"Long-Term Equipment Loans: A Win-Win for Everyone" by Robert Harley, The Absolute Sound

Ron Resnick

Site Co-Owner, Administrator
Jan 24, 2015
Beverly Hills, CA
In the March 2023 issue of The Absolute Sound Robert Harley, Editor-in-Chief, defends broadly and unashamedly the arrangement of long-term loans of high-end components by manufacturers to reviewers.

1) Robert writes that "[l]ong-term equipment loans are essential to writing the most accurate and insightful reviews." If a well-known and highly-respected reviewer has been purchasing his own equipment for his reference system for decades does that mean he has not been writing the most “accurate and insightful reviews"? How would a respected reviewer's reviews have been better if he had never purchased his loudspeakers or his turntable or his amplifiers? Are the reviews of a self-financing reviewer tainted in some way because he/she pays for his/her own components?

Robert justifies the practice of long term loans by asserting: "Inserting a new product into a highly transparent system whose characteristics are known intimately by the reviewer is the gold standard for writing an accurate and insightful review. Anything less is a compromise. . . . Without long-term loans, reviewers must either evaluate expensive products in systems they can afford (i.e., that are not up to the sonic standard of the product under review) or change the entire playback system with each new evaluation." Robert concludes: "This arrangement also benefits readers by identifying those products that are truly exceptional."

I feel these arguments both prove too little (how do any of these assertions actually justify a potential or an actual conflict of interest, and the specter of bias in favor of the loaning manufacturer?) and prove too much (so most reference systems owned and paid for by the reviewers themselves are a "compromise"?). How does the long term loan arrangement "identif[y] those products that are truly exceptional?" Doesn't the arrangement simply identify which companies are willing to loan/give components to reviewers in return for marketing bragging rights and for Associated Components list value?

2) I fully appreciate 1) the self-selecting process of focusing on components a reviewer strongly suspects in advance he/she is going to like, and 2) the sensible editorial strategy of assigning a review component to a reviewer with prior experience with an earlier version of the same product, or at least some prior experience with the manufacturer. Yet I find it difficult to believe that even with these legitimate drivers of the component-to-reviewer assignment process every component is worthy of the highest praise.

Jonathan Valin has long term loans from, I believe, among other manufacturers, Acoustic Signature, JL Audio, Magico,* MBL and Soulution. When was the last time you read a negative review by Jonathan of a product sent to him for evaluation by one of these companies? (I readily concede this particular argument is not at all dispositive, because it is very possible that Jonathan has genuinely loved every single component he has ever reviewed from each of these companies. My point of this particular argument is that the long-term loan arrangement raises the specter of bias.)

3) I believe that in any other industry, and according to any regulatory body responsible for regulating a particular industry, the practice of long-term loans would be described in one word: "bribe." Robert exculpates the reviewer receiving the loan from impropriety by explaining: "The assumption is that the reviewer is beholden to the manufacturer, when it is the manufacturer who benefits more than the reviewer from the loan."

How is this a defense to an apparent or to an actual conflict of interest? How does the fact that the manufacturer receives a bigger benefit from the loan than does the receiving reviewer absolve the reviewer's apparent or actual conflict of interest? Isn't this like the beneficiary tippee of an insider trading tip defending himself from liability for his ill-gotten gain because the tipper from whom he received the tip made more money than he did?

4) Robert takes a puzzling swipe at reviewers buying review components at discounted accommodation pricing: ". . . I'm not as clear about how buying such a piece of equipment at a huge discount wouldn't make a reviewer feel even more "beholden" -- and personally invested in that product." I think that a reviewer who receives an accommodation discount of, let's say, forty percent, and pays sixty percent of his or her hard-earned money for a component, is less beholden to a manufacturer than is a reviewer who receives that component for free. Robert does not explain why a reviewer who receives a 40% discount is more beholden to a manufacturer than is a reviewer who receives a 100% discount.

Isn't a reviewer less beholden to a manufacture after a completed purchase transaction than he or she is from an ongoing loan which the manufacturer can withdraw at any time as punishment for a critical review? Which tells you more about how much a reviewer liked a particular $200,000 component: A) paying $120,000 to have it and use it, or B) paying nothing to have it and use it?

5) Robert emphasizes that The Absolute Sound "adheres to the ironclad rule that the review sample must eventually be returned to the manufacturer. Although the reviewer may use a product for several years, it belongs to the manufacturer." For how many years has Jonathan Valin had possession of his Lloyd Walker turntable (assuming the Proscenium possession started out as a long-term loan)?

If we were in tax court I believe that a transaction denominated by the participants as a "loan" which continues for as long as a "borrower" wishes likely would be re-characterized either as a sale or as a gift. Under The Absolute Sound's "rule" what does "eventually" mean in practice? With long-term component loan arrangements in this industry does "eventually" mean upon the retirement or the death of the reviewer? I would characterize a long-term component loan as a gift, rather than as a loan.

6) Section 4 of the Statement of Principles of the Association of International Audiophile Publications provides: Reviewers and their publications will not be allowed to negotiate to keep review samples as "compensation" for their reviews. In my opinion a long-term loan which continues for as long as the receiving reviewer wishes is substantially the same -- a distinction without a difference -- as a "keep." This Statement of Principles was a modest attempt at a code of ethics for the high-end audio industry. Conspicuously, The Absolute Sound has chosen not to sign onto this industry self-regulatory effort.

7) I will leave you with this simple question: if a reviewer wants to continue to retain and use a piece of equipment loaned to him by a manufacturer that is worth tens of thousands of dollars, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, do you think the reviewer will be more likely to report favorably on, or to be less critical of, a new component from that manufacturer sent to that reviewer for evaluation?

*I would argue that a long-term loan arrangement is in operation even if a manufacturer replaces the loaned component with a new model from time to time.

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Ron, that was a very thoughtful and compelling commentary made all the more relevant because you are a potential candidate for a long term loan yourself as the co-owner of this forum which is read and respected by manufacturers.
(It's not a stretch to consider the forum equivalent in some ways to an industry publication supported by ads). Kudos.

If however you do get the opportunity for a long term loan and decline for the ethical concerns you have stated so eloquently, please don't hesitate to send them my way, as I have none! ;)
i view long term equipment loans to reviewers like the wind at a golf course. each hole is different, each shot at each hole is different, but the player must always consider the effect of the wind. it has some effect.

and whether a reviewer buys at full retail, or gets industry accommodation, some bias is involved. knowledgeable players familiar with the course/reviewer know how to adjust.

and honestly any type of subjective reviews involving music reproduction are going to involve bias (wind). it's how it works and it's up to the reader to compensate. but valuable information (great shots) can be learned (made). and we can be entertained too.
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As Steve's buddy in NorCal Grellman said to us years ago, when he was at FI magazine, some of it was about just getting the equipment.
Nelson Pass says it's entertainment, not brain surgery.
I have no problem with accommodation prices for reviewers, I doubt they would put something they don't actually treasure in their own systems. I also don't think there is anything wrong with reviewers receiving comps for travel, clinics etc. because they have worked hard to become public figures in the industry and they do share a great deal of meaningful knowledge about what otherwise would be a complete mystery.
As far as the disguised 'gifts' aka 'long term loans' are concerned, I would certainly take their opinions with a grain of salt, but then, you should be doing that anyway.
It's never going to be a bunch of pure audio monks who have taken vows of chastity and poverty, revealing stuff, and readers do have some responsibility for seeing past the puffery.
Motivated reasoning is an interesting phenomenon....

I have no problem with a reviewer taking on a 'long term loan'. In the interest of transparency, it might be beneficial for reviewers to add the length and/or date of the loan to their already lengthy equipment listings.
Ron, you raise some important questions and no doubt there will be many points of view to consider. Allowing for my own interests, I would put forth that publications like TAS are an important part of the industry because for one they get the word out broadly about new products. A recent example would be the excellent but little known in the US Goebel speakers Elliot imports.

So long as smaller firms without the ability to make a long-term loan or advertising commitment gets a fair shake vs. the ones who do, then in my mind that goes toward leveling the playing field and the readers benefit. I do know of several media outlets that will NOT publish a review and return the product to the manufacturer if the product fails to meet a minimum threshold of quality. My sense is this is a good policy but I'm sure some will argue they are being deprived of the very reason they read reviews for.

One final point, I'm curious why the audio media does not circle back to older products once thought to be top of the heap when reviewing the latest and greatest. IMO this would be a useful perspective that would help consumers know a) if we are we making real progress toward the Absolute Sound and b) if a given product is worth considering to replace old for new. Let's face it, a healthy secondary market helps the primary market to stay viable. At least we are not inventing a new format every week like the oftentimes throw away consumer electronics products the giant CE producers are known for!
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As most of the time, this subject discussion will last forever in part due the ambiguity of the terms being used. How long exactly can last a "long term equipment loan?" Six month, one year, two years, five years or ten years?

My opinion on it surely depends on this aspect.
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We make seek some guidance from the Federal elections Commission. They are absolutely no difference between cash contributions and gifts in kind. IMO industry Accommodation pricing is a cash gift. A long term loan is a gift in kind.
As I argued in another thread impossibility is often a basis for exception to the rule. The simple fact is most reviewers/mags cannot afford to purchase review samples or maintain a reference system. I suppose then a reviewer/magazine could arrange to purchase some products and have some short-term loans simultaneously available. We should keep in mind a short term loan is also a gift in kind. There is a monetary benefit.
Consider that fter having reviewed a premium product the reviewer found it to be of such quality that he would like to own or retain it. Logic dictates that his high opinion of the product is legitimate. Why else would he want to keep it? The alternative would be that he is truly corrupt. That is he would keep the product, push it in the corner onlyto create a false impression he held it in high esteem. There is another scenario. He does hold the product in high esteem but fears retaliation for a bad review of other products in the line. Ranking products also create a problem. We concede the product is good. But is it best? Was my choice influenced by the desire for a long term loan or industry accommodation pricing?
I received a discount for a review sample. You have to consider a review sample is essentially a used product and should be priced accordingly. Once that product is opened it depreciates. You do not know how many reviewers had it before you.
There are many forms of bias. Monetary gain is right here a the top. I agree equipment loans are essential. One of my favorite reviewers flat out refused to pay for equipment. He generally kept equipment on loan for as long as he felt it was the best. Ultimately if you are corrupt, you will be exposed.
Remember the three rules of conflict of interest. Disclosure. Disclosure. Disclosure.
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Accommodation pricing and it's near cousin long term loans are a soft target. An easily driven topic both here and there.

It's impossible to remove the element of showing how to hit a hole in one from speaking engagements and equipment demo's. Much less contemplative long term reviews in which one has effectively no time crunch removing ability to figure out ways it can work given near endless attempts.

I'm heartened to see Ron airing out his mothballed review credential. Some fresh air entering.
Who reviews sub par products ?
who reviews and comments of a product is awful ?
no matter what we do or how ever a review is made
it’s still a useful part of information we need
I’m a fan of reviews older seem better but new ones are still a tool
if the reviser can word for us to read between the lines even better.
my best reviews are for from owners even if they are not done well , it’s still an informative tool.
how expensive i items get reviewed I’m not seeing many
Examples dart zeel , Msb and as for speakers not many if any I see.
And other ultra high end stuff.
I had to google who robert harley was ,lol

But anyway , i think the entrance fee for both annual shows in munchen are about the same as a yearly subscription of TAS , so no reason for people to not go and do some homework themselves before making a large purchase.

Off course there is a conflict of interest in magazines you got to be dumb not to realize that , besides also the fact that a reviewers opinion not need to be your opinion .

May be long term loans should be transferred into some sort of a lease agreement .
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Problem is TAS had a ( pretentious) wrong start from the beginning , it should actually be called SAM

the Subjective Audio Magazine
LoL! The Sort Of Absolute Sound, depending on what can be kept.
Who reviews sub par products ?
TAS, but if they are on long term loan you won't know it from the review. They also backed the MoFo-Fidelity fraud against audiophiles because MoFo-fi advertises with them
With long-term component loan arrangements in this industry does "eventually" mean upon the retirement or the death of the reviewer? I would characterize a long-term component loan as a gift, rather than as a loan.

Maybe TAS keeps the equipment untill a new version / mk 2 comes out . :)
And if this means its basically a dated product by that time , may be they can keep it / resell it , i have no clue
Sounds like TAS knows how to get good agreements for themselves , but isnt this a private issue by the way ?
Sounds to me perfectly legal if a manufacturer wants to give a magazine a good deal / gift, most of them sponsor the magazine already anyway via adds.
If a politician would do such , and makes legislation accordingly which benefits the donateur thats another story afaik
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It might be ok if the reviewers at TAS (and in other magazines) could inform us readers of the equipment they actually own (have bought) and which products are on loan. And for how long. Long term loans that goes on for years could be mistaken for "gifts". Or like " If nn reviewer have a product as their own reference it must be very good". A reference is after all "a reference" = A product of very high quality. Which of course could lead to more sales for the brands in question/mentioned as a reference.

If a product under review is bought by the reviewer at a reduced price I see no problem in that, after all the device is used. And we readers can not dictate what kind of equipment the reviewers should own, or like... This is a personal matter.
TAS, but if they are on long term loan you won't know it from the review. They also backed the MoFo-Fidelity fraud against audiophiles because MoFo-fi advertises with them
Didn't they also recently purchase Michael Fremer ? ;)

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