A few years ago, at least one set of conspiracy theorists were proved right. After the reunification of Germany, historians were sifting through the archives of the Osram factory in the former East Germany, and there in the records was the proof that a cartel of manufacturers deliberately stopped making light bulbs with a 2,500 hours lifespan in order to provide one that burned brighter, but only lasted 1,000 hours. This was the first recorded exercise in planned obsolescence. It wasn’t the last.
Manufacturers of all kinds struggled to create product demand that came with a quick replacement cycle. Most notably, American car manufacturers of the 1950s used incremental annual styling changes to inspire buyers to change their car on a yearly basis. It worked… for a while. Eventually financial downturns and the oil crisis in the 1970s made an annual replacement car impractical.
However, it is the telecommunications and computer industry that truly perfected planned obsolescence. We have become the willing agents of this, too, by happily buying minor variations on the theme of ‘tablet’, ‘smartphone’, or ‘laptop’, fuelled in part by regular downloaded free upgrades. When the time comes for the launch of a new smartphone, customers will happily buy the new model just in case the next round of software upgrades skip the previous model, and you are left with a dinosaur from the distant past of last year in your pocket.
This constant spiral of upgrades and new models used to have nothing whatsoever to do with good audio. We have products immune to planned obsolescence; the SME Series V tonearm, for example, has remained essentially unchanged since the mid 1980s, and the Klipschorn is only a couple of summers away from 70 years in continuous production. Even those brands with a reputation for changing product lines fast operate at glacial speeds compared with the telecoms and computer industries; brands like Audio Research and Musical Fidelity might have a new product or two every year, but in most cases hose products will stay in the catalogue for five years or more. And loudspeaker brands – even high-tech, electronics-filled loudspeaker brands like MartinLogan – don’t refresh the range with every season.
That’s changing. With the increased importance of the computer industry in all things consumer electronic, and the use of the smartphone and tablet computer in domestic music replay in the mainstream, audio now moves at a faster pace. This begins, naturally, with computer-side audio products (such as USB DACs), which change at a rate far faster than ever before. ‘Change’ here being a polite euphemism for “having a product life cycle about as long as it takes for milk to spoil”. But the infectious nature of such a rapidly churning sector of audio has meant shorter times between product changes have begun across the board. Where a product might have remained in the catalogue for eight years or more, now it’s five or six. This is still largely a function of the digital side of audio, but the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ effect of such radical changes in one side of audio has influence on the entire marketplace.