I wish I could remember the last song my (absurd-looking) Beats headphones and I enjoyed together. After buying them in 2012, I finally wore them down to the point of no return and it was time to replace them. I haven’t so much as looked in the direction of another set of headphones since the year that Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange came out, and I quickly discovered that the headphone market is a different universe now. I didn’t need all the newfangled accoutrements of contemporary headphones—I just wanted a pair that could both transmit Devendra Banhart’s dulcet tones into my eardrums and drown out the drone of a plane’s engine. I was even willing to sink both time and money into this replacement, but they needed to be perfect. So, I explored a few ways of trying to find the best ones, curious to see if my various methods would lead me to the same pair of headphones.
First, I scoured The Strategist, my usual starting point, for the site’s top recommendations: Its editors vouched for the Sony WH1000xM3 model above all, endorsing the Bose QuietComfort 35 II as a close second, while Wirecutter ranked the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 best. I also asked my brother, a person with more knowledge of the headphone space than I have and with taste and standards I trust, for his recommendation. He’d recently opted for the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless and thought I couldn’t go wrong with those. And then I almost succumbed to the influence of Succession—for reasons I’m not sure I can or should articulate, I coveted those Beyerdynamic headphones Kendall Roy wears in the season two finale and felt seduced by the idea that I could recreate the look of Kendall on the brink of implosion with my pair of Article One sunglasses, a close-enough dupe. Ultimately this was not a justifiable reason to buy a certain style of headphones. After a night spent hunched over my laptop comparing Amazon reviews, I let my brother’s referral—the most personal recommendation I’d procured—tip the scale.
This probably sounds like an incredibly average Tuesday night spent online shopping in the year 2020, but I wasn’t always like this. I’m not the first person to grapple with this methodical way of making a purchase, on the internet or on Man Repeller, but it’s something I turn over in my mind all the time. There was once a time when I (happily) did not do things efficiently. But at some point, I got hooked on the satisfaction of making decisions with a laser-focus, striking items off my to-do list in rapid-fire succession. It has permeated nearly every facet of my life, including the way I shop, and even the way I literally move through the world—I’m convinced I walk 50% faster than I used to.
I discovered my personal peak of internet-product-recommendations when I skimmed the weekly “Garden Variety” newsletter last April and saw that the editors had hyped up the Unicorn Pepper Mill, a utility of Bon Appetit test kitchen fame. As a person who had never thought twice about a pepper mill, the newsletter’s testimonial gripped me: “The Unicorn is so smooth I actually gasped the first time I turned it,” Emily Hindman wrote. “It’s easy to use, looks sleek on your counter, and produces a remarkable consistent grind. It also, ingeniously, comes with a little saucer to sit on so pepper doesn’t get all over your counter. In the words of the best Amazon review of this product, “Welcome to the big leagues, pepperpeople.” Of course, what goes up must go down: After reading through the first fifty entries of The Strategist’s definitive notebook rankings, I realized I had to go to a local paper goods store to hold all the prospective options in my hands and decide for myself.
As a natural extension of this robot logic, I’ve developed a sense as a shopper that not only should everything I buy be the absolute best, it should be more than one thing, too. And so began the hunt for next-level life hacks (or shortcuts, as we used to call them). It felt like cracking a code when I read Recomendo and learned I could use a Nespresso Aeroccino milk frother I already had to brew a makeshift matcha latte with the press of one button.
With all the products we buy, from ribbed turtlenecks and walking shoes to composition notebooks and pepper mills, it seems we crave to make fewer, better choices over luxuriating in immense optionality, as our minds begin to feel oversaturated with information overload. This easily explains the appetite for sites like New York Magazine’s The Strategist and The New York Times’ Wirecutter, which promise to optimize your consumerist quests, and find that one perfect item that assuages your need, rather than pushing a product that only meets you halfway. Getting the most bang for your buck is not a new impulse, but on a product-recommendation-obsessed internet it seems like it’s taken on a life of its own.
So while I think I was originally drawn to The Strategist for its widespread appeal—it is like a sexier, millennial-focused, if-less-scientific Consumer Reports, after all—the thing that’s kept me coming back to their URL are the niche finds I never knew I even needed an expert recommendation for, like illustrator Leanne Shapton’s favorite kind of pen for signing prints, for example.
The same level of personal recommendation inspired me to buy something on Man Repeller recently, too. I’ve been looking for the perfect black pants (matte black, straight-leg denim that’s neither too raw or too stretchy, with gold hardware) because finding them would streamline my routine, and I could redistribute that focus elsewhere, to something more worthy of my attention. The day I wrote that as part of the draft for this story, I checked the Man Repeller site and saw that Harling (who is to pants what Shapton is to pens, in my book) had discovered the perfect pair. The next week, I beelined to AYR, tried them on, and bought them.
When I started to investigate the way I think about shopping and the way the people around me approach buying stuff, it worked up a lather of questions. Like: If cold algorithmic rankings aren’t quite enough to move me and the old guard of tastemakers—editors or, more broadly, magazines—are becoming less relevant, which method of shopping will ultimately prevail? (As for a replacement for editors, I’m not convinced that the Instagram influencer is the long-term answer, or the most satisfying one. I don’t often buy something an influencer recommends, but my cart does suddenly bulk up when a colorful newsletter by Bon Appetit editor-at-large Christine Muhlke hits my inbox.)
I also wonder what kinds of cultural events could move the needle. Will it be (a desperately needed) wave of climate consciousness that redirects our energy from shopping to something else altogether? And then there’s the question of optimization and if it’s actually good for us. (I imagine the answer to this question is a boring one you’ve heard before: everything in moderation.) Maybe the idea that there is one “perfect item” out there in any given category is a delusional ideal. And what’s it all—the smoothest pen, the sleekest pants, the most finely ground black pepper—in service of, anyway?
Photos via Everett Collection and HBO.