Why Aren't There More Negative AV Reviews?

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Why Aren't There More Negative AV Reviews?


It's always good to hear from HomeTheaterReview.com readers. We want you to speak your mind freely in our Comments section about our reviews and news stories. As a rule, I personally respond to each and every reader who emails or calls me (emails are best) with a question, comment, or concern. One of the things I hear from our most enthusiastic readers is, "Why don't you run more negative reviews?" They see the double five-star reviews of the best performing, highest value products, but where are the one-star and two-star reviews? It's a complicated question, but it has come up enough times that it's worth explaining in more detail.

First off, in 2017 most specialty AV companies don't make truly bad gear. That goes for nearly every category. Even cheap HDTVs can be pretty damn good and are often loaded with useful features. Choose a picture mode like THX, Cinema, or Movie, fire up a $20 calibration disc to do a little fine-tuning, and you are off to the HD races. These days, $1,000 gets you 70 inches of 4K from VIZIO that can look quite good. Soundbars don't suck as much as they used to, and they even connect with ease to a wireless subwoofer. A $1,000 pair of floorstanding speakers can crush the performance of $2,000 speakers from a decade ago. On the high end, $14,000 speakers like the Focal Sopra No2s that I use can best the performance of speakers that cost $30,000 or more. I know it seems crazy to talk about five-star value on a $14,000 pair of speakers, but it's all relative.

While you can spend seemingly infinite amounts of money on high-end components, what does an Oppo UDP-205 not do for you as a source? How does today's $4,000 Marantz AV preamp compare in terms of features, reliability, and performance to AV preamps from the recent past that cost twice as much? Even lower-end receivers come packed with streaming capabilities, 4K switching, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and more. Simply put, today's AV gear is mostly really good across the board.

In terms of our process for selecting review products, managing editor Adrienne Maxwell hand picks much of the gear and selects which reviewer should cover which product. Adrienne has been an editor of top specialty AV publications for longer than I will specifically point out. Suffice to say, she's got a lot of experience. In some cases, our reviewers will pitch her products that interest them, and she'll give the thumbs up or down. Of course, I give my recommendations, as well. Many of us attend national AV shows like the Consumer Electronics Show and CEDIA Expo, as well as regional shows, to seek exciting products that we think you want to know about. By all means, we listen to our readers when they are yearning for certain products to be reviewed. We mostly get our review samples directly from the manufacturers (or their PR firms); but, if we're having trouble getting our hands on a hot product that people are asking about, we might plunk down the Luxury Publishing Group credit card and just buy the unit.

We, as an editorial team, aren't going to actively seek bad products to review, just to be able to point to them and say, "See, there's a negative review." We have a budget to adhere to, and there's a finite number of reviews we are able to produce each year. What's going to be more meaningful to our readers: reviewing a good speaker and a bad one, or reviewing two good speakers and explaining how they are different and to whom each one is best suited? Our philosophy is that the latter approach is going to be more informative and helpful in the long run. Of course, we won't shy away from publishing a negative review, if that's how the process plays out with any given product we've selected.

We often get questions about our product ratings. Ratings are a complicated thing, for sure. Some publications avoid them entirely, but we believe they are useful, even if they are inherently flawed. We provide general ratings guidelines to our reviewers, but each is going to bring in his or her own experiences, biases, etc., when assessing a product's performance and value. That's the inherent complication. And ratings can be particularly troublesome when we're looking at a new product category. For instance, in the very early days of 4K, when there was no source material of note to talk about, I got the chance to review the $40,000 85-inch set from Samsung. Man, was this an odd review to write! Yes, the set could do 4K, but there was no UHD Blu-ray with which to test it. The set looked absolutely fantastic with 1080p content, but its outboard box featured inputs that were not HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2. They didn't exist yet. So, there was the strong potential that you would soon have a $40,000 boat anchor in your AV system. Moreover, the set was attached to an easel-stand, thus it couldn't be hung on the wall. Performance-wise, it was clearly the best money could buy at the time, thus I gave it a five-star performance rating, but how do you measure the value? I gave it one star, creating the first five-star/one-star review that we've ever published. I'm not sure we'll run into another component quite like that one, but it was important to do the review and start the dialogue about 4K and Ultra HD televisions. The hope was that an early adopter would understand the intent of the review. I know for a fact that a golf buddy of mine, who is an art broker, bought one and has enjoyed the heck out it since he got it.

There have been other times when products simply didn't measure up to the competition, such as Brent Butterworth's 2015 review of a relatively expensive Sunfire subwoofer. It's a small, nicely made subwoofer, but for the money it simply didn't measure or perform to the standards that other, lesser-priced subs do--thus it earned three stars for performance and two stars for value. We didn't expect this from Sunfire, as we've reviewed many of their subwoofers in the past. Maybe it was just an anomaly with that sub. I'm sure we will review another Sunfire sub at some point that rates better.

I know some readers have an AC/DC outlook on specialty AV reviews: they often "want blood (you got it)" in our reviews, but that model doesn't work well. Again, much of today's gear is very good in terms of both performance and value, and we obviously can't review everything out there. As I suggested above, we're not into "gotcha journalism"--being negative just for the sake of being negative--as we want to have positive, working relationships with the companies that make today's most exciting AV gear. Without those positive, win-win relationships, we are not able to deliver costly, professional reviews free over the Internet to our 700,000 monthly readers. Our stated mission to our readers is to select and review the best home theater, video, and audiophile components while covering the most complex and exciting topics in a way that makes sense to all of our readers. We won't seek out one-star products on purpose, but we aren't afraid to run them in the rare case that we find them.

What products would you like to see us review in the future? Comment below; we would very much like to hear from you.

Additional Resources
What Gear Would you Choose to Build a $5,000 System? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
What Is the Right Price for AV Gear? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Home Theater Disaster Stories, Volume 1 at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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