An open letter to Harvey Norman, Norwest, Castle Hill

I usually find blog rants useless, but sometimes something is just so annoying one is sufficiently inspired. Today I went with my parents to buy them a Tivo at Harvey Norman, Norwest, Castle Hill, NSW, Australia. I am a big Tivo fan; the interface is good and it "just works". I don't mind paying for (or in this recommending paying for) good products.

After selecting the Tivo model, I asked for a HDMI cable. The salesman made a series of questions about what sort of HD TV it was being plugged into; I quickly sensed this as a probe to see what sort of suckers we were, and requested just a "normal" cable.

At this point, he insisted on a $130 (you guessed it) Monster cable, and had the audacity to say that we didn't need one of the really expensive cables because our TV wasn't good enough! I openly expressed my concern, but the annoying high-pressure sales pitch had just begun. The amount of, frankly, crap that he spewed about 4-bit this, 10-bit that, legislating of labels, DA signal levels, mythical customers who regretted buying the cheap cables and who knows what else was to the point of being comical if it weren't so insistent and said with such seeming authority.

There is only one thing that matters - if the cable has passed the functional requirements for being certified to have the distinctive HDMI logo plastered on it. From the HDMI FAQ:

  1. What testing is required?

Prior to mass producing or distributing any Licensed Product or component that claims compliance with the HDMI Specification (or allowing someone else to do such activities), each Adopter must test a representative sample for HDMI compliance. First, the Adopter must self test as specified in the then-current HDMI Compliance Test Specification. The HDMI Compliance Test Specification provides a suite of testing procedures, and establishes certain minimum requirements specifying how each HDMI Adopter should test Licensed Products for conformance to the HDMI Specification.

Now, I can understand that if you buy any old HDMI cable off Ebay for $1, it may be a knock-off that uses the HDMI logo illegally. But there is no way that the certified $50 Philips cable (still very over-priced, but at least not insane, and discounted to $35) performs any differently to some overpriced Monster model certified to exactly the same standard.

The thing that annoyed me most was his analogy to buying a tyre. He stated that "if you walked up to a tyre salesman and I said don't want the Pirelli's, just put the cheap-o tires on my Ferrari" I'd be insane, and thus by extension of that logic I was insane for not buying a Monster cable for my great new Tivo.

This analogy is completely flawed and really just dishonest. A Ferrari is much more powerful and goes much faster than a standard car. It is plausible it needs a better engineered tyre to perform adequately given the additional stresses it undergoes. A Tivo doesn't put out any more or any less bits than any other HDMI certified equipment, no matter what you do. If the cable is certified as getting all the bits to the other end under whatever environmental conditions specified by the HDMI people, then it's going to work for the 99% of people with normal requirements.

Nobody wants to make a significant investment in a piece of audio-visual equipment and feel they are getting something that isn't optimal. Harvey Norman's use of this understandable consumer sentiment to sell ridiculously over-priced cables that do nothing is extremely disappointing.

I'm sure the commissions on these things encourage this behaviour, so it is useless expecting the retailer or individual sales assistant to change their policy to recommend reasonably priced cables. However, it is really Tivo and other manufacturers who get the raw end of this deal; a $130 cable is over 20% of the price the actual Tivo! That is surely affecting people's purchasing decisions.

If Tivo and others included a certified HDMI cable with their device, as they do with component cables, and had "Certified HDMI 1.3 cable included" plastered on the box, it would be a harder sell to explain why the manufacturer would bother shipping a certified cable that is supposedly insufficient, and consumers would hopefully avoid the very distasteful high-pressure theatrics I was subjected to today.

Update: I have removed my description of the individual salesman in the title. Singling someone out invites ad hominem attacks and I have no interest in providing a forum for or perpetuating any such thing.

If it's one salesman, it's a thousand. To reiterate my main point, manufacturers must surely be annoyed that they participate in price wars with each other only to have their margins taken by a gold-plated optical cable company. I believe it is really up to them to get the information into their own market so it can operate efficiently.