Low End Theory: Why Discmen Won't Die

Welcome to the debut of Gizmodo's newest column, Low End Theory. Every Thursday 'round this time, columnist Brendan I. Koerner (of Wired, Slate and The New York Times) will explore the galaxy of cheapos and knockoffs. If a gadget can be purchased from a store that also sells $79 air conditioners and Hanes underwear, it's fair game for Low End Theory. —eds.

One of the great puzzles of gadgetry goes thusly: Why are portable CD players outselling digital audio players three-to-one? No, that's not a misprint—for every American who bought an iPod or Dell Jukebox in 2004, three of their countrymen bought a descendant of the 21-year-old Discman. Oh, yeah, and you know what percentage of U.S. households own a digital audio player? Six, according to our pals at IDC. For portable CD players, it's an unholy 53 percent.

Okay, granted, this is also a country where 37 percent of the population want their kids taught creationism instead of evolution. We're obviously a wee bit slow on the uptake. But it's also a country that loves mega-bargains, and the economies of scale have made portable CD players crazy cheap. We'll turn to Exhibit A after the jump.

I set out to do a little comparison shopping on New York City's 125th Street, my local stretch of discount stores (as well as a fine place to purchase "Stop Snitching" t-shirts and jasmine incense). The goal was to put on my non-geek hat and sniff out the cheapest Discman relative I could find, then compare it to the cheapest MP3 player available.

The first step was easy enough: A shop called Kiss, whose main business appears to be selling used video games, had a bin of jWin CD313 players advertised for $9.99. (The package helpfully described the product as "Compact Personal CD Player with Headphone." Thanks for the word picture, jWin.) I actually thought $9.99 was a little pricey, seeing as how that's what Best Buy charges for a player bearing its in-house Insignia label, so I started to walk away. But a clerk in a "Fuck Milk, Got Pot?" t-shirt flagged me down and offered to knock four bucks off the price. So, if Gizmodo had an expense account, I could've strolled out of there with a $5.99 Discman knockoff.

There were no MP3 players to be found on 125th, so I turned to our pal Froogle when I got home. The absolute cheapest I could find was a 32MB Polaroid unit for $21.99—about 69 cents per megabyte, which may be one of the worst values in recorded history.

The other reason you have to factor into the CD player's continued reign, of course, is that digital audio remains too convoluted for the AOL demographic. Too few MP3 players feature direct encoding; given the inherent laziness of mankind, too few people are willing to use their computers as intermediaries, despite the obvious long-term benefits of having all your music in a single location. And here's the real kicker in the CD's favor: Since the latest generation of portable CD players can accomodate MP3- and WMA-encoded discs, too, folks can tote around 100 or so songs on a single sliver of media. (From personal experience, I recommend the iRiver SlimX line, if you don't mind strapping a disc-sized unit to your hand, brass-knuckles style.)

Seems like it would behoove the jWins of the world to focus their energies on manufacturing affordable MP3 players with direct encoding. Actually, jWin already has a couple of digital audio players on the market—the JUKEMAN line, as they call it—but they'll run you upwards of $40 for starters. There just has to be a way to tweak those Guangdong factories so as to produce cut-rate Flash units, and thus fill the bins at Kiss with 256MB digital units in the $10-$15 range.

There's no doubt that CDs will ease out of the picture someday—I've seen the future, and it's all about hard disks, natch. But we could get to that future a lot more quickly if someone had the cojones to target the vast swath of consumers who still freak when you mention phrases like "convert your files" or "that will be $149.99, sir."

Yes, I realize that he big challenge in lowering digital audio player prices is bringing down the cost of Flash memory, which is still way too pricey. Anyone have a clue as to how this could be done? Drop Low End Theory a line at brendan@gizmodo.com. Please don't recommend slave labor as a strategy, by the way. That ain't copacetic.

jWin Electronics Corporation

iRiver SlimX iMP-350 CD/MP3 Player

125th Street Business Improvement District