When you shop for AV and hi-fi equipment, do you read product reviews? Online or in magazines, reviews by credible sources are just one data point among many in making the right choice. But how useful are professional product reviews, and what’s the best way for you to use them when you’re making your buying decisions? The answer depends on a few different factors.
In an ideal world, products would be evaluated with all logos removed. You should remember that reviews are written by human beings who bring their own preferences and prejudices to the process. No matter how hard you try to keep them out, preconceptions creep in to every product evaluation. Everyone is guilty of this by the way, so it's no knock on reviewers.
Professional reviewers with experience are generally better at listening past their prejudices than less experienced reviewers. How do you tell when a reviewer brings undue bias to a review? Sometimes, they’ll tell you straight out: "I’ve never been a fan of dome tweeters," etc. Other times, the clues may be subtler.
Consider your source. Well established magazines and web sites tend to use qualified and experienced writers. Be especially wary of online review sites that use poor grammar and amateurish writing. The beauty of the Internet is also its curse. It gives a voice to just about anyone with a few bucks to rent some server space, and there are a plethora of review sites staffed by people who have minimal experience and fewer qualifications. We'd love to tell you who to trust and who not to, but we'd be biased ourselves... and apparently slander is frowned upon.
Get to know the reviewers. Read their past reviews whether or not they are about products you’re interested in. After a while, you’ll start to get a feel for their styles and points of view. Some writers are laconic and dry. Others will gush over just about anything that comes their way. For example, a "this speaker is a competent performer" comment from writer "A" might be equivalent to an "oh my god this speaker is unbelievable" comment from writer "B."
Read many reviews. Look for unanimity of opinion on a given item. If several writers have reviewed the same product and come to similar conclusions, you’re safe in giving those opinions greater weight in your buying decision. Not to blow our own horn, but Polk LSiM Series speakers received excellent reviews from just about every major audio magazine and web site. What smart reviewers!
What if you can’t find any reviews about an item you’re considering? I wouldn’t read too much into it. Given the limited number of credible audio publications and the hundreds of thousands of speaker models available worldwide, there’s just not enough room (or enough reviewers) to cover every single product. Plus, the review process can take months from the date a product is submitted to the date of publication. Especially with speakers, where reviewers allow a decent amount of time to get them broken in. Reviews of similar products from the same brand may be helpful.
Reviews can be helpful. They can expose you to new products and clue you in to what to look for, or look out for, in a product’s performance and functionality. They're useful in validating your own experiences with a given product. Ultimately it's you who must be satisfied with the performance, cosmetics, and practicality of the product; you are the ultimate reviewer. Rely most heavily on your own listening and use experiences when making audio equipment choices. You have to go out into the real world and touch, see, and most of all listen to the equipment you're considering. Trust your own judgement most of all.