The Last of the Old-School Tech Reviewers

Lancelot Braithwaite cannot get through my visit without bursting forth a mantra that once served him and thousands of consumers well: “Read the frickin’ instruction manual!” he bellows. “And don’t throw it out unless you’re pretty good at memorizing it!” Never mind that products—from iPhones to Facebook—have made manuals into curious artifacts of a distant era. That era is alive if not well in Braithwaite’s smokey, cramped one-bedroom on West 14th Street.

Before tech product reviewers were brand names, there was Braithwaite, thundering his wisdom and geekery from publications that now exist only in yellowing copies. It was a time when the best critics were so familiar with technical specifications that their knowledge rivaled the engineers who built the products. And none were as omnipresent or as savvy as Braithwaite, who even served on industry standards committees.

Michael Antonoff is a prize-winning freelance technology journalist.

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That was then. Now there’s Braithwaite, seldom published, alone in the apartment he’s lived in for 40 years. Back then the neighborhood was dicey, but now he’s smack in Gotham’s tech center, a toss of the earbuds from a shiny Apple store and Google’s humongous New York headquarters. It’s an ironic contrast to Braithwaite’s flat, a time machine to the analog age. The space is a veritable tech museum, packed with such oddities as Pioneer’s last laserdisc player, which also played DVDs and CDs; a 30-inch Samsung wide-tube TV; a vintage Sony desktop computer; a ReplayTV recorder; eight camcorders; eight VCRs (two Beta, four VHS and two Super VHS); three oscilloscopes; a waveform monitor; and stacks of old magazines. Then, there are the manuals. He pulls out the Pioneer manual to double-check the player’s compatible formats.

The stash filling his apartment was, until recently, only the tip of a 144-cubic-foot iceberg of boxes he’d squirreled away at a Manhattan storage facility that recently closed, kicking to the curb his collection of press kits dating back to 1989.

“There was a guy in California who would have taken them,” he says, visibly pained at the loss, “But he wanted me to pay the postage.”

A buzz rattles from the street door. “That’s my medication,” he says. Since 2004, Braithwaite has been battling leukemia, a condition that so weakens him that, despite his status as a Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame inductee, he no longer makes the trek to Las Vegas for the annual CES extravaganza. That, and he’s turning 81 this month. But the last knight of the golden age of electronics reviewers still attends a few New York trade shows, typically drawing a small crowd of oldtimers when they see him. He still serves as a judge for new inductees into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame. He attends opera performances regularly. And he still maintains a slim, dancer’s body and a keen mind, remembering obscure details about an industry that increasingly does not remember him. “I do not have a photographic memory,” he says in his distinctively Trinidadian accent, “I have an eidetic memory.”

Lance Braithwaite was born in Trinidad in 1936 and enrolled at NYU in 1958, expecting to earn a degree in nuclear engineering; however, he was drawn to the university’s theater group, which depressed his grades. He switched to electrical engineering but maintained his interest in the creative arts, particularly dancing, and at one point was wooed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He also served as production designer on a short film, It’s Not Just You, Murray!, directed by fellow NYU student Martin Scorsese. But ultimately, practicalities prevailed. “I couldn’t see having much of a dance career after 35,” he recalls, “So I decided to stick with engineering.”

Intending to return home to lead the launch of Trinidad’s first TV station, Braithwaite enrolled at the RCA Studio School to get experience handling cameras and technical equipment and to study broadcasting theory. But just married and with a new job at WOR-TV, Braithwaite stayed put. One night, he found himself in the station’s broadcasting shack atop the Empire State Building when the Northeast blackout of 1965 struck. He’s credited for getting WOR-Radio back on the air by patching cables together. To this day, he regrets that he didn’t have a roll of film to take a one-of-a-kind photograph of the building’s long shadow cast by moonlight onto a dark city.

Braithwaite moved to California where he managed audio and visual content for an educational curriculum publisher, then to Penn State where he became an assistant professor of English, teaching courses about writing for motion pictures and television. In late 1978, he received a job offer from Video magazine that he couldn’t refuse—to become co-technical editor. It was a job that he parlayed into recognition by the CE Hall of Fame in 2011 as “the industry’s most authoritative and respected video equipment reviewer.”

It was a propitious time to take on the job. The rise of VCRs, camcorders, and ever-more capable displays was by necessity transforming passive viewers into gear heads. Component choices were no longer confined to taking home the Sony Trinitron or RCA Proscan because one was on sale. Instead, there was suddenly a blooming and baffling list of attributes to check off and benchmarks to mull over before one could commit to a layaway plan.

Appealing to the reader’s appetite for technically savvy shopping advice while seeking a healthy slice of the consumer electronics manufacturers’ and studios’ advertising pies, magazine publishers introduced such titles as Video and Video Review. Braithwaite’s byline had begun appearing in Video in 1979 alongside his writing partner, Ivan Berger. In their reviews, Braithwaite focused on video; Berger on audio. (Berger’s passion for audio had begun circa 1950, when he bought a 45-rpm record changer to plug into the back of his RCA TV.) Braithwaite continued as Video’s technical editor through 1998, then moved over to the magazine’s successor, Sound & Vision.

Though Braithwaite was, as a black man, a rarity in the overwhelmingly white, male club of consumer electronics writers, he says that the times he encountered discrimination occurred when he was still active in the NYU theater group. The troupe was turned away when it tried to check into a Marriott in Washington, D.C. “They wouldn’t accept us because I was black,” he says. “It was 1959. We ended up staying at a hotel called the Roger Smith.” Another time they were thrown out of a bar on Fordham Road in the Bronx when the group tried to hold a cast party.

What distinguished Braithwaite from his peers was his deep technical knowledge and an almost holy commitment to the industry. He didn’t just write reviews, but saw himself as part of a community that strived for high quality, ideally measured by precise equipment that led to verdicts driven by data rather than a vague sense of what’s cool. Sometimes, Braithwaite himself would help develop the standards used to gauge a product’s worth. For instance, Braithwaite is credited with developing testing procedures for the Consumer Electronics Association (now the Consumer Technology Association) that gauge the maximum picture resolution output by various types of video players. He’s most proud, though, of developing a method for measuring the low-light performance of camcorders that, he says, came to him during a play watching the stage lighting.

At Video Braithwaite deployed a ceiling-mounted winch to lift quarter-ton TVs out of cartons so the box could be used for sending the set back to the manufacturer. His style of tech review required judging the ease of setup and accessibility of features, analyzing the manufacturer’s specs, and measuring product performance with objective tools like resolution charts and light meters. Long before tech writing morphed into 50-word blurbs posted posthaste, Braithwaite set a standard for long-form, deliberative consumer electronics journalism.

While writing a review, Braithwaite sometimes had to confront company engineers, asking them to explain negative test results or why a feature he deemed critical was missing. It took time to do a product review right. And each in-depth review containing graphs and conclusions that consumed multiple magazine pages.

His comprehensiveness influenced a generation of tech reviewers. Veteran consumer electronics journalist Marge Costello, who first met him in 1985, says he taught her to take pictures of booths at trade shows. That’s because whatever signage accompanied a newly unveiled product might be the only information provided, she explained.

“Lance was especially generous with his time and knowledge—and I was working for the competitor,” recalls George Mannes, who used to write for Video Review. Mannes remembers traveling to Japan for Video Review in 1991 on a press junket that included Braithwaite. It was hard to keep up with Braithwaite as he navigated the Tokyo subway system to locate the legendary Akihabara electronics shopping district. “Lance was tireless,” Mannes says. “Not one of those people who had enough and wanted to return to the hotel. He made every second of those trips count.”

On those trips, Braithwaite made sure to get to know the executives, their favorite brand of Scotch, baseball team, and genre of music, according to Mannes. Though Braithwaite doesn’t speak Japanese, he could often communicate with engineers and learn why certain product specifications were selected by exchanging equations on paper. “He was very conscious of personal details, attuned to what people liked. He was more thoughtful than the younger folks on the trip,” says Mannes.

Today, the kinds of magazines where Braithwaite ruled, whether devoted to AV equipment or computers, are lacking the resources and space to do lengthy reviews. Or they are kaput, rendered obsolete by search engines, crowdsourced product reviews, and products that don’t need manuals. “When I tell younger colleagues that I used to work for a magazine devoted to telling readers which videocassette recorder they should buy and what movies they should rent from their local video store,” Mannes, who is now a senior editor for AARP The Magazine, says, “It’s like telling them I used to commute by covered wagon. They can’t really get their minds around it. Who would need a magazine like that when you have Google and Netflix?”

Still, Braithwaite bemoans their loss—and he is not pleased with the caliber of product reviews one finds in their place, online and off.

“My biggest problem with many of the reviews you get, especially online, is that every schmuck with a computer figures he’s a journalist,” he says. “We have people writing reviews who haven’t the slightest idea in hell what they’re talking about! They don’t have the engineering background or the experience. It’s all touchy-feely versus knowing what’s actually going on in there.”

Braithwaite waits until the end of our interview to light up a cigarette, a habit he once reserved for stressful situations like refereeing a standards committee meeting. He’s been in the thick of many format wars: VHS versus Beta; two video disc types that threatened to derail the launch of DVD; and five broadcasting proposals vying to replace conventional TV before the Advanced Television Systems Committee.

So it’s no surprise that what gets Lance Braithwaite excited these days is 4K TV sets and the new broadcasting system that will deliver Ultra HD content to those sets. “You know,” he says, “ATSC 3.0 is right around the corner.”

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