The Pain and Pleasure of a Manufacturer's Visit

Posted by: crobb at 7:07 am, May 25th, 2007

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May 25 - In last week's blog, I talked about how it's common for manufacturers to visit reviewers when submitting a product for review, and the guidelines TAS reviewers follow during these visits.

What happens when a manufacturer visits a reviewer? Sometimes it's an amazingly useful opportunity to learn about the product. (I learned the art of loudspeaker placement from a procession of the world's great loudspeaker designers, for example.)

Other times a manufacturer visit is a blatant and shameless attempt to "spin" the review in his favor. Here's a funny story about one such visit.

I had received for review one of just 15 Mark Levinson No.30 digital-to-analog converters when a manufacturer of another digital product visited me. The No.30 was by far the most ambitious DAC ever conceived, reflecting a heroic engineering effort.

The industry was abuzz with reports (which turned out to be true) that the No.30 sounded far better than any other digital playback device at the time (1991).

I picked up the company president and his marketing manager at the airport and we stopped for lunch on the way back to my house to set up and listen to the manufacturer's digital-to-analog converter.

Over lunch, the marketing manager was boasting about how great his DAC sounded, and mentioned that it easily beat the Mark Levinson No.30. He went on at length about how it wasn't even a contest; his DAC was vastly superior sounding.

I let him go on, realizing that he probably had not heard a No.30, given their short supply just a week or so after their introduction. When I told him that I had a No.30 at home, warmed up and ready for some head-to-head comparisons, his face turned ashen.

The company president, a quiet and humble man, appeared embarrassed by the marketing manager's boast. We got to my house, set up his DAC, and started the listening comparisons with the No.30. We listened to a piece of music on his DAC, and then again on the No.30.

Seconds after switching to the No.30, the marketing manager threw his hands up in the air and made flamboyant gestures and comments that indicated that his DAC was so obviously superior to the No.30.

He didn't believe this (assuming he could hear), but nonetheless was attempting to influence my opinion. The company president, who had been intimately involved in his product's design, said nothing and listened intently.

He asked to hear piece after piece on the No.30. I've never seen anyone listen so closely to a piece of equipment. He didn't say a word, and then after about 30 minutes of concentrated listening, finally said quietly with a mixture of resignation and admiration, "The No.30 is very good."

Visits by manufacturers who bombard the reviewer with marketing hype can make for a very long day. On the other hand, some manufacturer visits are pure joy.

One of the most fun days I've had with a manufacturer was just last month when Bob Carver came to visit me. As you probably know, Carver is one of the most inventive geniuses in audio.

He's created entirely new circuit topologies and always thinks "outside the box." Now he's the engineering force behind Sunfire, and just finished designing an intriguing new ribbon speaker called the Cinema Ribbon.

Carver had no agenda other than to get better acquainted with me and hear my system. We hit it off immediately and were like kids in the world's most fun playground. The day was filled with spirited audio conversation and lots of pleasurable listening.

I had just received the stunningly great Basis 2800 Signature turntable and Vector tonearm, and Carver was completely enthralled by LP playback on the Basis.

We both marveledânot only that LPs could sound so great, but also that a 120-year-old mechanical system could have such resolution, nuance, and delicacy. Although Carver has worked in audio his entire life, his enthusiasm was boundless.

We pulled out record after record, followed by a dinner discussion of music, audio technology, high-end audio history, and why humans respond to music the way we do.

If only all manufacturer visits could be like that.

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