Back in the late 70’s, when I was the manager of a small stereo store in Corvallis Oregon, one of my customers brought in a little pamphlet that was written by a physics professor who was also a “hifi buff”. The pamphlet was a “guide to buying a stereo system” or something similar. His main point was that “published specifications” were the best way to decide on what to purchase, as your ears could be easily deceived and you might actually think that something sounded “better” when in fact, it didn’t.
Wow. That’s like someone telling you: “You only think you’re happy.” I was dumbstruck. While it’s true that most people have the audio memory of goldfish, looking for “objective data” in this situation is a little like trying to find objective data on what color to paint your house.
Of course, the “subjective” method has all kinds of pitfalls as well. Most consumers, back in the day when comparative demonstration was the method by which most consumers of stereo equipment determined (or were “sold”) what they were going to purchase, were about as well equipped to make a decision as a they would be to purchase a pair glasses by looking at eye charts through sample glasses with different prescriptions.
Being the altruistic sort that I am, I tried to be a useful coach, explaining the technology involved, giving some hints on what to listen for, asking the standard questions: type of music, how loud they wished to listen under the effects of which recreational drugs, etc.. (This was the 70’s, remember, they might be holding something they would be willing to share.)
Of course, I had to make a living, so you have to keep in mind that I did want to sell them something. (You do have to remember that the “magic of the marketplace” would prevent me from selling them something they’d hate when they had it in their living rooms for a while, if I wanted any repeat business.) With most people, you discovered that you were not likely to lead them through some sort of rational process and end up selling them something. The most effective method was to find out what pre-existing prejudices they might be harboring (magazines they read, brands they have a favorable opinion of, recommendations from “expert” friends) play into those, (Yes, Mr. Customer, only a few really smart people know the Infinity QA is the bookshelf speaker that will save you from bad sound: an excellent choice! Well, are you also aware 89% of the smart people who are wise enough to grasp the superiority of the QA, prefer the way it sounds when coupled with the Onkyo TX-2500? You are!! Great, I just happen to have one set up right over here.)
IIf we ended up doing a comparative demonstration, I would try to stack the deck in favor of reinforcing their existing beliefs in most cases, as any other approach would just confuse them. In the case above, if they seemed to me to have a strong belief in the Infinity QA, possibly because of this ad:
there would be a strong likelihood that it would sound “better” to them than other speakers I might show to them in a similar price range.
If the customer was a blank slate, then my main task would be to convince them that I knew what I was doing so I could suggest possible products that would then sound “better” to them when it came time to demonstrate them.
The weirdest customers were “audiophiles” who were usually neurotic enough to trust the judgement of reviewers in magazines like “Stereophile” and “The Absolute Sound”. If you found out what magazines they read, they were putty in your hands, because you now knew what their prejudices were.
Speaking of neurotic, I once bought a automobile on the basis of positive reviews. I was trying to replace my beloved Porsche 914 2.0, (a car most reviewers in the US disliked) that I’d had to give up in a divorce. I’d read one rave review after another about the Toyota MR2. Automobile magazine had a cover article suggesting that it was a better car than the Ferrari 308. In EVERY measurable way it was a superior car to the 914. Faster, better cornering performance, better brakes, more horsepower, better fuel economy, higher top speed, etc..
Test driving it was quite impressive, it seemed zippy, it was quiet and refined, the steering was very direct. I bought one. I was soon quite bored with it. It was nowhere near as much fun (for me) to drive in a “sporting” manner. I took it over roads that were thrilling to straife in the 914, resulting in heart pounding exhilaration and a desire to turn around and run back through the same canyon.
Doing the same in the MR2 was like driving on the freeway. True, the MR2 was going faster, but my heart rate wasn’t. It was like driving a Malibu Gran Prix car. Fun, but not too exciting. I just wasn’t involved with it. I had a major attachment to the 914, the MR2 was an appliance. I was almost relieved when the MR2 was stolen two years after I bought it.
Since we now live in the age of information, you’d think that people would be able to find out everything they need to from the Internet and they’d all be be making rational decisions based on buckets of data. In my experience, this is not the case. First off, they have little idea as to which data to apply, so they need to rely on someone else’s opinion as to what IS important. Further, the Internet is just full of people (And you might count the author of this post amongst them) who toss out opinions about things they’re not equipped to evaluate. People are as random as ever.
We live in a world of astonishing complexity. I’m not sure we’ve evolved enough to be able to cope with it. 50 years ago (or 100, if you really want to see a contrast) the average pereson understood most of the stuff he or she owned, (with the possible exception of the television set) and had a common sense idea of how it worked, even if they couldn’t repair it if it broke down.
How many people can work on their car nowadays? If the TV broke, my dad would at least take a sack of tubes to the drugstore to be “tested” before calling the repairman. Think of all the stuff that you have in your house now that might as well operate by magic. Do you know if your car has a dipstick?
My wife astonished me a couple months ago. My step-son caught the cord of his big sister’s laptop when he was running by it and managed to break the screen. Heather took the laptop apart, inspected it for further damage, decided it just needed a new screen, ordered one after determining the model number and it now works perfectly. If only she understood how to rebuild a transmission. Or refret a Telecaster.