“Reviewers are biased.”
“Reviewers are shills.”
“If a reviewer accepts a free sample, they can’t possibly be objective.”
If you spend any time in the audiophile community, you’ve likely heard some variation on these sentiments. And you know what? There is truth here. But not the truth they meant to reveal.
All people are biased, whether you’re a reviewer or not. We may try and fight our bias, but much of it is subconscious, and beyond our control. We like what we like, and if a thing falls outside that boundary, we are predisposed against it.
You will often see in my reviews an effort to overcome my own bias. I like warm and lush signatures, and when I’m testing a product that is more neutral/bright, I try and see the quality beyond my specific tastes. I will explain in the article what my preference is, and how this product deviates from it.
If I give this product a positive review, one could claim I’m shilling for the company, because it didn’t match my taste in signature. When in reality, I am attempting to see passed my bias and acknowledge that not everyone shares my personal tastes.
So how does this work? Is it my job to just say everything is good? Of course not. If I’m reviewing an IEM with brighter tuning, I break it down just like I would for one with a warmer voice. I look at how well it handles each frequency range. Is the treble harsh or painful? Are the mids too thin? What’s the bass like? How’s the soundstage? etc…
I determine how well the IEM performs as objectively as I can. Since I’ve spent so much time with so many products in so many different price tiers, I have what can only be described as “experience”. When I listen to a piece of gear, I am not comparing it to everything that’s ever existed. I am judging it against other products in that price range. If I praise it, it’s because it’s doing something special and standing out.
But here’s the catch. I know what we hear is powerfully subjective, and there are undoubtedly biases at work of which I am unaware.
For instance, what about the pressure a reviewer might feel to give a positive review because of a free sample?
I hear this off and on. And it makes sense. I can certainly see the logic at play. And we can all appreciate the psychology of not wanting to upset a company who’s giving you free shit.
But you can find yourself blacklisted just as easily with a negative review of a loaner as you can with a sample unit. I won’t name names, but one DAP manufacturer will no longer speak to me after my participation in a review tour, wherein I expressed disappointment over their new device. And I didn’t feel my write-up was really all that negative. Oh well.
On the other side of things, my review of the HIFIMAN RE800 had genuine teeth. That was a free sample. An expensive one. And HIFIMAN is still talking to me. I’m covering their True Wireless IEM now.
Please understand, even with the RE800, an IEM that upset me on many levels, I still took my time to express all the things I liked about it, as well as the things I didn’t.
Does that make me perfectly objective and unbiased? No. It simply means I endeavor for balance and fairness. These are the traits you should be looking for. Anything else is futile, for it does not truly exist in the human character.
So why don’t I write more negative reviews? Because it is rare indeed for an established manufacturer to release a crap product. They’ve got their shit on lock, for the most part. Experience breeds expertise. Every company can let slip a faulty unit, but a design flaw so bad the whole product is garbage? Goddamn, if you’re expecting to see a ton of those reviews, you are being unrealistic. It just doesn’t happen very often.
Perhaps you’re thinking of one or two reviewers who have a reputation for trashing products in their reviews. That, believe it or not, is the exact opposite of objectivity. Their bias is on full display. They let the smallest things taint their whole view of the product. That is not balance. That is not fairness. And it’s certainly not objective. Too many people equate a negative review with an objective one. It may or may not be. You must look at all the content to figure that out.
If you buy all the gear you review, you fight a whole new notion of bias, as you are now financially invested in the product. You may feel pressure to convince yourself its better than it is. Or perhaps you’ll be unfairly critical when it doesn’t quite match your signature preference. One thing is for sure: you’re unlikely to feel neutral on the subject… not while your wallet still hurts.
No matter what we do, we battle bias. Some of it can be overcome. Some of it cannot.
Seeking free samples is in service to the reviewer’s job. The more gear we have on hand, for comparison and pairing, the better our reviews. A good reviewer should have way more gear than they know what to do with. Even the most obscure piece may come back one day as an interesting example in a later article.
And who the f**k doesn’t enjoy free things?
I begin every review with this disclaimer: Company X provided product X for the purpose of my honest review, for good or ill.
I never say “for my objective review.” Because while objectivity is a goal of mine, I know it to be futile. Reviewing audio is far from a science. Even if you have measurements, in the end, you should be listening with your ears. And your ears are ever so subjective.
Yes, I pursue some form of objectivity, but above all else, I aim for honesty. My goal is to share my honest, subjective, opinion. And hopefully by the end, you’ll have an idea of whether or not it’s a product you’ll enjoy.