iPods vs. everything else: An audio quality arms race? More like a fashion arms race

iPods vs. everything else: An audio quality arms race? More like a fashion arms race

Summary: According to a story in Technology Review by John Borland (who used to work with me here at ZDNet), Sony is apparently hopeful that noise cancelling technology will give the company some advantage in the portable audio market against rivals like the iPod which happens to control 70 percent of the market. Wrote Borland:"Portable players of all types have sounded rather bad as far back as I can remember, but the iPod really surprised me," Blackwood said in an email interview.

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TOPICS: Apple
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According to a story in Technology Review by John Borland (who used to work with me here at ZDNet), Sony is apparently hopeful that noise cancelling technology will give the company some advantage in the portable audio market against rivals like the iPod which happens to control 70 percent of the market. Wrote Borland:

"Portable players of all types have sounded rather bad as far back as I can remember, but the iPod really surprised me," Blackwood said in an email interview. "Now competing companies are being forced to make better sounding products just to keep up."

That's Brad Blackwood being quoted (as I laughed). He's a recording engineer out of Memphis that very likely has what audiophiles refer to as golden ears. He can hear things that you and I cannot (or maybe we can, but we'd need special training). Nothwithstanding the extent to which a decent third-party pair of noise cancelling headphones might bring an iPod up to snuff with one of Sony's newfangled offerings, Sony's investment in audio quality improvements is admirable but for the most part misplaced. It's going after a segment of the market that isn't that lucrative to go after, if your Sony.

If your Bose -- a company that has cache value with audiophiles -- the situation is a little different. Whereas it makes sense for Bose to cater to them with products like its Quiet Comfort 3 headhones (I so want a pair), audiophiles and golden ears are simply too narrow of a niche to pursue if you're a consumer electronics giant trying to cater to the masses or take on Apple. As it turns out (and this has so far been the downfall of every company trying to steal share from Apple), most of the iPod generation is far less concerned with the audio quality in their ears than they are with the image of owning an iPod and having those white headphone wires dangling from their ears. So powerful is the iPod icon, that having a set of white headphones matched to something that's not an iPod isn't good enough. 

Am I downplaying implementation and quality? No way. The point is that implementation (eg: Apple's brilliant abstraction of the complex connectivity between its online store and iPods) and some measure of audio quality are simply the cost of admission. You want to take on Apple? You had better have those parts licked. Borland goes onto quote an IDC analyst:

Sony's introduction of noise-canceling technology into the device itself, with a microphone in the MP3 player that senses and counteracts ambient noise, raises the stakes considerably. Rival executives say they're watching to see how consumers react to this development, but no one has yet promised to follow suit.

"It's a way in which device vendors can differentiate themselves, and we expect to see similar strategies, if not identical ones, over time," said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "But frankly, an important issue to consider is consumers' perception of good enough. For many, even if music sounds sub-par ... the perception is that it just isn't that bad."

Raises the stakes considerably? Or sub-par isn't that bad? Which is it? Answer? The latter. Sony, Microsoft, and the whole lot of them looking to beat Apple need to realize that while they're worrying about what goes on the circuit board, Apple is mostly trying to work out the next TV commercial with U2 lead singer Bono. As it prepares to launch it's own iPod killer (Zune) in the next few weeks (just in time for the holiday season), I think Microsoft knows this. Perhaps Sony and other would-be Apple assailants have finally figured this out too. Of the bunch though, Microsoft is probably the only one with (1) the killer instinct, (2) a need to do some sort of bet-the-company move (all technology roads eventually lead to the company with the leading digital rights management system and Microsoft knows that it has to be that company), and (3) the advertising budget. 

The next question of course -- the one that no one is trying to unearth the answer to -- is "who Microsoft's Bono?" 

Topic: Apple

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3 comments
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  • mic on the device?

    Ok, so built in sound canceling is a neat feature that I would not mind having. However, with that said, I generally have my iPod in my pocket. This means that it is being exposed to sounds (like the ruffling of my jacket pocket) that my ears are not. This leads me to believe that this Sony device would end up trying to cancel out sounds that don't exist for my ears, making me hear the canceling sound itself. This would be incredibly annoying.
    Stuka
    • No, the mic is on the head phones

      The reason this will not turn the tide is because you can add the
      same headphones (or better) to the iPod and get the same
      result. Better yet this device is priced higher than the iPod as
      well so it is easy to justify upgrading the headphones.

      For Apple's part, they should do one of two things. Offer the
      iPod with your choice of say 3 different head phones (build to
      order iPod) or simply keep the headphones as cheap as possible
      so users can buy what they want.

      My personal feeling is that Apple still dominates because they
      have the best user interface and continue to push the physical
      size down, the storage up and the overall price competitive.

      Good luck to the competition.
      puggsly
  • Ipod still around??

    It astonishes me to think that the iPod still retains a 70% market share despite it being the most flimsily constructed, usability-restricted and technically inferior mp3 player available. Since making to the move from Apple to Creative its been soooo much easier.
    pushpop