Thursday, May 15, 2014

Losing the Middle

In the 70's growing up, to listen to music I had a turntable for vinyl records. The quality of music went up almost continuously with the amount you were willing to spend. In the mid-80's we had digital compact discs and we saw a big change. You could get pretty good quality music at a relatively low cost. If you wanted great quality you would still use vinyl and high-priced needles and audio systems. The middle disappeared, either you were fine with the CD quality or you went for a high end sound.

You see the same with photography. Back in the 70's I had a small darkroom and a mid-level camera. Again the more you spent the better quality you got. Now most people are satisfied with their Smartphones for taking pictures, or you spend significant more money for a high-end camera. There is a continuous improvement from high-end to very high end but it makes little sense to buy a $300 camera these days.

For video games, you either use your games on your phone or tablet, or splurge on a system like Xbox or Playstation. Same for watching television shows and movies. You even see this phenomenon in cars where even the low-end models have a solid baseline of digital systems and safety. There are still some things you can't digitize, like wine, where you still have a continuous improvement spectrum.

So what's the problem, after all everyone now gets better quality at lower cost, whatever the price point. Let's go back to the music example. You'd start off with a cheap system and then as you earned some money you'd splurge on a better needle and get an improvement in quality. And you'd keep improving until you reached a high-level sound.

Now many people would never take that step from an iPhone to vinyl because it requires a large investment to get any improvement in sound. They'll never find out what they're missing.


  1. Is Pono Music sponsoring the complexity blog now? :)

  2. I see your general point, but probably vinyl vs CD isn't the right comparison. Maybe vinyl vs 128kps mp3 is a better one.

    I am also deeply skeptical of the continuous spectrum of wine. Maybe in price, but not quality.

    Actually buildings are a good example. Things like windows, doors, bannisters, etc. are all standardized whereas they used to be all custom-made.

  3. Interesting observations, but I wonder if it's true even for your examples. I am no audiophile, but I doubt your claim [if I understood it correctly] that vinyl records are better than the best available digital formats. I also think that there are plenty of mid-range speakers and sound systems you can buy.

    Similarly, the quality of pics you can take with an iphone is as good as anything people were taking on mid-range cameras in the '80s. So the middle hasn't disappeared -- it's just gotten cheaper.

  4. To me, the problem is with the content distributors like Apple iTunes which give a "one-size fits all" level and don't allow a middle ground to flourish.

    I'm with Aram on the vinyl vs CD vs MP3: CDs inherently can yield much better sound quality than vinyl (at least after a couple of playings of the vinyl) but they initially got a bad name because of (1) some really bad mastering techniques in the early days and (2) approaches to digital-to-audio decoder design that were measured by the wrong quality standards so that some decoders that were poorly designed got good numbers. Vinyl is making a comeback because it is much better than MP3's but a retro aesthetic is the only reason it is beating out CDs in doing this.

    Unfortunately, the 128kps MP3 format has essentially killed the CD in the US. (I had to replace my CD player a couple of years ago and it was amazing how little market there is in the US for mid-price players. Some well known brands that make mid-price players for the rest of the world don't even bother making US versions.) It became the standard simply because of bandwidth and Apple's marketing for the number of songs you could fit on an iPod. Even on an old iPod it was pretty easy to hear the difference between 128kps and 320kps or .wav. Storage is no longer an issue at all. We're streaming movies so bandwidth isn't either.

    Content distributors like iTunes could easily change the things overnight by charging a premium for higher quality source material (e.g. loss-lessly compressed .wav files or better) that would give people the "middle ground" option you want. Could competitors do this?

  5. The superior quality of vinyl is a myth.

  6. We're in an unusual point in the long history of humanity. Leisure time is relatively recent, and with the destruction of a mild climate we may be headed for a contraction...

  7. What about books? Before there was paperback and fancy hardcover, now I download everything for free. I think an important point to make in all examples is that cheap technology reaches a much wider range of people who before could not afford anything at all. This is the dawn of communism. The middle class disappears, all are equal, except a select few, who can afford anything.

  8. There is plenty of middle left. Speaker quality is a big one with audio. In digital cameras there is still a HUGE spectrum of image quality if you care about printing or large displays or dark rooms, etc. etc. etc.

  9. "There is a continuous improvement from high-end to very high end but it makes little sense to buy a $300 camera these days."

    Spoken like a person speaking outside his area of knowledge with authority.

  10. "Now many people would never take that step from an iPhone to vinyl because it requires a large investment to get any improvement in sound. They'll never find out what they're missing."

    The arrogance amazes. An iPhone with earbuds versus an iPhone with better quality headphones to an iPhone connected to a good speaker system is probably a set of steps most won't take, just as most people didn't take similar steps with vinyl. They can live quite happy lives.