Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 10: Month 2012


The Back

Hi-Fi Fun and Other Nonsense

My opportunities to snark about pricing and other oddities in the audiophile and home theater fields have diminished somewhat (but not entirely, for those who hate this—then again, you’ve closed the issue by now, haven’t you?). I didn’t renew The Abso!ute Sound last year for various reasons and—after subscribing to Stereo Review under various names for probably 30 years or more—I finally gave up on Sound & Vision, the magazine’s current name, because it cost too much for what I was getting (the “best offer” was $18 for 8 largely-empty issues) and seemed to be a phonyzine—a magazine that no longer does much in print except separate ads with glossy features, with most actual content on the web (or in iPad versions). Print magazines aren’t dying in general (roughly as many new ones are being created as old ones shut down, and overall subscriptions are actually up slightly)—but some magazines have become suicidal, and far be it from me to stand in their way. When the print package is mostly teasers to get you to scan silly codes with your smartphone or go to the web or your iPad, running at the minimal 50% ad/50% “copy” level but with most copy being big pictures and little text, well, why bother?

Ah, but there’s still Stereophile, where discount renewal offers have me subscribed through December 2017 (at $10 per 12-issue year) and Home Theater, where I’m renewed through 2016 at least. So there are still good sources for the occasional snark (and PC World offers good material now and then)…along with, to be sure, web items I tag for later discussion. I’ll mix them up so you don’t get too tired of my audiorants. You get other rants as well!

Perspicacious readers, if there are any for this section of oddments, may note that most magazine-sourced items are fairly recent—and most web-sourced items are fairly old. I deal with a small stack of magazines (with items to comment on—usually less than one out of four magazines I actually read) after it reaches 6-10 or so, while I deal with Diigo items in chronological order (oldest first), more or less.

So Long, Coffeepot

This could belong in a deathwatch section but it’s just a misleading caption on a one-page “article” in the September 2012 Fast Company. The article is mostly infographics (and as light on meaning as most infographics). The topic: Keurig single-cup coffeemakers and the fact that two of the patents expire in September 2012, making it easier for other companies to produce K-Cup coffee pods. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters owns Keurig and is defending against this by partnering with more coffee companies and introducing a new and better way to spend too much money making coffee at home, the Vue, which makes espresso and comes with a Starbucks alliance, and doubtless has a whole new set of patents.

The infographic shows 2010 and 2012 brew-at-home coffee sales as two coffee-cup pie charts featuring wedges for the single-cup segment. Since the Keurig really didn’t catch on until 2010-2011, it’s a dramatic story: overall sales going from $289 to $360 million, but with the single-cup portion growing from $14 to $63 million. (In other words: bagged coffee sales grew by 8% while single-cup sales grew by 350%. Or, rather, “were predicted to grow,” since the 2012 figures are of necessity estimates. And it may be worth noting that bagged coffee sales still grew by more than the entire single-cup market.)

I find a much smaller bar graph more interesting: It shows why coffeemakers love single-cup brewers. Folgers in a can costs a nickel a cup; Folgers in a K-Cup costs 67 cents (and leaves you with non-recyclable packaging). Starbucks isn’t quite so extreme a difference, but still: 27 cents in a bag, 83 cents in a cup.

So far, so good. Lots of people have lots of money and spend it on overpriced single-cup coffeemakers and coffee. That’s their privilege and, for households where there’s only one coffee drinkers and pouring hot water into a cone is way too complicated, well, why not? Hey, *$ has demonstrated for years that lots of people will pay for overpriced coffee and coffee-flavored sugar drinks if you give them the right image.

Here’s the kicker (and the reason for this item): A little chart over in the corner that shows 118 million U.S. homes and 10.8 million U.S. homes with Keurig brewers. (The chart really is junk: It’s an area chart, but the Keurig segment is about 10% of the height and 10% of the width of the entire square, making it look like 1% of the whole, not nearly 10%). There’s no reason to believe the rest of American homes are getting ready to buy Keurigs, any more than any other pricey single-purpose appliance achieves huge market share. But the headline on the little chart is…well, you saw it at the top of this story. And that’s just stupid. (Why did I keep Fast Company and not Wired? Because, in comparison, Fast Company seemed more sensible. Without Wired as a comparison, not so much…)

Addiction or Dependency?

I’ve poked fun at Nicholas Carr and his Rough Type blog from time to time, but I suppose that’s shallow. (Sorry.) “Not addiction; dependency,” posted May 14, 2010 at Rough Type is interesting and fairly long for a Carr post. It’s about internet “addiction” and the Russian teenager who created Chatroulette and seems to view the computer as the only thing he needs. Quoting a Julia Joffe New Yorker article quoting him:

“I always believed that computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive,” he says. “It might replace everything.”

Carr finds the teenager’s case “extreme…but also…representative.” This is in keeping with Carr’s overall shtick that we all spend all our time staring at screens and are becoming incapable of deep thought. Then he goes into a discussion of addiction and the claims of college students to be addicted to media, social media or the internet. Carr doesn’t argue with the survey results. He does argue that addiction itself is the wrong term, as it’s a clinical term that makes it easy to ignore the actual problem situation. And he provides quotes showing how terrible students felt if asked to go a few hours without their devices, such as this one:

“Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable.”

Two hours without texting. Almost unbearable—with thousands of students actually out there who this person could, you know, talk to face-to-face. Or this one, maybe even sadder from a college student:

“My short attention span prevented me from accomplishing much, so I stared at the wall for a little bit. After doing some push-ups, I just decided to take a few Dramamine and go to sleep to put me out of my misery.”

Or this, presumably about going two hours without social media: “Honestly, this experience was probably the single worst experience I have ever had.” You’re young, kid: You’ll have worse. Unless you spend the time at your parent’s funeral (they will die, sooner or later) or respond to being laid off by texting and checking Friendfeed, of course. Here’s what Carr argues (noting that I omitted quotes actually using “addiction”):

The problem with the addiction metaphor, which as these quotes show is easy to indulge in, is that it presents the normal as abnormal and hence makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. By dismissing talk of “Internet addiction” as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse. In the course of just a decade, we have become profoundly dependent on a new and increasingly pervasive technology.

Maybe. In two senses: Maybe it’s overkill or maybe not. And maybe “we” (all?) have become “profoundly dependent” on whatever Carr’s talking about. (I sometimes have trouble figuring out just what he is focusing on; maybe it’s that short attention span thingie?)

He also argues that the addiction metaphor is bad because it assumes that becoming dependent on [whatever Carr’s target is] is a personal choice. I’m not sure I see that at all: What makes addictions addictions is that people no longer have easy choices. Indeed, the first sentence of the next paragraph is almost a classic addiction definition:

When it comes to the digital networks that now surround us, the fact is that most us can’t just GTFO, even if we wanted to.

“We can’t stop even if we wanted to.” Isn’t that addiction? (Is it true? For some folks, maybe so. For others, maybe not.)

It’s YOUR Outdoors, Dammit

The penultimate issue on my Sound and Vision subscription, the June/July/August 2012 issue (80 pages for three months of what used to be a 120-page or larger monthly!), has a long feature—about 10.5 pages—on outdoor gear. The first paragraph:

Heading outdoors but don’t want to leave your music and movies behind? Whether you’re hitting the pool or beach, or simply taking a long drive, the outdoor-friendly A/V solutions we offer over the next 9 pages are sure to enhance your sum-sum-summertime fun quotient.

As for “simply taking a long drive,” there’s certainly nothing wrong with listening to music while you’re driving—or watching a DVD if you’re a back-seat passenger. Even there, though, the segment of the section pushes my buttons: “Of course, it’s dangerous to look down at a smartphone’s small screen while driving. To solve this problem, [piece of gear] connects to a smartphone (via a separately purchased accessory cable) for access to certain apps on the head unit’s 6.1-inch touchscreen.” In other words, it’s not dangerous to be staring at a 6” screen off to the right of the driving controls so you can control your apps? Oh, and of course, one featured item is a radar detection system, since only idiots actually obey speed laws—the same idiots who think that they should be paying attention to the road when driving.

No, my main problem is with the rest of the piece, mostly about how you can get Big Sound and Big Vision in your backyard or on the beach. How big? Big enough so that you’re providing your music to your neighbors. Whether they want it or not. After all, it’s YOUR outdoors: Let them find their own!

The writer has a solution, since the recommended gear pumps out “party-level tunes” at high volumes and can be set up to have multiple speakers. “You’d have to invite the neighbors over or risk alienating them.” If they have other plans, such as a quiet evening at home? Tough. You made the offer. Now you’re in the clear to blast out them tunes or that action movie.

It’s not just Sound and Vision. The July 2012 Home Theater has a cluster of articles on the wonders of outdoor home theater and sound, including an example where a big-screen TV appears to be adjacent to the fence and thus, presumably, the neighbors. The outdoor system has a 2,000-watt surround sound system. I trust the neighbors like to hear the movie soundtracks… (The same issue has ratings for various speakers to make Big Sound in the Great Outdoors. And offers the same advice: “Oh, and unless your neighbors are ax murderers, invite them to the party. A little diplomacy may raise the socially acceptable decibel level.”)

I’m not a complete spoilsport: If someone’s having an outdoor party next door once or twice a summer, that’s cool. But when we walk by nearby places—fortunately, not close enough to us—that have outdoor gear, we pretty much hear it all. the. time., or at least all the time during the summer.

Mid-Level is What You Make It

The same Sound and Vision has a test report on the Rega RP6 turntable, since S&V has now bought into the idea that LPs always sound better than CDs. They call the Rega a “mid-level deck aimed at folks who want to step up to more serious vinyl playback.” What’s mid-level? $1,999. I guess when entry-level units run $200-$300 or more and the high end is $150,000, $1,999 is either mid-level or lower. Oddly enough, the favorable review says the RP6 sounds more like a CD player than a turntable: technically clean rather than sonically charming. Now, if only you could get a good CD player for $1,999 or less…

Writing Readers Off

Closing out this issue is a little item that was a reminder to me that the magazine is dying or suicidal as a print item. There’s a very brief review of a Blu-ray release of Men in Black I & II. The minireview ends with this: “My deeper MIB I & II extras dissection can be found on this issue’s iPad edition.” No, there’s not a URL as an alternative. Don’t have an iPad? Forget you, chump: You’re not our target audience. Message received loud & clear. (But wait: Haven’t proper iPad using technophiles given up on Blu-ray as being Obsolete Physical Media? Never mind…)

Your Next PC Probably Won’t be a Tower

For many of us, that’s either a reasonable prediction or a little late. I moved away from a tower to a notebook-as-desktop more than four years ago, and many people may be adopting tablets, notebooks or netbooks as primary computers.

But that’s not the sense in which the May 2012 PC World uses that assertion. No, they think you’re going to buy an all-in-one instead—a desktop computer with the computer hidden in the display. The article rates the top seven (PC World continues to rely on Top X equipment lists in general), from the $1,599 HP TouchSmart 9300 Elite to the $1,250 Dell Inspiron One 2320. The reviewed units are mostly well equipped (apart from the $900 Lenovo ThinkCentre Edge M91z, all have at least one terabyte of disk storage and half of them have 8GB RAM; half have Blu-ray drives, the others DVD burners; they all use either Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs running at 2.5GHz or faster). Screen size, an important factor since the screen is the computer, ranges from 21.5 inches (the most common) to 27 inches.

My next PC? Hard to say. An all-in-one? Possibly; probably not. This writeup could be in Technology, but the overstated claim puts it back here.

Magic Beans

Audiophilia is rife with magic beans—things that Magically Improve The Sound Of Your System at a Not-So-Modest Price. They range from remarkably expensive cables to a variety of feet for your equipment (and stones and wooden blocks to put on top of your equipment) to, well, one of the few cases where most critics called BS: A “specially treated clock” (the Tice clock) that would clean up your sound if it was in the listening room. Anywhere in the listening room.

Some magic beans have semi-plausible explanations (e.g., AC power conditioners); some make perfectly good sense under the right circumstances; some fall into the “if you think you hear a difference and it’s your money, why not?” category. And, frankly, if you’ve paid good money for something and don’t think you hear a difference in sound quality, you’re lacking in imagination.

Sam Tellig’s review of the Passive Multivocal Resonator (PMR) in the May 2012 Stereophile is interesting because he uses “Magic Beans” as part of the column title and retells the Jack & the Beanstalk story with a new finish: “Jack grew up to become an audiophile.” He claims to be “neither believer nor skeptic,” although I’d suggest that if you’re not a skeptic, you’re inherently a believer. Tellig’s such a non-believer that he has Shun Mook Mpingo discs in his listening room, little ebony wood discs you put on various things to “control resonance.” (One reviewer claimed that putting one on, ahem, the AC plug made an enormous difference in sound quality.)

The PMR is basically a gong: A 14” bronze bowl cast of bell bronze, costing a mere $2,190. The bowl (which stands upright on its own tripod) has edges sharp enough to scratch furniture, and no two PMRs are exactly alike—they’re cast individually. “When struck, the PMR rings like a bell.” Tellig convinced himself that the PMR’s presence in his listening room “imparted a bell-like quality to the music, a richness of timbre that rang true.” Oddly enough, even the maker says the PMR is adding its own sound to your system: “only harmonics that are perceived by the human ear as pleasant and harmonious.” It even cleaned up the sound from his Vizio TV.

I can’t prove that this stuff doesn’t improve sound. I don’t accept that adding another set of sounds is legitimately “improving” the fidelity of reproduction equipment, but I’ve always wondered whether part of the magic of vinyl—to some people—is the “air” added by surface noise. And there’s the long-standing argument over whether good audio gear should reproduce what’s recorded as accurately as possible, or whether it should Make Pretty Music; if you’re in the latter camp, adding a bell in your listening room may make sense. And it’s Tellig’s money—or, rather, it isn’t, since he wasn’t impressed enough to buy the review unit.

There are more extreme (albeit less expensive) magic beans in the issue, this time from Art Dudley, to my mind the most crazed writer on Stereophile’s staff. He writes a rave review of P.W.B. Cream Electret, a “reportedly nontoxic emollient” that sells for £20 for a 15ml jar. (Dudley never misses a chance to strike out at anybody he doesn’t like: He says the cream is “as free of odor as New York State wine is free of flavor,” nicely sniping at a fair number of well-regarded wineries.) Oh, and there are also P.W.B. Rainbow Electret Foils, three 170x15mm strips for the same price (about $32 as I write this). The foils are at least pretty.

What do you do with the cream? Smear it on your tonearm (that didn’t seem to do much) or “under the front edge of my preamp” (seriously—Dudley assures us that there was small but definite improvement) or “on the outlet strip into which all my components are plugged” which yielded a bigger improvement.

The odd thing is that Dudley’s sane enough to recognize that, of three possible explanations for the improvements he heard, two have nothing to do with actual effects of the cream or foils: Namely, he psyched himself into hearing the change (my first bet for most Magic Beans) or he heard the change because his system was warming up more.

The strips? You cut them into smaller strips, then stick a strip onto the label on each side of your record (of course you’re listening to vinyl), “specifically to cover the number 33 1/3 on each label.” Right. And, sure enough, it made a difference. Ah, but not so much on CDs—except that Dudley grew to believe that attaching a sticker over the CD logo damaged the sound. Right.

The people who sell these particular magic beans have other ideas—e.g., that photographing somebody “imposes a temporal asymmetry on the subject’s internal energy patterns, thus disrupting that person’s ability to perceive any number of things, sound included.” There it is: The reason you can’t hear the difference when you add Magic Beans is because somebody took your photograph, creating a temporal asymmetry. Oh, but you can reverse the effect by finding an old photograph of the person, sealing it in a plastic bag, and putting the bag in a freezer—and then doing the same with a recent photograph. That’s almost too much even for Dudley.

On the other hand, there are things you could think of as magic beans that absolutely do work. Stephen Mejias writes about one of them in the same issue: the Zerostat, now the Milty Zerostat 3 (when I used LPs, it was a different company and wasn’t a “3”—and it cost significantly less than the current $100). It’s a gun-shaped gadget with, I think, a quartz crystal inside. You squeeze the trigger and it produces positive ions, release the trigger and it produces negative ions (no electricity except that generated by the squeeze). Why do you want to do that? To neutralize static electricity on your LPs—and on your stylus. Maybe the stylus more than the LP: neutralizing static electricity means dust doesn’t build up so fast and screw up the sound. The maker suggests that it works for CDs as well (which may be more in the magic-beans territory). Mine disappeared years ago (I think it broke, after a mere 20 years or so) and I question that one. On the other hand, a third suggestion—“tired of those pesky coffee grinds sticking to the side of your grinder’s plastic basket? Grind, then shoot”—absolutely worked for me and was the easiest way to clean the plastic portions: the ground coffee slides right off. But in the case of the Zerostat there’s a clear, well-understood physical phenomenon involved: static electricity attracts dust, and the Zerostat reduces static electricity through well-understood means.

The biggest and best library around…

That’s the remarkably arrogant headline on an ad for The Cable Company’s Cable Library, “over $2.5 million in cable samples you can try at home.” After the ellipsis comes “…has all cables and no books,” which may be the key: It’s best because it’s cables, not books. Biggest? Wanna count the number of libraries with more than a $2.5 million collection? (Of course, given the price of some cables, $2.5 million might not amount to all that many…)

If you’re the right reviewer (like Michael Fremer, who’s apparently incredibly wealthy), super-expensive cables make sense. In the same May 2012 Stereophile the ad appears in, he reviews the B.M.C. Audio Amplifier C1 Integrated Amplifier, which he regards as “modestly priced” since it’s only $7,990. To test it, he used his very expensive (and quite possibly worth it) Wilson Audio MAXX 3 speakers, a Simaudio CD player and Ypsilon preamp…and, for cables, Balanced Stealth Indra interconnects to the CD player, ZenSati Seraphim cable to the preamp, and TARA Labs Omega and AudioQuest WEL Signature speaker cables. The interconnects cost more than the amplifier—that is, more than $8,000.

Ah, but that’s just the interconnects—the cables connecting the sources to the amplifier. The speaker cables? “Both of which cost more than twice the Amp C1’s price.” In other words, more than $16,000 for a pair of speaker cables, or more than $24,000 worth of wiring in all. After all, if you’ve got it, flaunt it…as he shows when he discusses another amplifier that the $8,000 unit rivaled: the darTZeel NHB-458 monoblocks, $130,000 a pair. Yowza.

How Dare Microsoft?

Heard of the DNT flag? That’s the Do Not Track flag, which the Digital Advertising Alliance says it will support. If you’ve set the flag for your browsing session, you’ll see generic ads rather than ads based on tracking your activity. As Steve Fox’s editorial in the August 2012 PC World puts it, “Run-of-site [generic] ads are less invasive, but they are also less effective and yield less revenue for the site.”

Which doesn’t bother advertisers much because browsers leave the DNT flag off by default: You have to explicitly turn it on. And, of course, honoring the DNT flag is voluntary.

Ah, but Microsoft decided that Internet Explorer 10 would be designed to favor user privacy: It would ship with DNT turned on by default. Advertisers went nuts. As a senior VP for IAB, the online ad trade association, put it

Microsoft is telling advertisers, “You cannot sell the more expensive ads from our browser.” Imagine if Microsoft started printing coupons for its users that said “60 percent off all Walmart items in Walmart stores.” Walmart wouldn’t honor those coupons, just as publishers won’t honor Microsoft’s DNT flags, because they’re a catastrophe for the ad industry.

I must be dense: The Walmart analogy makes no sense to me at all. What this makes clear: The ad industry only supports DNT because they assume almost nobody will use it—and they’ll ignore it if they find out otherwise.

Didn’t think you’d find Microsoft on the side of user privacy, did you? How dare they?

It ain’t the meat…

Old folks may recognize the lyric (originally, apparently, The Swallows, but I remember Maria Muldaur’s version). The item is the (deep breath for model name) D-Box SRP-230 Motion Platform and Standalone Series IV-BD Motion Controller (whew), as reviewed in the July 2012 Home Theater—a rave review with the headline “Virtual Reality for Real.”

See, if you really care about movies, you only watch action flicks, and the sound—or, rather, the feel of all those explosions—is what really matters. A big enough subwoofer or subwoofers might work, but those suckers are huge and expensive. So there’s an alternative: tactile transducers, which you either buy as part of a special home theater chair or sofa or attach to your existing furniture. What they do is, they “vibrate the furniture’s frame in correlation with the amount of bass in the audio signal.”

Or, if you want to get really fancy and have the deep understanding that an interesting plot with good direction, good acting and good cinematography ain’t enough for real cineastes, you get actuators that can move the seats in various direction, not just back and forth—and you feed them with a “motion track” specific to a movie, so when an automobile bounces on a pothole in the road, you bounce with it. Yay! Now you can actually enjoy movies!

Yes, these things exist. The D-Box combines hardware that you put under a sofa with a controller with motion codes for more than 1,000 movie titles. It apparently works just great, and for true cinema devotees, it makes all the difference:

[T]he fact is that motion control—when done properly—does as much to engage you with a movie as having a 5.1-channel surround system (and certainly more than 3D). I know that statement may sound heretical, but physical movement is an unmistakable missing dimension of the movie experience that’s virtually impossible to re-create audibly and visibly.

And it’s cheap! The controller (electronics: it won’t move a thing except your electric bill) costs a trivial $4,000; the actuator costs $8,000 to $10,000, depending on how heavy your sofa and your guests are. So for a mere $12,000, you can actually enjoy your movies!

Don’t ask me. We watch romantic comedies, dramas, comedies and more; so far, we’ve gotten by with the internal speakers in our 54" (definitely not 3D, by choice) plasma HDTV—and when we do get around to it, we’ll get a soundbar for cleaner sound at reasonable levels. By Home Theater standards (as has become clear over the years), we don’t really watch movies at all, since it’s all about the sound—and the motion. (We haven’t been to a movie theater in years. I assume they now all have seats that vibrate and move up and down with movie action? Otherwise, how can you actually be engaged with the movie?)

Summertime, and the Writers are Lazy

Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s how I felt reading the August 2012 PC World. The issue is 96 pages long. Not including the contents pages, masthead and similar overhead, I count 70 editorial pages, which is an unusually high ratio of content to ads (PC World must be low on advertisers). Of course, a big chunk of that editorial space is columns and tips and the usual by-the-numbers monthly features.

I was struck by the longest editorial feature by far: nine full pages of “Top Gear: What to Buy Now.” Which consists of one-paragraph notes on 18 different devices, with lots of pictures and white space. (One of the 18 devices is remarkable given PC World’s earlier list of the “seven best” all-in-one PCs, mostly in the $800 to $1,900 range: apparently the best all-in-one is another HP, the Z1, and it costs $5,673.) I call these “notes”; lacking most specs and detail, they’re not reviews. At two big pictures and little paragraphs per page, they mostly strike me as filler.

Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder?

Sorry about that. In the June 2012 Stereophile, Art Dudley reviews the Allnic Audio A-5000 DHT monoblock power amplifier. The Allnic’s a tube amplifier (of course), and Dudley’s superior knowledge is such that he can assure you that a 300B (a particular tube) “is clearly absinthe” in the liquor mart of tubes. He says it can “deliver some of the most intoxicating music playback imaginable”—and I think this says something about tube lovers and audiophiles of a particular bent: It’s not about accuracy, it’s about making things pretty. It is of course a rave (or raving) review. He does offer a note about price, but answers that with the suggestion that, well, there are more expensive amplifiers out there. That’s a truism: If there aren’t more expensive units, someone will create them. (See my earlier note on a $130,000 amplifier.)

Is this a great amplifier if you love the tube sound? Maybe. On the other hand…it’s rated at 10 watts, which is very low power, so you need very efficient speakers, which tend to be expensive as well (think Klipsch). Oh, but when John Atkinson put the Allnic on the test bench, it turns out that 10 watts is, um, optimistic. See, most solid-state amplifiers have power ratings at around 0.1% distortion. Atkinson defines clipping—past the reasonable output limit, and the point at which an amplifier may damage the speaker—as 1% distortion, ten times as high. The Allnic only managed 4.7 watts at 1% distortion. That’s for an 8 ohm speaker; for a 4 ohm speaker, it managed 1.6 watts, truly flea power. As a comparison, the McIntosh MC8207 multichannel amplifier, high-end by most standards, delivers 236 watts per channel at 0.1% distortion for two channels, 201 watts per channel at 0.1% distortion driving all seven channels. Ah, but the McIntosh costs $6,000: It’s a seriously expensive unit.

Did I mention the price of this underpowered high-distortion Allnic? Since it’s a monoblock, you need two for a stereo system (five for a surround-sound system, but never mind). Two of them cost $19,900. That’s right: More than three times as much as a high-end amplifier that delivers at least 40 times the power into each of seven channels, not two. But the McIntosh is a clean reproduction system; it doesn’t make its own sweet music out of whatever’s fed into it. (You can get a good medium-power receiver for a lot less than $6,000—for example, Stereophile regards the $699 Outlaw Audio RR2150, 100 watts per channel stereo, as good enough to be in its Recommended Components list, as is the $380 NAD C 316BEE if you only need 40 watts per channel, or 8.5 times the 8-ohm output of the Allnic.)

Why Most Hardware Specs are Total Bullshit

That’s the title of this December 10, 2010 post by Bryan Gardiner at Gizmodo. Gardiner notes that most of us look at specs before making selections of various pieces of hardware:

Frequency responses will be consulted, dynamic contrast ratios compared, and color gamuts critiqued—all in an effort to gauge performance, determine value, and quickly pit one product against one another. The only problem? In many cases, you’d better off consulting chicken bones and fingernail clippings. Not only are a growing number of published specs misleading and/or overinflated, some have become downright meaningless. And it’s getting worse.

Gardiner calls it “spec cooking” and asserts that companies lie about specs for competitive reasons—and because us poor consumers don’t understand technology anyway, so why not? He asserts that it’s now necessary for companies to lie:

The temptation to exaggerate is now so overwhelming that attempting to stay out of the gimmick game is now seen as akin to product suicide. Try to anchor your specifications in the real world (with meaningful numbers) and your product will look inferior. Don't publish them at all, and you'll look like you're trying to hide something. It's an insidious Catch-22 for anyone with an ounce of integrity, so manufacturers and marketers simply make the easy choice.

Well… not necessarily. Stereophile, for all its faults, does do fairly rigorous testing of the products it reviews. Most solid-state stereo amplifiers, for example, meet or exceed published specifications—and most manufacturer claims for surround-sound receivers are hedged: They typically state power with two channels driven, not all channels driven. (In real-world use, this is not implausible: It’s extremely rare for all channels to require very high sound levels, unless you’re playing back explosions, I suppose.)

The list of specific “spec gimmicks” is interesting. As to color gamut—where a fair number of TV and equipment makers tout expanded or “deep” color capabilities—it’s either meaningless or destructive. Meaningless because no deep-color content is available—or destructive because displays are oversaturating the colors that are there, leading to neon-green lawns and the like. For contrast ratio, the writeup in the original post is probably correct, except that it seems to claim that LCD TVs have better contrast ratios than plasmas, which isn’t true for most of the tests I’ve seen (and 1500:1 is an awfully high real-world contrast ratio for an LCD set). What is true: Measuring the contrast between a fully-black screen (which on many LED-lit LCDs will cause all the lights to go off) and a fully-white screen may yield infinite contrast ratios, but it’s bullshit. Agreed there.

Response time? Only relevant for LCD TVs and monitors and the discussion may be spot-on. Viewing angle? In practice, all plasma displays have essentially unlimited viewing angles with optimum performance and very few LCD sets have particularly wide viewing angles.

The above relate to displays and mostly come from Soneira commentary. Then there are audio issues. I find the discussion of dynamic range misleading, frankly, partly because real measurements of dynamic range are mostly measuring how low noise and distortion are (and some of us do have extremely quiet listening environments, so “sounds in the spaces” isn’t that relevant) and because the major problem these days is that so many recordings have been compressed to the point that there really isn’t much of any dynamic range.

The discussion of frequency response or bandwidth is, in part, simply wrong:

When manufacturers make and sell audio gear, they cheat. Period. Today, it's very common to specify 20 Hz-20 kHz bandwidth, which is ridiculous. First, very little audio gear will do that in really rigorous way. Second, your speakers definitely won't —unless they cost you about as much as the house in which they're installed.…

The second statement is more-or-less true (if you have a relatively cheap house). The first is pure nonsense. Any well-engineered solid-state receiver or preamp has clean 20 Hz-20kHz bandwidth, plus or minus a fraction of a decibel, and so do many good tube amps. The supposed expert David Moulton, who says “everybody has, more or less, poor frequency response” is either talking only about inexpensive loudspeakers or is in some alternate reality.

As for power handling (wattage), the discussion overstates the meaninglessness of the spec. True: There’s not much difference in everyday use between a 300-watt and 1200-watt amplifer, since it takes 10x the power to double the loudness. Not true: Power is irrelevant. An underpowered amp can fry your speakers, and many speakers require pretty powerful amps. The differences between a 3-watt tube amp, a 30-watt receiver and a 300-watt receiver may be essential differences.

We’re then told that Gizmodo is a trustworthy site for choosing equipment. Maybe. This article doesn’t convince me of that, even though I was inclined to agree with the article’s title before I read the article.

It doesn’t help that some comments say that real, visible, obvious differences don’t exist—e.g., that a cheap LCD TV looks as good as a well-engineered plasma set. It doesn’t.

“Worth Thousands”

Here’s an old item that’s still relevant—“How the Media Gets It Wrong,” posted August 27, 2010 by Victoria Strauss at the Writer Beware® Blogs! (that’s the blog name, ® and ! included). She notes a “news item” published in a UK newspaper and picked up elsewhere, one that says a boy of six “won a book deal worth thousands”— awarded a “23-story contract with an American company” after reading his “book,” which he started writing when he was five years old.

There's just one problem. Although the deal probably is worth thousands, the money isn't flowing in the direction the news coverage assumes—from publisher to author. In fact, it's going the other way. Because little Leo's publisher, Strategic Book Publishing, charges fees.

That link now winds up at a new place, “SBPRA,” presumably because of complaints about Strategic Book Publishing. The new site uses scare-quotes around “submission” and has other oddities, and mostly seems to dwell on this company buying up other “publishers.” (Those are my scare quotes.) The site looks pretty casual in a number of areas—e.g., in the FAQ, a question begins “I am not from the US?” (followed by an actual question, unless the person really doesn’t know whether they’re from the US). There’s a remarkable absence of answers in the FAQ; you really can’t tell that this is a fee “publisher”/vanity press.

Strauss says it wouldn’t take much research to reveal that the company is a fee publisher and adds that the story is “improbable on its face”:

When was the last time you heard about anyone getting a 23-book deal, let alone a six-year-old child?

Good point. Strategic, now SBPRA, operates as a whole galaxy of companies to get you in various ways—a bunch of literary agencies, a bunch of book publishing agencies, editing services and more. Portions of the “group” sued Writer Beware, never a good sign. (The suit was dismissed with prejudice; the court granted legal fees to Writer Beware).

I’ve done several books through Lulu and wrote The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing, which encourages libraries to make it feasible for patrons to use Lulu or CreateSpace. What’s the difference? Lulu doesn’t claim to be a publisher—and unlike SBPRA (where the author’s apparently in for a minimum of roughly $1,000, plus editing fees, plus marketing fees, plus, plus…), Lulu and CreateSpace don’t charge a cent up front (unless you want to get an author’s copy to check over, which CreateSpace requires but which costs very little). The two support self-publishing and fulfillment. Fee publishers claim to be publishers, but the money flows the wrong way. And, let’s face it, no real publisher is going to give a 23-book contract to a six-year-old, or much of anybody else.

Writer’s Block

I’ll wind up this section with a brief note on two seminal research papers published in peer-reviewed journals, one in 1974 and another (referencing the first) in 2007. In both cases, the PDF is freely available. I strongly urge all readers—especially those who have ever experienced writer’s block or suffered from tl;dr—to read both papers in their entirety.

Dennis Upper published “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block’” in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis in the Fall of 1974. Research this groundbreaking takes time to review and digest, but 33 years later, a team of five authors from five different institutions replicated the study in “A Multisite Cross-Cultural Replication of Upper’s (1974) Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of Writer’s Block,” published in the Winter 2007 Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis with a note from the editor.

Both articles are available thanks to PubMedCentral. Hat-tip to Improbable Research for pointing out these seminal articles.

That $130,000 Amplifier

Earlier in this section, I mentioned a $130,000 amplifier as an example of something that makes a $19,000 pair of low-power amps seem reasonably priced by comparison. The full review of the DarTZeel NHB-458 monoblock amplifier appears in the August 2012 Stereophile. It is, of course, a rave review. It is also a seriously well-engineered solid-state power amp. (And huge: Each single-channel amp is 18x11x20” and weighs 154lb.) Oh, and it’s actually 135,000 Swiss francs/pair—or $144,500 when the issue went to press. No further comment. I’m unlikely to buy a pair (and probably couldn’t differentiate good solid-state amplifiers anyway).

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 10, Whole # 154, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2012 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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