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May 06, 2007

Fidelity vs. Convenience

Recently, I’ve been considering investment opportunities in entertainment media (as part of some broader thinking about how brand advertising (as opposed to performance-based advertising) will move online). In connection with that, I’ve been also musing about whether there is a secular trend in entertainment media in which “fidelity” of the experience gets traded off for “convenience” (portability) of the experience.

Here are some anecdotal data I’ve observed, some from my kids, 19 and 21, and their friends. The data do not categorically support a hypothesis, but they do seem to indicate a general movement.


When I was a teenager, we (mostly boys) were obsessed with getting the best stereo (“hi-fi”) we could afford (or build). The goal was to achieve the closest “fidelity” to the “live” (studio, usually) performance from which the recording was made. 

There weren’t many “convenience” (portability) options. Real audio “nuts” could buy portable, reel-to-reel tape recorders, but they were difficult to use, and almost no one had them. We were pretty much tethered to our stereos: turntables, tuners, pre-amplifiers (and, for the audiophiles, an amplifier) and speakers. Actually, the experience was (metaphorically) very similar to that of a desktop computer. 

Then convenience became available. The major examples: Transistor radios, Cassette Tape Players (the original Walkman), CD Players and, most recently, MP3 players (iPods being the canonical example). In each case, the (pure) audio experience was inferior to that of sitting properly positioned in front of a good stereo system: inferior system components, digital vs. analog files, smaller file sizes (e.g., MP3 vs. CD). 

Yet portable music has obviously exploded. 

Today, neither my kids nor their friends have stereos. Their laptops serve as their media centers. Whether on their laptops or through their iPods, they listen through the crummy built-in speakers (laptops), through low-end earphones (earbuds) or through decent PC speakers. Even the best quality music they listen to (MP3’s ripped directly from a CD – I hope legally) is inferior to the quality of a CD (or, God forbid, a vinyl LP). 

But, they can take their music wherever they go. 


In video, the story’s harder to decipher. 

For our purposes, the first video was films watched in movie theaters. By the mid-to-late ‘50’s, the quality of films was pretty good (film recording techniques had gotten good, and many movie theaters had good projection systems and sound systems). Obviously, however, watching a movie in a theater is not very “convenient” (in the sense of being portable). Drive-ins were, in this sense, more convenient, but lower fidelity, both video and audio (though, for other reasons, drive-ins have largely died out). 

One couldn’t watch portable video (of any type) until the ‘70’s when so-called “portable” TV’s began to appear. In this context, portable meant that you could use them in any room in the house that had reception and an electric plug. That’s also (roughly) when usable video recorder technology began to become available – though only for institutions (e.g., schools), not consumers.

In the early ‘90’s, handheld TV’s began to be sold; great convenience, terrible picture quality. 

Sales of theatrical release (and other straight-to-DVD) films for home consumption began in the late ‘90’s or early this century (can’t find the precise dates). Again, more convenience, less “fidelity” (except at the expensive, high-end, most home theater systems are poor substitutes for a modern multiplex in this regard). Portable DVD players also became available in the mid-to-late ‘90’s – lower fidelity, more convenience. 

Then cell phones and video MP3 players (again, the canonical example: the Video iPod). I was very surprised when I watched my first video on a video iPod – when you put the earphones in, that little screen becomes quite large and it’s an amazing experience (compared to one’s expectations, at least). Super convenient, but less fidelity than a movie theater. 

Not all the data line up neatly behind my hypothesis. The DVR is an example of additional convenience with no loss of fidelity. If one subtracts the increasingly annoying experience of going to a movie theater (audience conversations throughout the film, many on cell phones, etc.), it may well be that watching a DVD on a great home theater system without the annoyances of a movie theaters is better on both dimensions: fidelity and convenience. 

My hypothesis also probably only makes sense if the growth in more convenient ways to consume audio and video media has been accompanied by a decline in less convenient but higher fidelity experiences. 

Finally, there are other media types or experiences (e.g., virtual worlds, MMOG’s, video Skype-type applications, movies projected on a sheet in a college dorm room from a laptop through a cheap LCD projector, radio on the web, YouTube, Metacafe and similar sites) that deserve treatment, but time doesn’t permit here. 

I’d love to hear from anyone with other examples (or counter examples), as well with views of the implications of this hypothesis that the trend is to trade off fidelity for convenience.

May 6, 2007 | Permalink


The fidelity/convenience "trend" is cyclical and *always* driven by convenience.

Tapes were more convenient than vinyl.

CD's were more convenient than tapes or vinyl.

And then there's digital, which is another level of convenience.

Fidelity is immaterial to people. I am a recording engineer in L.A. with an MFA in jazz performance. Yes, mp3 doesn't sound as good as CD,

*but it still sounds really really good*

Fidelity is just a tech/bandwidth thing. No one cares. Convenience drives adoption and then the fidelity catches up.

I understand the quasi-machismo of building a "system" as well as anyone but the fact is that if you've got 50GB of music on your laptop/iPod, that's a good trade.

Soon enough, it won't be that much of a trade.

Do you think that kids and their friends *don't care* about listening on "crummy laptop speakers?"

Of course they do! They would much rather hear music on better speakers. But, it's a trade they're willing to take. Convenience drives adoption.

Only the most annoying, anal, recording engineers I know will reject a format that is vastly more convenient because of objections to fidelity. A tiny percentage *of recording engineers*

Onwards to movie theaters:

Yes they can be annoying. However, only in the age of limited access was the point of going to the movies *to see the movie*

Now, more or less, anyone has the choice of seeing any movie whenever they want.

So, the theater experience is about the SOCIAL. Not networked and asynchronously "social" as Net-centric peeps think, but physically social. It's a good hang.

Movie theaters must now be in the business of selling the "movie going experience" instead of "access to the movie."

Theaters that do the assigned seating, liquor-license, etc deals are AWESOME and are a very strong entertainment option. It's worth leaving the house. You should see how pysched people are about the movie-going experience after they see something at a theater better than the standard "candy-stuck-to-my-shoe" neighborhood dive.

Movie theater owners that think they're in competition with "The Incredibles" on Jimmy's iPod need to get a life. Any time Jimmy wants to watch something on his iPod, the movie theater is not a viable alternative.

They are competing with restaurants, ice cream parlors, home theater (to a degree), ice skating, etc. SOCIAL events. Not really movie-going events.

Another interesting entry into this market is the whole iMax thing. NOBODY's home theater competes with that!

It's all about following the scarcity.

I mean, seriously, video as a medium has only been around a few decades. Audio, basically the same thing. If the Net, from a policy/management standpoint [i.e. neutrality, etc], continues blossoming, I see the industrial production model in all media [aka "ART"] as a historical anomaly.

Praises to Yochai Benkler and The Wealth of Networks

My final thought on the fidelity thing is that we are probably beginning to reach dimishining ROI in terms of "audio through speakers" and "video on a screen".

How much bigger of a screen do you want? 70"? 300"?

I've listened to amazing jazz being recorded live through $2M woth of vintage mics, Neve recording consoles, and $100k speakers. It sounds great, but is it 1,000 times better than a CD through a pair of $2,000 speakers? or 10,000 times better than $200 speakers?

Hell no!

I've got another rant about advertising up my sleeve but no time for now...

Basically, companies need to figure out that
a) the only thing that matters is having a good product; networked word-of-mouth will do their work for them
b) marketing is about being *humanistic* and having conversation.

No one rolls into a some east coast yuppie's dinner party and yells "MY NEW PAIR OF ROCKPORTS KICK ASS." But that is what advertising amounts to. Maybe one of those people in the room is thinking about getting some new shoes next month, but in the meantime, everyone else thinks you're an ass.

These tactics are unsustainable for any marketer that wants to communicate to 21st century consumer markets.

It's great that online advertising is targeted, i.e. relevant. Now it's time for marketers to make THEMSELVES more socio-culturally relevant!

Posted by: Ethan Bauley | May 6, 2007 4:29:59 PM

Ethan makes several good points in this comment to my post today. Although the "rant" nature of the comment could confuse, he's actually adding some good, useful color to the bare bones of my post.

Posted by: Allen Morgan | May 6, 2007 8:29:06 PM

Not sure if you already knew this, but this seems to be closely related to the phenomenon described in "The Innovator's Dilemma".

Posted by: dw | May 6, 2007 9:31:46 PM

Hi Allen,

Apologies for the long comment, but your post was right in my wheelhouse. I can't resist...

After what I just wrote, I couldn't stop from buying the grocery store checkout line "Fast Company" with this teaser on the cover:

"Selling Authenticity: BMW, NIKE, STARBUCKS & MORE"

I can only imagine the irony was intentional, because it is a pretty good article!

I believe that the biggest, most important step that any enterprise [read: BRAND ADVERTISER] must make to be sustainable is to transform from sociopath ("shareholder value at the expense of everything else") to something socially acceptable.

They must become valued stakeholders within their socio-cultural communities.

Trader Joe's, Apple, et al cannot be the exception, but the rule.

The short version is: the media revolution is not about who can come up with the coolest "technology" to serve marginally more targeted commercials across platforms.

Apologies to all the pure tech people that believe all marketing *must* be evil, and who recoil from the idea of really thinking deeply about branding and real consumer culture. Yes, 99% of marketing is evil, but it doesn't have to be.

This media revolution is about who can find the best ways to bring companies, artists, and consumer-audiences together to help each other solve problems like:

- I need something. What should I buy?
- What should I watch/listen to?
- Who is going to fund my recording/show/movie?
- How do we express to our customer that we understand him or her?

If companies want to be valued by their human customers, to have access to their innermost desires, they need to ACT HUMAN. And by ACT, I mean "BE." Humans don't emote to robots.

There are some great quotes from the article, but one concept some ad agency brought up makes me laugh. It is the idea of "building a brand" through carefully thought-out marketing tactics.

Any advice that you would give your son, daughter, niece, or nephew works for 21st century "branding":

- Be yourself
- Be honest
- Don't do something just because other people are doing it. Do it because you want or need to.
- Don't hide your feelings
- Ask lots of questions

Second most importantly:

- Don't take advantage of others

Most importantly:

- Don't be afraid to change and make mistakes. Take risks.

Risks are an anathema to what Chris Bangle [BMW design director] terms "fortress brands."

"Deeply rooted in their heritage and values, they are inflexible, unmovable, and ultimately stuck in time."

"That's the problem with a dogmatic, static brand. The competition will outflank it, and the world will pass it by."

As Seth Godin pointed out in this month's Forbes Special Report on "The Disruptive Power of Networks," the entire notion of a company having ANY control over its brand is ridiculous.

It can reinforce what its customers say it is, it can help steer, but basically "the brand" is along for the ride.

Now that this is reality and not just an ideal, brands can JUSTIFY transforming themselves from nuisance to something much more culturally relevant

My position is that companies need to be more like people. And "brand" is just a synonym for "personality."

What does this mean for media advertising?

Interruption is not an option, ever, unless its really really minute (unless you are in the business of "annoying people who are trying to watch/read/hear something"). 5 seconds will be the max for pre-roll video. Nobody watches post-roll unless its really well targeted.

A better way is for advertising to *become the content itself*

I see this happening through the magic of sponsorship. Or...even better...


Now *that* is a word 21st century marketers can get behind.

Although it violates my pre-roll argument, this is the future, I think:


At any rate, great blog. Stumbled into it via:


I stole all my thoughts on movie theaters and "following the scarcity" from Mike Masnick at


The Neve board and mic collection I referred to are at Capitol Studios in Hollywood:


Go 'Hoos! [Comm '01]

Posted by: Ethan Bauley | May 6, 2007 9:40:10 PM

More apologies if the length of my comment is obtrusive or uncouth; I don't blog these things on my own so I'm not hip to the whole "pingback" thing, etc.


Posted by: Ethan Bauley | May 6, 2007 9:45:10 PM

*but it still sounds really really good*

Not if you're listening to classical music. I know that's not what (most) kids listen to. I didn't... I don't know when my musical taste changed, but it did. So the good old bulky CD player / receiver/amplifier / big speakers stay... they are just used less often.

Posted by: Zoli Erdos | May 7, 2007 5:45:10 PM

Good article! Clay Christensen formalized and generalized this in the Innovator's Solution.

People are willing to trade performance for access anytime. One type of access is portability or what Christensen calls a change in "context". This is a classic way to disrupt a market.

Examples include the Sony Walkman and Wi-Fi. They are both low performance but accessible in different contexts than their competitors.

Posted by: Nivi | May 8, 2007 12:57:35 PM

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