Car Comparison

Someone generously gave me a car last week. My old one reached the end of the line at the age of 16 years and 200,000 miles, although it still looked like new and could easily have been kept going – but for a few hundred pounds, and if the alternative hadn’t been so cheap. The replacement car, a mere 13 years old, had once been quite ‘high end’, but had been used for transporting two huge dogs, logs for firewood, and small children, and so was in dire need of cleaning inside and out. I started on the interior and quickly realised that it was going to be a long job – there is so much stuff in a big car that just giving it all a quick clean is a problem in itself. In the end I took the wise decision, I thought, of having it cleaned by professionals – although even they missed a few bits and pieces when it came back.

Each item in a car is designed to a Safety Integrity Level (SIL) and the simplest thing, like an indicator stalk, has to meet various requirements for strength, reliability and what it would do in a crash situation: minimum radius on all edges (no sharp corners), controlled deformability. It has to work for ten years in temperatures from -30 to +105 degrees C and be resistant to constant UV exposure. There is an aesthetic element to its design. It is designed on computer, manufactured by CAM machinery, and extensively tested by robots. I think it is safe to say that more knowledge and expertise goes into designing an indicator stalk than most domestic audio systems.

Faced with the job of cleaning a large car, you get a feel for just how many individual items there are, all of which have gone through this epic design process. Some are seemingly simple, passive pieces of plastic, but even they are the result of untold hours of educated professionals’ time. Other items are more complex, for example a full audio system and a comprehensive climate control system. And this is only the interior – the part that most people would regard as almost trivial. Beyond that we have the ‘real’ engineering.

It is not an original point, but the price of a car is, for me, a meaningful way of highlighting the absurdity of the audiophile world and the prices that are regarded as perfectly normal there, with no guarantee of quality. No doubt the scale of manufacture and the sheer number of cars sold compared to high end audio systems, could be mentioned. But even hand-built cars not designed and built in faraway places, that sell in tiny numbers – like Ferraris and Bentleys – sell for less than many audio systems!

In a brief glance around the cockpit of my ‘new’ car, I noticed the following items, and could only imagine the complexity that lay behind each one:

  • seats
    • super strong
    • adjustable
    • fold down (for more boot space)
    • leather upholstery
    • seat heaters
    • fold down headrests
  • seat belts
  • steering wheel
    • strong but collapsible
    • adjustable
    • horn button
    • buttons various (audio system , cruise control)
    • airbag
  • windscreen wipers
    • multi-speed etc.
    • rain sensor
  • light switches
    • headlights
    • full beam
    • fog etc.
    • interior lights various
    • headlight elevation control
  • audio system
    • FM radio
    • CD changer
    • surround options
    • untold numbers of speaker drivers all over the place
  • climate control
    • controls, various
    • vents, individually controllable
    • air conditioning
    • demister
  • security alarm
  • instrument cluster
    • analogue dials (stepper motor driven)
    • various LCD readouts
    • adjustable illumination
  • indicator stalk
  • doors
    • door handles
    • central locking
    • map pockets
    • child locks
  • windows
    • electrically operated
    • toughened or laminated
    • UV and/or IR blocking
    • demisters
  • pedals
  • gear shift
  • hand brake
  • cruise control
  • 12V power outlets, various
  • carpets, numerous
  • cup holder!

At a similar level, in comparison the whole list for a pair of £20,000 speakers would be:

  • speakers

and even if we broke it down to a lower level we would only have:

  • two wooden boxes (or maybe even some complex-looking metal bits designed on a computer similar to, say, part of a car door)
  • some wadding (similar to that in a car seat, probably)
  • four speaker drive units
  • a handful of passive components on a circuit board similar to, say, the 150 circuit boards that are found in a car (I made that number up)
  • some terminal posts
  • some cloth

Maybe the speaker is unique, using some hitherto undiscovered technology that required a huge R&D spend to develop it, and is very, very expensive to manufacture? Maybe the craftsmanship and materials are simply remarkable? More than an entire Jaguar, say? Not even 0.1%.

I am not even suggesting that a car-sized sum wouldn’t be worth spending to get great sound – assuming that it was unavoidable (like building a Bentley really does cost a lot of money – it is obvious) and that only rich people, therefore, could have it. Nor am I suggesting that all manufacturers are involved in some sort of scam to fleece gullible audiophiles – for all I know, they really are managing to spend thousands of pounds by continually re-inventing the wheel using ancient technology and then assembling a few bits of metal, plastic and cardboard in a box really inefficiently. My bewilderment is reserved for the fact that the customers seem to collude with the magazines and manufacturers to keep audio products as primitive as possible, and the price as high as possible. Instead of embracing the manufacturer who might demonstrate moderate cost, high quality sound embodying tangible technological progress, they would write it off as ‘mid fi’. No such problem for the car industry which produces technological miracles for an amazingly low price.

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