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Monday, July 03, 2006

15 Years of Fighting Rubber Chickens

Right: North Creek Borealis in a
zebrawood cabinet by Lee Taylor.

Apart from photography I have no real hobbies, but one of my three other persistent interests is audio. I was saddened to learn this morning that one of audio's pre-eminent crossover and speaker designers, George Short, will be bringing his DIY (do-it-yourself) and loudspeaker kit business, North Creek Music, to a close.

Typically, George provides an exhaustive and fascinating essay explaining his reasons for the move and his analysis of the market and the Universe. I don't want to tread on his copyright, but here's a small excerpt as a taste:

The Size of the Market is Getting Smaller

One thing I have noticed about the speaker building community the last few years is that it contains far fewer young people than it did in the early 90’s when North Creek began. I have thought about this a lot and the conclusion I have come to is that it is all about the vanishing ability of the average person to build things with their hands.

I attribute this to reliable cars.

Before about 1990, cars and particularly used cars were so fantastically unreliable that every guy I knew had a tool box in his trunk and was capable of changing a tire, a water pump, an alternator and its belt, etc. This stuff broke all the time, and the ability to work with one’s hands was practically a requirement to get through day-to-day life. In fact, by the time I was working for Apogee Acoustics and had the income to afford my first new car, I bought a Volvo. At the time it was considered a very expensive car, probably more than I could afford, but I bought it because it was the most reliable vehicle made. I had come to resent having to work on my old Impala every other weekend just to keep it running and safe. So I bought the Volvo, kissed the Impala "good bye", and from that moment on my days "under the hood" were over.

Today, even the lowest price new car on the market is far more reliable than my trusty old Volvo. What this means is that the average young person today has no need to be knowledgeable about how to fix their car, hence limited need to use hand tools, so those skill required to build a cabinet and assemble a crossover are rare. This is the primary reason why we encourage our Echo and CM-7 loudspeaker kits for educational purposes, and why we will continue to offer them to educational facilities in the future.

Pretty much anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet should read George's discussion, in this same essay, of "rubber chickens," his term for self-appointed internet experts. Some very sound observations. I've struggled over the years with a lot of "rubber chicken" issues, sometimes trying to help correct incorrect assumptions and other times trying to protect my time and sanity by letting it go. One of my own observations is that as digital is taking over photography, a lot of the old "rubber chicken" misconceptions from traditional photography are fading away. They'll give way to a whole new set, of course, but that won't be my concern.

I know I should purchase a North Creek kit while I still have the chance (I've had my eye on the nifty little Casita), but sadly I decided long ago that one expensive hobby is enough, and that my "disposable" income goes to photography. If you'd like to consider it, however, there's still a chance. North Creek's last hurrah is not till September 30th.

I don't know George personally, but I'd just like to wish him well on his future endeavors. For fifteen years he fought the good fight, going his own way while providing both uncompromising quality and outstanding value, and helping a lot of hobbyists along the way. There are worse ways to spend one's days.


Featured Comment by stevierose: "I'm not sure I agree that the decline in kit sales is due to reliable cars. I spent much of my youth building Heathkit and Knightkit electronic assembly kits. I still have a Heathkit guitar amplifier that I built when I was 16 (38 years ago) sitting in my basement. My son still uses it. I built stereo receivers for my sisters, walkie talkies, dwell tachometers, you name it I built it.

"When my oldest son was 12 I decided he was ripe for a Heathkit. He was well on his way to full geekdom and it seemed the next logical step in his progression from Legos to computers. I checked and, alas, Heathkit was no more. The kit part of this Benton Harbor, Michigan company had folded.

"The reason Heathkit folded was not reliable cars, but a combination of Moore's law and the ubiquitous availability of cheap reliable electronics. When I was building these kits the components (individual transistors, resistors, capacitors, etc.) had to be individually soldered onto a circuit board and then connected to the controls with wires. When I sold audio equipment in 1971 a decent 40 watt RMS/channel middle of the road stereo receiver (think Pioneer, Sansui, Harmon Kardon) sold for $400 1971 dollars. So it was worth someone paying $250 and investing some sweat equity to build a similar receiver. Now, a much more powerful middle of the road receiver can be purchased for $250 2006 dollars and a single integrated circuit incorporates thousands of components onto a tiny chip. Why should anyone bother investing the time to build one themselves? People have just gotten used to being able to buy cheaper and cheaper reliable stuff built for them by the eager folks over in Viet Nam and Taiwan. The idea of building it for themselves no longer occurs to them. They just buy it, use it, and when it breaks (or they get bored with it) they buy something else."


Blogger Kevin said...

Quite a read.

There's also a good bit of chatter lately about how college kids (the next generation of maybe-audiophiles) consider music to be something that comes from an iPod. Truly, iPods sound pretty good through the right headphones....good enough for most people, anyway.

In the same vein, a cell phone that takes pictures is perfectly adequate for most people in most situations.

Big honkin' stereo systems are for people who want maximum quality. (or have lots of disposable income, or want to keep up with the neighbors, or have gear fetishes).

Ditto cameras.

4:27 PM  
Blogger dingbat said...

Isn't William Eggleston also a hi-fi speaker creator?

This photography/music combo is interesting. Don't know how many have heard of Myers-Briggs psychological profiling, but I've just gotten my own review back where I'm classified as an INTP personality. In the narrative, it reads that "Photography is a classic interest of the INTP ... due to the need to convey a sense of mood/atmosphere.. and the enjoyment of technical questions such as use of filters and lenses...Another strong interest is music, especially complex structures found in classical or jazz." But also, INTPs tend to "convey a very critical and impersonal approach in discussing images, which could lead to offense in some situations."

I was struck by how close to home this was - I mean, the test I took had nothing to do with hobbies or interests (let alone photography or music).

9:11 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Isn't William Eggleston also a hi-fi speaker creator?"

His son. Google "Egglestonworks."

I'm an INTP too...actually right on the border with INFP.


9:27 PM  
Blogger Epocenter said...

INTJ. Brings back the memories of building my own speakers from old speakers and old boards and milk crates. I cant begin to tell you how many times I have pulled engines done my own brakes etc, until I bought a Honda, now I can't even tell where the spark plug is- not that I ever need to worry about it. The most I ve had to do is change the wiper blades. My ipod does sound alot better than my old milk crate speakers. However, it was wayyyy funner having 2 giant milk crates in the back seat of my old pontiac laying rubber and some other things;). I should have taken some photos of that car with my old K 1000. I think I do have some photos? Ill try and find some and post one on my blog.

11:19 PM  

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