Manufacturing Smaller Gear, Familiarity, and Being Green

Taking a Cue from Fiat

I recently took a test-drive in a Fiat 500 Turbo. Here’s what surprised me the most: this little manual-transmission no-frills little car is no slouch! It’s not a sports car or anything, but with only 135 horses pushing it, it’s not shabby. Here’s another surprise: it corners well too. I thought those little dinky wheels wouldn’t be able to handle it, but the way it’s built, like many other small cars these days – a pyramid on wheels – it is actually very sure-footed. And yes, you can opt for luxuries like the Beats™ Premium Audio System (huh…no!) or the Heated Seats (in SoCal? Pluueese!), but even with a healthy number of  useful upgrades, the price tag is still well below a pair of Legacy Audio Whisper XD speakers (and the car probably weighs less too!):


Ultimately, what sells the car is that it isn’t going to be embarrassing to be seen in it. You look cool, hip and with it. Somehow, that good old “American” Dodge Journey (built in the same factory, by the way) just doesn’t have the same caché. The Fiat is just plain cool:

Smaller, simpler, and a-touch-retro design is hip these days because it costs less, the carbon footprint is smaller, and the design builds on ideas from yesteryear but updates them for today. As it turns out, Hi-Fi is also dipping its toe in the smaller-simpler-retro pool. And this is a good thing because it should help bring new customers to Hi-Fi.

Smaller, but not too small…

Small and simple is what most young people have had to get by with since the downturn of 2008. Smaller homes, smaller bank accounts, smaller clothes, and yes, smaller cars. So the thought of buying Hi-Fi that is also smaller is also a given. That 60 lb receiver with 25 buttons to drive hulking tower speakers that take up valuable floor space in the living/dining/tv room of the typical apartment is also out of date. Yes, big-screen TVs are still popular, but most folks are equally happy watching Game-of-Thrones on their cell phones, something unthinkable just a few years ago.

Speaking of cell phones, this brings up an important point: there is a limit to how small or big is ideal – it’s smaller than yesteryear’s stuff, but it has to be useable. Not too long ago, Apple users were clamoring for a bigger screen and eventually Apple gave in with the 6s and 6s-Plus:

But Apple found out that there was also still a market for small screens too and renewed the iPhone5-sized phones in the SE line. Likewise, the much vaulted (by Apple) iPad Pro didn’t sell as well as they had hoped as a big screen, and so now they offer all the same tech in their regular-sized iPad as well.

Offering ideal size is a fine balance. In Hi-Fi the same is true. Take Pro-Ject’s first round of miniaturized Box electronics – about the size of two decks of playing cards:

This just wasn’t the right balance. Maybe the change was too small too quick, giving the idea that the consumer wasn’t getting high quality if it wasn’t bigger. At this size, the weight of a pair of cables could tilt it up off the desk, and pushing the buttons required two hands if you didn’t want it to slide clear off the desk. As a result, Pro-Ject quickly added the RS line which is bigger and more substantial, but still much smaller than your typical hulking amplifier you find at Best Buy. It is a bit larger than the original Box line at a just over 8" wide and deep, and looks more modern, to boot:

The sizing thing

The lesson learned, I think, is that sizing should be comparable to what people already own & use, or at the very least, stick to a multiple of it. So for example, offer products that are ½ the size of an existing one. And why is this? Because it remains familiar, and familiarity is the key factor with downsizing. This is true for Hi-Fi too. Folks have been comfortable with tube amps of that width, and so similarly sized components are more likely to sell, too.

So I really do think that odd sizes give odd results on the balance sheet. Take Chanel Islands’ preamp, for example:

While it did have that Apple-look, and a reasonable 8.5" width, it did not neatly match the size of their original D100 amps, which were only 6 1/4" wide. Given that these amps were Class-D, producing very little heat, there was no reason not to stack them, but you couldn't, at least not neatly. It was just odd. Now to be fair, the D100 amps have been replaced with newer 8.5" models today, so I think Channel Islands listened to their customers and made some changes.

That said, not all manufacturers are so quick to adapt, or maybe they find comfort in being odd. Some, like Gallo, Prima Luna, Vincent, Cyrus, Naim, Martin Logan, have capitalized on it, but was it the right thing to do? After all, we're talking about some popular names, so t's not that these products aren’t selling, but how well would they have done if they had been a more standard size? I realize that in a crowded market it is difficult to stand out, so quirky sizes might help in that regard, but I think it is a fine balance between being cutting edge and just being odd.

Familiarity is what ties it all together!

Getting back to Apple, they are masters at marketing familiarity. Of course, Apple has a decade-long history of product success to build on. When they introduce new products, they know how to manage the transition for the user. Every new product announcement offers just the right amount of new tech, but Apple practically falls over itself to make the case that they are sticking to their roots in every other way. Packaging technological change into familiar designs is key to adoption.

As a case-in-point, Microsoft, especially under CEO Balmer, didn’t learn (or want to learn) from Apple. When they released Windows 8:

The change was abrupt, clumsy, and unintuitive – no link with the old OS or familiar ways of doing things. When Microsoft decided to compete head-to-head with the Apple iPhone, they figured, why not just put this new, unfamiliar, and wildly unpopular interface on the phone too:

What could possibly go wrong with that? Ignore your customers, ignore the magazines, and double-down on a bad idea. While the tech, for us geeky folks, was pretty cool, that was niche-talk, but Microsoft just lunged ahead with it, not realizing that this was not going to bring new customers over to Microsoft. I still remember their advertisements and the company line that once folks figured out the tech, the sales would grow. This sounds an awful lot like the Hi-Fi mantra that such and such piece of Hi-Fi equipment just sounds better so new customers will naturally come... As we now know Microsoft sales stagnated and it was hard for the company.

This piece of Hi-Fi just sounds better so new customers will naturally come

When talking about a much smaller industry like Hi-Fi, the importance of managing change is critically important. Just as all the geeky tech in Windows did nothing for drawing in new customers, the same argument applies for the golden-eared argument about needing big, heavy, ugly Hi-Fi gear to get good sound. To draw new customers to Hi-Fi requires familiarity, and that means smaller equipment sizes that look cool, work as expected, and harken back to what is familiar, because that is what this younger demographic knows.

Going smaller, but with care

What all this points to is that change, in a fragile industry like Hi-Fi needs to be managed with care. Going smaller is good for everyone, especially for being green, but that change has to come with careful consideration for what customers are familiar with. In Hi-Fi, where the typical customer base is already niche-small, this must include a willingness to adapt to the customer base, and that means younger buyers.

Managing change is a topic that volumes have been written about, and yes, there are examples all around us about what works and what doesn’t. However, the best examples are the ones where other manufacturers, in this case Fiat and Apple, have already spent considerable resources figuring out the hurtles. Hi-Fi needs to learn from market segments that have the resiliency to absorb mistakes, so as to avoid the same costly mistakes that Hi-Fi cannot afford to make.