If a reviewer's system is his or her laboratory -- and who wouldn't agree with that statement -- what makes it suitable for the job? Reviewers don't leave college or university with a diploma of audio reviewing in one hand, a key to a magic crate with a certified review system inside in the other. Most are hobbyists who, one day, decided to get involved as commentators. Whatever system they had before they switched sides reflects their personal needs and biases. Such systems were assembled as pleasure devices. Will they automatically suit the new reviewing gig which ostensibly is more about truth and consequence?
For example, what if they have a system with a 3-way active Marchand tube crossover? As stupendous as it probably sounds, it can be made to behave in many different ways just by adjusting the external crossover settings. Which is of course exactly why they bought it. Readers however may protest. A speaker system this flexible could accommodate an unusually wide variety of upstream components simply by compensating with new crossover points, slopes and gain settings in the Marchand.
Therein lies a potential reviewer's curse. The system one might build and listen to for personal pleasure may not be the kind readers will find the most useful or credible to see used in a laboratory context. It's expecting too much though to insist that reviewers abandon their personal systems and trade up, down or sideways into something considered laboratory (not that there would be much consensus on what that constitutes).
Still, the point is relevant. A system assembled from DIY, long since discontinued or exceptionally rare and unknown components will be a white spot on the map, serving little or no useful reference to the average reader. A system with a digital or analog correction system -- equalizer in plain English -- could be too much of a moving target. At the end of the day however, reviewers have to enjoy their systems without compromise or the passion and enthusiasm that compelled them to review in the first place will dry up quickly.
While reviewing, for the right kind of person, is in many ways a dream job or extension of the hobby, it is by no means painless. Your system is in permanent flux, with components coming and going. While some may introduce attributes you'd wish for permanently, more will have you impatient to get back to your own stuff. There's boxes in your garage and basement and at times outright crates. Some things show up on time as promised, others are way late. For some, the manufacturer issues a prompt call tag as requested. Others keep lingering and taking up space.
After you get over the kid-in-a-candy-store syndrome, jadedness and cynicism kick in. Stuff begins to sound more and more alike now that you're better informed about what's possible and what isn't. Some of the behind-the-scenes stuff you get exposed to might bite certain blissfully ignorant notion from before hard. While some assignment requests may be made in hopes of assessing a component for personal acquisition, you can only listen to one system at a time. Buying components just because you can presample them quickly becomes a rarely exercised privilege.
It's as this point where the rubber usually meets the road. Either your commitment to share with and benefit others dominates your motivations or the constant interruptions in your own system and the routine sameness of the work load begin to take their toll. Regardless of personal enthusiasm for a particular component or lack thereof, you still owe the maker and readers a comprehensive writeup. It just won't do to drag your heels in the face of just another routine review. Nor will it do to let even that attitude come through or cop lazy short cuts. Just because a $1,500 amplifier turns out to be just another good solid $1,500 amplifier doesn't warrant lesser efforts than such an amp reviewed 20 incidents prior when this component category gave you wood.
Still think being a reviewer is such hot shit? Mind you, I'm not complaining in the least. I love my job. Sometimes it's simply helpful to paint the full picture. As with any endeavor, there's assets and liabilities, sunny sides and dark shadows. While still on the latter, there's the whole celeb paparazzi National Enquirer aspect. Like it or not, reviewers especially with credible and well-liked publications become quasi celebrities in that their every review and action is under intense scrutiny and subject to public commentary.
Looking in the mirror, you're the same Dick, Tom or Harry you were just two years ago. In your capacity as a reviewer, you're no longer private Dick however. You're a public dick - hopefully more public than dick. Your association with an organization means your attitude and actions reflect on your team, your boss and your reviewer colleagues elsewhere. In fact, they reflect on the entire endeavor of audio reviewing. Commit gross errors of judgment and a lot of people get hurt, trusts broken and credibilities undermined.
You also need to grow a thick skin. Your every published sentence might get scrutinized, quoted and ridiculed in the forums or published letters sections. It's part of the beat. Unless you're simply arrogant believing in personal infallibility or unaccountability, the fact that often small firms send out their newest creations on which much of their future business prospects ride will put you in a tough place. You're expected to be fair yet considerate, honest yet untarnished by any agenda. This is a difficult balance to walk. Then you need to work on your writing skills. Nobody expects Norman Mailer or Clive Barker flights of fancy but readers and manufacturers alike deserve an easy, entertaining and educational read that is properly presented. They don't really care whether you liked a component or not. They want to know what it sounded like. Big difference.
How much is all of this worth? The going rates for paid on-line reviews in the US last time I checked was $50 - $200. Other reviewers work completely pro bono. Still think reviewing is such hot shit? For some of us, it is. Dare I say we're all a bit nuts? It's a good perspective to keep in mind when you consider this field and the many characters working, playing and plowing it.