How To Read Online AV Reviews | Home Theater 101
When shopping for AV gear online, there are two types of reviews you’ll encounter – professional reviews and user reviews. Knowing how to read these reviews is imperative to you having a successful online shopping experience. Some of these tips will be obvious, others might surprise you. In the end, knowing how to read online AV reviews will ensure that you get what you expect and expect what you get.
How To Read Online User AV Reviews
Whether it is on Amazon or one of the other online retailers that Amazon hasn’t crushed under their boot, online user reviews are important. They often give insight into real user’s experiences with the actual product. The problem is that users usually have limited experience with said products. In the world of AV, people don’t buy gear very often. So, when you read their reviews, you need to know how to filter through the chaff to get to the kernel of truth.
Examine Lowest Scores
Step one when reading online user AV reviews is to filter by the one-star reviews. Check those out first. If these reviews are complaining about shipping issues, packaging problems, or damage unrelated to the performance of the gear, you can ignore them. If the complaints seem relevant, take note of the dates. Are they all new? Are they all from the same time period? This could indicate that a particular production run had issues that either have been rectified or one that is new. Keep this information in mind.
Author’s Note: If there are NO one-star reviews, read the rest of the reviews with extreme scrutiny. Do they all sound the same? Are you on the manufacturer’s website where maybe they scrubbed all the less-than-four-star reviews? There is always going to be SOMEONE that hates a product no matter how good it is.
Examine Highest Scores
When looking at the highest scores, what are people saying? Is this their first purchase of this type? In the case of a speaker or subwoofer, expect them to be overly impressed regardless of the quality of the product. Having sounds come from behind you is always impressive compared to not having sounds come from behind you. Having any bass (no matter the quality) is better than no bass. New buyers are often ecstatic with their new purchase.
Look for Similar Products
When a product gets a “bad” rep on Amazon, resellers will sometimes rename and relist the product. This resets the review score and allows them to dupe buyers into purchasing something that they might not had they read the original reviews. Check out “no longer available” products that look the same and read the reviews. Chances are it is the same product.
Also, if the product you are looking at has a bunch of reviews but they are all very recent, that’s a bad sign. They could have paid a service to mass review their product just to bump up the rating. View such products with a critical eye. If you see one review that is vastly different than the others, usually starting with, “I don’t know what these other people are talking about…” that’s a bad sign.
Look For Trends
Once you’re sure the product is on the up and up, and you’ve excluded the reviews that either isn’t about the product or that are far too glowing, you’re ready to look for trends. When reading online reviews of AV gear, any real problems will quickly reveal themselves. When you see multiple reviews complaining about similar issues, those issues are probably real. Now, if you are familiar with the product type (say an Ultra HD Bluray player) and people are complaining about something that you know is probably a user setup issue, you can ignore it. At this point, you have filtered out the noise and are getting to the real information to inform your purchase. Now you can compare similar products to figure out which to buy with confidence that you are comparing them fairly.
How To Read Professional AV Reviews
Professional AV reviews are a completely different animal. No matter if the review is online or in print, the professional AV review takes a critical eye to read. You’ll need to hone your skills in reading between the lines to understand what the reviewer is actually saying. That’s because the reviewer walks a fine line. They want to give you an honest review but they also want the manufacturers to continue to send them review products. If they dunk all over a product, they will never get another review unit. But if they lie, they will lose all credibility. So, what is a professional AV reviewer to do?
Research The Reviewer
The upside of the professional review is that you have a person with a vast (hopefully) amount of experience that can give you an honest comparison to similar products. Their knowledge should allow you to understand very clearly what to expect from a product.
But before you can trust what they say, you’ll need to do some research. Especially in the case of speakers or subwoofers, the room that the reviewer uses is important. If possible, find a reviewer that has a similar room to yours. This will ensure that their experiences are more likely to resemble yours. What gear are they using? If they have a bunch of esoteric gear that you’ve never heard of, you don’t know how that is affecting the sound created. Don’t assume that their highly-priced gear is somehow better than your receiver. If anything, their overpriced cables are acting as an EQ. Those reviews should be viewed with skepticism.
Check for Overly Flowery Language
If the word “chocolatey” shows up in a review, it should immediately raise red flags. We’ve all read such reviews. They are beautifully written prose which, by the end, tell you nearly nothing about the product. While there is an audiophile formula for reviews, one of the main characteristics of such reviews is the flowery language.
This isn’t to say that a review shouldn’t be fun to read. It should. No one wants to read a dry, fact-only review. But the review should say something about the product. Some reviewers use this type of prose to obfuscate the fact that they aren’t really saying anything substantive. Describing a midrange as “engaging,” a cable as “danceable,” an amplifier as “disciplined” might be fun to read, but what does it mean? Is it bad? Doesn’t sound like. But is it good? Who knows!
Quotes from the Manufacturer
Whenever you see something in quotes in a professional AV review, read that as the reviewer saying, “Their words, not mine.” Either they can’t confirm the claim with actual measurements, or they flat out don’t believe what the manufacturer is saying and don’t want to outright contradict them. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. It is just something to keep in mind when you run across such quotes.
Watch for Shortcuts and Buzzwords
Reviewers know their audience. They know that if they say certain things, their audience will “understand” what they really mean. Saying a driver has a stamped versus cast basket implies quality (cast is considered better). Commenting on how “everyone knows” is another shortcut that implies quality where it might not be warranted.
The thing to look for is assumptions. When a shortcut or buzzword is used to convey a meaning without a statement about that particular aspect of the product, the reviewer is doing a disservice to the reader. So the basket is stamped. Does that mean it is inherently bad? Not really. So it can decode 32bit/384kHz signals. Is that inherently good? Again, not really. These are biases that the reviewer is revealing about themselves and their audience. A critical reader knows that and judges the rest of the review accordingly.
Heavily Weight Negative Statements
The most important thing to pay attention to when reading professional AV reviews, online or in print, is any negative statement. Any. You’ll run into two types of negatives in a professional review – those that matter and those that don’t. The ones that don’t are far more common. These are the “safe” criticisms of the product. Ones that the reviewer knows that the manufacturer won’t care about. Insult the color of the light used to indicate the product is on? The inclusion of an installer-only port? The omission of a legacy connection? All safe criticisms that allow the reviewer seem objective while keeping a good relationship with the manufacturer.
The other negative comments are harder to find. They usually sound like, “X could have been a bit better but in my room, I found they were fine.” Whatever that X is, is a real problem. They wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise. They hedge on the other side saying it wasn’t so bad in their room which is reviewer code for, “It’ll probably suck in your room.” These seemingly off-hand comments don’t sound like much on a first read, but they are the most important parts of the professional AV review. Put a lot of weight on these.
Now that you know how to read through the guff included in online AV reviews, you are well prepared to shop. Know what is important, heavily weight what you know to be true, and ignore the rest. In the end, you’ll end up with a product that you know will perform as you expect. Happy shopping!