Mises Wire

Consumers Embrace the Bass

In writing and teaching about the economics of innovation, I draw a contrast between engineering value and economic value. Critics of free markets often cite technology markets as examples of “market failure” in which one product’s head start, combined with network effects and switching costs, leads consumers to choose ”inferior” technologies (QWERTY over Dvorak, VHS over Beta, Windows over Linux, internal-combustion engines over electrics, and so on). This argument, of course, assumes that third parties (usually engineers) can determine what technologies are “superior,” regardless of what consumers actually prefer. Sure, the Linux operating system has some technical advantages over Windows or MacOS or the dominant handheld and tablet systems, but who cares? If consumers prefer convenience, cost, style, familiarity, or whatever over some technical specifications, good for them. By no means are they failing to satisfy their preferences.

This distinction is brilliantly highlighted in an article in The Verge, “Embrace the Bass: Beats Headphones Are Popular for a Reason.” Audiophiles dislike the wildly popular Beats headphones because they provide an exaggerated bass response, rather than a more neutral and accurate reproduction of the original sounds. (They don’t think much of Dr. Dre’s brilliant marketing and branding strategies either.) But consumers aren’t sound engineers; they want to enjoy their music. And they do: 

What we disparage as cheap and pandering in Beats headphones is actually the thing that makes them appealing. Bass is the more enjoyable end of the sound spectrum, and it’s something we can consume in vast quantities without feeling unduly fatigued. Treble, on the other hand, while being just as important and fundamental to any song, can prove grating and irritating. Isn’t it simply logical, then, that a headphone with a bias toward bass would feel more pleasurable for the listener, all other things being equal? . . .

There are better headphones out there than Beats. Many of them. But when we criticize the products of Apple’s Dr. Dre division, let’s stick to the facts and not the myth. Exaggerated bass is actually a thing most of us want and enjoy, and all the best-selling consumer headphones offer it to some degree. Bose, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, and Sony — which just launched an Extra Bass series — each have models that emphasize that pleasurable low end. So why fight both my instincts and the consumer market? instead of pursuing the purest possible sound, I’ve decided to stop worrying and just embrace the bass.

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