Feature Creep and Planned Obsolescence in Audio Equipment

Back in the day, you could buy a stereo – an amplifier or receiver – and pretty much assume it would last for the foreseeable future. My son is currently using some hand-me-down gear that’s about twenty years old, and that still works fine. But lately, the audio equipment industry has figured out that, by piling on the features, they can hard-wire obsolescence into their devices.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw an article about a receiver that supports Dolby Atmos, a technology “allowing users to experience an immersive sound experience — including audio from above and below.”

As the article says:

“If you’ve sat in a Dolby Atmos-equipped theatre before, you can expect a similar experience from the Onkyo receivers. When you’re in the sweet spot, you’ll be able to hear rain drops falling from above your head to splash on the ground below you.”

First thought: BFD. I really don’t care about hearing raindrops above and below me. Sure, that’s a simply example, and I assume that, ideally, this feature would provide additional ambience above the 5, um 7, I mean 9 channels that are already available for some films. (Aside: how many people really use multi-channel setups? It’s too much of a hassle for most people.)

But this made me realize how short the shelf-life of audio equipment has become. Sure, manufacturers want to bring in new features to get you to upgrade your equipment, but most people don’t upgrade audio or AV equipment often; no more often than TVs. (You’ll certainly need to apply firmware upgrades to this device to use Dolby Atmos over time, but, to be fair, you’ll be able to use this receiver for non-Dolby Atmos content even if its firmware isn’t updated, in the future, for, say, Atmos 3.4.7.)

A reader wrote in recently with a question about a DAC that no longer works under OS X Yosemite. Apparently it uses a USB connection (to get rid of that nasty jitter), and the manufacturer has not updated the drivers.

First, I would never, ever, buy audio equipment that depends on drivers; that’s a recipe for a very short life. It’s hard enough getting updated drivers for printers and scanners; those manufacturers have realized that they can generate more sales by ignoring compatibility. But in audio equipment? Frankly, you’d be foolish to buy any audio hardware that requires special software to make it run.

We don’t have a choice, for some devices. Blu-Ray players often display messages that certain features on a given Blu-Ray disc may not be supported by the player’s firmware, but I’ve yet to see a Blu-Ray disc that simply doesn’t play. But, in the future, it’s going to be receivers that give us these messages (granted, this is more for AV receivers than stereo receivers).

The audio equipment industry, which is going through some very tough times, is picking up the same ideas. We won’t see this for speakers, or for standard amplifiers, but you can be sure that manufacturers of receivers, DACs and other devices are working on ways of limiting the life of their current devices. The risk, however, is that when a user finds that a receiver from, say, brand A no longer works, they’ll be more likely to buy a new one from brand B or C, having been burned by brand A.

It’s a slippery slope. Anything that depends on software, or on firmware upgrades, is treacherous. If it means that your expensive DAC no longer works, I’d contact the relevant authorities for consumer issues. In most countries, manufacturers are required to provide support for devices well after the guarantee period. I know that, in England, for example, consumer law protects you for six years from the date of delivery; Apple mentions it on their website. If you bought a DAC in England, and drivers weren’t updated, you might be able to make a claim and get a refund, though I’m sure it’s not a simple process.

So think twice before you buy audio equipment. Make sure it’s future-proof. Don’t play into the hands of manufacturers who want to sell you something that will only work for a few years.