BLOG #14. Where “Underdogs” Usually Win

In his last book, “David and Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell wrote:

“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources - and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former”.

From its very inception, the High End Audio industry figured this out and successfully applied that principle to its production, distribution, sales and marketing methods more than 40 years ago.

At the same time, judging by the initial response to our StereoPravda SPearphone line of In-The-Ear-Monitors (IEMs) and our accompanying DACCA unit, the high performance portable audio community is still not fully aware of the possible exclusive advantages of being “an underdog manufacturer” in providing an exceptional sound quality product.

The community still expects the look, the feel and the current reputability of a manufacturer to be directly correlated with the product’s sonic qualities.
Some correlation does exist, but it’s much more complicated, than just a direct one (either positive, or even negative).
As they say, “The beauty is in the eyes of beholder”…

In my several previous blogs I’ve been explaining why the portable audio is such a special case for Consumer Electronics – due to inability of the industry to effectively resolve the paradox between its basic instinct to cater only the products “built for everyone” and the variance in individual human ear canal anatomy -, and why the new solutions of how to get rid of this obstacle have been always coming from outside of CE industry (be it venerable Etymotic Research ER-4S, the first Balanced Armature-based hi-fi byproduct of the hearing aids industry, or, say, custom ear mold CIEMs, which also arrived to the CE scene from the same hearing aids source, but this time via professional audio industry).

Every time such a new revolutionary portable audio solution came it was always met with an initial suspicion and prejudice.
I remember, when I tried to sale the ER-4S here in 1990-ies as the ER’s Russian distributor, every potential customer would look at these ear monitors with utter disgust, and would question their outstanding sonic performance just because of their “cheap looks”.
I ended up with more returns than sales.
Another reason which stopped the ER-4S sales at the time was its “unusual” sonic signature: an alleged “lack of bass”. It was obvious, that beside of the insufficient audio quality of the existed portable source components, such a perception was an obvious result of the potential customers’ life long exposure to bloated bass presentation of the existed crop of commercial CE portable audio transducers. As they’ve been taking such “a commercial” sound for granted for so many years, with the ER-4S arrival on the scene the potential customers were, definitely, not ready to sacrifice their old and proven habit to evaluate a component with not a quantity of bass, but its quality, they were, definitely, not ready to appreciate a “well articulated bass” sonic presentation.
Twenty years ago ER-4S’ overall higher level of overall resolution, which was commonly admitted, was not enough to overthrow the “early adopters” these two well established (in my humble opinion, unfounded) prejudices to allow the earphones any significant local market penetration.
Some penetration did take place, but ten years later.
After a few of positive socio-economic shifts in our country and after increased market variety and newly attained maturity via the increased products’ exposure, local portable audio enthusiasts, finally, paid the overdue respect to this overachiever.
And, by the way, despite their venerable age of 30+ years, it’s still the best commercially produced universal tip IEM I’ve ever heard (of course, beside our StereoPravda SPearphone, for which the ER-4S was the original inspiration. I can’t help saying that, but “chto pravda, to pravda”, and, then, this blog is my party, so “It’s my party, and I cry if I want to…” – right?!).

Custom ear mold music monitor concept also started outside CE domain – in professional audio. Wireless technology paved a way to use it for the live stage monitoring.
Only after this technology was quickly embraced by a lot of performing musicians and polished enough to become visually attractive, logistically effective and flexible (i.e. to allow to a multitude of different “voicings”) it became a source of “proper” CE products.
And, again, it took a few years until the technology was embraced by the most-demanding portable audio enthusiasts.

All first glimpses of all the breakthroughs in headphone and earphone technologies I’ve seen in the last few years, for instance, the 3-D sound presentation DSP technology from Smyth-Research (developed by the crew which is responsible for commercial movie theater version of DTS), all came outside of CE industry’s beaten up old ways.
On the opposite, through the years, the CE industry seems to be capable of only coming up with “convenience”- and “good looks”- driven novelty solutions. Be it all sorts of illogical “noise-cancelling” techniques some manufacturers shove on us for some years in every airport (first, they would allow the noise to hit upon your ear canal, and then they would fight with it using tons of signal distortion, while sound isolating in-the-ear solutions would have stopped the noise at the gate, so there would be no need to cancel it in the first place), or the ancient technologies packaged as new ones with a help of new and fancy looks implying a certain status symbol.

So, why it happens? Why the novelty of CE audio designs is so limited in its scope?

The quick answer lies in the industry’s path of the least resistance. Truly new technologies and new solutions would mean a necessity to properly educate the customers about the true value of an audio product. And the latter is a very long, hard and expensive process, on the scale of no less than a government program.
That’s why it’s much easier to appeal to the lowest common denominator on the market with a fully predictable merchandize relying on a knee-jerk positive reaction to the good looks, the status symbol and the cozy convenience of “use”.
And that’s exactly why the venerable ER-4S with their “cheap looks” are still unbeatable, but also, that’s exactly why that after 30+ years of trying to penetrate the market this exceptional product still has got such a “limited appeal”.

In audiology and professional music applications the looks, the status symbol and even the convenience of use give their way to different and higher priorities, that’s why the mentioned above new hi-fi solutions were originally generated over there.
In a way, the same can be also said about home High End Audio, which generated a lot of new audio solutions (including via resurrecting a lot of well forgotten old ones) outside of the CE mainstream.

Most of the innovator “underdog” companies are very small.
Incidentally, a rule of thumb is that the smaller the company, the more chances that it can make a product of absolute quality.
It bears mention, that the size of the company is only a necessary condition, and not a sufficient one, but nevertheless…
Of course, there are exceptions from this rule, but, again, as another rule, those exceptions are very rare and far beyond “the reach” of mere mortals (both literally speaking – where to get them?-, and financially speaking, as they are, without an exception, are prohibitively expensive).

HiFiMan is a good example of an “underdog” company “elevated” by a bowing-to-mass market from its “underdog” status to the level of a respectable CE manufacturer.
Their first product, the HM-801 digital player, was their most outstandingly “musical” product, and the further they got from their “underdog” conception years, and the bigger and more “established” they’ve become with the wide diversity of “proper” products, the less “musical” these products started to sound. (Speaking of which, a few weeks ago I saw an ad from their own employee, placed on a Chinese portable audio site, who offered to pay an extra $400 for a trade in of their much more expensive most recent digital music player for the“801”).

Such “underdog” companies have got no vested interest in preserving status quo with some well established technologies (does anybody still remember Nokia phones?!).
Yes, as their resources are limited such companies are not capable of huge investments into hardware to make the looks very shiny (ER-4S is a very good example).
Yes, their solutions can feel clunky (Smyth-Research’ “Realizer” here comes to mind).
Yes, they can be completely built by hand and sold in tiny amounts (our StereoPravda SPearphone/DACCA series of products is a relevant case in point).
But, when they appear, these products are on the technical and conceptual cutting edge, and there is no guarantee that their technologies will be embraced by “The Big СЕ Brother”, who would polish their looks and make them to feel totally flashy.

Such products are designed and built outside the CE industry’ ideology and system of values and outside of its corporate culture of big figures, and such a different creation (sic!) context, and such a pin-point focusing on the performance superiority versus “built for everyone” fish net approach, can be both the “underdog” products’ “Achilles’ heel”, but at the same time it can be their “David’s sling shot” (pic. 1).

The same way as “Davids” from the outskirts of the CE industry are not capable to produce what “Goliaths” do, the opposite is also true: for “Goliaths” of CE it’s deadly to make and sale like “Davids”.

In my audio writings I routinely draw analogies between the audio and the cigar trades. The same way as in audio, in cigars we’ve got big companies who cater to the vanity of their customers with looks, gauges and shiny packaging of their mediocre products (pic. 2).
Then there are tiny companies which produce excellent products sparing resources on the packaging and the cigar bands (pics. 3 and 4).
As they are made not for the show-off effect, but for the true cigar connoisseurs, the smoking quality of the "underdog's" cigars on the third and the fourth pictures is much better than on the first one, and they cost several times less.

If you’re a heavy smoker and are not interested in any ego trips I see no reason to pay the extra money just for the looks, the bands and the fancy cigar boxes (which, no doubt, would steal precious cash from using the best tobacco to make the cigars, not even mentioning the fact that you’re going to discard the cigar bands and boxes anyway).

The same way, if you are a “heavy” portable musical listener I see no reason to be content with mediocre sound quality just for the sake of superficial looks and a fancy product presentation (also considering that the impressive packaging goes the same way to trash…).

It does take a certain time, effort and expense to be able to oppose the current Goliath’s dogmas and to figure out, with full confidence, your own relevant priorities (which, I agree, does smack of “inconvenience of use”).
Only after you’d reach the conscious state of your education process and became “A David of Your Own” you will be able to decide on either you need superficial looks and fancy packaging to show off to others, or you need the best personal experience for yourself.

If you, first and foremost, just need the absolute personal experience, then look no further.
“The birds of a feather flock together” – you’ve already stumbled upon “the spot” where only “underdogs”, like yourself, usually win.

And however corny that might sound, but it’s a common victory: from the both sides of the cash register.

12.05.2016 // Author:  (Bigmisha) // Number of views:  709

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