ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

May 1, 2004

The Tyranny of Choice

Choice is in the press lately. A selection in this month’s Scientific American, by the distinguished "choiceologist" Dr. Barry Schwartz, says, in essence, that the developed world is being inundated by an excess of choice. Apparently, this problem has gotten to the point of actually causing clinical depression in some people.

Schwartz calls those most vulnerable to excessive choice -- who can’t help themselves from striving to make the best possible choice -- maximizers. The other half -- those who limit their efforts and make a choice that they feel is good enough -- are satisficers. (The term satisficers, by the way, was invented by the late Herbert Simon, who received a Nobel Prize for his illuminating observation that some people are satisfied with less, while others are never satisfied. I could have told you that after my second girlfriend in high school.)

It seems that maximizers are liable to spend inordinate amounts of time and effort in making a choice. They are convinced that, somewhere in the universe, there exists a perfect choice that will satisfy them completely. So high are their expectations that when they finally do settle on a decision, the euphoria they hoped for is short-lived. To make matters worse, they are quickly overcome by remorse over all the choices they didn’t make. The result is an endless cycle of self-reinforcing disappointment. Sound familiar?

Included in Schwartz’s article was a little survey (rather reminiscent of those in Cosmopolitan) that would allow the reader to determine whether he or she is a maximizer or a satisficer. It included such statements as: "I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend." "When I am listening to the radio I often check other stations, even if I’m enjoying what I’m currently listening to." "I surf other channels while watching a show on TV." "I’m a big fan of lists that attempt to rank things." And so on. I filled in the survey. I’m a maximizer. I bet you are, too. Why else would you be reading this publication?

You and I, my friend, are maximizers, and we have a problem. And the first step to dealing with our problem, my fellow audiophiles, is to admit that we have a problem. I receive dozens of e-mails from pathetic fellow maximizers all the time. "Dear Mr. Mantle," they write; "which of these four pairs of $2000 speakers is better? Which under-$1000 CD player is the best buy? I’m interested in one of three equally super-expensive DACs -- which is the best?"

It’s important to remember that, if you’re limiting yourself to a specific price point, particularly a lowish one, then your options many be quantitatively large but qualitatively limited. The return involved in scouring the nation for a $2000 pair of speakers that will somehow be twice as good as every other pair of $2000 speakers out there is nil. Where a buyer should perhaps invest more time is in deciding whether to settle for a $2000 pair of speakers or spring for a $5000 pair.

On the other hand, people who go into an audio store saying that they have no price point in mind, that they want only "the best," are kidding themselves. Any true high-end store can show you better and better sound until your house is remortgaged and your firstborn is sold into slavery. Maximizers who do this fail to realize that the quest for the best, and the actual purchase of gear you can be happy with, are mutually exclusive activities. As one of my local stereo pushers puts it (with an evil grin), "You can’t have filet mignon for the price of a Big Mac."

Not that I don’t have friendly and helpful responses for people on their quest. I often do. Further, I do believe that, given enough listening and enough listening ability, you can determine which of a series of products is better. But let’s face it -- the point of this hobby is joy and enlightenment, and some of us are ending up with despair and frustration. Isn’t there a level of sound that you can just settle back and enjoy without worrying about the next upgrade? (Okay -- maybe that was a stupid question.)

It seems to me that high-end manufacturers themselves suffer from another sort of choice obsession -- that of configuration choices. I recently (at last) received for review an AVTAC Pasiphae -- a preamp-like device with five buttons and two big knobs, all unlabeled. They’re unlabeled because the user can assign functions to them in just about any conceivable combination. Use the left knob for volume and the right one for balance, or select inputs with the left and set the time with the right. It goes on and on, and it seems to be a trend. The more expensive a product, the more likely it is to have multiple configuration options built into it. Or, as my local stereo pusher might say, Harvey’s burgers are more expensive than McDonald’s, and come with user-configurable toppings.

My dCS Delius, for example, has about 16 option menus, each with an average of, say, three possible settings -- that’s 316 different combinations, or 43,046,721. One way to look at this (and I hope I’m not helping someone to justify their "investment") is that you’re really getting 43,046,721 DACs for the price of one. If the Delius cost $12,000, for example, you could tell your wife that you’re paying only 0.03 cents each for 316 DACs. What a bargain!

There’s another way to look at it: It’s a royal pain in the botchnik. I may be a maximizer, but all I want is to turn the thing on and get the best sound that the unit is capable of. And to prove that, I always pick "the works" with hot peppers on my Harvey’s burger.

...Ross Mantle

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