What Open Can Look Like

For the record, I really do think that open systems are better than closed ones. But not always. Sometimes, open systems turn into a complete mess.

I was thinking about this as we get into the holiday season, a time when lots of new consumer audio-visual electronics are purchased and make their ways into our homes. Last year I purchased what was recommended to me as a very good “home theater in a box,” i.e., a single-unit, multi-speaker system that serves as a central hub for audio from my cable box, Mac mini, Apple TV, Blu-Ray player, Wii console etc. Along with our television, it’s the principal interface for basically everything my family does in the living room.


Manual Transmission

Buying a receiver and a set of speakers bundled together in a box is not something that true audiophiles really do, so that makes this system something less than an expert’s product. Still, as I’ve discovered through use, it’s not for casual consumers, either. Mere mortals and the faint of heart will surely pale at the manual, which includes diagrams like this one:

In fact, the whole manual is rife with this kind of schematic nonsense. None of it does much to remedy the fact that what should be simple hookups — like connecting a television — in fact require a disheartening level of intricacy.

The most bewildering part to me though is not so much the complexity of hooking up hardware components to the receiver, but resolving the way audio works, which is the whole reason I bought it in the first place. Here’s just one of many completely incomprehensible tables that outline what ‘listening modes’ are available for various kinds of audio sources.

There are six pages of these tables in the manual, with hardly any attempt at explaining, in plain language, what any of it should mean to me.

Why is this manual so incomprehensible? Why is this system so difficult to use? The answer is not that this technology is inherently complicated or that the designers of this system are incompetent — or rather it’s not just for those reasons. The real reason is that the consumer audio-visual product space is in effect a platform composed of an unruly mess of standards with no rationalizing centrality.

In its entirety, the A/V platform may not be truly open (many of the standards used are at least partially closed), but the effect is the same: any manufacturer can create products that plug into any other system, including this one that I own. And so this system must support at least eight different kinds of cables and jacks, all communicating in an alphabet soup of protocols that are beyond the comprehension of consumers with better things to do with their time.

The market that results is a robust one, I suppose, as manufacturers seem to profit from it and most any new player can get into the game. But the net effect is that consumers must pay the price for an opaque ecosystem. We are the ones left to deal with a tangled mess of acronyms, wires and user interfaces that waste our time and energy. To me, that’s not so much an example of openness winning as everyone losing.

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  1. Wow. Definitely agreed. Even I who consider myself a seasoned A/V enthusiast (more A than V, actually) cringe when I see such over-the-top diagrams. We own a Marantz receiver whose manual is as thick as a dotcom-era Wired mag and looks like a set of instructions to assemble an atomic bomb. This also brings to mind the exact opposite of this (albeit still another closed system): Apple. It doesn’t take a lot of pondering to see how keeping everything simple within anyone’s reach (toddlers with iPads, anyone?) has played a big part in their rising user’s market share.

    Of course, unlike most other manufacturers Apple can afford the luxury of defining and deploy their own standards – hook line and sinker, while the rest are forced to accomodate whatever is already out there into their products. Unifying all these data protocols into a single one that cuts into the cable mess and insanity certainly wouldn’t hurt, but I’m not aware of any defined efforts in that direction yet… not to mention it to be a mammoth paradigm shift. What we have now is a pile-up of protocols and technologies added over the years, and fixing it for real would mean discard them all and start over. Which may eventually happen, but not overnight…

  2. I can recognize that as an Onkyo manual from twenty paces. Mine is a little less complicated because it is pre-HDMI. I love my Onkyo because it’s very flexible as far as the combinations of audio and video inputs, but I’m both a computer programmer and an occasional recording engineer. For me, the concepts are obvious. However, I have a good friend who owns an Onkyo and he is absolutely baffled by the thing. I can get it set up so it’s simple for him to use, but whenever he gets a new piece of equipment he can’t hook it up without my help.

    But what’s the option? Use composite video, stereo analog audio, and VHS for all eternity? It’s a tough one.

  3. I get that those “listening modes” tables are complex and confusing, but the truth is it’s only a problem because the manufacturer has needlessly exposed you to *far* more information than you should ever need to be bothered with. If you’ve hooked up your desired number of speakers to the appropriate terminals, you should never need to know how or why the unit has automatically chosen a “listening mode,” or what it’s named.

    I can think of two likely reasons for these tables to be in that manual:1) it’s in the contract requirements from the companies that license the codecs and such (annoying, but it doesn’t obviate the need for the codecs), and 2) just like the Bloomberg terminals are needlessly designed to be so complex- and daunting-looking, maybe these manuals include big/important-sounding tables of information to feed the egos of the most chest-puffed audiophiles (perhaps more important when it’s a bundle set like this).

  4. Jim: That might be partly true but the sound from this system in my experience falls short of ‘just working.’ Much to my chagrin I’ve had to do a lot of fiddling with listening modes and other controls in order to get DVDs to play at comparable sound levels to other audio sources, for example. The tables haven’t helped, to say the least. What’s more a previous home theater system I owned had similar problems, with equally inscrutable options. The whole thing is frustrating and needlessly complex.

  5. i think within the a/v industry especially, there has been a glut of evolutionary design thinking at work, rather than revolutionary. feature creep and bloat seem to be par for the course, as new standards are bundled on top of those released 30 years ago (among DTS and THX, my receiver sports a mono listening mode).

    i’d consider myself a pretty advanced user, yet i regularly use about 5% of the buttons on my remote, and stick to 3 or 4 of the 20+ listening modes the receiver offers. i’d venture to guess that user testing and research is not often employed by the engineers designing this stuff. it’s too bad because this is an area that clearly could use some help.

  6. > Of course, unlike most other manufacturers Apple can afford the luxury of defining and deploy their own standards – hook line and sinker, while the rest are forced to accomodate whatever is already out there into their products.

    Their own standards? Like what? I can think of one, the iPod connector, and in that case they also accommodate the 3.5″ audio jack.

    Apple is keen to adopt newer standards and abandon old ones (hence Apple TV only has an HDMI port), but other manufacturers can do that too. They choose not to.

  7. Sad fact is, someone probably sold you something more complex than you needed, so you got into a situation where you had to bang your head against the wall before it all clicked into place. But I’m sure you learned some valuable lessons from the trials and tribulations, which you can of course put to good use in helping friends and family with their own AV stuff. It’s how it’s always been. I do think there are design-level and industry-level hurdles to overcome with these types of things, and it would be nice to simplify and/or redesign them…but that’s why you had other, simpler, more elegant options from which to choose.

    The thing is, “open” or “incredibly complex” products that require silly amounts of dicking around will always have a market amongst the tinkerers who don’t value their own time very highly (see Android and Linux). But, just as the news media are supposed to act as gatekeepers for the news that’s FIT to report (LOL, days gone by, eh?), salespeople at electronics stores are also supposed to be able to advise you on what will best suit your needs (double LOL).

  8. Jim: I have to disagree with you. As I mentioned in the post, a home theater-in-a-box is not the kind of thing most audiophiles would go for. It’s an all-in-one product, sort of like an iMac. Yes there always will be products that are more tech-oriented. But this isn’t one of them, and is certainly not marketed that way. There shouldn’t be any reason that someone like me, who can set up an iMac straight out of the box, shouldn’t be able to understand and use an all-in-one home theater product.

  9. The receiver being the brains of the living room, you’d think it’d be smarter. But with all its complexities of connection choices, you gain flexibility from a larger community. At the cost of simplicity, which is said to be overrated and does not sell to the average consumer. How often do we connect to the hidden interface of our receivers? Normally I’ll plug-in and done, while newbies spend time learning the acronyms, till they realize that the square pegs are meant for the square holes, and round for the round holes. Very similar to playing with the Light Bright toy which is a no-brainer. Afterwards you’re an expert for years to come. And that would be the last time anyone would ever see the back of their receiver. At least till a new device gets introduced or a living room reconfiguration. By then, you’re already experienced and well familiar with the device, except how to change the time and weather on it.

  10. “As I mentioned in the post, a home theater-in-a-box is not the kind of thing most audiophiles would go for.”

    Yes, this sentence is entirely true. However, even a cursory glance at the product we’re talking about tells a different story, and it’s a story that’s easily understood on the salesroom floor. This receiver can and does stand alone. Just because the receiver came in a box with a set of speakers (and perhaps some other components) does not make this one of those “all in one” units that have always been understood to be “not for audiophiles.”

    Technically, you could have bought a *much* simpler all-in-one system that actually outputs better sound, takes up less space, is easier to set up, and isn’t quite as compatible with components you don’t own or need…but either you didn’t know you had such options, or you chose this one over them all, for your own reasons.

  11. I think the biggest problem here is the manual. In order to be usable with every likely system (as well as some featuritis) there are a LOT of connections, and the manual has a LOT of diagrams to helpfully help you hook up to one of the now dozen or so “typical” setups.

    Aside from the raft of speaker wires (I am at 7.1 now) there are really very few connectors used now. The new DVD player has:
    - Toslink
    - HDMI
    - Ethernet
    - Power

    Easy. But the connection guide in the manual goes on and on and on. A quick-start card and some better manual organization would help. Then admit the manual is for nerds, and let the nerdy bits be that way, so it scares off the everyday user.

    There are lots of other issues when you get to using stuff. I had to get a new “connected BD” player, that is a DVD player that does Netflix. But oh so much more. It’s cool, but too much. And also not enough. (more, if you care, here: http://shoobe01.blogspot.com/2010/11/convergence-in-my-living-room.html).

    And having seen it, I think Google TV and similar devices are not going to fix it. As far as Apple: Anyone seen the converter boxes? You cannot just not have a lot of these connections. People will fill the gap with yet more boxes with their own manuals and a pile of cables.

  12. but what is the alternative? a closed, single-vendor system? would you be willing to trade your blu-ray player, the wee, and the cable for a row of iDevices that would be simpler to set up?

    i am not so sure the tradeoff would be worth it..

  13. @Khoi,

    Totally agree. Maybe 10 years from now the other standards will have died off, leaving us only with simple, universal HDMI. I kinda doubt it…

    @Jim,

    Saying that Khoi could have bought a simpler unit doesn’t disprove his point that the industry is dominated by poorly-designed products. It just means that some exceptions exist—and the kind of product you mentioned would definitely be an exception from what I’ve seen.

    Ironically, when I first started reading your comment, I actually thought you were pointing out another design flaw, namely: that this device was marketed so poorly that Khoi (and the person who recommended it to him) thought it was considerably simpler than it actually is.

  14. Sorry, but its a complicated product with lots of different standards to be supported in one device. Each device you are plugging in has multitude of output types as well further complicating matters.

    Personally I don’t find the above manual difficult to understand at all and probably performs the job very well.

    User error.

  15. I know precisely where you’re coming from. What’s worse is having the somewhat technophobe wife ask why she can’t hear the dialog from the movie when the background noise is higher, after she was able to hear everything fine from the television speakers, and I’m unable to give a good answer other than screwing with the receiver again. And I’m supposed to be the saavy one!

  16. I agree with Tim. Traditional AV products have always supported legacy connections (and some would argue they are superior to HDMI for audio). This inevitably results in more complicated manuals than those associated with Apple products. I doubt Apple could do better.

  17. I don’t think it’s inherently a problem of open vs closed systems. Indeed the ‘richness’ of the open audio standards leads to this sort of [i]potentially[/i] confusing product. But the fault here surely lies with the lack of ‘human-scale’ communication: I’m sure that most of the diagrams and references could be split into different sections – relevant to specific users – and explained in easily understood language.

    I think the logical (and sometimes disastrous) conclusion of closed systems is not only (the very appealing) iPad and iPhone, but also the insanely inefficient interface of QuickTime X – an interface that is totally unusable for professional use, and (here’s the key fact) which does not include any user-controlled Preferences!
    Closed systems can lead to this sort of arrogance and disregard for your end-users, where there is no manual because the system is simply: ‘take-it-or-leave-it’.