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How to Use Product Reviews, Part II.

Wags have said that the beauty of the internet is that everyone has a voice and can express their opinion. Those same wags also say that this freedom of opinion is the greatest curse of the internet. Every opinion, even those of morons and crackpots, has equal weight.

I've given you some tips on how to interpret professional speaker reviews. Now let's take a look at a huge and growing internet phenomenon, consumer product reviews. There are a plethora of websites that allow anyone to post product reviews, site such as Epinions.com, AudioReview.com, Amazon, and any number of online retailer sites and e-zines. In a few cases manufacturer's web sites also allow consumers to post product reviews.

Just how useful are these amateur reviews? Can they be trusted? Like professional reviews you have to take them with your eyes wide open. Properly used and researched, consumer reviews can be a very valuable data point in selecting audio products.

The first thing to look for is sheer quantity. If you can only find a few reviews about a particular item, you should give those reviews the hairy eyeball. That doesn't mean that the product is no good, it may just be a case of it being new or hard to find. And it doesn't negate the validity of the reviews, but any statistician will tell you that a small sample size yields a large margin of error. If a given product only has two reviews, one great one terrible for a score of 50/50 pro/con, it doesn't follow logically that 100 people would spit down the same 50/50 line. In fact, it could easily turn out 99 pro, 1 con or vice versa. There really is power in numbers.

The next thing to look for is overall score. Most review sites will display the average score for the product, usually on a 5 star scale. That gives you a quickie idea whether the product is worth looking into further. But don't get too hung up on the raw number. Differences of a few 10ths aren't significant. I've seen people write glowing reviews of products and then give it a score of 4 out of 5. Reading the individual comments will give you a much better idea of the relative merits of a product.

Consider the source. Look for clues about the writer's experience with the product category. Newbies get excited about anything they bring home. Experienced hands who have owned a variety of better quality gear will be tougher but more credible critics. Look at what other products the writer is comparing the product to and what he/she has owned before. Also look for clues about whether the writer is basing his/her opinion on direct in home experience or an in store listen. I've seen reviews that were posted by people who had never listened to the product!

I'd give much greater weight to reviews written by people who have direct in home experience with the product. I'd put less weight on reviews based on in store listening. Yes, in store you can compare products directly but you are introducing a lot more variables into the listening experience. Speaker A may be in a better acoustic spot in the room; Speaker B may have just been put on display and is not thoroughly broken in; the store may have hooked up the speaker out of phase or may have the receiver's bass management set incorrectly for the speaker.

Look for attitude and articulation. By attitude I mean bias. Sometimes it is pretty easy to tell who is walking into a listening situation with a bias one way or the other beware those who prejudge. Inarticulate people whose range of self expression runs from "it sucks" to "it rocks," are probably less useful judges of audio quality. The opinions of people who can articulate in detail what they've heard or seen will be more useful guides when you go out to do your own listening.

I mentioned that a very few manufacturer sites allow for consumers to post reviews of their products. Polk is one of those sites. We allow people to directly post reviews to our site without censorship on our part. We only delete offensive and crank posts; we leave up the reviews we love and even the ones that make us sad, depressed and unloved. Sniff. We know of one of our competitors who approve consumer review posts in advance of publication. Funny how all of the reviews are glowing with nary a negative word written! How amazing!

This article was last modified Apr 17, 2014

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