Apparently, $48,000 speaker wire is a real thing. You can also find $5,000 boxes for “cleansing” the AC power going into your audio gear. (Be sure to order the $1000 power cord to go with it.) Just the thing to complement the $15,000 granite turntable for your old vinyl records.
Audiophiles must be real idiots. And rich idiots – the best kind.
You can now get “oxygen free” speaker wire with gold-plated contacts, carbon fiber ends, several layers of shielding, and your choice of clockwise or counterclockwise twist (for your left and right speakers, obviously). All for the price of a Porsche.
It’s just as ludicrous for HDMI cables. You can spend ridiculous amounts of money on “high-definition” cables – for a digital signal! Look, guys, either the signal reaches the other end of the cable or it doesn’t. That what digital means. There is no “quality” issue at work here. Try a bent coat hanger; it will work just as well.
Sometimes it hurts being an engineer.
Sure, I get it. I can operate an oscilloscope as well as the next guy, and I understand that you might be able to measure a difference in signal strength or fidelity in some circumstances. But it doesn’t matter! A 1-picosecond delay or a 1-microvolt difference in amplitude means nothing once it hits your speakers – or your ears. Electronic reality is not real reality.
Take wine aficionados. Some folks can tell the difference between wine grapes grown on opposites sides of the same hill. Or wines made by certain vintners. Or in specific years.
The rest of us? We can barely tell the difference between Chateau Margaux and Two-Buck Chuck. In blind taste tests (literally: the subjects were blindfolded), lots of people couldn’t even tell the difference between red wine and white wine if they couldn’t see them. Do these people need an oenological education, or can they remain functioning members of society while sipping box wine from a red Solo cup? Happily, having an unrefined palate means you can afford to drink a whole lot more wine. Viva l’ignorance!
Experienced racecar drivers can feel the difference in 0.5 psi of tire inflation. The rest of us can barely tell if the tires have any air in them at all (hence, the recent U.S. legislation to require all new cars to have automatic idiot lights warning of underinflated tires). Is a 0.5-psi difference real? Sure. Is it relevant? Not to most people.
My sister occasionally wonders why any car should be able to go faster than 65 MPH, since that’s the legal speed limit throughout most of North America. What’s the point? I sigh and explain that:
- Sometimes you just want to speed a little. Like, if a tornado was chasing you and you had to drive to safety. Or if the zombies were on motorcycles.
- Do you really want to be stressing your car’s engine to within an inch of its life every time you drive? A little extra design headroom is a good thing. Besides, the laws of physics and thermodynamics tell us that if the car tops out at 65 MPH, it’ll take a long time to asymptotically approach that speed. Merging would be difficult.
- But most importantly, it’s because people will buy it. An impressive top speed is a number, and we like numbers.
The role of product design in any industry is, first and foremost, to get people to buy the product. Whether you’re making shoes, cars, wine, or computers, the ultimate goal is to get the product to disappear off the shelves. Without that, nothing else matters.
Wine makers, brewers, and craft whiskey bottlers have learned that a good story can help sell spirits. After all, if most of us can’t really tell the difference, there’s nothing to prevent us from buying the cheapest swill on the shelf. This is particularly true of vodka, which by definition should be tasteless, colorless, and odorless – an undifferentiated commodity if ever there was one. Impressive bottles and inspiring backstories make us reach for the $75 bottle instead of the $12.95 half-gallon.
The older the product category, the more refined this swindle has become. Clothes, shoes, dresses, suits, neckties – they’re all about designer labels. The labels (many of which bear the made-up names of nonexistent Italian or French “designers”) act as a proxy for quality to a clientele that can’t tell the difference between a pleat and a gather. And when did we all start proudly parading logos on the outside of our clothes? Polo shirts, Chanel handbags, Armani jeans…. For most T-shirts, the logo is the product. What exactly does Volcom do, apart from print its logo onto things? It’s like a Rorschach test for Gen Y: it stands for whatever you want it to. “I’m edgy and independent – just like everyone else in my age group.”
This marketing strategy has fully caught up with electronics. That’s reassuring in a way, because it means that electronics have matured from nerdy gizmos into mainstream consumer goods. Once upon a time, the only people buying and selling computers were tech-savvy engineering types who understood why 3-1-1-1 DRAM was better than 4-1-1-1, or why you’d want a few extra dB of separation. The specs were important – or at least, meaningful.
Now we’ve got braided wire selling for $2500/foot and exotic gravity-dampened turntables to spin vinyl records that were stamped out in the 1970s with little thought to quality.
Our goal is clear. We need to be building artisanal, locally sourced MP3 players with platinum contacts, lambswool ear buds, and sustainable, arsenic-free components. Never mind that MP3 encoding is lossy; just oversample it to 244 KHz and give it a clever trade name. And don’t forget that logo on the front.