Bad web reviews… where are they?

Australian Hi-Fi Magazine has been a whipping post for thousands of audiophiles over the nearly half-century it’s been around, but I have to say that now we’re big-time on the internet, as well as in print, the lashings are becoming more frequent, and despite many years in the editor’s chair, my skin is no thicker.

You won’t be surprised to learn that of all the criticisms levelled at the magazine, the single most common is that we don’t publish any negative reviews, and that this is obviously because we don’t want to upset our advertisers. Pure internet hi-fi publications, on the other hand, are apparently paragons of virtue… and most especially the ones that don’t accept advertising. ‘They tell it like it is,’ I am emailed by various correspondents.

Firstly, Australian Hi-Fi magazine does publish negative reviews, which I have listed in the past, so I am not about to do so again. Instead, I’d like to say that I have yet to see a negative review published by any of the so-called ‘independent’ internet operations that are apparently able to publish what they like because they’re not beholden to advertisers, nor have I ever had my attention drawn to one by any of my correspondents. Am I wrong? Then please use the email address below to send me links to all those negative reviews… it can’t be that hard to do, there should be hundreds of them out there. Call me cynical, but I’m not expecting a deluge into my inbox!

The second most common criticism of Australian Hi-Fi Magazine’s equipment reviews is, contradictorily enough, that we make too many negative comments that have nothing to do either with a component’s sound quality or performance: that is, we make negative comments about features and/or controls that are missing or don’t work properly or are badly-positioned, negative comments about poor-quality manuals, negative comments about build quality… you get the drift. So, from where I see it, we’re simultaneously being castigated for not publishing any negative reviews at the same time that we’re being castigated for making negative comments in those self-same reviews. I think I’m missing something here…

Another widely-held misconception is that Australian Hi-Fi Magazine will only review a product if the importer or distributor is also an advertiser. Like all great rumours, this one is also completely (and demonstrably) false. So why don’t you see some brands in the magazine? Some importers/distributors/manufacturers don’t want us to review their products, because they don’t want to run the risk of getting a bad review. Others don’t want us reviewing their products because they don’t have Australian electrical safety approval for them… which of course we’d mention in the review, which would get them into hot water with the authorities. And, funnily enough, a few won’t loan us products for review because they say that because they have no intention of advertising in the magazine, they don’t think they should benefit from a ‘free review’. [To get a review, the only cost for a manufacturer is the cost of shipping the review unit to us, then the cost of picking it up afterwards. We pick up the tab for the laboratory testing, the review photography, the reviewer’s costs—and yes, we’re also one of the few magazines that actually pays its reviewers—and all the sundries.]

But my all-time favourite ‘bad review’ story concerns a certain managing director who phoned me one morning and spent several minutes abusing me about a bad review before I could get a word in edgeways. ‘Hang on Alex [not the famous one],’ I said, ‘why are you complaining…the product reviewed isn’t one of yours.’ ‘No it isn’t,’ he replied, ‘but bad reviews make the whole industry look bad, so I don’t like seeing them, even if it’s a bad review for a competitor.’ # greg borrowman [hifi@nextmedia.com.au]

(This article first appeared in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, Volume 46 No 3, published in May 2015)