Home Entertainment

Junk in a box: Why do we buy dysfunctional product designs?

The Audiophiliac rants on poor product design.

Back in the 1980s there was an expectation that when you bought a product, it would work. For example, CDs, pop one in a player and it would play. There wasn't a case of, say, a Version 2.0 CD player that refused to play a Region 9 disc. As far as I can recall, 100% of properly manufactured discs played on properly functioning machines. You pressed "play," and you heard music--no menus, no error messages, no ifs, ands, or buts.

But CD, the first truly successful consumer digital audio format, was introduced before computers sabotaged the manufacturer/consumer equilibrium. CDs had to be right from the get-go (yes, mastering techniques have slowly improved sound quality, but CDs' functionality was right from day one). Over the past twenty years the public has become increasingly docile and now regularly puts up with half-baked products and services that don't perform as advertised. Buggy software rolls out, and we beta test it. I would have expected at least some consumer backlash, but no, we waste our time whiling away hours chatting with tech support. We buy printers that don't print, put up with sluggish Internet connections or interruptions, and cell phones that drop calls. Sheep like, we pay our bills, happy consumers stuffing corporate coffers.

Over in my neck of the consumer electronics woods we have the "evolving standard" known as HDMI, and what sort of standard is that? One that makes component compatibility a guessing game. When will the industry get its act together and develop a true standard? Better yet, one that will stick around, unchanged for, I dunno, four years? HDMI was introduced in 2002, now we're up to v.1.3b, and I'm sure 1.4 will promise even better specs. So what. You may have a HDMI player hooked up to an HDMI A/V receiver and an HDMI display, but it's not exactly a sure thing that it will work. Which raises the question: why 'o' why do we let them carry out product development in public? Please don't misunderstand, I'm not railing against progress, just the never-ending race to deliver not ready for primetime formats and technologies.

A few months ago I couldn't hear multichannel audio from a SACD player hooked up to the SAME manufacturer's A/V receiver. The HDMI connection flat out refused to accept SACD multichannel audio, and since the receiver wasn't equipped with analog multichannel inputs, I could only play the stereo portion of SACD discs. The only possible explanation for this sort of thing is that the company doesn't care. And as long as we put up with their screwups, they'll keep screwing up.