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KIH #9 – Grey areas and twilight zones

  • Conspiracy theories. They keep us occupied for all manner of things. In audio publishing a quite popular one is the paid-for opinion of reviewers. The setting for it is most basic. Because nearly all audio publications rely on the ad-based business model—the per-issue price of most print magazines barely covers their paper, ink and shipping—advertisers and writers must, so goes the creed, form an unholy alliance of mutually beneficial corruption. Ad revenues buy rave reviews for supporters and bad ones for non-paying competitors (or those get locked out of the review process entirely). Presumed payola takes the form of hard smokable cashish or endless equipment loans which are eventually upgraded with more current versions to keep the goombah’s virtual pen in a happy mood.

    And certain activities did surface on certain fora over time though it is surprising how little effect they’ve had or how many seemed to pay much attention. Incidents include writers selling off review loaners for personal profit; or writers moonlighting as paid consultants to firms whose products they covered. Armed with such occasional proof of impropriety, the conspiracy theorists can’t help themselves but to assert widespread abuse whose lack of hard evidence is merely due to an associated conspiracy of denial. When certain brands enjoy disproportionately regular coverage in one publication whilst others there get none at all, it’s all considered grist for the mill. So is the simple fact of advertising and getting reviews. Heck, just being a reviewer is somehow circumspect.

    Realists would agree that whenever people are involved, mistakes are being made. Unethical or at least questionable behaviours shall surface over time. Knowing that, responsible management creates internal protocols for checks and balances. This minimizes abuse and exercises a zero tolerance to violations. Nothing can prevent abuse of course but ridding one’s staff of those found wanting is the next best thing on more than one level.


    Realists also consider the operational model of audio magazines both print and online. Whilst key contributors or part/sole owners might enjoy a salary sufficient to live on, most audio reviewers actually have proper day jobs. Their writing gigs are essentially driven by enthusiasm. For that they might derive a small compensation but very many do not. The core engine that actually makes this system tick is regular access to gear. Enthusiast contributors enjoy being able to listen to a broad range of equipment like an endlessly rotating door. Their added reward is being able to occasionally purchase a review loaner at dealer cost rather than retail. That’s no different from working in a car dealership and buying a ride at landed cost or working in a restaurant whilst enjoying free meals.

    Here conspiracy theorists inject that this discount option–formally called industry accommodation--creates a ripe environment for would-be buyers to approach makers of dream equipment with offers of glowing reviews in trade. As with any equation that adds people + opportunities, it’s certain to have happened. Each year multiple trade shows around the world provide countless opportunities for secretive deals. Add the endless rise of new brands seeking exposure and recognition. That carousel just keeps spinning. Abusive writers could thus descend on any audio show with the express intent to seek out naïve newcomers most desperate for a chance at the big time who might eagerly play their game. Success of course depends on basic naivety and manufacturers agreeing to play foul.

    Realists know that a critic’s standing, influence and reputation are only as good as his credibility. That currency of cred is very hard to earn. It takes years of hard work to build up and just one ‘scandal’ to lose it. Would writers who invested literal decades into their standing suddenly risk their credibility (and livelihood if they’re full-time reviewers) for a shady deal? Realists further appreciate how the rise of the Internet has created far more competition in the publishing sector. It’s easier to avoid known/suspected abusers than it might have been during the pre-Internet era when one or two publications per country essentially owned their markets. Manufacturers can work with other magazines. Readers can stop contributing page views or sales statistics to magazines they don’t deem worthy of support. Conspiracy theorists meanwhile keep reading the very publications they claim are corrupt just to keep busy with their obsession.


    For the reader new to this hobby and feeling like a kid in a candy store when it comes to whom to read and what to believe, this should be confusing and titillating all at once. Here are a few pointers of common sense:

    A/ Established manufacturers with developed retail infrastructure no longer rely on reviews to get established. As a general rule they are (can afford to be) far more selective about which publications they entrust with gear loans or step out of the review process altogether. Tracking what brands particular publications cover can be a useful indicator about the kind of regard the establishment holds them in.

    B/ Since the ad-based business model makes sponsorship a basic fact, inspecting whether a publication covers a reasonable percentage of non-advertisers with reviews is a decent indicator for their open access policy.

    C/ Following particular writers over a period of time is the only way to develop a feel for whether they’re consistent or haphazard, open-minded or narrowly biased, broadly aware or highly specialized, laudatory about everything or hyper critical.

    D/ Occasions for comparing personal gear experiences with review findings could be scarce if a lot of exotic components are involved. Still, sooner or later at least one or two such occasions should arise to create either agreement or bewilderment. In the meantime the cross-referencing of different reviews on the same equipment fills in gaps. Such triangulations also help illuminate which writers do a more comprehensive and careful job than others who by contrast might seem to merely go through the motions and notions.

    E/ Emailing reviewers with questions and critical feedback to see how they respond (if at all) is another valuable tool to get a more concise picture.

    F/ Magazines ought to disclose if/when any of their contributors hold industry affiliations as dealers, distributors, importers, brand evangelists, ad copy writers, PR personnel and such for one or more audio companies. And to put the appropriateness of given writers to review certain gear into context, descriptions and photos of their rooms are mandatory. A writer with a 10 x 15’ room reviewing very big speakers should certainly be circumspect.


    All of this requires actual work by the reader. It’s not about passive consumption like listening to background noise. But that’s no different than forming an educated political opinion if one wishes to be properly informed. Relying on just CNN (pick any mainstream news agency) certainly isn’t sufficient. And for all that we’ve only touched upon reviewing as a source of information. There’s also the angle of pure entertainment. Hobbyists enjoy photos of exotic gear, anecdotal writing, show reports, interviews, sparring in the letters sections and in general the feeling of being associated and part of something bigger. After all, most readers continue to read reviews well past having successfully assembled a more or less satisfying system. That suggests that the primary function of reviews isn’t as purchase assistants. It’s entertainment.

    Once we get to that, there’s a shift. It’s no longer about hard data presented like dry test scores or scientific dissertations with associated graphs, measurements and foot notes. It’s about personality, passion and fun. It’s about feeling stimulated and made to think even by way of stark disagreement. Outrage and ridicule (at claims for voodoo tweaks perhaps) can have their proper play too. Where conspiracy theorists apply moral and truthfulness standards which get dead serious in a hurry, the entertainment seeker’s primary concern is feeling turned on in some fashion. It’s not that serious but just as meaningful.

    In the end we can probably agree that the best reviews and publications provide both – hard trustworthy facts and light entertainment backed by transparency and disclosure. The exact mix depends on the reader. To close the circle with our beginning, nobody I know on this beat is getting rich or living big. Having fun doing what we’re doing over working a big-paying but soul-killing gig seems to be the prime motivator. Obviously those who chose to do it full-time must make a living they deem commensurate with the time and effort put in. Just because Internet publications are free to read doesn’t imply we can do it for nothing. It’s actually our ad sponsors who pay so you may read us. Were that to mean that in an either/or scenario of available review spots a sponsor received access priority–which isn’t bought opinion, just a slot in a schedule–the realist would consider it common courtesy. The conspiracy theorist calls it proof of wrong.


    If you really think on it, the fairest business model would borrow from medicine. Regardless of whether you’re cured or not, seeking out a doctor for a diagnosis and potential treatment costs money. The doctor’s time and expertise demand it. By the same token, reviews should be paid for by the manufacturer to cover the chosen expert’s time and expertise. Nobody should be expected to work for free. Yet in the current ad-based model, that’s exactly what all non-advertisers expect and get on a weekly basis: something for nothing! That paying for a reviewer’s raw time couldn’t buy his opinion, just his ears and keyboard, would obviously depend on impartiality and credibility. It’s a sign of the times, general cynicism and perhaps past sins that no magazine has attempted it yet. But to my way of thinking, that very fact says more about the status quo of our publishing sector than all else combined. What certainly doesn’t help is the current rise of double-dealing contributors who moonlight as consultants to manufacturers or derive income from industry-related activities whilst reviewing. They and their publishers ought to reflect on the undermining impact this has on our entire sector by actively feeding rather than starving out these conspiracy theories.

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. One columnist often writes of his visits to sundry Italian villas or French castles bordering on the factory of sundry artesian audio product manufacturers. Shockingly, these companies’ products receive rave reviews and coincidentally are actual advertisers!! What a coincidence.

      It’s great reading about these trips and the fun times the writer has with the company presidents. Who pays for the jaunts overseas? Like US Senators, it’s best not to delve too deeply into the details for fear of …,

    2. I must say I wish your equipment reviews were written as succinctly as this piece. Well done and I agree completely with your positions.

    3. Michael – that’s where things might shift fully into the entertainment factor. But consider also that unless a guy travels somewhere on personal business or vacation to “be in the neighborhood” for a factory tour, the hosting party/manufacturer *ought* to cover all or at least partial expenses. That’s the normal cost of business for a PR piece. Why should reviewers or their publications be expected to work for free? Should we expect that they *pay to create content* whilst you read it for free?

      And yes, this setup instantly opens up this entire grey zone wherein lines can be crossed that shouldn’t be.

      It all would be far more transparent and one-size-fits-all if all content was paid for. A 5-page review would have a certain flat fee, a 1-page review another, a top-tier writer might command a different fee than a rookie writer… and the manufacturer picked from these à-la-carte options as he or she deemed fit or could afford. Ads would disappear and menu items could include interviews, tech exposes, factory tours and more.

      In the current business model, a publication must acquire the financial means to operate and stay in business solely with ad revenue (unless a trust-fund baby ran the show or ownership was diversified in other businesses).

      Now the sponsors carry all the freddy freeloaders which that particular magazine is willing to support *and* they finance that publication’s attendance of shows and such. Because all of these are our operational costs. As long as ad revenue is our only income, advertisers not only pursue self interest but also act as industry benefactors at large. Without them *none* of the audio magazines would exist. You’d only have the occasional subscription-based issue.

      An easy way to make this relevant is to play this in your mind: if you can afford to work for free, please let all of us here on DAR know what it is that you do so we too may benefit from it -:)

      See just how quickly this makes the point?

      Writing this piece was deliberately to encourage a discussion. The current setup is very imperfect and fraught with issues. It’s good to discuss them frankly. At the least, we’re more conscious of the bigger picture. At best we come up with certain solutions that benefit everyone.

    4. This is called marketing ladies and gentlemen. Nothing to do with being a doctor. Kickbacks are one thing, but offering opinion and collecting ad revenue for that opinion is the way the world works. Period. I have a bigger problem with reportage that has purposefully left out known information rather than what is actually written. True opinion written with thought and balance is important. Suppressing information to skew that opinion is effectively deceit.

    5. Frank: My closing paragraph wasn’t about being a doctor. Those guys save lives and make people feel better. I’d never compare what I do to that! It was about suggesting that the ad-based publishing model is antiquated and would, at least in my opinion, be far better off being replaced by a model where content is paid for by the companies whose products are being reviewed. The reference to doctors was simply that you pay them regardless of whether they can cure you or not – just as paying to have reviews done would be no guarantee that ‘the patient’ would be 100% happy with the outcome (or happy at all).

      About things ‘being left out’, I assume you’re referring to experiences of equipment failures not being mentioned? Or show reports which praise sound that was in fact truly bad? Or did you have something altogether different in mind?

      Lastly, that reviews = marketing is most definitely a fact from the manufacturer’s perspective. A fair comprehensive review trumps a shiny ad any day. It’s the flip side of that equation (that reviewers become automatic marketeers or ‘sales agents’ for the manufacturers) where problems can arise. Obviously these things are intertwined. But when they undermine a writer’s ability/willingness to say it as it is, the information aspect of his reviews takes a hit. Information you can’t trust isn’t proper information. And in the end, isn’t this entire line of arguments really about whether reviewer opinion is credible, not influenced by this grey zone and thus can be trusted?

      The grey zone in the current business model is a fact. Like you said, it’s simply the way things are. Navigating the grey zone properly is the challenge and task at hand.

      • Srajan, Marketing often use a reviewers thread or sound bite like a riff in musical terms whereas a review could be considered the entire song (or even a full double album in some reviewers cases). The song might include many riffs (i.e. Springsteen’s Jungleland); more complex. Yet sometimes the whole damn song is the riff ala Stone’s Satisfaction. Generally I find most people opt for simple rather than complicated.

    6. Srajan, a thought-provoking piece. Could it be possible that you’re showing up Herr Darko with your clearly more eloquent penmanship?……LOL.

      From your own site i see youre no stranger to naming names when it comes to potential ethical conflicts. I am of course referring to your comments on The High Fidelity report being run by cable manufacturer Chris Sommivigo. Therefore I’m curious about your thoughts on other potential conflicts of interest with some of the writer’s at Head-fi superstar Michael Mercer’s bio, which, oddly is more detailed on parttimeaudiophile than it is on Audio360 itself, reads:

      “Michael is a long-time industry veteran with many past engagements with various companies, including CEntrance, HRT, Elite AV Distribution, Soundscape AV and others. He does sales and marketing for headphone-related showcases at various regional audio shows, including the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, T.H.E. Show at Newport Beach, and others. He is also a brand-building and social media consultant for leading Hi-Fi brands including Beatport, Audioengine and Nordost, as well as media outlets Positive Feedback and The Daily Swarm. He also owns the Learjet we use to tour the audio show circuit and a villa in California wine country we all call “The Airport”.

      Warren Chi apparently assists with organizing and promoting head-fi related evenst at trade shows and Mikey Liang has recently started working sales for Woo Audio.

      Do you think, like i do, WTF?

      • @Louis – To his credit, Michael Liang relinquished his contributing writer position at TONEAudio on the back of the Woo appointment. It remains to be seen if he’ll continue put to pen to paper elsewhere. That decision will likely fall to the editors in charge. Woo Audio are also official resellers for Sennheiser and Audeze – something that will present employees who maintain writer aspirations with yet more twilight zoning.

    7. Louis: Yes, I do. Mike Silverton too works for NuForce whilst reviewing their product. To be sure, he discloses his affiliation very clearly in each review so you needn’t have inside knowledge of it or look for it in some disclosure form elsewhere. In that he is a shining example for how to do this kind of thing properly.

      But I think that even as transparently as he does it still is problematic. For example, when it comes to a fairly weighted opinion, an honorable man might feel inclined to be doubly hard on a friend to compensate for any possibility of partisanship. That too wouldn’t be entirely fair to the manufacturer.

      And what does it say about the manufacturer when they’re happy to see one of their own double-dip as a ‘formal’ reviewer for their own product? Given our grey zone to begin with, doesn’t all of this press ever deeper into the twilight area? Wouldn’t it be far cleaner and easier altogether to stay away from it in the first place?

      I think industry insiders are the *perfect* candidates for editorials and think pieces which require insight and experience that go beyond the normal reviewer. Suddenly all the tentacled connections which become problematic in a review become vital asset.

      But when the same insiders write reviews, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish (or know how to) between ad copy, brand evangelism and independent opinion. Thus I’d prefer that these lines not be crossed.

      That these *are* lines is brought home by the fact that Asian importers will review their own product under an alias. Why adopt another name if you didn’t think what you did was wrong?

      But clearly, the current rise in double-dipping contributors and publications which support them indicates a growing acceptance for this trend so perhaps I’m a dinosaur holding on to an outmoded model. That said, I’ll continue holding on to it for 6moons as that’s what I believe in. Others will do as they see fit and DAR must find its own path through it all.

    8. Good on Ya Mr. Ebaen for breaking that down… I appreciate your opinion and to a certain extent it does ring true. If an OEM wants a review of their gear…. want the press coverage and eyeballs, then paying for it does seem somewhat appropriate (from that side). Obviously there is conflict of interest there but what is one to do? Ask Zappos to buy ad space at a High End Audio site? There isn’t much else an audio magazine can do besides use it’s own industry for support.

      I think a reviewers credibility comes out in the wash… if your reviews are commensurate with consumer experience, then the reviewer comes across as legit. I have come across a couple sites where a specific brand gets 100% coverage of every piece of kit they put out and every piece of kit they put out gets a gushing “Best in Class” review. I ended up buying one of these “Best in Class” units and was underwhelmed which left me questioning the sites legitimacy, but I think those corners of the internet are the exception, not the rule.

      I like DAR and your reviews first and foremost because your copy is clever, well written and interesting, dare I say entertaining. And you specifically because you’ll delve a little more deeply into the audio theory behind a component…. ask OEM’s what their goals were and how they achieved them. Maybe the cheap trafo they slapped on this amp is to blame. That is informative not in a consumer way but in a way most audiophiles appreciate.
      And if copy is dry and mechanical…. Who wants to go there again? Why not use a food or automobile or band metaphor? It can sometimes speak to differences better than using “warm” or “neutral” for the 11 billionth time… I wish more sites would follow suit rather than just going through the usual (Specs – Fit – Finish – Treble – Mids – Bass) run down.

      I also respect DAR because he will speak to a skeptical viewpoint directly rather than treat it as asinine. Just as you have done here… You aren’t saying the skeptic is right… but you are giving it enough credence to merit discussion… that is important.

      When a reviewer acts incredulous because people are challenging his assertion about a $1000 USB cable making a $1500 amp sound amazing and won’t even consider that his blanket claim is fertile ground for flame throwing… that is troublesome to me… Because that means he is either so wrapped up in audiophilia culture that he’s lost common man perspective or he’s being dodgy.

      When a reviewer gives another point of view some credence and speaks directly to the skeptical side. That says a lot to me. Even if he still asserts that the $1000 cable is worth the money and/ or does provide a night and day difference… It’s his ears and his opinion…. by all means… But being willing to leave room for another viewpoint makes a big difference in perceived credibility.

      So good on ya Mr. Ebaen for being willing to open a topic like this up to discussion…. knowing full well that this is fertile ground for flamethrowers.



    9. B-Dub – you’re adding a new topic here which John and I have discussed over a few private emails already because it really matters to us. That is, the quality or lack thereof in the actual writing. On some sites these days there is a tendency for high-fiving dudeness jive where everything is ‘awesome’ and ‘cool’. At the end of such tomes you still have no idea what the item under discussion sounded like, only that the author loved it to pieces. If a review’s first job is to describe sound, then by that definition those aren’t even reviews. As it turns out, describing what something sounds like and doing it in a way that communicates itself to a reader who wasn’t there… that’s the hardest part of the job. Once a writer manages that, doing it without getting repetitive from one review to the next is the next challenge. The more/longer one writes, the more chances there are for repetition and rote which become boring to read. I know John is very sensitive to these issues too and we both find that working on our own writing skills is a never-ending effort. If one looks back over one’s own work just a few years back and shudders, it at least suggests that one has become more aware of one’s own shortcomings and faults to hopefully have progressed past some of them since then -:)

      • That’s right: I see my job as primarily a describer of sound for which often-times it is necessary to draw on analogies to taste and smell, cars, alcoholic beverages and human behaviour. The other key is comparisons: few items stand alone and the first thing readers wanna know is ‘how does X compare to Y’? If a writer doesn’t satisfy those questions, the comments section will swiftly let him/her know.

        Once the sound is described, only then do I allow myself an overall judgement.

        And yes, I don’t have to look back all that far in my own writings to see things that now make me cringe. As Srajan says, THAT’s progress.

    10. Another very good point. Comparisons are vital. Without them, comments hang in limbo since they lack a reference. Live sound? Of what – acoustic or amplified music? Big venue or small? In the nearfield or balcony? Played ungodly loud like during a club performance or quite subdued like a chamber music event?

      Of course comparisons are only possible if the necessary hardware is available. That’s why proper reviewing is expensive. Over time a credible reviewer acquires a better stacked tool belt. Where he started out with one hammer, he now has five. Perhaps that means a tube preamp, transistor preamp and passive preamp. Normal listeners don’t need multiples of anything. A good reviewer does.

      By the time we get to speakers, not only do they cost money (all the other stuff does, too) but they take up space. Another problem. Where to put ’em all? Of course one can use gear for comparisons that happens to be in on short-term review loan. With some judicious or simply fortuitous timing, interesting comparison opportunities may crop up or be strategically set up. But without some solid references one has invested into to serve as fixed comparators, one can eventually lose solid footing.

      So one starts out this job with one system and eventually might end up owning enough stuff to put together four or more at the same time. Which isn’t the purpose. The purpose is to have proper tools to do one’s job and mate incoming loaners with the best possible ancillaries.

    11. Srajan, John, I enjoy the penmanship you both display and look forward to your reviews of equipment I am considering.
      John, an Earle Weston Troubadour amp was purchased off the back of your review and supports everything you wrote. Must try those Penta Lab valves one day.
      You may have to pay for a Drs’ time whether or not they fix what ails you. But, do not for a second believe that sometimes the selection of the medicine prescribed is not tainted somewhat by the size of the drug company reps expense account.

      • Ian – good to hear you got joy from one of Earle’s amps. Australia’s best kept secret? 😉 As for expense accounts, no rep/manufacturer/distributor is taking me out to dinner, let alone flying me to far flung destinations. My forthcoming jaunt around the world to cover three separate hifi shows is ENTIRELY self-funded.

    12. this could go on forever.still,there is one point which should be made.the consumer is the atlas of the hi fi world.if he shrugs,and relentless,new!improved!, marketing is a powerful inducement,it all comes tumbling down.that’s why I think consumer reviews,biased as they may be (the ooh and aah factor)have a legitimate place in the whole scheme.
      full disclosure:thanks to srajan’s hospitality I have tried my hand at some.
      michele,from rome.

    13. I don’t think bias is an issue at all. In fact I’d be worried if there weren’t any bias. That would suggest a heartless machine rather than human being. As long as personal bias is clearly explained (what the writer’s sonic hot and cold buttons are), I think bias adds context and ‘relatability’. I relate much better to a writer whose preferences and dislikes are out in the open than one who attempts to withdraw his/her personality behind a specter of ivory-tower aloofness and objectivity. The way I see it, the latter really isn’t possible.

      Reviewing is a very subjective game. It simply must be played with consistent standards that don’t shift from review to review. I might utterly disagree with a writer’s taste and bias but if I know what those are, I can relate and extrapolate how to apply his findings to my situation. Give me an opinionated colorful highly individualistic writer over a grey automaton spitting out test scores any day of the week!

      Consumer reviews are definitely viable and isn’t that the backbone of forums? Those readers who mistrust the formal press migrate to the opinions of actual owners on the various forums. Inviting the better more consistent such contributors to also publish in ‘formal’ media (lines which are blurring these days) is, I think, a good and valid idea. I seem to recall that some British print magazines had regular features about owners and their systems. It might be ongoing. I’ve simply not held a printed audio mag in my hands for a long time.

      I think that increasing overlap (between print magazines as the ‘old guard’, online magazines as the newer ‘establishment’ , forums, blogs and social media) is creating new opportunities and with it also new challenges to maintain standards and integrity. But as Michele put it, this discussion is endless. It could go on forever. BORING!!!

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