• New Apple Hardware: Please Don’t Annoy Me with Facts!

    March 4th, 2006

    Since Apple introduced the MacIntel version of the Mac mini and the iPod Hi-Fi on Tuesday, Mac users around the world have had plenty to say. A lot of it is positive, and many of you are prepared to place your orders. But lots of others, despite having nothing but some specs to go by, are already condemning the new products. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, right?

    But, without identifying anyone in particular, you have to wonder where some of these ideas come from. Take the iPod Hi-Fi, an attempt to create a higher standard for iPod speaker systems. Some call it overpriced, comparing it to existing products, or even a cheap boombox. How can Apple get away with such an obvious rip-off, they suggest?

    Well, aside from the elegant, minimalist design, just one thing is missing from these complaints, and that is that these people have never actually heard the system. They don’t know how it actually sounds, so where’s the beef? Of course, I don’t know either, at least not yet, so I’ll have nothing to say on the subject other than what’s been published by others that heard them after Apple’s presentation.

    Of course, I suppose Steve Jobs might have raised expectations to a point where they aren’t completely reasonable. After all, you can’t expect a $349 audio system, however well designed, to replace any home system, regardless of price. True, the iPod Hi-Fi has high-end pretensions, particularly the ability to remove the speaker grill. That’s the province of quality audiophile products, although I wouldn’t recommend it if you have small children or pets around. The speakers wouldn’t survive too many close encounters. But it does convey the image of quality.

    One comment I saw complained that the specs call for a frequency range of 53Hz to 16kHz ± 3 dB, whereas the expected range of a high quality audio system is 20Hz to 20kHz. Yes, maybe, but at what price? Forgetting that most adults can’t hear a 20 kilohertz signal, it takes a lot of brute force to deliver audio at the lower end of the spectrum, and it usually requires a real subwoofer that, itself, would be as large or larger than the iPod Hi-Fi and a lot more expensive. In the real world, if the specs are realistic, it’s a lot better than you have a right to expect from the price.

    But the proof is in the pudding. When it comes to speakers, specs are less important, except in a test laboratory. How they sound in a real living space, with the attendant wall and ceiling reflections and other impediments to pure sound, is another story. The word from the Apple event was that they could play real loud without distorting and apparently had strong bass. The rest awaits actual listening tests in environments that approach what you or I might encounter in our own homes. Until then, the folks who are doing all that complaining are just whistling in the dark.

    In the larger scheme of things, the audio industry has changed. Sony is canceling its line of expensive gear, and sales of luxury-priced products are suffering. Part of this is the self-destructive behavior on the part of some high-end audio magazines, which built their reputations on conveying the false impression that you needed to spend huge sums to get anything close to acceptable sound. Today, many have chucked those systems and have decided that convenience is more important, even if sound quality suffers somewhat. The iPod, for example, has, in four years, reached more customers than all those high-end systems combined.

    So as a practical matter, it is true that the sound quality of the tracks you buy from the iTunes Music Store is not quite CD quality, and it’s no doubt true that the iPod Hi-Fi isn’t the best sounding system on the planet. But it may be good enough for most people, who don’t think the audible difference makes a difference.

    When it comes to the Mac mini, I suppose if you expected it to be priced identically to the model it replaced, you’d be disappointed, although, as I said in yesterday’s commentary, that’s a lot more than $100 in additional goodies to justify a higher price tag. Go and try to assemble a similarly equipped PC box, if you can, and you’ll see what I mean. As far as the $799 high-end model, consider what a dual processor desktop computer used to cost.

    But that, of course, won’t stop some people who feel that complaining about things they know nothing about is an appropriate substitute for having a life.

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