by Craig Anderton
Unless you are so naive you probably can’t function in the real world, you know not to believe everything you read in print. But you also have to watch for true statements that are worded misleadingly. For example, when you see “digital quality sound,” something like CD or DAT probably comes to mind, right? However, a signal with 4-bit resolution sampled at 11 kHz also qualifies as “digital quality sound,” since it is, in fact, digital and does produce sound.
Or what about a Minidisc’s “data compression”? True, the data is compressed. But no ad ever goes out of its way to mention that this is lossy compression that is more accurately termed “data omission,” not the lossless type of compression that completely restores the original signal.
Ad copy also got creative when samplers made the transition from 8 bits, to 12, then to 16 bits. An 8-bit sampler might have 1,024 kilobytes of RAM, and be advertised as having “1 Megabyte of sample memory.” Fair enough. But 16-bit models that had equal memory would also be advertised as having “1 Megabyte of sample memory.” If you didn’t know that each 16-bit sample used *two* bytes of memory, then you’d think that it had as much sampling time as the 8-bit model. In reality, given equivalent sample rates, the 16-bit model would have *half* the overall sampling time of the 8-bit model.
In fairness, some manufacturers went out of their way to be honest, and specified memory in “megawords” (a “word” can be whatever the bit length is — you could have a 12-bit word, 16-bit word, 32-bit word, etc.). So, if a sampler was advertised as having 1 Megaword of memory, you knew what to expect, regardless of the sample’s bit length.
But some manufacturers really take liberties — such as Quantum, who manufacture hard drives. In the real world, almost everyone considers that a kilobyte consists of 1,024 bytes. In fact, the reason why a capital K is used to indicate kilobytes (e.g., 1,024K bytes) as opposed to a lower case k (e.g., 100k ohms) is because the lower case k stands for 1,000 while the upper case K stands for 1,024. Similarly, a megabyte equals 1,024 kilobytes, or about 1,048,500 bytes. So most of the time, a 100 MB drive really has over 104,850,000 bytes. But not in the world of Quantum hard drives, where 1 kilobyte equals 1,000 bytes, and 1 megabyte equals 1,000 kilobytes — for a total of 1,000,000, not 1,048,500 bytes. Legal? Yes. Sneaky? Definitely. Ethical? I think not. You’re losing about 5% of the storage you thought you had.
There are plenty of other examples: sound card specs taken with the sound card out of the computer so it’s not influenced by noise within the machine, cassettes whose frequency response figures are accurate only if the input signal is at -20 dB, mixers that present noise specs with all faders set to 0 instead of unity gain, and so on. While not exactly untruthful, they all try to paint a picture that is as optimistic as possible rather than being representative of real-world performance.
Paradoxically, the ethical companies that don’t play these games can appear to have inferior products in the eyes of those who don’t read the fine print. Sometimes people ask me why some expensive piece of gear has worse specs than something cheaper. Often the answer is that the expensive piece of gear is made by a company that doesn’t play fast and loose with specs. Then again (believe it or not!) some companies actually quote specs that are *worse* than what you could typically expect. Several years ago I bought a TASCAM Model 58 analog multitrack whose frequency response was quoted as being down -3 dB at 20 kHz. After tweaking the bias, I measured the actual response as actually being down -3 dB at around 25 kHz. Curious, I called up TASCAM and talked to a representative to find out why they were presenting themselves in a less favorable light than they needed to. He said that not everyone was going to tweak the bias, so they preferred presenting specs that *any* user was virtually guaranteed to obtain, even after the unit had been jostled during shipping, and possibly even using non-optimum tape.
Then there’s the company that claimed a 90 day warranty. Yet they regularly repaired gear for free that had been out of warranty for two years or more. When I asked why they didn’t just say they offered a lifetime warranty, a company spokesperson said that they didn’t want to advertise that fact because it would encourage some people to abuse their equipment, knowing that it would be fixed for free. Instead, they had the option to charge people who had been careless, but if someone had used a piece of gear, treated it right, and simply had the misfortune of getting a defective component, the company would not only repair it for free but in many cases paid the return shipping (I am not mentioning their name because they don’t want anyone complaining if out of warranty gear is returned, and the company decides not to fix it for free).
So what’s the point? It’s time we paid more attention to what companies are saying. We need to reward those who are being ethical, and point fingers at those who use clever wording and errors of omission to mislead us. SSS is one of the precious few subscriber-supported, non-commercial information sources in the music industry; we have a golden opportunity to blow the whistle on the hucksters, and give a “virtual pat on the back” to those who do the right thing. Granted, there’s occasional misinformation presented in SSS as well, but it usually doesn’t take long for someone more knowledgeable to correct that. So next time you post in “Opinions on Equipment,” feel free to post opinions on advertising claims as well. We just might encourage those who are trying to deceive us to adopt somewhat higher standards.