feature article
Subscribe Now

The Price of Ignorance

Let’s Get Rich Selling Overpriced Electronics!

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.

7 thoughts on “The Price of Ignorance”

  1. A former boss of mine used to say “I made my money the old-fashioned way – I took it from stupid people.” Seems the old-fashioned way of making money is still in vogue.

  2. They are not buying the turntables for old vinyl, but new vinyl. Vinyl sales are exploding with albums cost 2X or 3X the CD price. There are even people selling lathe cut, rather than pressed, albums for prices that are as ridiculous as those you quote.

    You missed the speaker cables that are one-way. Apparently the process of extruding the wire aligns the atoms so that electrons flow better in one direction than the other.

  3. My aim in life at the moment, and hopefully not the major contribution to civilisation, is to come up with the next Tamagochi – harmless, absolutely useless except for parental peace, relatively cheap, and every kid on the planet wants one. Sad and shameless I know, but something’s got to fund my university education.
    Absolutely love the one about the one-way speaker cable!

    Viva l’ignorance! Indeed!

  4. I’m pretty sure the $1000 power cord is either for supporting alt currency like 3 jingles and $140 for insured party-proof cord, 8% prix fixe vendor/installers, and audio equipment that has to be certified for surgery and/or commercial kitchen use (also sort of prix fixe,) but at some extent yes, it could be suckers. Sooooo feeeetch…

    The rule-based purchasing wonk may have been pleased to see the $97 99′ HDMI cable (only one signal conditioner inline, so not long for 4K video…per Tekzilla.)

    GrodsickyJ, surely you played the Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing (Flash, sorry) game? (14+, let’s say?) Tamagotchi Harm makes a distinct cameo (though not in the sense of press.) Good luck with your edible kale yarnbombing device and certification of premium models. Can we preorder the 47-year-old aged display chips?

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Dec 10, 2018
I titled my preview of the RISC-V Summit RISC-V Summit Preview: Pascal or Linux? since it is clear that RISC-V is really the only game in town inside academia, but it still hasn't conquered the... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community si...
Dec 7, 2018
That'€™s shocking! Insulation Resistance and Dielectric Withstanding Voltage are two of the qualification tests that Samtec performs in-house during part qualification testing. These tests will ensure that when a connector is used in environmental conditions at the rated wo...
Nov 28, 2018
The futuristic concept of testing for a variety of inconsistencies in blood with just a drop seemed within reach with the promising company Theranos....
Nov 14, 2018
  People of a certain age, who mindfully lived through the early microcomputer revolution during the first half of the 1970s, know about Bill Godbout. He was that guy who sent out crudely photocopied parts catalogs for all kinds of electronic components, sold from a Quon...