Diablog: Thinking Inside the Box

What is all this white stuff on the floor?

Disintegrating styrofoam.

Do you have to make such a mess when you do your reviews?

I can't help it. Some manufacturers use this cheap stuff that falls apart under the rigors of shipping. It's the bane of my life.

Your life? You're not the one who vacuums around here.

Yeah, but you're not the one who has to deal with all these pieces. Sometimes I use sticky tape to put two halves back together. Sometimes I just shove the pieces in the box and trust to providence.

Providence can be cruel.

The worst part is that wrestling a heavy subwoofer or receiver back into the carton without hurting myself is harder when I'm also wrangling a bunch of stupid little pieces of broken foam. And the trouble doesn't end when the product goes out the door.

I think I know what happens next. It gets where it's going and it's broken.

Yup. A flat-panel TV arrives at our photo studio with a corner crushed, speakers with their drivers punched in. A busted product is not a pretty sight—especially when it has to be measured and photographed.

I'll ask the obvious question. Why don't manufacturers do it right? After all, you're not the only one having this problem. How can they be so oblivious to it?

They're not. Packaging is subjected to tests you wouldn't believe. Manufacturers know their products will be bouncing up and down in a truck—and if the floor of the truck is moving up as the product moves down, it gets hit twice as hard. So the smarter ones have got machines that subject packaging designs to compression testing, drop testing, vibration, heating, refrigeration, the works.

That's incredible. If they know what they're doing, why do they do it? How come these manufacturers engaged in a cutthroat fight for market share are so willing to cheese off the consumer?

It's a calculated risk. Low pricing a key weapon in their battle for market share. It might be worth handling a certain percentage of damaged product returns if that's what it takes to undercut the competition. Also, their calculations don't always apply to the products I get for testing. You've got a piece of show stock that's come from China. It makes the round among reviewers. We get it. We send it to our studio. A box that works acceptably for a limited time—warehouse to store to home—really isn't designed for more extended travels. That's probably why I get so many review samples in double cartons.

Even so, I'd worry about a product that's underprotected before I get hold of it. I hate returning things that don't work. Do I have to pay high-end prices for high-end products just to get something that isn't broken?

Not necessarily. Some manufacturers calculate differently than others. There are actually lots of good reasons for them to do packaging right. A product that comes in well-designed packaging makes a better first impression. Of course it's less likely to be defective, though you can never eliminate that possibility entirely. And if it does have to go out for repair, it'll incur less damage from your home to the service center and back again.

So who's doing it right?

Well, the high-end guys, of course. Or some of them. Also the ones who specialize in Internet sales. I just reviewed a system with an Outlaw 1070 surround receiver and Aperion speakers. Everything came packed in non-disintegrating foam. The Aperions were even draped in purple velvet bags in addition to the usual moisture-protecting plastic bags.

I remember those purple bags. They were fabulous! Did you remember to pilfer any of them before you sent the speakers to the studio? That subwoofer bag would be great for laundry.

Wish we'd thought of that sooner.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. For links to the latest edition, visit www.quietriverpress.com.

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