July / August 2020
Editor's Lead In
Product failure is something that no-one likes talking about. One stand-out failure area that has affected the hi-fi industry for many years is the surround suspension used to allow loudspeaker cones to do their stuff.
Originally, manufacturers used pleated cloth, usually saturated with a non-setting glue of some type. Such surrounds were remarkably successful and highly durable. I know of pleated surrounds that have been working well for more than half a century. In fact, many loudspeaker manufacturers still use pleated cloth surrounds, JBL and Klipsch being just two examples.
As you likely know, many manufacturers switched to using foam for their surrounds. In my view, this was a big mistake, because foam gradually deteriorates until it can no longer perform the job it's supposed to do. In some cases, it disappears completely, leaving the cone to flop around aimlessly. I used to think the deterioration was due to ultraviolet radiation, but it turns out that UV light only accelerates the process: foam will deteriorate even in complete darkness.
How long does it take for foam to deteriorate? It appears that the foam's chemical composition governs its longevity, but in my experience most foam speaker surrounds start disintegrating after five years. Many manufacturers have, as a result of this, switched (or returned) to using rubber-based materials for their cone surrounds.
These days, a major failure-mode problem is affecting those manufacturers which, in order to give their products a 'soft' feel to the fingers, use finishes that contain plasticisers. When Covid-19 arrived I pulled out an infra-red thermometer I'd purchased a few years ago so I could check the temperatures of couriers dropping off and picking up equipment. When I pulled it out of its case, the handle was so sticky that my hand 'stuck' to the grip and afterwards I had to use a fairly harsh chemical to remove the plasticiser residue from my hand.
Prompted by this event, I checked a Pure DAB portable radio I had inherited from my aunt that used the same type of finish only to discover that it, too, had a truly 'sticky' (and 'icky!') feel. I discarded both products.
The problem is that increasing number of hi-fi manufacturers are now using these plasticiser-loaded finishes on their products. I can see why they do it, because when the product is new it not only looks fantastic, but also 'feels' fantastic as well. But I am worried that a few years down the track it will become a sticky mess.
Obviously we should alert readers to products that have finishes that may deteriorate, but it's generally impossible to find out from a manufacturer whether a finish will degrade over time. Some have no idea of the chemical composition of the finish they're using while others know, but won't tell us what it is. All, however, claim that their finish 'won't degrade over time.' It's a real issue.
Safety is a far more serious issue. We no longer report on a certain well-known brand that was famous for its audio/AV power 'solutions' because it turned out that after only a few years the 240V power sockets on its products became ultra-brittle and broke whenever you tried to insert a plug. We reported this to the relevant authority, of course, but thousands of these products had already been sold.
But the company that annoys me the most is Sonos. It not only decided that it would no longer provide support for owners of its older products, but also actively removed programs and support mechanisms from its website that would have enabled its customers to self-support their own devices. This means that many Sonos products that are otherwise in perfect working order cannot be used simply because the enabling on-line portal has been shut down.
A similar problem affects products that are operated by apps. If that app becomes no longer available, the operational viability of the product is often severely impacted.
Is there a solution to all this issues? It is only to be aware of the problems and actively avoid buying products that could be affected by them. Personally, I now refuse to buy products with 'soft' finishes, as well as any product that has to be connected to the internet in order to operate. And if it can't be operated from the front panel, well that's a deal-breaker too.
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