Is There Still a Difference Between Large and Small Audio Manufacturers?

AR-bigsmall2a225.jpgThe other day I saw a post in my Facebook Feed from Lampizator celebrating their 1500th DAC sold. They also mentioned how they had "good relations" with each and every one of their customers. Obviously, this is a goal that a larger firm would have difficulty achieving. Conversely, AudioQuest probably sells 1500 Dragonfly DACs worldwide in a week...

And one of the great things about the high-performance audio marketplace is that there is room for products from both small and sometimes even one-person companies as well as large multi-national firms. But each kind of business model will have some potential advantages and disadvantages for consumers - let's look at this in some detail...

Support

AR-bigsmall3a225.jpgBoth large and small audio firms can offer superb support, but it is often different. In a small firm you may well be dealing via phone with the person who actually built or designed your component. In a large firm your first contact with customer service may be an email from a customer service representative who may have never even seen your device. Does this mean that customer service will always be better with a small firm? Not necessarily. It does mean that the service by a small firm will always be more personal, but that does not make it better. When the one person who "knows" is out sick or away at a trade show, the alacrity of service could suffer. A large firm will always have someone to address your issues, but it may be a different someone each time...

Warranty service has changed over the years for both large and small firms. The idea of "repair or replace" under warranty has, for a vast majority of companies and products morphed into "replace" as the only option. Most large electronics firms used to have regional repair facilities to fix stuff. By and large those operations (where they still exist) have become way-stations where broken gear comes in and new replacements go out, but little repair actually goes on any more. This is due, in large part to the way components are made nowadays - with no provisions for easy replacement of small parts. Also often the cost of labor to fix components is more than the cost of just replacing the unit.

AR-bigsmall4a225.jpgObviously, some products can be repaired by their original makers YEARS after their manufacture. Pass Labs can restore 25-year-old gear and does so on a regular basis. Sony, who aren't exactly a small firm, also still repair some of their audio gear. I had the display on a four-year-old HAP Z1-ES music server develop lines that made it hard to read. Sony replaced the display under warranty.

Communication

How well a firm communicates with its customers is not a function of size, but attention to details. Some large firms have extensive systems insures that no customer queries or repair questions fall into the void. Small firms may not have the same level of system sophistication, but they do have the ability to address gray-area issues with more finesse and personal attention. One primary difference between a small firm and a large one is that with a small firm you have the opportunity to talk directly with the product designer. This rarely, except perhaps at trade shows, happens with the larger firms.

Long-term Value

AR-bigsmall1a225.jpgWhile it used to be that a larger firm was more likely to deliver long-term support (and therefore increase value) of their products than smaller firms that may or may not be around it ten or twenty years. With the changeover from mostly repairable to mostly unrepairable. Simply stated, you aren't going to find parts easily for a 20-year old device that is not point- to-point or designed to be repaired, such as the original Harman Kardon Citation A preamplifier which had removable boards that made it easy to replace its often-failing early tantalum transistors.

If you have an older device that can be repaired (such as a power amplifier) it's a really good idea to try to obtain a schematic of it so even if the original manufacturer can't or won't make repairs you could take it to a local repair facility and with the help of the schematic a competent repair person should be able to work on it. I acquired a wonderful Perreaux E110 power amplifier a couple of years back. When I contacted Perreaux, not only did they supply me with some information about the history of the product, but also a schematic so when the time comes, I can replace the older capacitors.

In these modern times many of the advantages that used to be attached to small or large firms simply don't apply anymore. Sure, small firms should and used to offer more personalized service and support and larger firms used to offer more of a guarantee of long-term support, but in this world of unrepairable designs and lean mean multinational operations, this is no longer the case...perhaps it's gotten to the point where the size of the manufacturer isn't nearly as important as it used to be...

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