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The Internet's Most Niche Website Is Also One of Its Most Brilliant

Idoshkedi/Creative Commons

The basic premise of One-Man Focus Group is that cultural criticism shouldn't be the exclusive province of cinema, literature, music, and the like. Given the proper perspective and the presence of a reasonably articulate observer, virtually anything can be subjected to insightful, illuminating critique. Or at least that's the idea.

That concept is taken to its logical extreme by a new web site called KnobFeel, which takes a unique approach to reviewing hi-fi stereo components. KnobFeel reviews are concerned with only one thing: the physical sensation of turning the knobs on equipment's console. It's a brilliantly niche-oriented project, sort of like reviewing a bottle of wine based on its cork.

A typical KnobFeel review consists of a few sentences of text and a short video. The text is full of obscure jargon ("Lovely notched feel to the knob's rotation, and only very minor axial skew"), which raises as many questions as it answers. Is KnobFeel a straightforward example of geeky obsession? A mocking commentary on the pretentiousness of audio gear reviews? A sort of meta-commentary on the very nature of cultural criticism, with the site's name adding a dash of sophomoric innuendo?

The hunch here is all of the above, especially given the ingeniously minimalist videos that accompany each review. KnobFeel videos are about 15 seconds long and adhere to a simple but rigid format: A piece of audio equipment is shown in isolation, and then a hand appears and turns the knob. As the knob is being manipulated, a voice—presumably belonging to the same person as the hand—provides a non-verbal assessment. If the review is positive, the voice coos and trills with enjoyment ("Oooh, mmmm, ahhh!"); if it's negative, the voice grunts its disapproval ("Awww, hrrrrmph, urrrghhh"). After nearly two dozen reviews, the site's anonymous critic has yet to use the same vocal intonations twice, which just goes to show that even a non-verbal critic can have a wide vocabulary. At least one stereo equipment manufacturer has taken all of this seriously enough to proudly tout its positive KnobFeel review on its own web site.

I know a thing or two about niche criticism. For the past 14 years I've been reviewing sports uniform and logo designs, which was considered a fairly bizarre concept when I came up with it back in 1999. But KnobFeel takes niche-crit to a new level of hyper-specificity. And while that level may seem a bit absurdist, it also hits upon an essential truth. After all, knob design is a crucial part of the consumer electronics experience. You probably just never thought about it that way before.

See, that's what good criticism does—it gets you thinking, whether it's reviewing audio knobs or (one hopes) reviewing a site that reviews audio knobs.

Do you know of a new product, service, design, or phenomenon that deserves a closer look? Send tips, samples, press releases, and best intentions here, and follow One-Man Focus Group on Twitter.