Packed! A Study in the Fine Art of Packing

Oppo's awesome packaging, arrayed.

I love audio and video gear as much as the next nerd, and nothing gets me as excited as a hot new technology or an innovative, really fine new component.

Nothing, that is, except really fine packing material. In the nature of things my job entails unpacking and repacking countless components and speakers, by now probably numbering in the thousands. Why, I’ll wager I’ve re-packed more receivers, CD players, turntables, and speakers than all the former Tech Hi-Fi Assistant Managers combined (inside joke…). So I’ve become something of a packing-material connoisseur—snob, if you must.

Packaging serves two main functions. First and most obviously, it protects the contents from damage through shipping, warehousing, and delivery. Second and less so, it’s the first thing, other than the exterior of the box (also very important), that the customer encounters, and as such it’s a golden opportunity for the manufacturer to transform a mere buyer into a friend and evangelist—or a sworn enemy. I can’t tell you how many heavy AV receivers I’ve cursed (and even injured myself upon) while struggling to return to their loose-end-cap packing of brittle, closed-cell foam—the kind that cracks and fragments, salting your carpet with styro-dust, as soon as you try to reuse it—and then into their flimsy, minimally drop-test-passing cartons for return to their makers. (I don’t let this influence my reviews, though. Honest.)

All too few companies get this, Apple being the most obvious example. From the beginning Apple’s packaging has been as lapidary as its products: it’s always a joy to unbox or repack an i-Anything, never mind use it. (I’m far from the first to make this observation.) Happily, we’re beginning to detect an influence upon our own little sector.

Recently, my long-serving Sony Blu-ray player began making cranky noises. To replace it, the folks at Oppo Digital obligingly hooked me up with one of their marvelous machines. The Oppo Blu-ray player is indeed terrific, and I'll undoubtedly have more to say about it further along down the road. But I’m not here for that. I'm here for the packing, so picture this:

You open a solid box sealed with strong tape only (manufacturers: I despise box-staples! Wanna see my scars?), its flaps integrating hold-fast tabs whose slots double as marvelously open knife-insertion points. Following an easy, clean cut, the flaps spread wide—the insides of the box are patterned with Oppo logos—opening upon a protective top-sheet of glossy die-cut paperboard printed with product features and logos. Lifting this reveals a black-bagged component, and an elegantly heavy accessories box, nestled in precisely die-cut, open-cell foam—the black kind that you can remove and replace a dozen times or even bend double, yet which never breaks or flakes. Lifting the component from its cozy nest, you unfold its cloth covering to reveal a custom-fit, handled carry-bag, proudly printed with “Oppo Blu-Ray Player.” Lift out the heavy, beautifully finished player, and you retain a useful tote.

Sure, I understand that this kind of packaging is more expensive than a couple of hunks of closed-cell and a thin-walled box. But I think Oppo gets Apple’s message: unwrapping the present is as much a part of the ownership experience as the gift itself. And truly reusable packaging, allowing a valuable component to be repackaged safely for protective storage, or for shipment for relocation or (heaven forbid!) for service, adds perceived value to the product. Just as important, it tells the new owner, “This is something of special, worth protecting. Be proud!”

Plus, you get a free bag.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I second the motion on banning destructible styrofoam. If I had a nickel for every time I've taped the stuff back together, I could retire, and the people at our testing lab probably have it worse by the time they have to re-re-pack the mess.

My method of dealing with box staples is to loosen them with a letter opener and pull them out with pliers. However, if there are enough of them, the pliers rip up my hands, unless I remember to use work gloves.

Besides not using materials that erode the goodwill of the consumer, I have one other tip for manufacturers: Inventing a new kind of packing material that's both strong and recyclable and then make a big deal of it. Consumers will be happy for our purchases to be protected from shipping damage and perhaps just as happy to know that the stuff won't be cluttering up landfills. Cardboard is recyclable and the corrugated kind can be multi-layered into thick wedges. Certain plastics are also recyclable. This isn't rocket science. Get it done, and get some good publicity in the process -- unless you'd prefer to see a legislated solution, and get some bad publicity in the process.

drewdlz's picture

When I Bought my Boston Acoustics RS260 speakers I was pleasantly surprised by the soft drawstring bags the speakers rested in inside the box. Also included was a pair of white cotton gloves for handling the high gloss black speakers. I was able to provide myself with a true white glove installation. Definitely added to the purchase experience.

chrisheinonen's picture

As someone that's probably opened a good 100+ boxes of AV equipment this year, vendors that do a better job are good to see. Awful closed cell styrofoam breaks up so fast you can't even return something after you open it the first time. Open cell works far better, though I'm sure it costs more or more companies would use it.

I also reviewed computer monitors for a few years. Many companies used closed foam there as well. Some used open foam. And then there was Dell, who in recent years even sent their $2,000 monitors packaged in a box made entirely of cardboard. Everything arrived perfectly, and anyone would be able to break it down and recycle the whole thing without having to find someplace to take styrofoam. It was a very nice, ingenious design that I always applauded.

Now, if every vendor can make sure to put a diagram of how to repack the box on it, that would be great as well.

dnoonie's picture

I do like the OPPO packaging, it's excellent! It's designed for safe shipping without double boxing, Dynaudio is very close to the same, it could really use a simple repack in a tight fitting second box to be safe.

Should packaging become part of a products review?

Typical AV gear with white Styrofoam packing is NOT designed for safe shipping without double boxing it's designed to be shipped on a pallet with a hundred others just like it and shipped to an over the counter retailer, yet that's not the world we live in any more, furthermore online sellers don't often properly double box when shipping an item with packing designed for over the counter retail. I cringe every time and order online, it's a lottery, and lately the odds are about 65% against the item arriving in like new condition.

There is a serious need for better packaging of AV gear or shippers need to take boxing for shipping more seriously. Folks like OPPO, Boston Acoustics (drewdlz) and Dynaudio have taken it on themselves to make sure their products get to the customer in like new condition regardless of the retailers shipping practices, it's exemplary, ads value to the product and undoubtedly adds years to the life of the product since it arrives in like new condition.

Bad shipper packing is like selling used as new! Online sellers should do better.


kevon27's picture

I buy most of my gear used (ebay) I really don't care if the packaging is fancy or simple as long as it protects. I've got gear rapped in bed comforters and that just worked. The gear was protected and in near mint condition.

kevon27's picture

wrapped not rapped...

mikem's picture

I had the same feelings when I unboxed my Oppo 103D. I've had plenty of BD players but the Oppo stands out as the best of the best. I'm always amazed at the BD picture the moment it appears. On my panny plasma all I can say is, "Oh boy!!!" The resolution and color fidelity is something special. I was watching 'North By Northwest' the other night and this is w/o a doubt one of the finest BD transfers out there. Add to that hours of extra features and you get a real winner.