The gear we use to connect people is essential to our role as techs and engineers. Without it we’re just bad vocalists wearing black. But with it, we can change any event, primarily in a louder manner. Our kinship with musicians is based on gear and provides a common bond to explore important matters, such as picks. And, like our musician friends, we tend to gravitate toward certain products and brands and away from others based on questionable rationale. With all the brands out there and recent consolidation in the industry, how do you know what you’re getting? Here are some guidelines:
Brands are seldom connected to their origins.
Famous guitar makers, console manufacturers, and speaker companies may have been through seven iterations with the same name applied to wildly different products, with quality from excellent to fair over their lifespan. Venture capital firms, banks, and real estate companies now own many MI / pro audio brands. In fact, there are probably only one or two half-century old brands with the founder still in the saddle. These rare firms have true “point-to-point” beginning-to-now wiring in their gear. While some tribal knowledge can filter down through ownership changes, most is lost to the ethos. This does not mean the current crop of products from a maker is poor; it means the person whose name is on the box isn’t there anymore.
Brand loyalty needs to be based on performance, not perception.
The Beatles used certain gear because that’s what was available to them at that time and place. It may or may not meet your needs today. Artists endorse gear for many reasons, from love of the product to love of the endorsement check. Chinese firms with no connection to our industry now own many brands that went into bankruptcy during the Great Recession. If the CEO can’t use the product they make, look elsewhere. This is an industry based on passion, not logic; so go with companies who share your passion for gear. Select equipment based on your specific needs and budget.
Beware the boutique monster.
Every few months a new tube amp will come along that is “amazing beyond belief.” A guy in his basement who has unlocked the ancient code of tube secrets hidden for centuries in Mayan tombs is making them and they are only $4200 plus shipping and handling. You can be certain this person has no Underwriters Laboratories safety certification, which runs about $10,000 per model to have tested, no distribution network, and no plans beyond the current run of 25. It may be a great amp, but it may also be wired in a dangerous manner. Plus, in a couple years, it will be passé and you won’t get $500 for it on Reverb.
There is no magic.
This one is hard for us to accept because we all want to believe in magic. There is no hermit who winds pick-ups by the light of a full moon with wire soaked in swamp water for three months. It’s all done by robots and factory workers in China on an industrial scale using the least expensive parts that meet the design requirements. Many brands share the same factories in China, and sometimes it’s the same exact product regardless of the perceived halo of the badge on the front.
On the positive side, it’s hard for any brand today to remain in business making terrible equipment. There are simply too many choices available to the consumer today for the bad ones to stay around. So, most any product will function as intended and do so safely. The question is: What is the difference you are getting with brand A over brand B? Does it have additional features, a better build quality, superior after-service support and service? These are the things that make selecting one product over another a rational decision.
Brands of gear are just like brands of cars, coffee, clothes, and any other purchased item. As customers, our desire is to receive equitable performance for monetary outlay. The best way to do that with audio equipment is to listen to it and use it as intended prior to purchase. Get in there with it and see if it does what all those ads say it does. Only then will you know you are getting what you are paying for.