Thursday, December 25, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- Is There a Monster (cable) Behind Your Stereo?

Merry Christmas!

I started selling electronics not long after graduating high school. Back then things were a lot different. Vinyl records were still the audiophile media of choice (and they were still called stereophiles* because the multichannel audio formats that had been tried were found wanting), the VCR was just becoming a mass market item, and the really adventurous early adopters were spending their money on a new gadget called a home computer (a good one had 64K of RAM). CD players were just on the horizon and the digital entertainment age was still gestating.

Now music and video are portable and ubiquitous. Even the most modest home audio setups have subwoofers and multichannel sound. Most people don’t even buy their music in a store anymore, preferring to have it sent directly to their audio devices, and high resolution video downloads are fast going the same route. Television displays are bigger, brighter, and sharper than those first VCR buyers could have imagined. Movies, television, and music are available when and where you want them, with almost nothing excluded.

But consumers haven’t changed much. Most of those downloaded videos have lower visual quality than those early VCR tapes. And the music that comes out of the earbuds of an iPod is more reminiscent of what we listened to on 8 Track tapes than it is the CDs that spawned it. High-end audio has always been like the high end of anything: rapidly diminishing returns for investment and rapidly increasing smoke and mirrors. So even today the audiophile combination of scientific jargon and mumbo-jumbo is as all pervasive as it was when Steve Martin mocked it in a routine he called Googlephonics.

Sure, when analogue sound was a crapshoot and there were so many inaccuracies in the chain of electronics that it was easy to let mysticism slip into your tech. There were a dozen Audio and Video magazines on the stands 30 years ago. Some were rigorous and technical (a magazine titled simply AUDIO was among the best) and some embraced subjectivity (The Perfect Sound comes to mind). I remember that Stereo Review magazine did testing of some common audio myths in the mid 1980s. My favorite was double blind testing of amplifiers to see if a panel of “golden eared” ‘philes could tell the difference between a group of amps which ranged from a $300 Pioneer receiver to a pair of Krell tube monoblocs that cost more than most cars at the time. The results- no, not really. At least, not statistically.

You would have thought that the digital era would have put an end to a lot of this silliness. But it didn’t. Not by a long shot. In the early days of CD there was the idea that using a magic marker to darken the outer edge of a CD would improve sound quality. (I remember one debate as to which color of magic marker was best for this!) Digital was new and “tweaking” was such a time honored tradition that a lot of people just couldn’t give it up.

One of today’s audio (and video) fetishes that has been around for a long time is the idea that the cabling you use (those wires that hook components together) has a demonstrable affect on the sound you hear. I’ve been fighting off the advances of salesmen on this one for decades. I used to just point out that having an RCA cable the size of my wrist didn’t make sense when the components themselves didn’t use such wiring internally. Or I’d mention that professional audio and video equipment didn’t use such expensive patchcords. This was often met with a combination of a puzzled stare and the kind of impassioned personal testimony that you rarely hear from anyone except TV evangelists. Don’t get me wrong. Decent cables are worth what you pay for them (which really isn’t much) and over long runs (>15 feet or so) good shielding is a good idea. Also what kind of connection you use can make a big difference. To change a video connection from RF to composite, to s-video, to component, and then to digital shows obvious improvement with each step. But to pay $150 for a set of Monster Cable RCA patchcords or northward of $250 for a Monster Cable HDMI cord is nothing short of madness. I especially like the idea that Monster Cable (not the only offender but surely the most widely recognized) thinks I should pay more that half the cost of my Blu-Ray player for a cable to hook it up. It’s a digital cable, for Pete’s sake! Either the bandwidth is adequate and the interference is low enough or it isn’t. Exotic compounds and special manufacturing processes don’t make those 1’s and straighter or those 0’s any rounder. They are either there or they ain’t.

The analogy that comes to me is putting a $2000 set of wheels and tires on your $3500 Toyota Corolla but with the added absurdity that you’re convinced they make the car go faster.

The Consumerist website has weighed into this faux debate with a couple of articles. The one where high quality patch cords and speaker wires are swapped with coat hanger wire is especially funny (although by no means scientific). But I do have problems with the one on how Monster Cable is ripping off consumers. They are right that the products are a rip-off but they miss the point of why they are a rip-off , sighting high profit margins to retailers as the problem. In fact, the margin on Monster Cable connectors is not at all out of line with other products in the same category- 35-45% (they also calculate margin incorrectly). Electronics retailers often work on moderate margins for bigger ticket items and depend on accessories and service contracts to keep their business profitable. When I was managing an electronics store our rule of thumb was that 70% of gross sales were generated by bigger, lower margin items but 70% of net profit was generated by accessories (wires, connectors, batteries- the stuff that hangs on pegs on the back wall). We aimed for a 40% net profit, which in electronics was excellent. To compare, grocery stores usually have a margin of 1-3% while clothing stores might have as much as several hundred percent margin. While this may seem like a large disparity, it’s more a result their retail constraints. Grocery stores rely on massive volume compared to most retailers, while clothing stores have to stock every style in dozens of sizes. It isn’t the profit margin that the retailer makes that’s the problem. It’s that you’re paying way too much for the cable in the first place.

And don’t even get me started on why a $1500 power strip that “filters and cleans” the electicity isn’t as good as a $150 Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). And those service contracts? Margins on them are typically upwards of 90% for the retailer. You could say they are almost pure profit.

So if you want to use that Best Buy gift card you got this morning wisely, buy a better component or some extra media. Don’t let the salesman convince you that a hundred dollar patchcord is anything but a pig in a poke.

* Stereophile is a word my spell checker has never even heard of!

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