Monday, 14 July 2014

Selling audio to audiophiles, part 1: How it’s easier to sell snake oil to people who want to buy it. People like me.

The audiophile industry gets away with extraordinary money delivering ever more negligible improvements in quality.

Have you ever wondered why the high end hi fi industry exists? (If you have, then it’s patently not for you.) It’s for people like me – not because I can afford the exotic stuff, but because I can’t. I can’t but I still want it, so I buy the best thing that I can afford. So this got me thinking, since hi fi is by its nature subjective and intensely personal, what does “best” mean in this context?

In many respects, audiophile audio equipment (hi fi) is the perfect product to sell. Like shampoo, there are many “science bits” that make the case why a piece of equipment should be objectively better. The science is also invariably complicated, because it ekes out diminishing returns by addressing esoteric electromagnetic phenomena, so need to be explained to us by the product “scientists” thus arming us with social proof.

My favourite example of this used to be for audio cables. The marketing literature for the more exotic (eye-wateringly expensive) cables would confidently discuss skin effect and dielectric biasing as plausible justification. And when the science is challenged, manufacturers often fall back on ultimate justification: measurement isn't everything, it just sounds better.

So why do we do agree to have auditory snake oil sold to us? Because subjectively, there is a difference. Even if you’re the kind of person that levels small differences instead of sharpening them, given two reproductions of music sufficiently different in quality, even you can tell the difference. I have done comparative listening tests (not double blind, nor ABX – perhaps that should be the topic of another blog) and heard differences in soundstage, in delineation of instrumentation, in the shape of notes, and the space between notes. I’m therefore convinced that there are further improvements to be made, through investing in “better” equipment.

I also think that the difference diminishes with investment. And therein lies the cognitive dissonance. If I were to spend that much money on an upgrade, it must be better, therefore it is better. But amount of “better” diminishes as the amount of money spent increases – which normally makes me keep my credit card reluctantly in my pocket.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to buy the esoteric milled aluminium boxes of audiophile goodness. But because I have to ask how much something is, not only can I not afford it, but it seems that I’m not the right type of person to own it. There is still a lot of snobbishness in this industry that makes me cross. But it does comfort me that there are people out there who do spend more than some mortgages on audio reproduction – and that they’ve just been parted from that money.

In a next blog, I’ll look at what “best” means in a digital audiophile world, delving into bit rates, bit depths, Shannon theorem, and delta-sigma signal processing - and why it matters.

More in this series: part 2.

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