It’s that time of year!
Audio is unlike most industries in one particular area – the relative sizes of the companies that make gear. In our industry we have everything from one-man operations run out of a spare room to mega-corporations with offices in every major city, and many that fall somewhere in-between.
Obviously the size of a company has very little to do with the intrinsic quality of their products. I’ve seen and heard superb components from one-person operations as well as from companies with over 20 software engineers. And while both small and large companies can produce first-class products how they handle customer support will, very likely, be quite different.
With a large company your customer service calls will most certainly NOT be handled by the person who designed the product – instead you will be routed to the service department, where depending on how long you’ve owned the component and that particular company’s warrantee policies your request will be processed “accordingly.” At a small operation the chances are quite good that you will get a level of personal service and attention that would be impossible for a big company. If you need to talk with the designer, no problem. But what happens if the owner is on vacation or is suffering from a health issue?
Let me make one thing perfectly clear – I do not have a preference when it comes to big firms versus small ones – each has their advantages and weaknesses. With a big company comes the security of knowing that the chances are very good that the firm will be around to supply parts for the next five years. But it’s also possible with a large company that it will be less responsive to end-user’s problems and issues. Apple would be a classic example of a company that does very well when it comes to mass customer support, but is less consistent and satisfying when it comes to unusual individual problems (MacPro desktop users have been without USB plug and play for three months now). Conversely, small firms can move much faster to address individual issues, but sometimes can get tripped up by supplier problems (such as the latest M2Tech Mac OS El Capitan USB 3.0 driver issues.)
The reason I bring up these differences is so that readers can be more aware that when you buy a component you aren’t merely buying that component, you are also buying into a manufacturer’s customer service and support. How much and what kind of support an owner can expect should have an influence on an end-user’s buying decision. In many parts of the world “buying local” is a good idea not only for food, but also for audio gear. Obtaining the finest component from a company halfway around the world will be a less than satisfactory experience if the component needs service and the nearest experienced repair location is back where it was originally made…
Over the years I’ve reviewed a lot of gear from small manufacturers. These smaller companies have often been able to offer superior ergonomic and sonic value at their particular price-points. The primary issue that I’ve had with small shops is that sometimes they can’t keep up, either technologically, or in terms of support. I can think of over ½ dozen small high-performance audio firms that were at one time market leaders who were unable to remain competitive and eventually withered and died. The end result was piles of orphaned gear with reduced resale value because parts and repair options were severely truncated.
There are a myriad of reasons that an end-user will choose one component over another. For most audiophiles the size of the company that makes a component is probably pretty far down on their “must have” lists. But given the nature and increasing complexity of many audio components, factoring in the size of the manufacturer and what to expect in terms of support should be included in a prospective purchaser’s event horizon. Because as with all human contraptions, it’s not a question of if your new audio gear will eventually need service and support, but merely when…