Is it Dumb to Buy Smart Audio/Video Devices?

Okay. I get it. Contemporary electronic devices are more powerful than old-timey electronic devices. A software engineer recently estimated that a USB-C charger has more computing power than the guidance computer on the Apollo capsules that took men to the moon (shown above). Awesome. But I still have an axe to grind.

As the engineer correctly pointed out, the Apollo computer, despite being incredibly sophisticated for its day and costing a zillion dollars, is no match for today's cheap junk consumer electronics. This generally follows Moore's Law that predicted that computer processing power should double every two years. The law explains why new stuff blows away the old stuff. It also explains why your current stuff will be blown away as well. And therein lies a problem.

I certainly won't propose a Luddite argument that new-fangled things should be avoided. Today's audio/video gear is simply amazing. The sound and picture quality is outstanding, the access to content is staggering, and frankly the cost/value ratio is miraculously good. I've done a lot of AV prognosticating, but I never imagined a future as good as this. Bravo.

But here's the thing. In fact, here are several things. First, it seems like that the more sophisticated a device is, the faster it will be superseded by something better. Restating that, the more sophisticated a device, the sooner it will be obsolete. Consider the simple things in your everyday life – pencils, rulers, shoes, even relatively modern tech like bicycles — they are essentially timeless; your grandmother would have no trouble using them.

Now consider the sophisticated devices in your life — laptop, smartphone, car navigation — your child might not have a problem using them, but they might frustrate your grandmother; they are certainly not timeless. So we make this bargain with the devil. We gladly buy the latest tech, but we know that we'll only be using it for a short time. It's disposable.

Smart AV devices are taking planned obsolescence to a whole new level — one of programmed obsolescence.

And here's the another thing. We call these devices “smart.” And things like smartphones certainly deserve the accolade. But lots of other things, like smart speakers, are not smart. The speakers do not contain any intelligence at all; they only seem smart because they can access powerful devices via the internet. Things like smart speakers are as dumb as dumb terminals were back in the days of acoustic couplers and dial-up connections.

And their reliance on that connection, the connection that is essential for them to operate, is their greatest weakness. As I noted last time, Sonos is abandoning support of some older speakers. Similarly, Microsoft, Google, and other companies routinely abandon support of their older software products. That is understandable; it costs a company actual money to continue to maintain gear that was purchased years ago. Nevertheless, once a company orphans a device, you are hosed. It's planned obsolescence taken to a whole new level — that is, to programmed obsolescence.

So what's a person to do? Well, you need to ask yourself, how important to me is this product's longevity? Any wireless connected device, particularly ones that connect to the internet via an app, are vulnerable. If you want greater permanence, consider wires instead of wireless. Standards, file formats, and protocols all come and go. Hardware connectors have a lifespan too, but at least with a wired connection, a few decades later, a signal still stands a chance of getting through. With a software stream or app, your chances dim with each passing year.

Does that mean you can only buy analog gear? A stack of stereo gear from the 80s probably works just fine. Unlike some orphaned speakers, those old KEFs still make sound and in fact sound great. Still, it's okay to buy digital stuff. But before you buy something, imagine how it would operate if its wireless or internet connections were broken; would the device still work offline? Similarly, when possible, choose a device that has at least one old-timey analog input and output; even after the app goes poof, a copper wire might keep it working for a long time.

I know, I know. Feel free to file this blog in the Get Off My Lawn folder. But still, in this era when even the basic right to repair a product is in jeopardy, a little consumer pushback on programmed obsolescence wouldn't be a bad thing. And get off my lawn.

dnoonie's picture

I tend to agree with you! When I purchase a "smart" product I like to consider the transition once it's "smart" is gone.

My wireless speaker has analogue audio in, so I can add an external device once it's smarts are spent, not convenient for a portable device but that portable device can now be repurposed around the house somewhere.

My TV, an LG C8, well it's smarts don't always work the way I want them to anyway so I've added a Fire TV cube to the mix via ****an external input***, I use both since the streaming app in one seems to work better than another...neither are really very smart. The side load of VUDU on the cube works better then the VUDU app on the TV, go figure. Honestly I'm not that impressed with "smart" devices.

Just 2 examples, I could go on but the point is that I have a backup plan to the "smart" in devices and that has served me pretty well.


drny's picture

Ken, you are expecting analog lifetime usefulness results in a digital 'great today, trash tomorrow' world. You suffer from the same malady most folks over 50 (should I dare say 60) suffer from, a memory of using stuff until they broke, not until the next new and improve comes along.
The real question should be: How smart are those who continue to purchase 'smart products' that will be considered antiquated within two-three years? Your WWII generation dad, would probably say: "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me".

John_Werner's picture

Get it out of the way...I'm 60, so there. I was fortunate enough to be born at a time when hobbyist audio was still a thing. It was stereo until some braintrust decided we needed quad in the early 70's. At first I thought it was brilliant. I had a Layfayette 4-channel decoder which took speaker level signals from L & R and outputted them into 4 speaker level outputs. Now...the rear channels were not robust, rather they were, shall we say, delicate. They only had the derived difference signal from the left and right stereo signal. It was limited in bandwidth and relative volume. But...WOW! it added some kind of depth and realistic effect that the listening room was larger. From here everything went to $#!+ and in the many years since it has culminated in bringing me back to pure 2-channel audio from any decent source. Of course hobbyist audio is not "a thing" now. And often a millennial listening system is a smart phone with earbuds and a Bluetooth speaker. For those seeking more we get more digital manipulation and we have Sonos and that ilk. Control it all with your late model iPad please. this fun? Is this for the love of the quality of music reproduced and the path to this slice of nirvana? I can actually be what the digital prophet known as Jobs called "a bag of hurt".

No wonder analog is becoming a force again. We've sold out soul for...LOW-FI. And guess what? Low-Fi doesn't really care about the things that made hobbyist audio a real movement. Low-Fi is about convenience, micro size, and mediocrity. Apparently it is what the 20 and 30-something generation is all up on. I am impressed by Sonos as my daughter and son-in-law call this their aspired to audio nirvana (i.e. like my saving to buy a Mcintosh pre and Dynaco 400 40-years ago). It does sound pretty good and pretty good is the new norm. What's funny is by the same token as buy it once and forget about it that these Sonos folks were counting about isn't what Sonos the company considers important. They actually try to prove you to "de-activate" gear and buy more at an insulting discount providing you probe you killed your Sonos devices. This is the worst thing in audio I can think of. So not in keeping with my generation's audio aspirations.

Here's my advice... Keep audio and movies watching separate. Plan for you movie watching to be an on-going thing where you never really keep current with all the protocols and formats. But put you heart and soul into 2-channel and keep analog sources on tap. Keep buying and burning discs. Maybe create a NAS in your home network where you can archive all your stuff, including thiose impressive 2-channel HDTracks. Get a streamer, keep your turntable as pleasing as you desire (just don't mothball it), and forgo multi-channel music as much as possible and just concentrate on what brought you to the dance in the first place...You hear in analog until whatever processes occur in the space inside your head. This will never be obsolete or irrelevant. Go back to the audio egg and use it fully and wholly. Sure thisse great new 2-channel HD tracks should be part of the mix. But remember a wise musical sage said: "we won't get fooled again". which is to say audio nirvana isn't that connected wireless multi-channel stuff but the "real" analog rooted listening experience.

dnoonie's picture

What is impressive is what programmers and engineers were able to get out of that old hardware, now days it seems that all that processing power should be underutilized but it's not, lot's of waste somewhere.
Modern audio DSP is pretty impressive when done right.
My "smart" phone inevitably tries to be helpful but often offers something not wanted.
I do have a switch on my Amazon Fire Cube, it's off unless I'm streaming.
MP3 was horrid for audio quality, I can't believe people paid real money for those little players that sounded soooooo bad. I'm hoping that recent efforts in streaming quality and interest in analogue recordings helps in that area.