The Audio Cynic

This… Is Not That

There’s a term that both guides and haunts any human involved in marketing or selling not just audio, but…well, anything, really: differentiation. How is what I do/make/sell different from what everyone else does/makes/sells?

When human beings make something—whether it’s a blog entry, a skyscraper, a car, or a bit of hi-fi kit—choices are made. Choices must be made in order to create something new, something unique, something different. Even if choices are not consciously made, they will be made unconsciously—thus revealing the thoughts and priorities of the designer.

In product design, the things that are left out are every bit as important as those that are included. Mark Rolston, head of industrial design firm argodesign and formerly of Apple collaborator frogdesign, has said,“The most fundamental thing about Apple that’s interesting to me, is that they’re just as smart about what they don’t do. Great products can be made more beautiful by omitting things.”

The desire to be all things to all people often results in products that perform  acceptably at a broad range of tasks, but excel at few: a ’95 Camry, say. Such products quietly and unobtrusively do their job and do it well,  but rarely inspire passion. We expect our cars or our washing machines to work, without complaint; we rarely pay attention to such appliances until they break.

That Camry is designed to carry 4 or 5 passengers and their stuff in all kinds of weather over most kinds of terrain. The weight and expense of air-conditioning, a heater, extra seats, soundproofing, and on and on, results in a general purpose vehicle that will not be a drag racer or a winner at road racing, but it suits most people’s needs. That said, it’s fitting that the Camry pictured is in beige—the car itself almost defines “beige”, something inconspicuous and inoffensive.

Meh. It’ll get you almost anywhere, but you won’t remember the experience of driving it.

But if all you want is to road-race or go like hell, much of the weight and complication of cars like the Camry is just a hindrance. Eliminate that stuff, spend more dollars and attention on the engine, chassis, and aerodynamics, and you’ll arrive at something like the classic Lotus Eleven racer. Designer Colin Chapman and aerodynamicist Colin Chapman had an 1100 CC engine—that’s only 67 cubic inches, folks—to propel this thing. So, lightness was paramount: the Eleven weighed  as little as 908 pounds—412kg, give or take—allowing a slightly-tweaked Eleven driven by Stirling Moss to go 143 mph. The Eleven won class victories at Le Mans, Sebring, and other major courses. The spare design apparently has struck a chord with many who have seen it or driven it, as sixty years after its introduction, Eleven replicas are still produced in the UK by Westfield. 

A racecar, pure and simple: ounces are pared away,even the weight of paint! Aerodynamics are maximized, no comfort features to speak of. As purposeful as a scalpel.

There are of course parallels in the audio world. Back in the ’70s when I started selling hi-fi, the bulk of the market was in receivers. Like the Camry, those receivers were designed to do a broad range of tasks. They had to adjust to a variety of inputs and outputs, and accept the commands of possibly-abusive owners, Those of us who aspired to better (or at least snootier) gear derisively referred to those receivers as having a high “KPD Factor”—Knobs Per Dollar factor. As with the Camry, all those features come with a cost: dollars or real-estate that might be devoted to a bigger power supply, better componentry, and so on.

A classic Marantz receiver: 15 buttons, 7 knobs, several meters and a variety of inputs and outputs. An impressive piece of engineering, but not the ultimate performer.

There are homebrewed audio creations with hardwired single inputs, and those are about as stripped as you can get—the audio equivalents of the Eleven.  Those have a limited range of applicability or domestic acceptability, being more like lab gear than home audio. The next step is in the straight-line-with-gain school of design (which JayJay French rails against in his column in this issue): no tone controls, the very minimum in control circuitry. All the money goes (one hopes!) into improved guts: the power supply, switches, components. This Conrad-Johnson 2 preamp is an example of the minimalist school.

Conrad-Johnson Classic 2 Preamp: gain control, input selector, on-off. Period.

Inevitably, there will be potential customers who will view something like the C-J pre and say, “but it won’t let me do x or y or z.” A patient salesperson will lead the customer: “This isn’t what you need if you want to do that. If you want to do that, you’ll need this other model. But THIS is not THAT.”

In most aspects of life, expectations are at the root of discontent. Expecting a straight-line preamp to do the job of a Max KPD receiver will cause disappointment, and the same would likely be true of the reverse. Clarifying one’s needs and recognizing that this is not that may be a step on the path to enlightenment.

…Or not. Hey, I have to live up to the “Cynic” title occasionally. ;->