Studio Equipment
Digital v. Analogue
The tape recorder
Mixing desks
Basic effects
Windows and DAWs
Magazine Reviews
Myths and Lies

   How to read a magazine review  

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How to read a magazine review
As a very occasional reviewer of kit, and as a life long reader of reviews, there are three 'things' or entities that have to be taken in to consideration.
1.  The reviewer.
2.  The magazine.
3.  The product.
1.  Let's start with the reviewer - a good way to get a handle on the person is to read up an old review of some product that he-she has reviewed in the past that you know like the back of your hand.  This way, you get a clear insight into how they think about something that you are more familiar with than they were at the time.  You are, in effect, reviewing the reviewer!
Did they spot the fact that it is noisy or very quiet?  Did they realise that the inputs are unbalanced?  Have they tried installing it into a Windows system, or did they just use the Mac version? Did they even realise that the power supply fails regularly?
Also check out the guy or girl for depth of knowledge and possibly more important, depth of experience.  In other words, do they understand how that piece of kit will be used in the studio or on the road?  Does this person understand what it means to have to find a socket at the back of something in the dark, in the cold and on stage at an open air?  Do they know why mic-level outputs are important for stage gear? 
Does this person have formal technical knowledge and did they test this new wonder-desk for the usual things?   Some things cannot be meaningfully tested, without doing a series of simple technical tests - but that means having scopes, sig-gens, D-meters and multimeters and all the other bells and whistles of a small test-bench. 
Also look at what type of equipment the reviewer has tested in the past.  For example, Hugh Robjohns in SOS only reviews professional equipment so his reviews are going to be different and set a different yardstick to those of the other reviewers.
2.  You must also ask yourself, what is the brief?  What is the magazine there for - who are its readers?  Camcorder User readers think that a 3,000 camera is top of the range.  FKT (German pro-video mag) readers think that 100,000 is top of the range.  So the words 'quality' or 'robust' mean completely different things for those two publications. 
3.  It helps to be realistic about the product.  A plugin is just a plugin and not hardware.  A 100 microphone will never be able to perform like a 1,000 microphone.  To complain that a 50 Behringer mixer is poorly built and has a poor s/n ratio is to state the obvious.  But if the reviewer states that other products in that price range are better built and have a better s/n ratio is damning indeed.
Lastly, the old question, what happens when the reviewer is sent a pile of crap?
Well, EXACTLY this happened to me some time ago!
Normally I just write two or three reviews a year about things I have found that I like.  Usually, these are things I have actually spent money on first and have used for a month or more.
But a mic manufacturer got a PR person to send me a set of mic stands with mics for a surround array.   Everything was wrong with this product.  It took for ever to put together, it was very incomplete, it causes ringing in the mics and it cost a staggering 2k+.   In short, it failed to fulfil any one of the functions of a set of mic stands.
So, I sent it back, unreviewed, but with a series of comments, in the hope that they do something about the product's shortcomings.
From a publishing point of view, it is, shall we say 'difficult' to do a real hatchet job on a product from any company, not just those that buy advertising.  From the reader's point of view, it is pointless to tell him or her what they should not buy.  To be honest, they should not buy most products as only a very few are genuinely really good at what they do and also are good value for the money.  That's one of the reasons one keeps seeing the same products again and again in professional studios.
You could easily fill a magazine each and every month with reviews of cheap tat and over-priced BS products that the punters should keep away from!
But most importantly, you are dealing with people's livelihoods here.  Nearly all pro-audio companies are very small companies and it would be too easy to just run off at the face, and in doing so, destroy the name of a perfectly good company, making perfectly good products, just because they built one dud.

However, some products are just not possible to ignore.  Imagine an audio magazine not taking a look at a new version of Logic or ProTools!
Most readers assume that somehow the advertising department tells the reviewer what to write.  This is just not the case in any magazine I have worked for.  If a review is particularly negative, the manufacturer will be given a right of reply. 
But - and this is a big but - good reviews of poor equipment do sometimes get into magazines simply because either the manufacturer has been able to pull the wool, or because the reviewer just did not understand the product.  I can think of one case where a very large and very expensive mixing desk was reviewed in the pages of one of the most important pro-audio magazines around and it received a rave review.  The very same desk that the reviewer had claimed gave him fantastic performance, was delivered to some people I knew at the time and the desk was really a bag of bolts.  The power supply was hopeless and after the manufacturer supplied several new PSUs, the customer gave up and commission his own.  Voltages drifted so wildly in the first hour or two after switch on that it had to be left on overnight just so that it was usable the next day.
How that happened and why, I do not know, but I have noticed the same reviewer to be well out of his depth several times.  Altogether, it is a good idea to read several reviews by the same person of equipment that you know really well, just to see if this person actually has tested the thing and understands how it works and what to expect from it.
So read reviews with caution and try to understand where the reviewer is 'coming from' with his review.  The phrase 'good value for money' means something completely different for a mixing desk that costs 100 and a mixing desk for 100,000.   
So for the purposes of clarification, here is a tongue-in-cheek list of some of the more important phrases.

I have divided the list into budget-priced and high-end professional equipment, as the same phrases mean different things for the different types.

I have placed the phrase, as it is written in the review first and placed the translation in brackets behind it.   The list may be tongue-in-cheek, but you may find some truth in some of these phrases!

Budget Priced Equipment

Good value for money (cheap and nasty)

elegant solution (came in two colours)

compact (far too small)

other evidence of cost saving (it was just one fault after another)

now I have one myself (they forgot to ask for it back!)

I still have some niggles (but it broke anyway)

sleek good looks (has a blue LED on the front)

thoughtful design (has a blue LED on the back as well!)

best used at a distance (the further the better)

useful handle (to throw it away)

delivers a credible sound (we could just hear something)

entry level (remember - entry level is below ‘toy’ level!)

Deceptively classy sound (they sent us one that works this time)

small enough to fit in your pocket (stolen)

provides most features (so basic that it is useless!)

Rack friendly (so poorly built, you have to bolt it onto something, to stop it falling to bits)

comprehensive selection of features (none of us understood the manual)

cuts through a mix (distorts badly)

a range of additional features (the same useless effects a second time around, but with different names this time)

completely reworked (now in blue)

flagship (they’ve bolted two of them together)

electrically quiet (didn’t work at all!)

Manages to deliver a level of performance that is far better than expected (it worked)

High-end, Professional Equipment

Prestige (wildly over-priced)

Flagship (nobody has bought one yet)

legendary (old)

Audiophile (has directional arrows on the wires)

pedigree (living on past glory)

extremely versatile routing (it took me over an hour to get a sound out of it)

comprehensive monitor section (I had to call tech support to find the mute button)

ProTools compatible (they had to pay a massive fee to DigiDesign)

Compatible with all leading DAWs (can only export WAV files)

Mid-priced (below 100,000)

Affordable (if you think a Mercedes CLK is affordable, it’s affordable)

I can easily recommend it (but I wouldn’t buy one!)

It is always a pleasure to use (it’s the first time anyone has let me near one of these)

The down side is that it is expensive (I hoping for a freebie, but the manufacturer said no)

Where money is no object, this mic is up there with the best (This lot wouldn’t give me one either!)

Natural, transparent sound. (Better than the cheap stuff I've got.)

Has become something of a standard (I know a bloke who bought one)

has become the industry standard (I saw one on telly)

despite its very low price, has found its way into some of the best studios in the World (my wife let me buy one)


The Byre Recording Studio