My Consumer Electronic Pet Peeves

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The only thing worse than a 4:3 image stretched to 16:9 is a 16:9 squished into 4:3. Video: (C) Lucas Film

Why is "Jazz" an EQ setting? Why are screens measured diagonally? Columnist John Caldwell lets loose some CE pet peeves.


Jun. 22, 2007 — by John Caldwell

I have a few pet peeves when it comes to the way some audio and video manufacturers have chosen to feature and/or market their products. You’ll recognize them in an instant. Some of these insidious practices and procedures have been around for decades and have woven themselves into the general lexicon of the typical A/V consumer. I can attribute it to wanting to dumb down technology in an effort to sell more stuff. But if they make it any dumber, I may just hA/Ve to hA/Ve to start carrying a drool bucket around my neck. 

The bottom line is that these pet peeves of mine are classic examples of how the marketing bozos of our industry keep trying to foul up a beautiful thing. Something so simple and enjoyable as music and the emotional satisfaction that it can deliver. Be aware of these; they can rob you of IQ points and,  even worse, make you buy bad gear.

1. Calling EQ settings by music genre

We’ve all seen them: Jazz, Pop, Classical, Rap, etc. My iPod and my OEM car head unit are just two glaring examples. Why the response curve of any music playback has to be altered from the original recording escapes me. You don’t see tone controls on high-end preamplifiers. To do so would just put more obstacles between you and the music. So why all the fuss for one’s car radio or A/V receiver? Sure I may need to boost the highs a bit if the speakers in a particular room are located in less than ideal locations. But calling that EQ setting “Pop” or “Rap” is just plain misleading and stupid. I would wager that calling an EQ setting “Jazz” for instance, leads a significant portion of the public to believe that that EQ setting is the best for that particular genre of music. What is someone to do if they like several kinds of musical genres? Keep switching EQ settings all the time. Jeese!

2. Identifying speakers by their wattage

A speaker’s wattage is a number that can mean several things depending on how the particular manufacturer chooses to use them. It can mean how much average or even peak amount of power it can handle, but what it doesn’t mean is how loud the speaker will play. And there’s the rub. To the uninitiated, identifying a speaker by its wattage makes them think that bigger is better. Or worse—that one speaker will play louder than another. How loud a speaker will play is a function of several things like: speaker sensitivity, room size and acoustics, speaker location and transfer function to the room, speaker position, crossover technique, dispersion pattern, etc. Don’t get trapped into the wattage on the box game.

Most speakers fall into three general wattage categories: Low power for simple desktop and background audio systems; mid-power handling for power that comes in a typical A/V receiver; and high-power handling for discrete amplification. Seek the advice of a knowledgeable installer or system integrator if you’re still confused.

3. Calling out video screen sizes by diagonals

Where is Ralph Nader when you need him? This one is really insidious. What started out as a clever marketing gambit by CRT television manufacturers back in the ‘60s, has turned out generations of confused consumers. You don’t measure your walls or windows diagonally now do you? How about your drapes or your furniture? So why all the fuss over TV diagonals? Obviously it makes one think they’re getting something bigger than they really are. But who’s kidding who? Calling TV’s by their diagonal measurement makes as much sense as stating the gas mileage of one’s car while driving down hill.

With 16:9 aspect ratio displays and now 2.35 constant height projection coming into vogue, the old diagonal measurement snake oil trick isn’t what it used to be. I’ve actually had people send me plan views of their theaters with every dimension called out in width and depth and the screen called out in a diagonal. Uff dah! While most suppliers and consumers may continue to tout their plasma and LCD flat panels in diagonal terms, serious video reviewers and videophiles are increasingly making the distinction between televisions and projection, by referring to a projector or screen’s width rather than diagonal. Why? Because whey you start getting really big images, the most important dimension is the width of the room.

4. “Future proofed” products

I’ve actually seen support documentation for A/V receivers and processors claim that the components are ready for any new surround format or wiring schema that should come along. Some even go so far as having removable circuit boards and software upgrade ports. All of this may work well up to a point, but to claim one’s gear as being truly futureproof is folly. No one can say for certain what the future holds. All one needs to do is look to the computer industry to prove my point. If those bright guys couldn’t make a computer architecture that was relevant for more than a couple of years, why would you expect A/V suppliers to do any better?

5. “Invisible” in-wall speakers

I feel partially responsible for this one I must admit. I was part of the marketing team at a/d/s/, Analog and Digital Systems in Massachusetts, that created the first in-wall speaker design in 1983 (contrary to claims by Speakercraft and Sonance). Sure in-walls are nice and neat and give you back your room, but again, who’s kidding who? In-wall speakers are no more “invisible” than a heating vent on the wall. And to a growing number of design conscious consumers that I speak to daily, in-wall speakers have the aesthetic appeal of a cheese-grater on the wall.

OK, last one for today ...

6.  Flat panel TVs set up wrong with 4:3 images stretched to fill the screen –- and then real 16:9 content looks even worse!

Are black bars on the sides of the display all that bad? I can’t tell you how much I have to bite my tongue every time I go to my local sports bar or neighborhood restaurant and see either the analog broadcast stretched out so badly that Kobe looks as fat as Shaq. Or worse yet, they actually have a 16:9 source and the image now has been squished and black bars appear at the top and bottom of the screen. Come on people.  If your picture on your new flat panel pride and joy looks like a fun house mirror, I strongly advise that you call a real integrator to help you sort it all out. He might just take pity on you and show you what your future proofed, invisible, 69-inch diagonal display with the “Country” EQ setting and 400 watt speakers is really capable of doing. The truth will set you free.

Good listening and viewing.

John Caldwell

John CaldwellJohn Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business
and co-founder of StJohn Group, Inc.




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