extent, what is reported is based on personal preferences. I’ve read reviews about speakers, for instance, and based on my own experience I would disagree completely and absolutely with their findings. I’ve also read reviews with which I agreed completely and absolutely.
It should also be understood that not all products will be reviewed. Maybe that new digital device you are all hot about is not on the radar for review. If not, what do you do then? Most commonly, search for something in the same family or something else by that same manufacturer. Maybe some insight may be gleaned, incomplete though it may be.
Perhaps the most important service reviewers bring to high performance audio is a valued starting point. If someone reads a review about a speaker and the review was highly positive, the buyer should realistically add that speaker to their short list – and of course, make plans to hear the speaker for themselves.
If, after reading an exceedingly glowing review on something, you hear the component and are completely dismayed, it might be natural to wonder what the reviewer was thinking. How could he like this awful sounding thing?
It is important to remember that ours is a hobby of wildly divergent tastes and levels of enjoyment. What appeals to one may not to all. Not everyone likes Brussels Sprouts. Just because you disagreed with a review after hearing that particular component for yourself does not make the reviewer wrong. It’s as simple as their opinion differed from yours.
Reviews are not an easy thing to do. Most reviewers live with a component for several months. They must haul these heavy things around, fenagle them into their audio rack, store the boxes somewhere, and once the review has been completed, pack it up and ship it back. All in all, a lot of work.
This difficult task is most often done without complaint because at their core, reviewers, generally speaking, enjoy the review process. They are a valuable part of the buying practice. Information about any particular audio product, done under controlled conditions, with known music and with likewise quality associated equipment brings a valuable resource to what is otherwise a difficult part of the audio process – the part where a purchase decision is made.