In college, one of my favorite professors turned me on to The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, a book that discusses some really good, basic facts about marketing and tackles topics like market share, market position, and so much more. The book--along with How to Master the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins (one of the best sales-training books ever)--has had a huge influence on me throughout my publishing career. As I think about the massive, disruptive changes that have come to the audiophile and home theater businesses, I think it's time that we look at some new rules for high-performance audio and video going forward.
The game has changed. Convergence is here (and annoyingly named "the Internet of Things). So is stunning 4K video content and master-tape-quality audio. It's time to move on from simple surround sound and embrace object-based surround sound like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. It's time to admit that vinyl offers no real positives for music playback other than ritual and nostalgia. This new landscape offers more performance, more resolution, more value ... more everything. Here are some rules to keep in mind as you try to navigate it all.
Law 1: Your system is only as good as your source material.
Linn Audio always pushed the concept that you'd be better off with a killer front-end source and smaller speakers. For audio lovers, your system's performance comes first and foremost from the music you are playing through it. Embrace high-resolution music playback, as it's the closest thing to the master tape you can get today.
Law 2: Even the best technologies eventually become outdated.
Most audiophile magazines lovingly embrace old technologies for years (and decades) after they've been passed over by newer, better concepts. Video enthusiasts sometimes do the same. Even with 4K OLED TVs available on the market, with their fantastic black level, improved color/resolution, and HDR capability, I still had a line of people bashing my front door down to buy my used Panasonic 65-inch ZT plasma. I probably could have sold it for even more money than I did if I wanted to play games, but I didn't. Come on, people: vinyl is over. Plasma is dead. There are better alternatives today, thankfully.
Law 3: Wireless headphones are a game changer.
Not since the first time a consumer saw a flat HDTV in the mid-2000s has a product had as much of an impact on consumers as wireless headphones. This is the direction the headphone industry is going, and you can't change it. Your phone either already lacks a true headphone jack, or it will the next time you upgrade. Even though audiophiles want to cling to the old ways of doing things, wireless headphones will make your next trip on a plane, train, or automobile so much more enjoyable. Of course not all wireless headphones sound the same, so you need to do your research and choose carefully. There are good ones out there, I promise.
Law 4: Embrace your network.
More and more AV devices depend on a wired or wireless network, so it's worth spending a little extra money to have a really solid home network. If you plan to lean heavily on Wi-Fi, pay more for a more robust wireless router.
Law 5: Buck up for the fastest Internet you can get in your area.
It's better to have more Internet speed than you need than to have less. If you plan to do a lot of video streaming (especially UHD streaming), then you need to invest in a good service plan. In many areas of the country (but still not enough), the cost of truly high-speed Internet is really quite small compared with the relative costs of satellite/cable equipment, AV gear, silver discs, and more.
Law 6: Invest in acoustic treatment.
We covered the importance of the source first; but, if you really want to get the most out of your system, spend $500 to $750 to treat your first-order reflections (meaning the areas about two to three feet in front of your speakers on the side walls and ceiling). The improvement in sound quality is staggering. Bass treatments in your corners, if allowable in your room's design, can help immensely, too. A well-treated room is like adding thousands of dollars to the value of your speakers without having to actually spend thousands of dollars.
Law 7: Don't turn your AV room into a gimmick.
Avoid the urge to get a popcorn machine or home theater seats with cup holders, as they are a bit cliche in 2018. Make your music or theater room look like a well-designed part of your home, not a crazy science experiment or messy recording studio. Aspire to make your home theater or music room a place into which you would invite guests for an after-dinner drink or social gathering.
Law 8: Speaker cables matter, but you don't have to display them for everyone to see.
The idea that all speaker cables are the same is totally bogus. The idea that those cables need to be strewn all over the floor or up on "saw horses" is equally absurd. A basic contractor can run cables through your walls and/or floors to make a neat, thoughtful installation that works fantastically and still looks gorgeous. Invest in cables that have the least impact on your system; EQ can be done elsewhere.
Law 9: Manage your AV cables.
Keep your AV connectors organized. I use zip ties to manage my cables, which is a bit more permanent than other solutions. Some recording-studio supply and musical instrument stores (think Guitar Center) offer Velcro options that help you bundle your cables to your rack or furniture. A trip to Home Depot and/or a few hundred bucks given to your local handyman/electrician can get your TV's power cable hidden in a "clock outlet," thus flush-mounted into your drywall. The same guy can run your HDMI cable up the wall with a few generic plates that make your system look professionally installed.
Law 10: Room correction and EQ are very good things.
There are some iffy room correction systems on the market, and uninformed application of EQ can do more harm than good. But to write off room correction and EQ completely is to ignore 30-plus years of advancement. Trinnov, Dirac, Anthem Room Correction, and other good options can help make your system scientifically perform better in its environment, especially in the realm of low frequencies. Room treatments come first, but digital filters can work wonders with problems caused by the very geometry of your room itself.
Law 11: Keep your gear cool and clean.
Heat is an absolute killer of AV equipment. Consider a rack solution that uses ultra-quiet fans to move air across your gear. Also, try to keep dust and dirt away from gear, as today's computer-based products tend to really suck a lot of air through the processor-intensive fan systems. This will keep products from breaking and will add long-term value to your AV investment.
Law 12: Take pride in your rack.
A higher-end, custom-configured gear rack lets you neatly and thoughtfully present a top-performing AV system. Your gear runs cooler. It rarely ever gets scratched or scuffed. You can get power-over-Ethernet control, meaningful cable management, and more. Personally, I like to use Middle Atlantic racks for both audiophile and home theater components, but they aren't the only game in town. You can enlist a cabinet maker to build you a rectangle for a Middle Atlantic rack with a door on it and locking hospital casters on the bottom for less than $1,000. Your gear will love you, and your significant other will love the look.
Law 13: Call your electrician.
Clean power is a major issue, especially in big, metropolitan areas. Brownouts, noisy power, and all sorts of maladies can affect the performance of your high-performance AV system. One of the easiest ways to step up the performance of your system is to make sure that you have at least one dedicated circuit for your gear. It's not difficult or expensive for your electrician to do, and it can help isolate, say, your HVAC system from your Class AB amp.
Law 14: Always calibrate your displays.
TVs seldom come out of the box looking their best. These days, they're usually set to some type of energy savings mode and have all sorts of artificial picture enhancements enabled. At a very minimum, make sure to put your new HDTV in a picture mode like Movie, Theater, THX, or Calibrated--which will be closer to SMPTE standards. The best solution is to hire a professional calibrator to come in and specifically calibrate your HDTV for the absolute best performance for your viewing environment and preferences. That should cost you somewhere between $350 and $750 depending on the number of TVs and where you live. The improvement is well worth the money and effort.
Law 15: Beware of video that pushes blue, even if your eyes like it.
This ties in with Law 14 above. The human eye is drawn to the color blue. A "bluer" white looks brighter to our eyes. Video companies know this, which is why many TV picture modes skew blue. It's kind of like McDonalds trying to sell you more fries--it might taste good in the short term, but it's not accurate (or good for you). It may take you a little while to get used to a correct color temperature and color palette if all you know is overly blue, overly saturated video. Take the time. Get used to it.
Law 16: Don't put silver discs in their grave ... yet.
It's been awhile since I have actually physically touched a Compact Disc, thanks to TIDAL and having over 1,500 of my favorite records ripped and easily available via any number of avenues. The fact is, though, if you want to enjoy a movie with the absolute best sound and picture, the answer today is Ultra HD Blu-ray. The movies can be a bit expensive; however, you can rent them from a few places, and hopefully Netflix or Redbox will embrace rentals soon. Your display will never look better. Your surround sound system will never sound better. The day when silver discs no longer spin in our HT systems is coming, but it's not here yet. I'd say it's way closer for music than movies.
Law 17: Don't scoff at object-based surround sound, even if 13.2.7 sounds downright silly.
It's easy to dismiss object-based surround sound (think: Dolby Atmos, DTS:X) because of the seemingly absurd number of speakers needed to play back these movie soundtracks. Keep in mind, there are new and creative ways to sneak these extra speakers into your system without trashing your gorgeous room. In-ceiling speakers. In-walls. On-walls. Add-on modules that pair up with your existing speakers and beam off of the ceiling. Plus, you also don't have to invest in a 20-speaker system overnight. You can add speakers and channels of amplification as you have the budget and room. A well-designed movie soundtrack is a real treat in these formats if you can find a way to get these speakers into your life.
Law 18: Once you hear something, you can't "un-hear" it.
The more high-quality audio you hear, the better your ears will get at appreciating it. Much like a Master Sommelier has to taste so many varieties of wine, audio professionals and audiophile enthusiasts alike need to hear as much good audio as possible. The more they hear, the better they will appreciate good sound. Demos are everywhere, be it regional shows, local dealers, or special audiophile events. Take the opportunity to hear everything good that you can; it only makes the hobby more fun and your ears more tuned to what's good and to what you like.
Law 19: Always trust your audio instincts.
They say that, when teaching kids how to take standardized tests, you should instruct them to trust their first instinct when selecting an answer. Making decisions in the audio world is no different. If something sounds good to you, it likely is good. Your ears are the ultimate judge; let your wallet follow what your ears have heard.
Law 20: Support your local dealer, even if you buy more and more online.
Having a dealer who stocks good AV gear in your area is an invaluable resource, and that's something that AV enthusiasts should support. I've heard the horror stories about arrogant, know-it-all audiophile salons or hard-to-approach custom installers; but, if in any meaningful way you can support your local dealer, you should. It's good for your area ... and the industry, too. Your dealer knows that he or she needs to beat Amazon, but don't sell them out by buying an audiophile product out of state to save on sales tax. That means the next time you want to hear such a product, you might not have a dealer to do the demo.
Law 21: Resist the urge to buy used AV gear.
Used audiophile gear can be very tempting, and sometimes it's just irresistible. However, keep in mind that the hobby only grows when AV companies sell new gear. I'm not saying that you should never buy used gear, but our industry desperately needs more new blood, and buying last year's (or last decade's) goodies isn't going to keep it afloat.
Law 22: Invest your AV dollars in blue-chip gear when buying in blue-chip categories.
Not all AV products are created equal. Speakers, amps, and stereo preamps tend to hold their value nicely over the years. Video products, DACs, and AV preamps can be expensive, but tend to depreciate faster than you might expect. Invest accordingly. Also, beware of spending large sums of money on off-brand products, as you might get your ass handed to you in short order with your AV investment. The big boys tend to hold their money better. Pick Mercedes over Fisker, unless you can afford to lose your ass if Fisker goes belly up (which they did).
Hopefully, these tips/rules/laws help guide some of your AV buying decisions going forward. We are at a crossroads in terms of this super-fun hobby of ours. The business has changed forever. How technology develops and progresses has a lot to do with how we all make buying decisions.
Do you have any laws that you would add to our list? Share your own in the Comments section below; we'd love to hear your thoughts.
• Best Buy Needs to Focus on the Experience to Compete with Amazon at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Five Questions to Ask Before Shopping for a Front-Projection System at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What Is the Magic Price Point for Top-Performing AV Gear? at HomeTheaterReview.com.