On Quality

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In response to my last article "Classics and Classicness", Ernie Fisher, of "The Inner Ear Report" commented that, "It isn't appearance, price or even progress that makes a classic. It is usually quality, and while there is a lot of quality apparent in the high-end of the audio industry, there isn't much in mid-fi -- it is forgettable for the most part. The quality of old AND some new audio gear is what sows the seeds and grows them into memorable CLASSICS..."

Quality? What is "quality"?

Do you remember the old Tandberg quarter-inch audio tape recorders? (The ones in the pretty rounded-corner wooden cases) They were truly good-sounding, offered reasonable tape-handling and, if one could judge by their published specifications, may actually have been better than the Ampex professional units of their time for a whole lot less money. Is that what "quality" is? Does quality have to do with Performance?

If the Tandbergs were all that great, why did the pros buy Ampex?

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The answer is that when you've got a symphony orchestra of a hundred and twenty musicians ticking away at $40 an hour (which was pretty much the going union rate at the time the Tandbergs were popular), you can't afford to lose a "take" because your tape recorder fails. The Tandberg recorders may or may not have been as good-sounding as the Ampex studio units - or even better - but, at almost $5,000 an hour just for the musicians, NOBODY was going to take a chance on their reliability. Ampexes, on the other hand, were built - even more than for absolute performance (of which they certainly had plenty) - to be utterly "bulletproof" and absolutely reliable. And even so, normal professional practice at the time was, and may still be, always to have a second recorder going at all times, to produce a "protection" copy of every take.

So, is reliability quality?

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Reliability isn't just a prerequisite for professional recording: Major national retailers like Apple Stores, Best Buy, Walmart, and others need to "turn" their inventories quickly, in large volumes, and often at tiny margins in order to keep up with their competition, whether "brick and mortar" or on the internet. Their very high volume turnover makes them a manufacturer's dream customers, but, because their limited margins mean that they can't afford to hassle with any line that gives them problems, they can also be a manufacturer's nightmare -- dropping not just products but entire lines because of too many customer returns for warranty or reliability issues or even for manufacturer backorders or failure to deliver goods on time.

Does that mean that quality is also timely delivery?

I think that quality - meaning, of course, GOOD quality - is simply the ability to deliver whatever it is that the person making the quality judgment is looking to find. And that brings up a truly interesting paradox: It's possible for a thing to be both very high quality and very poor quality at the same time! It all depends on what you want from what you buy.

You think I'm kidding? Well then consider the mid-fi gear that Ernie referred to in his comment: I can confidently say that, from the point-of-view of the ordinary non-audiophile people who buy it and the (often) big retailers that sell it, mid-fi gear, despite Ernie's deprecation of it, may actually be of much HIGHER quality than the often temperamental High-End products that he praises.

For one thing, it may be much more consistent in its manufacture. Some High End manufacturers are very small and may not be able to afford large inventories of identical parts. As a result, components may vary from unit to unit, even of the same product, as the manufacturer buys whatever is available or most affordable in small lots to build just a few units at a time. For another, mid-fi electronics may have their circuit boards stuffed and their soldering done, not by hand, as a High End manufacturer might, but automatically, by machine. This can result in greater consistency and superior build quality.

Mid-fi products may also have better-tested circuitry and construction than High End gear. Makers of mid-fi products expect to sell many thousands of each of their products. Because they may be better equipped and funded, and because of the big retailers' insistence on reliability, they may do a great deal more alpha and beta testing than their High End counterparts, who may have neither the budget nor the facilities for testing and may need to sell, instead of holding back for testing, everything that they produce, starting from the very first unit.

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Finally, mid-fi electronics may have better - or at least more convenient - protection circuitry. Whereas most High End gear uses fuses, for possibly some slight modicum of better sound, most of the mid-fi products that I've had any experience with seem to use (often automatic) circuit breakers so that the uninitiated can even make such otherwise damaging mistakes as touching the speaker leads together without any ill effect.

Even though it does have definite quality advantages, Ernie is right about one thing. Most mid-fi gear can't even compare to the High end in terms of performance.  But for most people who AREN'T audiophiles, all that matters in an audio product is that it does what it's supposed to do as well as is expected, that it's easy to set-up and operate, and that it doesn't break.

For me, "quality" is neither performance, nor reliability, nor ease of operation, nor any of the other things I've just mentioned. Those are all qualities of a product, not "quality", itself. I think quality is the manifest result of an insistence by a manufacturer on using the very best materials, the very highest skills, and the very best construction techniques, all combined with the very best aesthetics, to produce a product as nearly without compromise as possible, regardless of what that product may be.

What do YOU think? 
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