Low End Theory: Cheapness as the Milk of Creativity


By Brendan I. Koerner

I'm by no means an audiophile, but I've never quite gotten the appeal of low-end iPod speakers. I mean, it's definitely a sign of mankind's genius that $8.99 can now buy you the means to pump audible music—cavemen would've no doubt killed for that sort of powersorcery. But the sound quality is invariably pretty abysmal, either annoyingly tinny or obscured under a soupy dither. Your typical cheapo iPod speaker system is really just one-and-a-half steps above the ChipCorder.

But I'm obviously in the minority here, because few low-end product categories have flourished like iPod speakers. I noted this $4.99 unit in last week's column, about the panoply of gadgets on display at Bed Bath & Beyond. But those speakers were only the iceberg's tip—the sector's current taxonomy is a wonder to behold, and a testament the creativity of low-end designers. If you thought the Lords of Guangdong Electronics were only good at knockoffs, you've got to reboot those brains of yours.

Granted, knockoffs is where the low-end product cycle tends to start. The model for a lot of the first-gen low-enders seems to have been the Logitech mm22, a rectangular speaker system I once reviewed for Wired (back when it's list price was a whopping $79.99). The Logitech's shape is a classic, in that it sorta resembles a conventional hi-fi system—speakers on the sides with visible woofers. The most popular knockoff seems to be the I.Sound Digipod-322, which can now be found for right around a tenner. (It also appears to be sold under the Airnet brand; perhaps a Shenzhen factory is playing all the angles?) The speakers don't swivel up, but the design concept is the same—lots of right angles, and everything more-or-less symmetrical.

But somewhere along the line, the low-end manufacturers realized that when you're playing in the $8-to-$12 range, it's often novelty that attracts buyers; it's not like us low-enders really expect one iPod speaker to vastly outperform another in terms of sound quality, right? So about 18 months ago or so, you began to see a flood of ingeniously shaped speakers, featuring lots of curves and fold-up schemes. This off-brand model, shaped like an apple, is new enough to boast of compatibility with the Zune, though I guess that's sort of like a dog dish boasting of being compatible with all breeds. And these folding speakers kick out a monstrous one watt per channel—skimpy, but what more do you expect for a measly $6.58?

Low-end designers have also felt the Nature's tug toward miniaturization, coming up with such thumbnail-sized options as the Nino Portable Dual Speaker (pictured up top) and, from column favorite Coby, the CS-MP3. These strike me more as emergency devices, rather than something you'd rely on to serenade a picnic. If you ever really, really need to clear up one of Ghostface's hotly disputed lyrics ("Is he saying 'jewels' or 'juice'?"), the CS-MP3 could sure come in handy; otherwise, not so much.

Low End Theory: Cheapness as the Milk of Creativity

The final phase in the low-ending of iPod speakers has been feature creep—that is, design attempts to integrate speakers into multi-functional products. Exhibit A is certainly the AquaPod (pictured at right), which is half speaker, half water-resistant case. Even loopier is the Princess Speaker Pillow; please click through to the link, as my limited descriptive powers cannot possibly do this frou-frou product justice.

I wonder, though, if the end of the inventiveness is in sight. You know the market is saturated when a Florida department store is marketing these cool-looking speakers as "women's accessories" (perhaps because they so obviously resemble earrings). Part of the problem may be that the novelty is wearing off; consumers are less wowed by the simple fact they can finally pump their music to the masses, and are perhaps starting to notice how truly dreadful the sound is. And in the end, all the design hooks in the world can't obscure poor specs, even when the fat part of your market is composed of non-geeks.

There is, I believe, just one more milestone for the low-end iPod speakers market to reach, after which we can consign the entire sector to history's dustbin—or, more accurately, the same utter unsexiness now endured by the cellphone earpiece industry. I'm still waiting for someone to come up with the sub-$10 inflatable speaker system; the current price champ, this relative old-timer from Ellula, still goes for $12.95 at the lowest, and often closer to $20. Can somebody over in Shenzhen get on this, please? I'll totally owe you a Coke if you do.

WHAT NEXT FOR VONAGE?: Vonage seems to have escaped the noose for now, though I stand by my not-so-bold prediction that they're toast over the long run. My question is, If Vonage goes under rather than sells out, what's gonna happen to its 2.4 million customers (including your humble narrator)? Anyone out there with a tech-law background know what the procedure is when a critical service goes into receivership? I know the airlines keep flying, but I'll venture that Vonage ranks a few notches less important than Delta.

Most importantly, if Vonage does go under, does that mean the new owner (if there is one) will finally fix my freakin' caller ID? Because I'd really, really like it back.

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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