As a product reviewer, tech geek, image aficionado, and budding audio snob, I have come to see quality as the paramount characteristic of a device. And I'm awfully fussy. I can barely stand the sight of most digital cameras, LCD TVs, or people wearing the crappy earbuds that come with iPods.
And I often find myself having to explain to folks exactly why most products are so bad and how much better the experience could be with the right equipment. But lately I've been thinking: Why spoil their fun? Everything was fine for them until I came by complaining. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, and I should just shut up?
These thoughts crystallized a few nights ago when I went to a friend's house for a movie night and witnessed one of the worst video setups imaginable. He had a new 32-inch LCD TV, but not a brand known for quality. It wasn't adjusted very well (or at all) - with way too much light output for a dark room. For example, there was no such thing as "black" on this screen, only a very light gray. And the hookup was literally as bad as possible. The DVD player didn't have digital, component or even S-Video outputs. It provided only a little yellow composite output - 1950s video technology for a digital set bought in 2005. Oh, and the TV sat before a wall of windows, with the shades up to let in a steam of ugly light from several maddeningly bright streetlights. I thought I would need a new eyeglass prescription by the end of the evening.
But of the roughly dozen people there, I was probably the only person perturbed. Everyone else was totally engaged in the show (a great BBC documentary series called "7 Up" that follows a group of people through - so far - half their lives by checking in with them every 7 years). In fact, even I forgot about the technical and aesthetic problems for a while. The content was more important than the presentation.
Aficionados are, by definition, rare. If more common, they wouldn't be called aficionados, just "people." So I suppose it's understandable that most products are not made for us. Just as tech gear for the blind is extra expensive because of the relatively low volume, so gadgets for the opposite - people who see too much - are correspondingly pricey. And no one is an aficionado in all things. My foodie friends are appropriately horrified at how many of my meals come from the freezer, by way of the microwave oven. And most of my furniture is second hand, at best (sometimes scavenged from the curb). Nor is most of what I read remotely literary. But I'm generally content with all those things, even though I know that something better is out there.
Furthermore, sometimes aficionados focus on the wrong things. Fine, nuanced audio may be important if you are listening to opera CDs, but when you're throwing a party, all you really need is loud speakers and a thumping subwoofer to rock the house.
Likewise, I used to go mad over "pixel noise" in photos - colored speckles that appear when a digital camera tries to shoot in low light. But I've come to see as far more evil the interrogation-light glow that comes from a camera flash. So lately, I've been turning off the flash to get nicer colors, and have accepted the noise as a pointillist artistic touch, rather than a defect, as in this picture of my adorable niece Brooke. (Click photo to enlarge.)
So, have I concluded that quality doesn't matter?
No, but I have a slightly different perspective on how and when it matters. Most people don't notice subtle improvements, but they do remark how changes accumulate over time. One of the reasons that people aren't fussier about digital cameras, for example, is because even today's crappy models are exponentially better than even the high-end cameras from a few years ago. And today's top-end will become part of tomorrow's mainstream. So I will keep pointing out the best in any class - both to serve the small percentage of people who appreciate it today and the vast majority of people who will appreciate it in a few years.
And quality has a way of not only improving existing applications but also of spawning new ones. I remember well telling someone over a decade ago that color screens on computers were superfluous. And that's true, if all you do is type a letter in Microsoft Word 2.0. But now we use computers to watch DVD movies and Internet videos, to play frighteningly real-looking games, and to show off photos. In fact, I almost never look at pictures on anything but a glowing screen. Who prints photos anymore?
In a more recent example, I didn't immediately get the value of taking choppy, grainy videos with pocket cameras. But now some cameras shoot video that matches (or even exceeds) that from a "real" camcorder. Without intending to become videographers, many of us have done just that.
So yes, quality does matter, but I don't expect everyone to think about it all the time. Hopefully, because engineers, designers, and critics (like I) obsess over it, other people won't have to.