Audio’s Magic Formula: Simplicity And Good Design
User Interface of Zoom H1N.
If you’re like me, you are increasingly weary of poorly-designed electronic devices that waste your time and try your patience. Common items like car radios and washing machines — previously no brainers to operate — have become so needlessly complex in the digital era that they often leave me scratching my head in frustration.
Audio tools are not immune from this creeping complexity. Sometimes I spend more time struggling through incomprehensible instruction manuals than using the device itself. This is why I now refuse to buy any new gear — no matter how sonically superior it may be — unless I can operate it on an intuitive level. Usually, when my personal test is passed, it means I don't even have to read the instruction manual.
The device’s user interface should clearly communicate what I need to know. Though that sounds basic enough, it eludes many manufacturers of both audio and video gear. Some winners in the ease of use category include the newer Zoom H1n and F1 series audio recorders. Their interface is stunningly simple and intuitive to use. Mackie has long been known for its excellent instruction manuals for mixers, speakers and other gear. Most manufacturers, sadly, have barely readable documentation written by engineers often fluent in a different language.
Increasingly, there is a trend not to include instruction manuals at all with new products. A little introductory sheet is included with a URL to a more detailed manual located online. Many of these instruction documents are incomprehensible to normal humans.
Hiroki Oka, a renowned audio product designer, joined Sony in 1979. There he created many great designs including the iconic Sony PCM-D1 high-resolution, portable professional audio recorder. As an early owner of a D1, I remember how incredibly intuitive it was to operate out of the box. I don’t remember the D1 ever needing software update. It was that good.
Oka, who is now a design director at the Nichinan Group, strongly believes that “good products are universal,” and he strives to harmonize form and function in his designs. Though digital tools have rapidly developed over the years, he said designers still need to pay close attention to details. Most do not.
Another great designer I met was Henry Kloss, who died in 2002 after a legendary career designing some of this nation’s best electronic products. In 1952, while at Acoustic Research, he and engineer Edgar Villchur changed audio forever by introducing the original acoustic suspension loudspeaker, the AR-1. For the first time, a bookshelf-sized speaker could deliver deep bass sounds. Those speakers still sell for a premium to this day.
In the early 1960s, at KLH, Kloss built the first high selectivity FM radio, the Model Eight, and the first successful audio product to use transistors, the Model Eleven portable phonograph. Later at Advent and Kloss Video, he became a pioneer in home theater with a successful line of two-piece video projection systems. While at Advent, Kloss also transformed the compact audio cassette from a dictation to a music machine by introducing the Model 200, the very first cassette tape deck to employ Dolby B noise reduction.
When I met Kloss near the end of his life, he was re-thinking radio receivers. To do this, he turned the clock back almost 40 years to a time when FM radio was still in the developmental stage. Most table radios of the era provided poor FM reception and even poorer sound quality. Decent FM meant purchasing a very expensive, complex, high-end FM tuner, something few had the cash or the desire to do.
All that changed in 1961, when Kloss introduced the KLH Model Eight FM radio. The Model Eight —- a now classic minimalist design in a solid walnut cabinet — consisted of an advanced FM tuner and a small vacuum tube amplifier, combined with a speaker cabinet that contained two matching speaker drivers. No instructions were needed. The owner intuitively knew how to use it.
The Model Eight was the result of the pairing two simultaneous technology breakthroughs. The speakers were a product of a study commissioned for a new PA system for the United States Senate. At KLH, Kloss was assigned the task of designing a very small, highly accurate loudspeaker, one of which would be installed in each of the 100 desks in the Senate chambers. The bottom line is the speaker — which did a remarkable job of reproducing music — was designed but the PA system was never purchased. (To the Senate's great loss.)
About this same time, KLH was working on a high performance FM tuner. The research showed that one aspect of FM tuner performance — selectivity — was the key to high quality FM reception. This would be a breakthrough in FM radio design.
So two components, a new tuner design with high selectivity and a compact speaker originally designed for the U.S. Senate, came together to create one of classic FM receivers of all time. The Model Eight was the most expensive table radio ever sold. It originally cost $159 in an era when a Mercedes sold for less than $5,000. To this day, the Model Eight is a prized collectable worth far more than its original price. Hundreds are still in daily use. Their industrial design was perfect.
But Kloss, at the time lamenting that modern radios “are not very good,” was struggling with what he could do to top the design of the Model 8. A major design issue facing Kloss in creating a new generation radio was the question of bells and whistles. “There's all the choices to be made about alarms, clocks, bands, pre-programming,” Kloss said. “Before it was easy. You had a tuning knob, a treble and a volume knob.
“One of the things holding me up is uncertainly about how simple you make it and then how appealing you make it because of the features it has,” Kloss said. “I'm obviously leaning toward simplicity. But I don't know how many people get turned off when you drop off these features.”
Kloss, reflecting back on the Model Eight radio, said it could never be copied because it was a product of a different era. “Today people don't think in terms of buying something that 20 years later they'll be glad they bought and still be using,” he said. “It's the times. Things are so cheap that the attitude is 'I'll buy it and if I like it OK, I’ll keep it. If I don’t, I can always get another one.’ ”
Perhaps Henry Kloss’s thinking reveals a lot of truth about todays electronic products. Is it worth factoring in great design into products designed to sell so cheaply? Probably not for many low-cost designs.
However, the best products, and sometimes the most expensive, offer great design and ease of use. These are the ones most of us want to use on a daily basis as tools of our trade. Finding them is not always easy. But, as with most things in life, we get what we pay for.
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