A marketplace in transition
There are historical marketing paths, one for analog technology, another for digital technology, which weave together into the rapidly-changing, and consequently very confusing, retail scenario we are watching evolve today.
To understand the retail environment, you need to understand the history, and the influences. This is very important in the buying process, because if you don't understand what you are being sold, and how it is being sold to you, you will get fleeced.
How a product is sold depends on the underlying technology. Analog technology has a completely different sales style and pitch than digital technology. In this hybrid world of mixed analog/digital product, and the resulting hybrid marketing that results, you need to understand the basic concepts, and how they are sold.
All of our entertainment technology, until very recently, was based on analog technology, which changed very slowly. Records, cassette tapes, VCR tapes; all played into an analog environment of television, amplifiers, and speakers.
The first digital standard was introduced in 1983, with the introduction of the Compact Disk. While the disk itself was digital, the CD player itself converted the digital message on the disk to an analog signal. All of the systems we use today are either completely analog, or a hybrid of digital and analog. We are moving toward a digital world of rapid product evolution.
The way entertainment products are marketed is in transition, and will continue to change even more rapidly as products become less analog, and more digital.
Now, on to the differences between analog and digital marketplaces.
The Analog Scenario
An analog signal is like the groove on a long playing record: a track that the needle tries to follow as faithfully as possible, to extract the music from the vibrations built into the track. In any analog system, it is impossible to re-create any signal perfectly. Even the very best equipment is going to miss some tiny part of the signal in the groove of the record.
The cables transmitting the signal from the pick up to the amplifier will also lose some of the detail. In turn, the amplifiers will only reproduce a certain amount of the signal they receive. Then, the cables from the amplifier to the speakers will lose another small part of the signal.
The end result is a compromise, which can only be described in relative terms to some other similar system. Analog systems can only converge on perfection, and every component in the system is important to achieve an excellent result. there are no absolutes, and any specifications you are given are always dependent on another bunch of variables.
If you visit an old-school audiophile, and ask him about his sound system, he will describe the features of every aspect of the signal detection and transmission, from the needle that sits in the groove of the record and the cartridge that reads the signal from the needle, to the quality of the cables he uses, the amplifiers, and the speakers he uses for final sound production. But he will impress on you that the quality of the sound you will hear is absolutely dependent on the condition of the record you put on the turntable: is it old and scratched, or a brand new pressing?
In any analog environment, there are no absolutes, simply 'better' and 'worse'. And even then, this judgment is often an individual choice, even amongst experts.
This is ideally suited to the American advertising scenario, which sells products by presenting their best possible face, and hiding their defects as much as possible. Accordingly, analog products are sold using very subjective language. For example, what is 'crisp, clear sound'?
This kind of sales environment encourages exaggeration and dishonesty. Beautiful photography and sales hype are the marks of the analog sales environment. The survival of a company in an analog marketplace does not depend on the quality of their products or their efficiency in manufacturing nearly as much as it depends on their advertising and product image. Their objective is to change styles and messages, to keep the customer reasonably dissatisfied with what they already have.
Companies have used these marketing approaches to build their market recognition and customer bases. Their prices depend more on the kind of customer they want to attract, and the product is often differentiated more by service levels and other aspects of the manner in which the company does business.
The Digital Scenario
The best known digital device is probably a Compact Disk. This illustrates the difference between analog and digital admirably. If you have two analog LP's from the same artist, the sound quality is dependent on the condition of the LP, and no two are ever identical, even when brand new. However, if you have two CD's from the same artist, they ARE identical, and sound identical when played on the same sound system.
The best-known digital market is the personal computer marketplace. Most people have had some experience buying a computer. The first thing you notice in the digital market is that everything has a specification. For example, an Intel Pentium 4 2.4 gigahertz processor, or DDR400 RAM. Things are not sold as 'crisp', 'bright' or 'sparkly', like beads to natives.
For each digital product standard, there are specific levels of performance. For example, if you choose an Apple computer, you know exactly how fast each model is, the exact display resolution, and every other aspect of the machine.
If you are buying a PC, you are able to rank all the different manufacturers based on Intel processor speed, RAM speeds, disk capacity, and so on, to choose the best value. The monitor you choose depends much more on the specifications and price, rather than the manufacturer.
As a result, it is very easy to compare digital products when making a purchase decision. It doesn't matter who manufactures the DDR400 RAM you need for a computer upgrade,simply how much it costs.
This introduces a level of efficiency into the buying process. The marketplace rewards the most efficient manufacturer, who can manufacture memory at the lowest prices, and drives the others out of business.
There is another phenomenon that is unique to the digital marketplace, and that is the rate of innovation. Over the past 40 years, digital technology has progressed at frightening speeds. Currently, performance is doubling every couple of years and will continue to do so for at least the next 20 years. This means continual, rapid performance increases, or price reductions, or a combination of both.
In summary, the digital marketplace is marked by a fairly profound honesty, which is forced on manufacturers by digital standards within specific families or technologies.
Where Analog and Digital Collide: The retail marketplace
The entertainment world is transitioning from the old NTSC analog broadcast to new digital broadcast standards which have been set by the Government, through the FCC.
The world of retail electronics is still mostly driven by the old analog retail mentality. Walk into an electronics retailer, and talk to a clerk about the features and specifications of the new big-screen HDTV products, and unless he is an enthusiast, he will be unlikely to be able to give you any information on the display resolution, or connection specifications for a digital environment.
Accordingly, you, the customer, are left to wander around, making your judgments based on your first impressions of picture quality, just like the old analog shopping experience.
Problem is, the picture quality you are looking at is dependent on how well the unit has been set up. You may pass over the best unit on the floor because it has been improperly configured, and choose an inferior, lower resolution product that has been properly installed.
The second major issues is product obsolescence in this digital age. Any of the new digital standards provide a better picture than NTSC. The very best displays you see in a retail electronics store today do not even begin to approach the picture quality that is possible with an HDTV signal. Over the next three years, we will see much higher resolution screens appearing, which raises a whole new question. How long will this new screen you are buying last you?
See, with analog NTSC products, when you bought a TV, or a VCR, you kept it until it died, maybe 10 or 20 years years later. Now, with HDTV, your picture quality is going to be so crappy in a couple of years, you are going to want to trade up.
Compare this with another digital device, your last computer. Did you throw it out because it got so old it no longer worked? Or did it just become obsolete?
There are plenty of suckers out there who shelled out $20,000 in 2001 for an 800x600 plasma screen. By the end of 2003, the resale value on that screen had become zero! Now for some people, writing off $10,000 a year of tax-paid income just doesn't matter. However, a lot of people made this purchase thinking about their entertainment environment in the old-school, keep-it-forever mode. They just happened to get unthinkingly 'fitted' by some unscrupulous retailer with one of these screens. Now, this $20,000 investment fits right in with the rest of their dot-bomb investments.
So my message is this. Wise up. Spend intelligently. Get the entertainment environment you want, at the investment level you can afford. Plan in advance which parts of your system are going to age more quickly than others, and make your decisions at the outset whether you are going to pay a big premium to be on the bleeding edge right now, or if you should wait a year.
The following sections outline the history and current state-of-the-art in each important area of home entertainment investment to help you towards your own personal tailoring of your entertainment environment.