Friday, January 13, 2012

Q: What was the biggest fashion trend at CES?

A: Earphones

I just got back from two days at  CES 2012 prowling from exhibit to exhibit, looking at the newest and coolest technology that the Captains of Industry have put forth to fatten the coffers of the World Economy. I found pencil thin flat-screen TV's the size of my wall, 3D video cameras priced at consumer purchasing levels, home appliances united together in electronic, domestic bliss, cars that are more like computers on wheels than basic transportation and a plethora of other gizmos that will keep the factories of the planet churning out products of delight into the supply chains of every Big Box and online retailer from Sheboygan to Shanghai. (Whew.....)

I also saw a hell of a lot of earphones. I mean, a HELL of a lot of earphones. They were coming from everywhere. Go down an aisle, there's an earphone manufacturer. Given that I went down a lot of aisles in the 1 million plus square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I am betting that there were enough earphones present in the facility to adorn the ears of every head in Nevada and Utah, maybe Arizona too.

So, it got me to me to wondering, why? I mean, the only time you put on the earphones during my pot-smoking adolescence was so that you could play Led Zep at the recommended volume and not incur the wrath of your parents yelling down from the top of the basement stairs to, "turn down that noise you call music." Otherwise, we'd get together, throw the vinyl on the turntable, light up the joint, turn up the volume and pass the album cover around for collective and individual ogling as music came roaring through the loudspeakers. We wanted to hear the music together.

A lot has changed since that time. First of all, I haven't smoked pot since the Reagan Administration, despite the fact that Ronnie provided more than enough reason for me to want to puff my way into a state of dream-like oblivion. The 12" vinyl disc, with accompanying album-art cover, has gone the way of the typewriter, leaving in its stead song based music downloads for playing on an iPod.

For all the good stuff about it, the iPod is not about listening to music together. I haven't heard of many occasions where the kids are sneaking downstairs, iPod in hand, to listen to the Devil's Music in a state of group euphoria. Parent's aren't yelling at the kids to, "turn it down", because there's nothing to turn down.Yeah, you can hook an iPod into your home theater. But the primary listening device for the iPod is not the loudspeaker. It's the earphone and its scrawny kid brother, the earbud.

Yeah, the entry point for it all is still the same two holes that Nature has put on either side of your head. But, it's fundamentally a solo experience. Yes, you can share your playlists online to those that are interested. But, sharing a playlist socially does not necessarily translate in to a society of listeners. After all, there is a certain bond to be enjoyed knowing that all your friend's parents are yelling at them too, to "turn down that noise you call music."

So, there were a lot of earphones at CES 2012, too many probably. Half of the manufacturers most likely won't be in business next year. The competition is too stiff and the product is becoming more subject to the dynamics of fashion, a dynamic in which, if you have "trendsetter" status, you get a two year ride; less, if you're marketing a style for women.

Or, maybe it hasn't changed. Maybe kids hang around the schoolyard and bond over the complaint that their parents keep coming into the basement yelling, "why don't you kids take those damn things off and listen to that noise you call music, together."