Back By Popular Demand... The Ratings Return

After many months and much gnashing of teeth online and print, Home Theater's ratings are in fact returning starting to product reviews with the January issue being assembled now. The ratings are not only coming back, we think the more streamlined version we've come up with is actually better than what we had before.

I've enumerated the reasons the decision was made to remove the ratings in the first place, and plenty of good arguments were presented on both sides. My hope was that readers wouldn't miss the ratings after we'd implemented the wrinkles of including useful "pro and con" highlights at each review's opening and offering our Top Picks across all product categories so readers would know how each product compares and competes in the larger market. We didn't make the decision to cut the ratings rashly, and wanted to make sure these new elements had some time to take hold with the readers before reversing this decision.

But, as time went by even though many readers and respondents to my Blog posting on the subject were in agreement with our adios to the ratings, the majority of feedback we received over these months has remained constant in favor of bringing them back. So, as I promised in my first editorial, Home Theater was and is the readers' magazine. And we very much hope that you agree that this new strategy works its hardest for you, the reader.

Our new rating system is very straightforward: ratings of 1-5 stars with half stars in three to five pertinent areas. This is effectively a ten point scale, and we feel it requires the least explanation in being so visually oriented. Someone picking up the magazine for the first time will see and understand this system immediately, whether he or she has read any of our From the Test Bench boilerplate or not.

Nearly all products will be rated in the four following areas- Performance, Features, Ergonomics, and Value. Speakers will not be rated on Ergonomics since users don't interact with them once they're set up the same way they do other components. But speakers and HTiBs will also include a rating for Build Quality since that's so critical and based so heavily on the aesthetic appeal of the speakers. Build quality used to be rated for all components reviewed, but with electronics and most other products that aren't speakers we felt this rating was based on inherently superficial findings (we can't take everything apart and do a reliable qualitative parts inventory!).

Unlike the previous system, we are not averaging out the ratings to an overall score. This has many inherent issues. Even if we use some sort of calculation to weight the overall rating toward performance (as the previous system did), the fact is that several factors are still speaking louder than performance in the overall rating. We believe this is contributed to some of the artificially high overall ratings in the previous system. We believe that there's more strength in seeing each rating and letting the reader gauge what's most important to him/herself is the best approach. Tell me if you agree or disagree.

We also need you to know that each rating is specific to the product category and the price range of the component under review. Our reviews are broken down by Entry Level, Midrange and High End price points. While we all like the idea of an absolute scale for performance, how do you account for rating the performance of a $350 AV receiver on the same scale as ones that cost $5k? This isn't a perfect solution, but we're hard pressed to think of one better for an absolute scale that wouldn't involve, for example, putting some kind of cap on performance ratings for entry level products (at least). I'm not going to say I told anyone so, but really, these are the compromises that must be made in rating review products if the ratings are to be rational and useful. Again, if you've got better ideas, this Blog is intended to solicit them. I'd like to hear from you on this.

To recap, starting with January, every issue of Home Theater will feature reviews that open with a meaningful capsule of information At a Glance, a Top Pick logo if the product has made the cut, and a streamlined ratings system. In addition, to place the components reviewed in each issue in perspective with the other current products we've reviewed, all of our Top Picks in all categories are in the back of every issue. We are aiming to arm you with all the knowledge you need to get the best gear your money can buy. Let us know if this system succeeds.

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