ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

August 1, 2006

Comparing Apples to Apples?

The high end is chock-full of stories of successful audio designers -- invariably, people with vision, skill, and determination -- who start a business on their kitchen table and turn it into a viable company. Over time the business grows and, despite the likelihood of bankruptcy, stands the test of time. In fact, this very scenario defines the entrepreneurial spirit behind many of the most successful companies in the world today, regardless of the industry. Good companies -- those that produce solid products and stand by them long after the sale -- take time and investment to develop.

I have written about many of these companies during my reviewing tenure with the SoundStage! Network. If you look through our archives you’ll see numerous reviews, some quite old, of products from manufacturers that are still making gear today. I often recommend products from these stalwarts to friends and family members because I know that if something breaks, the people I care about will be taken care of in a fair and reasonable manner. I also know that good companies have a better chance of staying in business for the long term -- a comforting fact when you tell your relatives that so-and-so is a safe buy.

I’ve also reviewed a number of products made by individuals who are just getting their dream off the ground: Fellows who don’t have a long track record but are showing real potential in a tough industry. Some of these folks will make it to the next stage, and might, with hard work, market savvy, intelligence, and luck, be some of the big guys in ten or 15 years. But many more will be out of business by this time next year.

For the high end to flourish, we need both -- the big guys and the little guys. There must be good companies today, and those that will become the new good companies of the future.

What amazes me is how often I see the most successful of the high-end companies (which are still small in absolute terms) criticized for their pricing, marketing, whatever, when directly compared with what the small-time operators are doing. I have no issue with looking for value for money or innovation from the upstart, but I do suggest that, when comparing the big guy and little guy, you make sure you’re taking into account the fundamental differences between the two businesses. There are potential consequences to buying from the small guy: The big guys have proven themselves and are likely to be around tomorrow, while the small guys have yet to do so.

There are notable audio companies that have been in and out of business several times, distributors that have disappeared off the face of the earth, retailers that have closed up shop overnight. When manufacturers or their resellers are no longer there to support a product -- some of which, we know, are hideously expensive -- the customer loses, as does the industry at large. There are times when I feel I can confidently recommend an upstart audio company: for various reasons, their products may be a safe purchase or an uncommonly unique buy. However, most times I’ll tell folks to buy from outfits that have traceable, longstanding track records. The qualities that led to that successful history will also likely lead to solid resale value if the customer upgrades, downsizes, or decides to leave the hobby. Whether you’re dropping $1000 or $20,000 on a component, a good track record is important.

I’m not trying to make absolute judgments about either the long-established audio manufacturer or the talented designer with stars in his eyes and a vision of where he’d someday like to be. I think it’s important, however, that you, the customer, recognize the differences between the two, and be aware of how those differences may affect your future purchases.

Sometimes it’s apples and oranges. Know which you’re buying. Their aftertastes can be quite different.

...Jeff Fritz

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