About a year ago I was at a Bang & Olufsen store in Manhattan. Some guy with spiky hair and a Prada jacket walked in, and asked to try out the B&O A8 headphones. He put on the pair, listened to some extremely loud classical music, and, with a self-satisfied grin, said 30 seconds later say: “I’m sold. I’ll take them.”
Now the A8s aren’t the best headphones on the market, and the B&O price premium indisputably goes more towards design than performance. If I could shrink myself down Innerspace-style and enter this guy’s head, I imagine I would have not seen him processing the music he was hearing as much as the $160 price tag on the headphones (which is very, very low for a B&O product) and the $30,000 price tags attached to the speakers in the same room. In fact, I would wager money that you could have shoved $20 Sonys in this guy’s ear and he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. What sold him was the environment, the imagery, and expensive suit on the salesperson. If you put any product in this environment and told somebody that it was premium, they would believe you. And if they are in the market for a high-end product, they might even buy it.
A few days ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Bose HQ in Framingham, MA, where I was treated to an amazing presentation by Bose founder Dr. Amar Bose. As he put it, Bose was founded on the fact that audio products with supposedly-top-notch specifications were not very pleasurable to listen to. As Bose described it, the company was born when he “realized specifications A) weren’t correct as printed, and B) if you met them, the sound wasn’t improved.”
Whatever one’s personal feelings on Bose are, I agree with him that, for most people, specs simply don’t matter much in terms of the actual listening (or, in the case of visual products, viewing) experience. What really matters is how good an experience you are expecting. So for companies like Bose, which is held in extraordinarily high regard by the general public, high customer satisfaction levels are at least partially the result of the simple fact that customers are EXPECTING good products, often through a mix of word-of-mouth, marketing, price tags, and product design–all areas that Bose rules in. In fact, a study that came last year showed that Bose was held in higher regard by the general public than any other consumer electronics company. Higher than Apple, Microsoft, Sony, or Dell.
Poor products are poor products and won’t fool anybody, but the difference in sound and picture between an average product and better-than-average one is often so minute, that most people are simply incapable of noticing if they aren’t trained to do so. As Dr. Bose told me, a speaker’s ability to process ultra-high frequency ranges doesn’t matter because “we aren’t dogs.” Furthermore, I’ll give you $100 if you can tell the difference between a 10,000-to-1 contrast ratio and a 20,000-to-1 contrast ratio on a TV (hint: the spec is inherently troublesome due to it’s method of measurement, but I won’t go into that now.)
So my message to the public is this: Unless you’re an acoustic engineer or Mike Kobrin, save your money and buy middle-end products. Look for ones with decent reviews, don’t worry about the brand name or how glitzy the storefront is, and never, ever trust the ability of your own ears and eyes to objectively tell you what a really great product is. Instead, trust them to tell you what products you really enjoy listening to and watching. You’ll be happier that way, and might even save a few bucks.
Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.