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Adversarial Versus Cooperative Review Models

Steven Stone looks at whether the consumer is better served by an adversarial or cooperative review process…

AR-advers3.jpgWhen I first got into audio I noticed that all the reviews that were translated from Japanese audio publications were positive. I wondered about this until I learned that during the 70’s and 80’s (and perhaps still today) many of the reviewers were also consultants for the companies whose products they reviewed. Being an American I immediately assumed that cronyism and insider dealings had completely corrupted the review processes.

In the US and most of the western world the journalistic model pits reviewers and manufacturers against each other. The game is simple – a manufacturer introduces a product and a reviewer finds out whether it has any issues that would make it less than desirable to consumers. The ultimate adversarial publication is, of course, Consumer Reports, whose “unblemished” ethics have made it a paragon of “consumer advocate” publications.

Undoubtedly the adversarial model is better, right?

Not necessarily.

What I did not understand or know was the influence of Japanese culture on their review processes. In Japan criticizing anyone in public is considered a serious breech of etiquette. Conflict is something that happens behind closed doors, not out in the open, and certainly not in print.

The critical reviewing of products (at least back in the ’70’s and ’80’s) happened during the “consultation” stage, when those very same reviewers who would go on to write glowing reviews would completely tear the gear apart, both figuratively and in actuality. Their private reviews were used to finalize products from the prototype stage to final production. The final product had, in essence, already been critically reviewed, but in private. If there was a serious flaw, the public never saw it, because it was caught in the pre-review review stage.

Nowadays we call this process paid beta testing, and it rarely happens. Instead products are released sooner and manufacturers let the public do much of the beta testing for them.

AR-advers2.jpgWhen I started with The Absolute Sound Harry Pearson’s edict was simple – all direct conversations with manufacturers were frowned upon. Only Harry and his staff had sufficiently resilient morals to withstand the corrupting onslaught of face-to-face communication.

At TAS in the mid-eighties questions from reviewers to manufacturers went through the main office and then to the manufacturers. The system kept reviewers and manufacturers at arms length, but also almost guaranteed that reviewers didn’t get as much information about products’ backgrounds, philosophy, and design goals. And manufacturers certainly didn’t get any feedback on potential issues before their components were offered to the public.

Quite a few times, a couple of months into production a component’s review would come out in TAS, pointing out some major flaw that required rectification. Early adopters got burned. Too bad for them, right?

If only they had waited till after the review…

Frankly the only folks who benefit from this adversarial approach are the journalists. They can feel all superior for “discovering” whatever flaws they enumerate in their review. Consumers still got burned.

After being in the business as long as I have, I have personally taken a middle of the road approach between the adversarial and the consultant model. I talk with manufacturers directly, ask a lot of technical questions, and if I come across a glaring problem with a product, I tell the manufacturer. Sometimes I begin with the simple question, “Is THIS supposed to happen when I do this…”

AR-advers4.jpgRecently I received a DAC/Preamp that had a good feature set and was extremely competitive at its price with anything I’d heard previously, but it had a problem – with high sensitivity in-ear monitors the headphone amplifier produced a low level hum. I asked the manufacturer to send me a second unit so I could compare them, and after determining that both units had exactly the same issue, notified the manufacturer of the problem. Now that they know they have a problem, they can fix it BEFORE shipping units to consumers.

Sure, I’ll lose that red-clay halo of being “the guy” who discovered the “fatal flaw.” But frankly I’d rather have end-users buy a product without a problem than be the guy who finds the problem.

If we audio journalists are really consumer advocates, isn’t it better to catch flaws before products reach consumers than after?

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