How To Read a Review - An Insider's Perspective
I've been doing a lot of online shopping lately, and I've noticed more than a few disturbing trends in reviews. If you stumble across the vast empty wasteland that is Google reviews, you'll likely only find a handful of reviews, all posted at the same time, all sounding exactly the same. If you spent two seconds to think about it, you'd realize it was simply the business owner trying to boost their credibility or some competitor trying to steal their business. Either way, they are all but useless.
In a similar vein, many reviews on places like Amazon are actually reviews of Amazon or the postal system and not of the product in question. "Took three weeks for delivery," or "Box arrived crushed," are two of my favorites. These one-star reviews do little but give unhappy customers a way to complain while simultaneously damaging the reputation of the product. Hopefully, most consumers know better than to pay attention to what amounts to background noise. But these aren't the only pitfalls in the world of amateur online reviews.
I once read a scathing review of a receiver where the main complaint was that it wouldn't route digital inputs to Zone 2. This was a handful of years ago and it was nearly unheard of to find a receiver at any price point that would send digital inputs to a second zone. Even today this is a rare feature. A response to this particular review explained the reviewer's mistake (or, more accurately, lack of knowledge) but the reviewer responded with something along the lines of, "Well, that's stupid, receivers should do that," and left the review. I'm sure that more than one person was dissuaded from buying that receiver because of that review.
Didn't work - One star
"This speaker made a weird clanking noise so I sent it back." If you ever read a statement like that, you can be sure that the person was using the speaker improperly. Likely, they were trying to play it very loudly in a very large room. That clanking sound was the sound of the woofer bottoming out (the voice coil former smacking against the backplate during an excess input power over-excursion situation). But there are other examples. Is a piece of gear marked down for running too hot? Try to ascertain where the reviewer put the gear. If they had it in a sealed cabinet, just about any gear is going to get warm. Did they pair it with hard-to-drive speakers? Did they leave it running for weeks on end? If the person misused the product, their review has very little relevance unless you plan on similarly abusing the product.
Many of the pitfalls of amateur reviews stem from a lack of knowledge. Few, I believe, have malicious intent. These people bought a product and were disappointed. They may be disappointed because they didn't know what to expect or misused the product, but they genuinely wanted to like the product. Professionals are completely different. They are paid to accurately evaluate a product, with as little bias as possible. You are expected to put more weight on their opinions because they don't have a financial or emotional reason for "liking" a product. Plus, they have a lot more experience with similar products and therefore can provide a more generalizable statement about quality, value, performance, and more.
At least that's the theory. It doesn't always pan out that way.
Reviewers are human. They can get just as excited about a product as an amateur and that excitement can taint their review. Sometimes this leads to an overly harsh review of a product that did not live up to expectations, but more likely, it leads to an overly positive review of a product with which they are simply infatuated. In a month or two, they may find that they go back and read their review and cringe. As a reader, it is perfectly acceptable for you to email a reviewer to see if their views on a product have changed.
I always wanted headphones like these! A million stars!
Revealing Language: Jargon, Backhanded Compliments, and Unrealistic Claims
Jargon goes in an out of fashion in AV reviews. For a while, it was in vogue to describe midranges as "chocolately" and there was a time when someone called a cable "danceable" and I thought we'd never stop laughing. Other, more subtle, words can clue you in to the actual performance of a product. "Detailed" can be good (revealing, nuanced) or bad (harsh, shrill) depending on how the reviewer views or uses the word. It is up to you, the reader, to discern from the rest of the review what they mean by these seemingly innocuous words.
When reading a professional review, look out for some overused phrases. These often look like compliments until you really think about them. My personal favorite is the "good for" statement. "Good for" is usually followed by "movies" when describing speakers. When something is "good for" one thing, it is generally bad for everything else.
Lastly, be wary of any review that makes unrealistic statements. Many will remember when a very famous manufacturer of cubed speakers suggested in infomercials and other advertising that their speakers sound better than others five times the price. They've pretty much killed that sort of statement for reviews, but there are other statements that are just as ridiculous. Claiming that a piece of gear transformed the reviewer's life or that "even their children could hear the difference" should be met with a hefty dose of skepticism, if not outright derision.
Chocolate - Always five stars, never like a midrange
For longtime readers of audio reviews, there is a formula that many high-end reviewers like to use. It goes like this:
1) Claim that they were completely happy with their system.
2) Manufacturer or friend calls them and tells them they must try this piece of gear.
3) They are skeptical but eventually agree to the review.
4) Review goes poorly. They aren't hearing much of a difference.
5) Call with manufacturer who helps them tweak their system.
6) More fiddling with equipment.
7) Revelation! Huge improvement! Wife, kids, dogs, and mailman all notice a difference from the kitchen, bathroom, backyard, and down the street.
8) Gear has them rediscovering their music. Life is complete. Will never need a new piece of gear ever again.
The problem with this model is that it always ends with a perfect audio system. The next review will then negate this, as the new gear under review will make their already perfect system even more perfect.
Obviously, arming yourself with knowledge about the product you are buying is the key to your success. You won't be able to accurately gauge the veracity of a review without knowing a lot about the product. If you are shopping for in-ear headphones but expect them to fit like earbuds (or a minivan that you expect to handle like a Corvette), you can't know if a product is being misused. You also need to read a ton of reviews of all sorts of gear. This way you can identify the industry jargon and see past the backhanded compliments. In the end, you should trust your ears. And us. You can definitely trust us. We've never heard a chocolately anything and we rarely dance.