It’s the time of year for saving money!
At an audio show several years ago, I was approached by a fellow carrying a stack of what looked like pamphlets of some type. I suppose he saw the “press” badge hanging around my neck and figured I would do. He introduced himself and proceeded to tell me about his new line of speakers.
I was interested insofar as I wanted to see if he was a guy operating out of his garage or a valid manufacturer. I began asking him several questions and quickly determined he was more about the former than the latter. Basically, he was a DIY’er who wanted to become mainstream.
There is certainly nothing wrong with having a dream, expanding upon that dream and working to build a company. Who knows, maybe today he builds a mighty fine speaker system. That day, however, within the confines of an audio show, what he had was a speaker of unknown engineering credentials and unknown drivers in a homemade cabinet.
I became skeptical when he started disparaging many of the marquis brands who had paid dearly to be at this audio show. I almost asked him why he didn’t spring for a demo room himself. His claims his speakers were as “good as any of the speakers here” in my view held little merit.
I suppose my dismissal of this guy was expected. I had recently returned from England and a day long visit to the KEF facility in Maidstone-Kent, UK where I witnessed firsthand how they designed and built speakers.
Today, speakers absolutely, and really all name brand audio components are very highly engineered products. KEF has a custom developed software program that takes a small sliver of a cone, not the whole driver, mind you, but only a small slice of the cone, and subjects it to different operating parameters to realize the ideal design.
They can manipulate the shape and dimensions of that small slice of cone until it achieves optimum performance. All of this is done in a computer before any prototypes are built and tested. In fact, all mainstream high performance companies use some similar type of computer aided design to engineer their products, regardless of what they actually make.
Given the significant cost of design software, how many people with a table saw and an audio parts catalog in the garage are capable of doing that?
I’m sure most audiophiles have read comments questioning equipment costs.
Considering speakers, for instance, those claims are typically centered around the fact that drivers probably cost “this”, and a cabinet may be built for about “that” so why is this company charging so much for their speakers?
Really? What about the tens of thousands of dollars manufacturers spend on software, whether purchased commercially or custom developed?
What about the years most products spend in R&D before a prototype is made? KEF, for example, spent five years developing the Blade, utilizing multiple engineering groups, and disciplines, before it was available for widespread use. I suspect the costs endured over those five years must have been significant.
What about keeping everyone involved in the design of a new product on the payroll? Paychecks don’t grow on trees. They are also a continuing expense. Then there is the significant cost of building prototypes, testing them, finding they are not quite right and starting all over. Starting a production line requires investments for tooling, fixtures, and apparatus to move parts through production. There are the manufacturing expenses, which by any measure, are based on low volumes and therefore more expensive. Finally, there are the advertising and legal costs.
Add all that up and it is pretty easy to see why things cost what they do. However, the end result is sonically a long way from something built in ten minutes in a garage from catalog parts.
This is not to say a guy ensconced in the garage with an idea cannot come up with something exceptional. In fact, most audio manufacturers today, and all of the legacy companies started exactly in this manner. Saul Marantz started building amps in his basement because he wanted something better sounding than what could be purchased at the time.
Many modern day detractors of the selling price of speakers in particular, and electronics in general, simply eschew the price of something with little regard to cost. Frankly, if anyone thinks there is no difference between price and cost, better check the math. It is very easy to post a comment online claiming “there is no way this speaker (or component) can cost this much. The manufacturer is just gouging everyone on price.”
It is easy to look at a speaker, pick up a parts catalog and add up the cost of a couple of woofers, a midrange and tweeter, speculate that the cabinet can be made for about “this,” and declare the speaker only costs “this” to build. What is never taken into consideration is all the work and effort to get the speaker, or electronic component to function the way it does. Oftentimes, that effort has taken years to perfect and required a team of engineers. Any component, regardless of what it is, receiving a very favorable review has seen a lot of work and effort in the design of that product. Excellence does not come easily, and in most cases, inexpensively.
Designing high performance audio equipment requires significantly more effort than picking a few parts out of a catalog, putting them in a box of some sort, and “voila,” an audio component.
Talk all you want about whatever product and how much it SHOULD cost as opposed to what it does cost. Make continued and repeated claims that anyone with a few bucks could build the same whatever selling for many thousands of dollars.
The world is seemingly full of audio experts. Only one problem, I don’t see them designing, testing, building and marketing anything. I don’t see any of these detractors with a product with their name on them in the marketplace. Only continued complaining, which is a long way from being a manufacturer. My suggestion, go build something and offer it for sale. Then let’s see how much it costs and how it performs. The result might be surprising.
Excellent article, Paul. The other expense, that most people forget about, is supporting those products long after they have been sold. The only way to establish long-term value, after the performance, is by servicing and supporting the product.
Hope you enjoyed the piece. And the “other” expense you mentioned is spot on. And one that is absolutely a cost center.