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
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
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?
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
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.
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.
do YOU think?