How come you need an engineering degree to set up a 5.1 surround sound system to work with your flat-screen TV? That's what the consumer electronics industry should be asking itself of the eve of the 2013 International CES show.
Streaming video may be the opiate of the masses, but there's a point -- five remote controls? -- beyond which complexity will cause people to rethink their burgeoning home-theater addictions.
I think this is already happening, and it'll be much to the detriment of consumer-electronics vendors who are pinning their economic hopes on gadgets that promise more than they deliver.
If this problem were sandboxed to technologies consumers have already decided they don't want, like 3D TV, that'd be one thing. But it's a five-alarm fire drill when entertainment centers packed with thousands of dollars of gear put one in mind of the pleasures of reading.
The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the trade group behind CES, doesn't get this yet. One of their pre-show press releases asserts that "consumer confidence in technology [has] reached the highest level in the history of the CEA index."
While that metric measures expectations about tech spending, as opposed to product likes and dislikes, the CEA is essentially conflating buyers' desires ("I want the latest stuff") with vendors' implicit delivery promises ("Doesn't it work great?").
Sadly, the answer in many homes is "no" more often than the CES crowd realizes. Worse still, I'd wager that 95 percent of all surround sound systems not professionally set up -- i.e., almost the entire installed base -- might be sounding, but they ain't surrounding.
That's what my year-end holiday experience tells me. I figured I'd knock off hooking up a Pioneer 5.1 home theater receiver and JBL 5-Channel "home cinema" speaker system in short order. Three hours later, I was glad to realize that a technical background still has some stateside utility.
Be assured it wasn't because I didn't read the manual. (I looked at the pictures.) It's because hooking up the hornet's nest of black boxes -- literally, unless you prefer silver -- and cables, and getting a dozen supposedly compatible standards to interface properly with each other is one big crapshoot.
Surround sound receivers like this Pioneer VSX-1022 sport rear faceplates only engineers can love.
For starters, there's the physical equipment: HDTV, receiver, five speakers and subwoofer, cable set-top box, and Blu-ray DVD player. Standards slinging hi-def video and audio amongst all this gear include Wi-Fi, DLNA, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, and various flavors of stereo and Pro Logic surround sound. But wait, there's more, including cabling of the HDMI, optical, and component video variety.
Sadly, many consumers won't even get anywhere near the point I'm at, which is having a finished set up where I mostly know what it is and isn't working. In case you're interested, the surround works properly for DVDs and streamed video. Not so much for the cable TV, though, because the digital audio won't pass through properly from the set-top box, so I have to use the analog outputs instead.
Sadly, our archetypical newbie will reach #setupfail right at the beginning of the process, where she's told that all six speakers need to maintain polarity. Even if I explained to her what that means and how to do it, she'll still fail. Here, I'll prove it:
Me: Polarity means that the wires running from the red terminals on the back of the receiver need to be connected to the red terminals on the speakers, and it's the same deal for black. (I'm using "red" and "black" because it's simpler than "plus" or "minus.")
Her: OK, sounds easy enough. How do I do that?
Me: Look at this speaker wire. You see how one lead has a thin white stripe [or is ribbed] so that you can tell it apart from the other one? Just use the white [or ribbed] lead for red.
Her: [Short pause while she examines the speaker wire.] All I see is one gold wire and one silver one.
It's at this point the one realizes the brilliance of the late Steve Jobs's one-click philosophy. The consumer electronics industry has largely been able to replicate Apple's aesthetic success, if only because today's thin televisions will always look better by comparison than the squat SD cousins they've replaced.
What they haven't cracked is interoperability. Whether that's due to competitive, technical, or market issues is irrelevant. Apple's walled garden may get criticized for locking people in, but that beats CE world, where few can get past the technologically intimidating gates in the first place.