Notes from the 1%
Home theater is frequently a topic fraught with blue-sky economics of the “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” variety. I’ve noticed that Home Theater magazine and its ilk tend to avoid associating price tags with anything other than specific components—and, as with most audio magazines, power consumption apparently isn’t on the radar at all.
Which makes it all the more astonishing when claims of universality arise—when some new and wonderful thing is touted as something everybody needs. Take, for example, “Control4 Home Theater and Home Automation System Part 2” by Darryl Wilkinson in the May 2011 Home Theater. It’s about whole-house automation—as in Wilkinson’s desire: “I want to be able to use that same remote to turn the lights on and off, lock and unlick doors, raise and lower shades, and, well, anything else I can think of.” The article is about how close this Control4 system does or doesn’t come to that ideal.
Wilkinson is truly geeky about this stuff. For example, ever since he had motorized window shades installed, “I can’t resist pressing the button and watching the shades go quietly up and down whenever I pass the keypad. Sometimes, I use the Web app to make the shades move while I’m away. It’s terribly addictive, and before you think I’m crazy, I’m not the only person I know who says this.” But he’s unhappy: Those dumb shades “don’t communicate their up/down status back to the Control4 system.” After all, you’re (apparently) not actually using the room where you’re raising or lowering shades, so you can’t, um, look at them. What fun would that be?
Anyway, after going through lots of hype on this stuff—how you can buy a bunch of used iPads for controls (that’s plural: you really need at least one universal control pad in each room, and probably more than that) if the dedicated controls are too expensive—and studiously avoiding any mention of total costs for automating everything or what I regard as a non-trivial factor, namely what I suspect is a fairly large parasitic electricity usage load from having all of these remotely-controlled devices all over the house—we get to the final paragraph:
Control4’s COO, Glen Mella, told me that one of the company’s goals is to turn home automation/multiroom audio from one of those things that’s nice to have into a gotta-have. I think they’ve hit the bull’s-eye. Once you’ve lived with a Control4 system, regardless of its scale and options, you’ll wonder how you ever called your house a home without it.
Right. It takes a heap of circuitry to make a house a home.
For another helping of this, there’s a long, wildly enthusiastic review of a competing system, the Lutron RadioRA 2 Home Control System, in the November 2011 Home Theater. This system costs $17,000; it’s a lighting control system handling up to 200 devices; and the heading claims that it “saves electricity and lengthens bulb life”—I guess because you can use motion sensors to turn bulbs off when nobody’s moving around in a room. (Anyone had the joy of a motion-sensor-controlled bulb in their office and having to wave your arms every so often so the lights stay on?) Of course there are no figures comparing probable reduction in electricity with the increased electricity use required to have all of these receivers, all of which have to have some continuous power.
You can pretty much predict the writer’s conclusion as to the worth of this $17,000 add-on: “Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to put in a RadioRA 2 system on the cheap. But what it will do for you in terms of changing the way you live in your home will far outshine the amount of money you spend.” Wow. I’m trying to think of how much I’d have to value every time I flip a switch on or off, or my wife does the same, to make $17,000 extra (plus more electricity when we’re not using anything) worthwhile. Nope, sorry, doesn’t compute.
Oh, look, here’s the October 2011 Sound & Vision and John Sciacca’s “The Custom Installer” column. As soon as you say “custom installer,” we’re nearing 1% territory (and, to be sure, it’s assumed that a Control4 system would be installed by a custom installer), but Sciacca makes it a little clearer in the opening paragraph:
Prices for flat-panel TVs have been reduced to a level where they’ve essentially become throwaway commodities. Just the other day, a customer informed me that he was going to put a TV outside on his deck and “leave it there until it breaks, then I’ll just buy another one.” [Emphasis in the original.]
A good large-screen HDTV still costs $1,000 to $3,000. Calling them throwaway commodities is a pretty good indication of people who light their cigars with $10 bills—and that astonishing quoted sentence is worse. (After all, only ordinary folks would consider, say, Freecycle for the HDTV they’ve gotten bored with.)
Another example, this time from the up-front pages of the August 2011 Home Theater (it’s probably worth noting that both Home Theater and Sound & Vision are big-circulation, dirt-cheap-subscription, ad-heavy magazines, not prestigious high-class operations): A two-thirds page rave writeup of the Dan D’Agostino Momentum Amplifier. I’ll quote the first paragraph:
OK, it’s not intended for home theater per se, and you’ll need five of these monoblocks, at a cost of $21,000 each, to fill out a basic surround system. But with its irresistibly modern-retro Dodge/Chrysler-meets-Phase Linear aesthetics, you couldn’t have enough of these stunning beauties populating your rack.
That’s right. It’s a single-channel solid-state amplifier for $21,000 a pop. This isn’t a review, so it’s just repeating the manufacturer’s claims as to its power and quality. But hey, what’s $21,000 per channel to a 1%er?
Here’s an amusing sidenote, if you’re easily amused: John Atkinson’s “As We See It” column in the April 2011 Stereophile. He discusses the Consumer Electronics Show, the financial problems of the American middle class, the “extraordinarily large number of very expensive loudspeakers” he saw at the 2011 show (by “very expensive” he means more than $100,000 for a stereo pair) and the extent to which stereo is becoming a 1% field (he doesn’t use that term), that is, strictly a luxury operation for rich people.
Here’s the incident. Magnepan, a respected manufacturer of unusual and apparently excellent loudspeakers, introduced its new flagship model—at $5,495 to $8,495 a pair.
Pleased at finally encountering a new speaker in Las Vegas whose purchase didn’t require the sale of a middle-class audiophile’s kidney, I congratulated Magnepan’s Wendell Diller on the price, and offered the opinion that it must have been welcomed by dealers. To my surprise, he told me that the opposite was the case: Many Magnepan dealers felt that the MG3.7 should have been priced higher, perhaps at as much as $10,000/pair.
Diller expanded on this in a later email: He literally pushed back at distributors and dealers asking Magnepan to charge more. The company builds its speakers in America. It has an excellent reputation. “We have an adequate profit margin.” He told his dealers “Sell more.” Some responded that a higher price wouldn’t hurt sales. Of course, compared to $100,000 a pair, $10,000 is chump change. (The column is also a way of not apologizing for that issue’s cover featuring two speaker systems favorably discussed in the issue: the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 and PSB Alpha B1. The prices of which are, respectively, $350 and $279. A pair.)
This might be a good place to do something I haven’t done in a while: Sum up the low and high end of basic stereo systems with components good enough for Stereophile’s “Recommended Components” list, this time the April 2011 installment.
Let’s assume two varieties of stereo system (and that it’s stereo, not surround): One that just plays CDs and one that also plays LPs.
While the Stereophile list includes a $25 used Sony Playstation 1, let’s go one step higher to the $349.99 Marantz CD5004. Similarly, although the cheapest receiver in the list is $378, that’s for a unit that puts out only 3.5 watts, so let’s choose the $449.99 Marantz PM5004—and look, we have a matching system. Actually, you could skip the receiver entirely and buy the $199 Audioengine 2, self-powered speakers, but they’re really only for desktops and very small rooms, so let’s move up to the PSB Alpha B1 at $279/pair. I suspect you’ll use ordinary cables for this system, but you could spring for a $262 Kimber Hero interconnect and $11.99 for 50 feet of RadioShack 16-Gauge speaker cable (yes, it’s on the list).
Want LPs? Add $369 for a Pro-Ject Debut III—which includes a tonearm and an Ortofon cartridge. If your stereo receiver doesn’t have a phono stage, add $129 for an NAD PP 2.
This isn’t a dirt-cheap system (a “CDeiver” would bring the price down even further), but it’s not terrible: $1,352.97 for CDs, $1,850.97 for CDs and LPs. For a system every component of which is recommended by a high-end magazine.
To play your CDs, the $79,996 dCS Scarlatti gets things off to a good start. Add $29,500 for a darTZeel NHB-18NS preamp. A pair of mbl Reference 9007 monoblock amplifiers will set you back $35,423 (Stereophile hadn’t tested the $42,000/pair Dan D’Agostinos yet). Turns out you’ll need two pairs of monoblocks (or maybe four pairs), since the $156,200 Cabasse La Sphere speaker (that’s for a pair, at least) requires four amplifiers. You’ll also need cables, say two sets of TARA Labs The Zero (one from the CD player to the preamp, another from preamp to amp) at $15,900 each. Since you need two sets of speaker cables (or do you need four sets?), double the $8,499 price of JPS Labs Aluminata.
If you need LPs, add $149,995 (not $150,000!) for the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn (which includes tonearm) and $15,000 for a Koetsu Coralstone Platinum Mono (for your precious old monaural records) and $11,990 for a ZYX R-1000 Sigma 2-X for stereo. Figure another $60,000 for a Vitus Audio MP-P201 phono preamp, and another $31,800 for two more TARA Labs cables.
How much does this come to (understanding that this is also only two-channel and that you could spend a lot more money)? $417,140 for CDs, $685,925 if you want to play LPs as well. That’s less than 371 times as much as the inexpensive system. I’m 100% certain that it would sound a lot better. I’m guessing most of us could hear the difference, even if you increased the low-end speaker budget to, say, $1,199 for a pair of full-range PSB Image T6 speakers (brings the total to $2,770.97, or about 0.4% of the price of the high-priced spread). How many of us would find the difference worth paying 300 times as much? For 99% of us, the answer’s irrelevant: We couldn’t, wouldn’t put half a megabuck into a stereo system under any circumstances.
I seem to remember a time in which some audio writers assumed that you’d spend more on your CDs (or LPs or both) than you would on your sound system. Back in the bad old days, I spent more money than I could really afford on some moderately expensive stereo equipment and hundreds of LPs. Right now? My music system is a Sansa Fuze and folding Sennheiser PX100 headphones. The total runs to $130, I think. If I start to have actual income again, I might upgrade—say to Grado SR60 headphones at around $80.
As I write this, Doonesbury’s wrapping up a week at “myFACTS,” a service that supplies “facts” to back up whatever worldview someone wishes to support. But who really needs that when you have writers being as straightforward as Michael Fremer in his introduction to a review of a turntable in the May 2011 Stereophile. He admits that no turntable—not even his favorite $150,000 turntable (see above)—“can produce CD’s accuracy of speed and inherent freedom from wow and flutter.” Then we get the statement of faith—and now it’s clear that it is a statement of faith:
Despite that, you’ll never convince me that CDs produce music that sounds better or more lifelike than LPs, or that CDs even come close to communicating music’s ability to evoke emotions from listeners, or the sensation that you’ve been transported to the concert hall, or that the musicians are in your room performing for you. They just don’t.
He goes on to say that if you play the best CDs for an hour, “then play an LP on even a modestly priced turntable, and the sensations of quiet, relaxation, and relief are profound.” Not just for him, but for anybody with ears.
What turntable was he reviewing? Does it really matter, since apparently even the modest ones are so much better than the best CD equipment that they instantly produce “sensations of quiet, relaxation, and relief”? We’re talking faith here, especially in that long quoted sentence. (It’s a $7,990—not eight thousand, but a mere $7,990—turntable, although you’ll need to add a tonearm [$3,990 gets you a matching one], probably a record clamp and better platter [$1,500], a cartridge [$2,700], so it’s really more like $15,000 and up. If you have to ask…)
Sometimes magazine items are just plain weird. Take Rachel Z. Arndt’s enthusiastic review of the Jura Impressa J9 One Touch TFT coffeemaker in the November 2011 Fast Company. Here’s the sentence that felt like it came from Never-Never Land or the early 1970s:
Just push a button and your order is ready with the Jura Impressa J9 One Touch TFT, an espresso maker as powerful as those helping baristas crank out lattes, yet as easy to use as that ho-hum percolator you’re used to.
Say what? Raise your hands if you’re using a percolator to brew coffee. Hmm. Not seeing many hands out there. How many of you have used a percolator in the last, say, two decades—or even seen one in that time? Remember Max Pax?
If you’re still using a percolator, you’d definitely get better coffee by stepping up to a more modern coffeemaker, almost any modern coffeemaker. You might not need the device being touted here, although it’s a mere $2,800. No, there’s no missing decimal point.
The “App of the Month” for November 2011’s Home Theater Magazine is Color Monkey VinylLove Pocket. It costs $1.99 for the iPad, $0.99 for the iPhone or iPod touch—I guess only iDevices can apply. It turns an iTunes collection into a set of album covers in alphabetized bins that you can flip through. Once you select an album, a turntable appears on screen with the record on it (although the label’s generic, not an actual rendition—which would be neat!). You can move the arm and all that.
But here’s the killer, and as a sometimes skeptic of the claim that vinyl has it all over CDs, I’d love to see this app being used (but with uncompressed FLAC or AIFF files, not MP3) in a setting where the golden-eared audiophile didn’t know whether this device was playing digital files through a high-end audio system or whether they were hearing LPs through the same system. Namely, “the app adds a fine layer of random crackling to your music to simulate the equivalent surface noise of a slightly worn uncleaned record.”
That wouldn’t work. There should be a setting that adds the surface noise of a perfectly-cleaned record, at an appropriate level. For those who believe that some of vinyl’s “more natural” sound is euphonic distortion, part of it being that “ambient sound” of low-level surface noise, such blind testing could be revealing.
On the other hand, the app sounds like fun, but I’d probably get tired of that obvious crackling in about 90 seconds.
I’m frequently bemused by comments by magazine and newspaper writers that appear intended to offend a substantial portion of their possible readership—but also appear to be asides.
Take, for example, a brief item “HDTVs Connected, Viewers Not” in the up-front section of the November 2011 Home Theater—a section of brief notes on products and trends, most of them unsigned. Herewith, the first three of seven sentences that make up the full item:
Connected HDTVs nestle snugly in two out of five American households, reports Knowledge Networks. Yet viewers are strikingly old-fashioned in their viewing habits. A fanatically old-fashioned 47 percent still prefer to watch programs at their regularly scheduled times versus the 23 percent who favor DVR recordings. [Emphasis added.]
“Fanatically old-fashioned”? Other than a middle finger salute to those of us who watch shows when they air (and keep ad-supported networks in business), what’s the point of that nasty little remark?
Of course, there’s another disconnect in the sentence: Apparently, 30% of those with HDTVs or connected HDTVs just sit and stare at the boxes showing nothing, since no third option is given.
It’s always refreshing when a writer admits an error—even if they fudge a little bit. Robert Strohmeyer had written an article in PC World saying, among other things, “Conventional wisdom states that Google’s Gmail…won the battle for e-mail dominance long ago.”
In the April 2011 PC World letters column, a correspondent called him on it, noting figures (from sources unknown) that show Outlook (pre-2007) having 23% of the email client market, Hotmail 16%, Yahoo 14%, Outlook 2007 8% and iPhone 3.0 7%--and Gmail 5%. “Just because Google gets the geek love doesn’t mean it’s number one.”
For consumer email, I suspect Yahoo’s share is much larger and Outlook’s share is much smaller, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gmail still trailed some of the others. (If you add up some of his numbers, it shows Microsoft as having 47% of the email market. Including corporate installations, I suspect that’s right.)
The response wasn’t quite an admission of error: “It was probably a poor word choice on my part when I said ‘dominance.’ I hadn’t intended to suggest that Gmail was the most popular e-mail service, but that among informed geeks it’s top-of-mind.”
Good to know that “dominance” no longer implies #1 market share or anything close to it. It’s a geek’s world, and those are the opinions that matter.
There have been times when I’ve suspected magazines of having included certain items, or lengthened certain stories, just to fill out a page.
That is, of course, a cardinal sin. No reputable newspaper or magazine should ever do such a thing, just as no reputable fiction writer has ever padded a novelette-length idea out to a novella or novel, or expanded a novel’s worth of plot into a trilogy (especially a fantasy trilogy).
Certainly, I would never do such a thing. To insert a largely meaningless final item on the last page of a Cites & Insights issue in order to avoid a half-column of white space (or the need to cut 1¾ pages of copy) would be most unfortunate.
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