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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

On Reviewing Gear

Posted on October 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM

When you think about it, there are really only a handful of people out there that have the good great fortune to be able to review audio/video gear professionally. And I’m not talking about the people that post the exhaustive, five-or-more minute, “I just got a new gizmo! Watch me unbox it and pull out all of the manuals and accessories! And I’ll show you the front and rear panel and describe each connection!” videos, or the ones that troll through forums and chat rooms extolling, “Whatever you have sucks! Cause mine is the best! I know, ‘cause it’s the one I own and I’m awesome and you’re a loser that lives in his mom’s basement!” uniformed and radically biased lunatic rants.

I’m talking about the ones that have made the manufacturer’s short list of reviewers qualified to render a fair and accurate verdict on a product, and then share it with 100,000-plus readers. And I can’t tell you how cool it is to be one of them.

When you can walk through a trade show or flip through press releases and cherry-pick the gear that you’d actually like to play with, send off an e-mail, and then wait for that new box to arrive on your front porch full of some potential awesome, well, let me assure you, it’s every bit as specfrickingtacular as you would imagine that it is. (To be fair, the part where you have to pack the gear up and return it DOES suck-diddily-uck though...)

As a reviewer, I feel like it’s my job to stand between you and your hard earned, consumer electronics spending dollars on one side and the manufacturer on the other and render the best, most thorough, honest, and hold-them-to-account look at a product that I can.

My sensei and mentor in this whole writing thing, Rob Sabin – now editor-in-chief at Home Theater Magazine – once told me that I should review gear like I was the knowledgeable, trusted expert recommending gear to a friend or family member. And at the end of the day, answer the question, "Is this something that you would recommend that they buy for themselves?"

I think it’s always important to keep that in mind; that, as a reviewer, someone out there is going to look at what you’ve written, what you’ve determined about a product, and then ultimately decide whether or not to spend their own personal money on that item. And I would hate to think that something I wrote led someone astray.

When I get a new piece of gear I always want to just “live with it” for a while.  Not “review” it per se,  which, for me at least, involves a period where I am rigorously testing and looking for specific things and features and performance; often using test tones or patterns or well-known audio or video selections. This is a period where I’m not so much “enjoying” the product, but trying to find ways in which it is or can be “broken.” For the first bit, I like to just put it into my system and see how it fits into the real world environment of the Life Sciacca as it were; organically using the product as you or a trusted friend or family member would do.

What’s the interface like? Is it easy to use? Can it do the things that it seems like it should do? Does it lock-up or glitch? Does it offer some new useful feature or benefit? If I bought it, would I be happy?

There are a lot of other great reviewers out there; people who are probably far better than me. People that not only tell a great story, but also dissect a product in a thorough and accurate manner and have the tools and years of experience and hundreds of other products under their belt to accurately assess if this new one is a good one. (I mention some of my favorite reviewers here if you're interested.)

One relatively new reviewer who I think really does his best to get it right is Chris Heinonen at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity. Chris couples subjective findings with exhaustive lab testing, balancing, "This is what I feel it sounds/looks like" with, "This is how it actually measures."

But over the years, I’ve definitely read my share of reviews from others where there were sections that just smacked right in the face of things I just *knew* the piece would or – usually – wouldn’t do. I have read reviews where I’ve definitely questioned whether or not the reviewer actually understood exactly what he/she was reviewing. And I’ve read reviews where I’ve doubted that the “reviewer” even bothered to open up and lay hands on the component.

And, I’ll be honest, after doing this for years, it wouldn’t be too difficult to read a few press releases, look at some on-line specs and features, skim a few websites and then cobble together 1000 words on a product that you never even touched.

But it’s skeezy. And it’s disappointing to think that any of the folks given such a great job and opportunity would ever stoop to “phoning it in.”

I can’t tell you how often when I’m reviewing some piece of gear that I will discover some “issue” that I’ll bring to the attention of the manufacturer where they will say, “No one has ever noticed that before!”

And, I must say, I take this as a real sense of pride; that I was able to discover something that (supposedly) no one else – their engineers, their staff, their testers, their customers, or other reviewers – managed to find. “We should make you one of our beta testers,” is a comment I’ve heard more than a few times over the years.

For me, it’s a sign that I’m doing my job.

And it's my promise that I’ll continue to do so.

Categories: October 2012, Reviews, Rants

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Reply Chris Heinonen
1:09 PM on October 3, 2012 
Thanks for the kind mention in here John. This year when I was reviewing the Sony Blu-ray players, I found they all had an issue with their RGB output, but YCbCr was fine. While most people would never notice this, and Sony didn't seem to even be aware, it was a good feeling to bring it to their attention and then to see a fix get released so everyone had a Blu-ray player that worked correctly (I really loved the BDP-S790 as well).

It's really about being fair and honest to manufacturers and consumers, and letting everyone know if you have preconceptions as well about something (like I don't like 3D, just hate it). As long as I do that, and readers trust me, I feel like I'm doing a good job.
Reply DW
9:20 AM on October 5, 2012 
For once, I have to agree with The Sciacca. Chris Heinonen does a great job. He's get in-depth to the point of being scary. Rob Sabin, of course, is awesome - and I don't say that just because he's my boss and has control over my paycheck.

As far as boxing up the product, I've found it's a lot easier to not unbox it to begin with; then read a few press releases, check the on-line specs, and skim a few websites... Oh, wait, I shouldn't have said that...