Low End Theory

Quasar: Praised, Then Buried


By Brendan I. Koerner

Think of the Quasar brand as the Cinderella of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. family, minus the eventually happy fate. Matsushita's worthiest designs have long been reserved for its more renowned brands, such as JVC, Technics, and even Panasonic. Quasar, meanwhile, has been forced to play the trodden-upon stepsister, forced to affix its label to a range of lackluster TV/VCR combos and heavier-than-a-brick camcorders. So while the Technics 1200s are off at the ball, the lowly Quasar 13-inch tube TV is stashed in the backroom of Ed's Waterbed Warehouse, providing grainy closed-circuit security video for the perusal of Ed's layabout grandson, who's too zooted on Country Club to notice the sheet set being shoplifted on aisle eight.

The word on the street nowadays is that the Quasar brand is not long for this world, and that the discount palaces of our great nation will soon be deprived of those boxy $89 TV/VCR combos that us low-end fans love with a fiery passion. In anticipation of that sad day, this week's column—written from the boiling-hot cauldron of a city known as San Antonio, Texas—will pre-eulogize our beloved Quasar—long may she reign in our hearts, if not atop the wire-frame "entertainment centers" in our studio apartments. PLUS: Who has the scoop on low-end electronics deep in the heart of Texas?

Props to the good—nay, great—folks at Wikipedia for shedding some vital light on Quasar's early years. I had no clue that the brand was shepherded into existence by Motorola, though I guess that explains the name—quasars being known for emitting radio waves and all. The Wikipedia bit doesn't explain whether Motorola was positioning Quasar as a budget alternative from the get-go, but I suspect not. Back in 1967, I'm guessing that the color TV market was akin to the laptop market circa 1994, meaning that even the cheapest models were still being hawked at luxury prices.

Matsushita bought Quasar in 1974, and I can clearly remember a low-end Quasar TV set being in my boyhood kitchen around 1982 or so. I'm sure my dad was absolutely bowled over by the fact that he could purchase a color TV for under $150, and that it was encased in snazzy white molded plastic to boot. There may have even been a handle on the top, though it's possible that was a later Hitachi low-ender that we owned. (Sorry, the memory is getting hazier and hazier with each orbit 'round the Sun.) The point is, Quasar was perhaps the first brand to flood the low-end TV market with product, thus forcing prices down across the board. (The Wikipedia article claims that a Frontline episode accused Matsushita of doing an end-run around tariffs, assembling the set in Japan but marking them as "Made in the USA." Sounds possible, though a rather quaint concern given that your current 13-inch set was almost surely made in Guangdong, fully tariffed, and still lower priced than a decade ago.)

Outside of TVs, there are two product categories that Quasar helped drag into low-end terrain: camcorders and those delightfully archaic TV/VCR combos. In the former case, Quasar did a good job of hitting the market in the sweet spot between the debut of minitape cams, and the emergence of digital video. They waited out the early adoption phase, then swooped in with models constructed of knock-off components at exactly the moment Joe Q. Public was asking himself, "Shoot, I just gotta capture this scene of Junior being pounded in the groin by a soccer ball." Then, rather make the expensive transition to digital, Quasar stepped back, counted up its dough, and left the game. Hardly ballsy, but I'm sure there's a few Matsushita execs who parlayed that strategy into new homes in Kadoma, Japan.

Low End Theory

The problem with Quasar, of course, has always been the lameness of its products. Let's not even mention the product alert from a few years back, in which Quasar TV/VCR combos were alleged to be housed in casings that could "break, fall, and injure hands and feet." (Customers weren't offered new sets, just "free retrofit kits.")What's really irksome about Quasar goods is that fact that they tend to break after only the slightest of jostling—not a desirable attribute in a camcorder, as it's generally presumed that such gadgets can and will be transported outside the home. And customer support? Good luck—a lot of Quasar products are just past-their-prime Panasonics that were rebranded, so replacement parts are tough (impossible?) to find.

Still, I'll shed a tear or two when Quasar finally disappears from the North American market—one less low-end brand is a minor tragedy for us all, on the scale of Austin St. John leaving the cast of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Anyone know when Quasar will officially be declared dead by Matsushita (which now, strangely, prefers to be called Panasonic)? Let me know, and I can start planning a fittingly budget-conscious farewell party. I'll be serving fifty-cent cans of Hollandia and three-for-a-dollar meat pies, and everyone who's ever read Low End Theory is invited.

LOW-END IN SPURS TOWN?: As stated at the column's top, I'm writing this from San Antonio; I'm here doing research for a book, and sweltering in the Texas heat. Today's an off-day, and I was hoping to find some good spots to check out discount electronics—makes sense to get a jump on the next few columns, I guess. Seeing as how this town is stuffed-to-the-gills with military bases—only ancient Sparta had a higher ratio of soldiers to citizens—there's gotta be some good places for cheap gearheads, right? Drop me some advice if you know this (quite beautiful) city. But, please, don't insist that I go the Alamo—I did a walk-by on Monday and was pretty underwhelmed. There are SUVs out here that are bigger than that dinky ol' place.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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