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Positive Feedback ISSUE 7
june/july 2003


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Auroville 15
by Srajan Ebaen

As an ex-marketing stud—does that make me into a present-day eunuch of public or not so public relations?—I'm both doubly cynical, about White Papers and associated product propaganda, and appreciative of the cunning creativity it takes to pull them off. Which sometimes means pulling the wool over people's eyes and ears, too. But that's what marketing guys and spin-doctors get paid for. Can't blame ‘em for excellence. Of course, when the bullshit meter is calibrated by the designer himself as was the case with the FPS High-End speaker, you're allowed to feel sick, in fact should feel ill.

Strangely enough, certain dealers are immune to this semantic motion sickness, seemingly used to walking in limbo when the rug of reason has been pulled out from under them. That's because to sell product requires a story. How to distinguish one product from another? In the end, the one with the better, more colorful and implausible story often wins. Baron Münchhausen, after all, was a first-rank storyteller—intelligent, charming, charismatic. Entertaining. Magical circuits. An ex-military black-ops engineer now audio guru. Space-age materials. Subatomic particle theory. Patents.

Ah, patents. They do look mighty impressive. Even an indefinite patent-pending will do. It suggests that the claim hasn't been thrown out yet, is merely awaiting its victorious turn. Trouble is, the ones granting the patents are mostly not engineers specialized in the particular field of the incoming requests. In many cases, they're attorneys whose job it is to validate the novelty of claims, not to test their actual veracity. Hence many patents are awarded for uncontested claims, not laboratory measurement confirmation of their virtues.

Another trouble with patents? Their usefulness as protection from copycats is only as good as your willingness and ability to enforce them in the first place. You can't arbitrarily overlook Mammon of the deep pockets as your first infringement subject to pounce on nearly broke Minion of the sole-ownership Corp as the second infidel. Should Minion be able to prove that Mammon violated your patent first and you failed to take him to court? Minion goes free, too, and your patent protection's secret access code has just been publicized on the Internet.

Don't think this is a joke. Giants such as Coca Cola have full-time salaried patent protection personnel. I'm told that restaurants serving Coke, upon being asked for Pepsi by an unwitting patron, have to respond with very specific verbiage. Should they fail to do so in the presence of an undercover Coke spy? They could lose their franchise.

The other interesting thing about patents? Many nowadays are application patents. They transfer pre-existing solutions to new uses. An example in audio? Rollerblock isolation bearings. They were originally developed and patented in industrial construction and as part of seismic protocol. Now they're patented for audio use. That makes the principle employed neither novel nor necessarily superior to other approaches for the same application.

Do you think the patent clerk went home and A/B'd his CD player with and without ‘em? Or that he compared them to other isolation devices and pronounced these superior? Hell no. He merely checked whether anyone else had thought of using a variation of industrial roller bearings underneath audio components.

A cable manufacturer owns a patent on their sandwich-layer cable geometry, which can be traced back to engineering textbooks from the 50s. He repeatedly and successfully sues copycats to retain his exclusive use rights. One day he picks the wrong party. Its engineer went to school and remembers his textbooks, down to the very page where said invention was first mentioned. He's prepared to counter-sue and indeed double-dares the first threat: The patent had been erroneously granted, was, in fact, public-domain data accessible to anyone with the smarts to know where to look. Faced with the prospect of losing a patent that served him well with less-informed parties of smaller resources, the patent-holder backs off. Both makers continue their respective business as usual to today.

This leaves one to suspect that the primary value of many modern patents is in the marketing rather than performance or protection domains. The consumer not familiar with the process leading up to the granting of a patent is easily bamboozled into believing that an ad flag of a patent—or patent-pending—signifies an officially sanctioned and confirmed statement of superiority.

It isn't and it doesn't. It merely means that using rayon-impregnated carbon fiber with silicon particles as tweeter diaphragm material hasn't occurred to anyone before now. Which isn't to say that it couldn't work, nor that you might not prefer a speaker with such a tweeter to all others. Just know that the attorney involved in the patent search could have cared less. The novelty of the claim was his concern, not whether it worked better than existing tweeter materials.

Even without patent affixation, certain claims are just too good to be true. Time alignment in speakers with vertical baffles and 4th-order networks? Not that anyone would be ballsy enough to claim such wackiness in the first place—or are they?—but that stating the impossible, though a good story it does make, shouldn't be taken lightly. While it may sell product to those willingly ensnared by fancy lingo, it's also an affront to all those engineers who believe that honesty rather than audaciousness is the better part of valor.

Said fellow columnist and polished pen jockey Jim Saxon in his recent musings on the same subject: "Sometimes, I think the White Paper is the product and the physical manifestation of the concept is just a way to make money for the guy who had enough guts to write the White Paper in the first place."

Having written a few not-so-white papers myself, I have to concur with the Saxon King. To this day, I get a rise out of a well-argued claim on the slippery slope of incredulity—it's the artistic side of the con, the balls, the cleverness. I can appreciate that just as I marvel at a hair-brained heist pulled off successfully. But knowing the likely consequences of audio maroonery—audio hobbyists, more so than others, seem to insist on being bewildered, hoodwinked and bled to the quick—also pisses me off. This isn't so different from an adult's realization that, overall, the winner tends to be the products with the better marketing, not the ones with the better engineering department. And, that the successful entrepreneur is often the one not bothered to tell a few lies or walk over a few bodies if needed. It's the way of the world. But that don't mean I have to like it. Walking the straight path may, at times, have the very walk for its only reward but that doesn't make it any less appealing, really—just harder to walk. Come to think of it, that's its reward.

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