Monday, March 14, 2005


Ah Via Emptor

Every once in a while I start an initiative to remove some clutter from my life, usually involving cleaning my perpetually cluttered desk and cutting down the number of periodicals in the house. While I used to subscribe to a lot, and I mean a lot of periodicals, I'm down to just a few, and very few stay in the house more than one day. The academic stuff from IEEE and ACM no longer gets respectful pride of place (takes up way too much of it, and besides, all that stuff is available online), the trade rags are OK but I don't like filling out the requalification cards every three issues (and besides, their shelf life is nil). Other than Fortune and Forbes, the only magazine I read on a monthly basis that I consistently enjoy and want to keep around (even if only for a few weeks) is Stereophile, but my subscription is running out, and in the interests of keeping Schloss Scheisse clean and orderly, I seriously considered letting the subscription lapse when it runs out later this year. Until Saturday, that is.

While I figured I could get my Sam Tellig and Mike Fremer fix from a quick perusal in the local bookstore, Art Dudley did a column that absolutely floored me. Ordinarily, Mr. Dudley's column isn't my favorite read in the magazine (the aforementioned Messrs. Tellig and Fremer being the folks I immediately turn to), but he's OK in most cases. This column actually really cut to the heart of matters in a way of speaking. Mr. Dudley openly took on Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports you say, the champion of the emptors, the magazine that exposed the faulty electric welders you used to see advertised at the back of Popular Mechanics, the magazine with the damning car reviews? Yeah, those guys.

The occasion for Mr. Dudley's wrath was a Consumer Reports review of (as they used to call them euphemistically on TV when even Norman Lear couldn't get away with it) male contraceptives. Art specifically lampooned the test results which declared a clear winner on the basis of "taking the most punishment". One wonders how CR could actually publish such an evaluation with a methodology and qualitative results. Which brings us to the general question as to how CR can evaluate anything that it is not entirely expert in. I will grant their expertise in evaluating cars, although their methodology is not one that would produce results that a true aficionado of autos could use to evaluate a car (at least as a pre-sales screening tactic). The qualitative and quantitative in a CR auto review is useful for determining the car's capacity as basic transportation, nothing more.

I well remember the day I stopped picking up Consumer Reports, as they promised an upcoming review of guitars. This was of course the height of absurdity, as I easily imagined them giving a "Best Buy" rating to some Samick while trashing the marques that every guitar player loves (we reserve that for our observations about Mr. Juskiewicz). Their methodology for rating audio is ridiculous, as their opinion is that "it's all digital, therefore get whatever has the most bells and whistles at the lowest price". Bull. Case in point - I was in the market a few years back for a new audio rig (I ended up buying only new speakers, but it made for some pleasant research) and I spent several weekends dragging the Mrs. around to various high-end audio dealers to audition sound systems. I naturally brought some favorite CDs with me, as an early excursion from work to a very well-known shop in Manhattan demonstrated that I couldn't depend upon what I listen to being there for me to test things out (while their classical collection was OK, their classic rock selection was horrendous). We found ourselves in one establishment and began auditioning Adcom and Rotel gear (the megabuck gear was droolworthy, but I just couldn't commit to such a huge price for a system that really doesn't get that much use). Nice stuff, and the salesman mentioned to me, "Well, if you like the Rotel, take a listen to the Naim system. It'll blow your socks off". Before I had a chance to protest, he'd patched a Naim CD player into a Naim amp, and loaded my Revolver CD. Without even asking, he cued up track 9 (he definitely knew his customer - track 9 being "And Your Bird Can Sing") and hit play. It was like a revelation from Providence - I heard tremelo guitar on there previously buried in the mushy CD mix, the vocals jumped out at you, the drum sound being incredibly crisp and punchy, you name it, it was awesome. Needless to say, cooler heads prevailed and I didn't bring home the rig (the salesman was talking close to five figures once we included the speakers I was looking at), but there is no way that I could have gotten that information from Consumer Reports, as their methodology doesn't accept the intangible input of someone hearing new nuances in familiar, great music.

So, I think I might stick with Stereophile. They've given me a couple of bum steers in music reviews (I bought a relatively recent Oregon CD on an audiophile label based on their recommendation, and after taking a total of two listens to it consigned it to the back of the cabinet, only to be played when a soporific is indicated), but there's a lot of good reading in there that isn't the clinical qualitative stuff you get out of CR. And I've gotten a lot of respect for Mr. Dudley's column to boot.

As for Consumer Reports, well, any organization and publication that made its bones on the back of Ralph Nader isn't my cup of tea.


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