A basic tenet of selling products is that the seller should do nothing that could confuse the consumer; that the seller should make it as easy as possible for the consumer to part with his money; that debunking myths/and educating and exposing customers to conflicting viewpoints are not conducive to the smooth transfer of the buyer's money to the seller's hand. Under the auspices of "supplying the people with what they want," the builders and sellers of products have abandoned any sense of integrity to their calling. Take genetically altered food. One of the many reasons given for the bastardization of produce is that consumers will not buy "real" fruit and vegetables due to the displeasing character of the look of the product. Growers hold up misshapen (assuming that one believes that real food actually grows as symmetrically and perfectly as the engineered stuff) produce with all its natural irregularities of skin, shape, color, etc., and describe how these products will not sell on their own, and certainly not when sitting next to "picture perfect" products. The growers are correct, natural food products will not sell based on those criteria. But why is that? If you ask most people if they would rather have a perfect looking tomato (again, as deemed by some extreme of marketing) that has no taste or if they would like a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato, they will invariably choose the real tomato. The reason that the engineered product will sell better is simply due to conditioning. No one who grows produce for a living wants to stand in the way of a sale. Sell what the buyers want. But is that what the buyers really want or is it what the buyers have learned to want? I vote for the latter. More importantly, if one really wanted to improve the state of the art in produce production (meaning not just the mechanics but the taste as well) would it not behoove the grower to educate the public about why they might want something else? The end result of this fine-tuning of unrealistic produce production is food which no longer has taste and may even be losing nutritional value. What have we then succeeded in doing? We have succeeded in creating the perfectly useless produce product. All of the look and none of the value. This is not a good thing. It might be for our own good if someone took a stand and said, "Here, just taste this. Let me show you why our tomato is misshapen." In so many areas we try to take the easy way out rather than dealing with the hard issues at hand. "Don’t offend!" cry the marketing departments. Well, we have been '"non-offended" so far that it is no wonder people have trouble finding real satisfaction in many of the products that we buy.
So what has this got to do with audio? Plenty. The same pandering to pre-conceived notions that goes on with selling produce goes on in audio. The editorial (and, increasingly, the advertorial) press has such power to sell product for manufacturers that the suppliers of gear are unwilling to create any controversy that might confuse the public. Behind the sales reps and the advertising departments are real engineers who very often are trying to improve the state of the art. However, they can not exist without a company to support them, and it is the company that supports them that ultimately controls the money which controls the research. Products are created less because they improve something but because they fill some perceived need in the selling community. Model changes have less to do with actual mechanical or electrical innovation and more to do with fine tuning what the public is being taught to want. Politicians who base their personal views and agendas solely on polls are obvious sell-outs, and so is audio equipment. For the most part the editorial press of high-end audio is as misinformed and misguided as the people they are supposedly educating. Worse, many of these people have huge egos to maintain, and have long ago forgotten that the aim of critical writing is to inform. Manufacturers are not going to create product that challenges these writers' perceptions of reality. Any attempt would be foolhardy on the suppliers' parts, it can mean certain death to a product.
Do you want to know why the state of high fidelity reproduction has been moving so glacially slow? Do you want to know why it seems that the golden age of recording has passed us by? Simple. Selling for the short run is more important than selling for the long run. A confused buyer will not be a buyer that day. The aim of most of the press seems to be one of stirring the pot, not finishing the meal. We have “niced” ourselves right out of honesty. More and more product is designed to satisfy the writers, who in turn deem it good. Their readers turn to them for guidance and begin their path down mis-education. Recording companies are in the same boat. If the perception is that the writers expect sound to be a certain way, then that is the sound they will get. The recording company does not care how bastardized that sound is as long as it allows the product to achieve a wider audience. Magazines work the same way. The vicious circle created by all of this is rather obvious, and almost impossible to break. Depressing.
I recently heard an engineer at Sony describe the process they go through to demonstrate the superiority of one format, technology, system etc. over another. Here is how they do it. They make a recording of a real group playing in real time. They do not edit it, and they do not run the signal through heavy pre or post production. In their words, "…it can not help but sound good as it has not had the good engineered out of it." But the average consumer has had their hearing so misguided by heavy doses of compression, unrealistic bass reproduction, equalization, and editing that they no longer have any immediate appreciation of a really good recording. They must be un-taught and re-learn what they thought they knew. Greater satisfaction is at the end but it takes a little more work. This problem runs very deep. As consumers we are being taught that there are easy answers. We do not want sellers who cause us to question our needs: “I am the consumer and I am king.” Well, as consumers we have been allowed to become king. Unfortunately we are the kings over an empty empire. We have not triumphed, we have been bamboozled. We think we have choice, but we only have the choices that are deemed appropriate for us. In the words of a fast food chain: "Have it your way.” Sure, as long as your way is their way. All the facade of choice and none of the meat. Wow, that sure is exciting isn't it?
Back to audio. You would think, given all the magazines covering music reproduction and all the blaring headlines and the thousands of products being shown at the dozen of shows worldwide, that the quest for high-fidelity is growing by leaps and bounds. Well, it isn't. There are very few products that are advancing the state of the art in home audio reproduction. The fact is, very few manufacturers are willing to put themselves in the position of creating a problem somewhere else in the music reproduction chain. A speaker manufacturer whose speakers expose the flawed way in which many recordings are made will not last long in the open market. Speaker companies are dependent on recordings for their product to sell. It is far easier for them to make speakers that flatter the bad recordings rather than ones that expose a recording’s flaws. Rarely are the recordings called into question, since they are made by the 'experts.’ Sometimes even the Grammy Award-winning experts. They must know what they are doing. What speaker supplier would dare question those recordings? Not many, and that is a problem.
With just two products, a speaker and a recording, we can see just how subverted the quest for high-fidelity has become. By way of example, take high-end preamps. A preamp’s main job is to be a volume control. That volume knob has a great impact on the sound which arrives at the other end. But it is not the knob on the outside that is key, it is the actual mechanics and quality of the internal pot. The pot is the raison d'être for the preamp. Yet, the preamp has been reduced to faceplate thickness, industrial design, and snake oil. Most consumers (and most writers) don’t have the knowledge-base to understand the volume pot. So, everyone deals with the facade of the preamp. Crappy (or, at best “me-too”) mediocrity rules on the inside while we all “ohh” and “ahh” over the cosmetic treatments, as if that has any importance to the overall sound.
I think it is time for two things: (1) It is time for consumers to demand more from their retailers. If the sole purpose of the retailer has become to take your money and hand you a product, then they are not doing a poor job. Presumably (a big presumption and certainly not true much of the time) your spratchet retailer started selling spratchets because of some basic interest in the product or its uses. They should be able to educate you about the product. A real knowledge-base is the hallmark of a good retailer. If all they can do when asked about the efficacy of a particular product is shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, we sell a lot of them,” go elsewhere. Does this mean there will be fewer places from which to shop? Absolutely. Start demanding more from the store. (2) It is time for retailers to have a stance on what they sell. However this will not happen until change #1 takes place. If retailers were rewarded for forthright, ethical, and honest behavior they might not be so quick to take the other path. The market eventually responds to the demands of the consumer and it is our job as consumers to start demanding more.
© Cadence Magazine 2001