The Reviews Vacuum Problem
How can things stand alone in a world full of other things?
I’m working on a review of HyperX’s new Rose Gold Cloud MIX gaming headset right now(UPDATE: It’s live now right here), and it’s bringing to mind a conundrum I deal with every time I write an audio, tech, or game review.
There’s two main ways I can go when reviewing a new thing: Review it in a vacuum, or compare it directly against the market.
I usually end up shooting for an awkward mix of both. Sometimes this works out well, and other times I’m unsatisfied with myself, in the deep and unsettling way that never totally goes away.
That’s why I like to re-review things after I’ve gained additional experience and perspective, or why I sometimes separate my review and additional thoughts on the context of that review into two articles.
Going forward I’ll be doing more of that separating. Let’s explore each method a bit further.
Method One: Focus on it as it would exist in a theoretical vacuum.
Going this way, I ask myself questions about the product and I try to dive deep and explain what makes it great or terrible, ignoring outside factors.
Does it make me happy? Do I feel like I got a good amount of value? What are its merits or its mess-ups?
This is great for trying to determine the intrinsic worth of something. It’s the mindfulness approach to reviewing. Nothing else matters. It’s just this specific game/headset/whatever and I’m trying to decide if I like it.
I get to talk more about the feel of the product without worrying as much about how it measures up to some invisible standard that exists outside myself. It’s a more personal approach.
My short trick to determining how much I personally like something is simple. I ask myself, after spending a lot of time with it, if I’d buy it again immediately should I lose or break it.
Whether the answer is yes or no, I learn a lot about how I felt.
I’d love to review everything like this. It’s very “film/literature student,” somehow appropriate because I was one of those almost twenty years ago.
But it’s not super practical in a world where people are just trying to make a buying decision.
It’s great to have these deep thought pieces on whether something is inherently good and why, but sometimes you just want to know directly if it’s a good purchase, right? You don’t want to have to suss that out from my words, you want me to say it directly. I guess.
Method Two: Review a thing in the context of the larger market.
In this approach, intrinsic worth still matters, but only inasmuch as it beats or fails to live up to other things.
This approach also includes reacting to a product’s marketing, and its price in the market when compared to other similar things.
Is it “better” or “worse” than its competition? Was the marketing accurate? Is it the height of its category?
Taking into account this larger scope, and approaching a review from a raw value-for-relative-dollars position is more “useful” for most consumers. They want to quickly read a thing and be told if it’s worth their money.
But this sort of approach sometimes lacks true critical nuance, and often means I get into endless, and occasionally maddening, comment chains of going back-and-forth with potential buyers.
What does it mean for a subjectively-appreciated thing like a headphone or a video game to be “objectively better” than a different product? And how am I choosing which products to compare it to? Don’t my personal biases influence that in a way that should be represented?
Sometimes these comparison points jump out during the review process, but other times they’re hard to come up with because I don’t know what each reader’s preferences will be, nor do I have any real way of figuring that out.
I can only speak for myself.
The first approach does my opinions a better service, but the second approach does my readers a better “service,” as long as we define service as “help me buy a thing.”
The HyperX Cloud MIX perfectly exposed this divide for me last year.
When the Cloud MIX first launched, I wrote a bit of a knee-jerk reaction piece to its marketing and price that I’ve since gone back and edited for clarity and tone.
The headset market one year ago was trending towards $150 budget-friendly wireless headsets, and HyperX launched a $200 product aimed more at the mainstream Beats consumer that was still also trying to be a great wired gaming headset.
That disparity was interesting, and weird, and against what everyone else was doing. It hit me the wrong way a year ago, and I fired off a piece that was widely-read but I was never totally happy with.
It was read, but not really reacted to. It served the second review method well, but didn’t advance the discourse for people who weren’t just Googling “DO I BUY THING?”
The marketing and market position are not really the fault of the headset itself, and don’t really have a bearing on how “Good” it is as an audio product.
Reviewed in a vacuum, it was a wonderful headset that I loved and kept using for months. But taken in the context of the overall market, it was in a weird place and it was hard for me to outright recommend it to people. How do I reconcile those two things?
I didn’t do the best job of that last year, and even with the edits I made to my initial reaction piece, I’ve still been turning all this over in my head for months.
I think the better approach going forward is to more regularly write two kinds of articles, with clearer intents.
This year, in addition to a re-review of the contentious headset, talking about its qualities as an individual product and what I like and don’t like about it in a theoretical vacuum, I’ll be producing some round-up list-style pieces that take market positioning and price comparisons into account.
Essentially, my old headphone showdown feature is coming back with a renewed focus, both because I missed it and because I think it’ll help solve this conundrum.
I don’t want to hold headphones or video games accountable for what their neighbors in the marketplace are doing unless there’s a specific comparison point that has merit for the review.
For example, when I review The Outer Worlds next week, comparisons to Bethesda games are inevitable, but that shouldn’t have any overall bearing on discussing the inherent quality of Obsidian’s new game, right?
And although I frequently still end up helping people to buy things, I don’t always want that to be my primary aim when writing a review. Sometimes I just want to talk about the little details I found interesting, or espouse something you might not have heard of or considered in your own tech journey.
People that read reviews tend to be more invested in that subject, and I’d like my pieces to sometimes contribute a little bit to the discourse instead of just being buying advice. In aiming for both approaches separately where appropriate, hopefully my writing will be more clear and useful.
Now if only I could get rid of my emotions and cranky moods that make me do wild things like almost return excellent products, or write knee-jerk reaction pieces in the first place. Then I’d be even better at this!