Monster unveils $1,800 cable — “very expensive, unfortunately”

Life is full of surprises. I always thought Monster Cable existed to flog high-priced cables to mildly gullible Mum-and-Dad consumers but it turns out to be more like an evangelical religion if its CES press conference this year is any guide. Surreal is not the word. If Tom Cruise walked in I would not be even mildly astonished.

Even before self-styled Head Monster and company founder Noel Lee (below) rolls onto the stage on his Segway there’s an air of cultivated manic fervour. We’re serenaded by nackground music in the form of a slow R&B jam endlessly repeating the Monster name and intoning “H D M I” while name-checking a few other key technologies (PlayStation anyone?).

Lee’s favoured audience interaction technique is to repeatedly call for acclamation whenever he announces anything whether it’s a new cable speed or a partnership with a new technology company. “Clap your hands!” he cajoles. “Let’s give it a hand please! If you like that idea can you give us some applause please?”

That apparently works pretty well with the retail outlets whose support Monster has expertly cultivated over the years and who will show up in droves this Friday for the company’s annual retailer awards in Las Vegas complete with a concert by Diana Ross. (“It ain’t about the money for this lady” Lee proclaims but I’ll bet she’s not appearing for the cost of her hotel room.)

Whatever its merits in channel development I’m not at all convinced this kind of audience manipulation is appropriate for a press conference. Last time I checked I was a reporter not a cheerleader. I don’t have the lungs the legs or the lugs for it and I don’t think it’s my job to act as an unthinking enthusiast for every last word that emerges at a launch.

But I’m probably in the minority. “Do you guys like that product?” Lee urges. “Yeah it’s awesome” screams a hack next to me. I resist the urge to slap him.

And what is all this hyperbole in aid of? In one breath Lee is telling us about Monster’s new Hyper Speed cable which can apparently transmit data at 21.9 GBps. “There is a need for speed as manufacturers increase the data rate. We need better and better cables.” As well as being quick it’s apparently a masterpiece of design. “Physically the Hyper Speed cable even though it’s twice the bandwidth is actually smaller in size.” How is it done? “Through metallurgy through new techniques; it’s a very expensive technology unfortunately …”

That allusion aside he doesn’t mention the price tag which starts at $US200 and ranges up to $US1800. For a cable. “Can I hear some applause for that product?” Not from my wallet I’m thinking. There’s a similarly pricey 50-foot cable developed in partnership with Gennum which starts at $US1000.

“Running lengths over 50 foot are darn near impossible on HDMI at any speed” Lee explains. For a four-figure price tag drilling a hole through the relevant wall might well be cheaper.

Perhaps anticipating that reaction Monster is also heading downmarket. “We’re going higher in speeds but the consumer is telling us ‘Monster you only make high-performance high- price cable we need something that’s not so high-performance. We just want something to hook up our stuff with!’” And which doesn’t cost more than the player it’s connected to possibly.

For these heretics Monster is offering a $US39 cable in cardboard packaging though the science is conspicuously lacking in that case. “We’re not speed rating this particular product but it does provide the connection” Lee says. As do many anonymous HDMI cables purchased on eBay direct from the Hong Kong manufacturer.

Somewhere between these two price extremes Monster is partnering with HP for a co-branded range of USB Ethernet and FireWire cables due out later this year. “We wish you nothing but upside” gushes HP marketing VP Carlos Montalvo during his brief appearance.

Aside from all the cabling Monster is also rolling out a bunch of UPS products (which I’m guessing won’t be hitting Australia any time soon) and expanding its range of headphones co-branded by hip-hop icon Dr Dre. Dre “”blesses everything that we do” Lee explains adding further to the religious air. “It has become icon-ish thanks to your help. Can I hear some applause if you like the idea of beats in your ear?” I’d sit on my hands if I wasn’t taking photos.

Monster also has a record label which releases HDS surround recordings though in a rare moment of hubris Lee confesses that this hasn’t resulted in a lot of big sellers. “We haven’t broken through. We never did it in a genre that was really relevant to the consumer.”

To try and break that jinx Monster has partnered with rapper Ludacris and will be releasing an HDS mix of his 2008 album Theater Of The Mind. Ludacris himself graces the stage and makes some rather remarkable comments none more so than this: “I’ve been a fan of Monster Cable for a very long time. To partner with my man here is amazing to me.” I guess it qualifies as tech bling.