"You get what you pay for" is a phrase most often heard when something you bought at a really good value breaks while a jealous friend is around. It's not meant to be used solely for spite, though. In general, "you get what you pay for" is sound life advice -- except when it's not. We don't touch on this at all on the most recent Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... because the engineer had the gall to take a vacation, meaning I had to record a bunch of episodes all at once. So, honestly, I had no idea what I'd be writing about this week. In the spirit of that, if you do listen, you'll hear two of the newest additions to the full-time-with-benefits division of the Cracked team, JF Sargent and David Christopher Bell, help me decide what next week's column will be. So, I guess it's sort of about getting what you pay for in that I'm asking new employees to do my work for me.
Now, with that link firmly established, let's move on to the rest of the column. There are a lot of things in this world that would have you believe they fall under the "you get what you pay for" family of products, but they're wrong. Here are five modern luxuries that are never worth buying at full price.
#5. High-Resolution Music Players
Does the music on your iPod sound like shit? Neil Young thinks so, and he's got a point ... sort of. It's not something the average music buyer cares about or even notices, but there is indeed a drop in sound quality that comes with making a digital music file small enough that you can fit 40,000 of them on a single device.
Not content with simply complaining, though, Neil Young is doing something about it. Earlier this year, the permanently grumpy rock legend launched a Kickstarter to finance the release of the Ponomusic player, an iPod-type device that plays FLAC files. That stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and the important word there would be "lossless" if that was an actual word. Still, it is a formation of letters that matter to a lot of people.
I can't tell if this kid is in pain or not.
Are you one of those people? Probably not. Digital music wouldn't have taken off the way it did if sound quality was a widespread concern. The flip side, of course, is that if nobody cared about sound quality, PonoMusic probably wouldn't be the third most successful Kickstarter campaign in history, blowing past its initial funding goal of $800,000 in a matter of hours and eventually raking in an astounding $6.2 million.
If you find yourself on either extreme of that spectrum, nothing I'm saying here will matter much either way. I'm not going to convince you to care about sound quality if you're comfortable rocking to the eardrum-shredding sounds of a 96 kbps MP3 and people who spend hundreds of dollars on expensive speaker cables and whatnot can't be told anything by anyone.
Technology will never surpass this, snobs.
What about those people who might be on the fence about the matter, though? If you're looking for a portable music player with the technical specifications needed to make your insanely overpriced stereo system sing, should you invest in a PonoPlayer? Personally, I'd say no, for one simple reason -- the technology required to play lossless audio files on the go has existed for a long damn time now. This is what it looks like in its present form.
How do you text with that thing?
Right, that's just a basic iPod Classic, and if you really need to listen to lossless music, it's fully capable of doing the job. Can it play FLAC files? Nope, but it can play ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) files, and if you think there's an audible difference between the two, you're in the minority. I totally understand why you'd take the word of a 70-something who's been playing an electric guitar for the past four decades over that of a bunch of stupid experts and scientists, though.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
"How do I make a phone call with this thing?"
Anyway, once you take that advantage away, the PonoPlayer doesn't have a whole lot to offer that you can't find in an iPod, except for the part where it's way more expensive and holds a lot fewer songs.
Wait, Apple doesn't sell ALAC files, but Neil Young's new venture comes with a shiny new music service where early adopters can buy all the FLAC files their hearts desire. So, that's better, right? Not at all. Keep reading.
#4. Digital Music Files
At some point, we're just going to have to accept that music has a finite capacity to sound awesome. Yes, Neil Young's PonoMusic will sell pristine quality FLAC downloads of major label music, but those albums are also going to carry a price tag in the $14.99 - $24.99 range. Call me crazy, but to the best of my recollection, prices like that are precisely why society revolted against the idea of buying music in the first place. Is it still going to feel like a revolution when you're spending obscene amounts of cash to replace the MP3s that everyone promised would permanently replace your CDs a few short years ago?
The worst part is that if the ultimate goal of the "digital music revolution" was to replace compact discs with FLAC files, then pawning your physical copy of Jagged Little Pill (and other classics) was completely pointless, because that's exactly where lossless audio files come from.
They were invented by Alanis Morissette.
The easiest way to produce a high-quality music download is to put an actual CD into your computer and rip the files directly to your hard drive. Depending on the program you use, you can save them as WAV, FLAC, ALAC or any number of other lossless file formats.
Am I saying you shouldn't buy FLAC files from Neil Young's new store? No, I'm saying you should literally go back to buying CDs.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
This stock photo is 75 years old.
Forget $24.99 FLAC files, let's talk about regular old MP3s for a bit. In a lot of cases, the difference in price between an MP3 album and a physical CD is minimal. For example, right now, the new Jack White album is selling for $10.99 on iTunes.
On Amazon, you can get the actual CD, which includes an instant MP3 download and free shipping, for just $9.99.
More worth it.
So for a dollar less, you get twice as much. Also, when's the last time you resold a digital music file? Instead of spending $9.99 for the MP3 version of every album you want, why not let Amazon send you a copy that you can instantly resell to make some of your money back?
While we're on the subject of reselling, sites like Murfie make shelling out for CDs seem like an even better idea. If you're unfamiliar, Murfie is basically a used CD store that gives you the option of downloading your purchase as a high quality FLAC or ALAC file. Albums are almost exclusively in the under-$10 range. For research purposes, I went on a $50 shopping spree and came away with 14 albums, all downloaded in the same high-resolution format that Neil Young wants you to start buying at exponentially higher prices. For two dollars more, Murfie will send you the actual disc.
Fuck you, Neil!
Between sites like that and drastically reduced CD prices, buying MP3s for retail money no longer makes financial sense. More times than not, you'll save yourself a few bucks just buying the real thing.
#3. Expensive Headphones
Dr. Dre is rich as fuck. At some point around the time when most of us wish he'd been working on a new album, the rap music legend was launching a high-end headphone empire that recently netted him a $3.2 billion payday when he sold Beats by Dre to Apple. It's the very definition of a feel-good success story, except for the part where he beat up all those chicks along the way.
It didn't happen by accident, either. He makes legitimately good headphones. Sure, they're a little bass-heavy for some people's taste, but what do you expect? They're headphones made by Dr. Dre. If a refreshing focus on mid-range and treble frequencies is on your wishlist, you're shopping at the wrong store.
Of course, "good" doesn't necessarily mean "$299.95 good," which is what a pair of Beats by Dre Studio headphones will set you back -- unless you spring for the optional rest pillow, in which case you should expect to add another $300 to the price.
So what's a person to do if they want to hear "Fuck the Police" like they've never heard it before but lack the necessary funds to spend on headphones? Well, if that famous song taught me anything, it's that stealing is always your first and best option.
Barring that, if you've accepted that you're going to have to spend something but still want to feel like you're getting away with something, remember one word -- discontinued. Beats by Dre is not a business model that revolves around making the best product one time, and if it ever was, it won't be now that Apple is in charge. In fact, the "new" Beats by Dre models are in stores right now, which means all of the "old" models have been discontinued. They still need to be sold, though, and you can usually get them at a huge discount over whatever you'd pay in stores currently. Case in point, if you buy the discontinued version of the Beats by Dre Studio headphones, you'll pay just over $180 on Amazon.
It's like Black Friday without the fistfights and trampling.
What do you lose in the deal? A rechargeable battery, for those who enjoy waiting two hours to listen to music again as opposed to just putting in a fresh pair of Duracells and getting back to the rock right away; and noise canceling that "works in two modes," which I'm hoping are "quiet" and "quieter" or something of the like.
If those are features you can't live without, by all means, spend the $300. Otherwise, paying full price is just silly. It's not a phenomenon that's unique to Beats headphones, either. Bose, Klipsch, Sennheiser and all the other suspiciously spendy brands have discontinued versions of their current product offerings readily available for purchase on Amazon and wherever else people buy things online, which I'm pretty sure is actually just Amazon these days, so check there first. Oh, hey, and speaking of Amazon ...