Lately I’ve been doing lots of multiple reviews for EQ Magazine on equipment with wildly varying price ranges. Recent examples have included Headphone Mixers, Mic Pre-amps, and A to D Converters. The biggest differences have been in the A/D converter reviews with prices going from $400 to $18,000 for hardware that performs basically the same tasks. While these reviews have not been true “shoot-outs”, I often work on several pieces of gear during a short period of time and direct comparisons are unavoidable. So it can be a little difficult for me to keep perspective at times and not assume that the product costing nearly 50 times as much has got to be 50 times better than its cheaper brethren. Whenever I get all sweaty-palmed about some new audio gadget that costs as much as a car, I go back to my design engineering roots. In a previous life I was a robotics designer for a major glassware manufacturer, so I have some experience on the subject.
Design engineering is really a balancing act with cost, performance, life span, and physical attributes in a constant struggle. And this balance changes dramatically depending on the specific target market. Anyone can build a better mousetrap given enough time and money, but to successfully build one under budget and on-time for a particular market is what separates the real engineers from the wanna bee’s. I tend to separate designs into four specific market areas and judge the success of a product’s design as to whether or not it meets the requirements of its particular market.
Yes, this is the cheap stuff that everyone loves and buys in mass quantities, and generally is designed with planned obsolescence so you’ll buy next year’s model. The two main design criteria are a low price and physical style. We’ve all seen the speaker cabinets selling for $50 each with 15″ woofers and wattage ratings exceeding the output of the Hoover Dam, and of course most of them sound like junk. But to the average consumer it looks like they’re getting something really cool, and the price is certainly right.
This can be a big step above consumer gear since actual performance is now part of the design equation. Sometimes resembling consumer gear, the performance can often reach professional levels with the main compromise usually being a lack of a “professional” interface, (i.e. -10 dbV RCA or TRS connections instead of +4dBu levels and balanced XLR connectors) and less headroom than usually found in pro gear. The buyer can benefit from the price savings due to mass-production and still get professional performance at an affordable price. For many project-oriented studios, gear of this design will do a good job, especially if it’s not physically abused and is properly maintained.
Pro gear has performance as the main design factor, but also includes structural integrity and stable performance in the equation. For mechanical devices this means using ball bearings and thick structural materials so that you can turn the thing on and leave it running for years at a time or drag it around on the road without it going out of calibration. There’s extra performance built-in (such as over-sized power supplies and heat sinks) so that low maintenance or physical abuse won’t cause failure. I’ve had my URIE compressors for a long time, and expect them to outlive me, with a little maintenance now and then. Non-studio examples include tape-cart machines in radio stations and over-the-road trucks such as Peterbilt. For instance, on a big tractor-trailer engine you won’t find a fan belt running the water pump. It’s an internal gear set so you don’t have a cheap $5 fan belt taking your $100,000 tractor out of commission.
Few people ever encounter industrial gear outside of a manufacturing plant. This stuff is built with a cost-is-no-object, never-break-down attitude, since a single failure could take down a whole production line costing tens of thousands of dollars an hour or more. For the audio trade, think of things like satellite uplinks and tape machines running commercials during the Super Bowl. Do you want to be the guy signing off on the make-good for the TV spot that crashed when the broadcast time is costing a million bucks or more a minute? I don’t think so. Some audio gear is built with this industrial-strength engineering attitude. For instance, I’ve just auditioned the VM-1 microphone from Brauner and recently reviewed the D.W. Fern mic pre-amp, both examples of gear that not only sounds great, but is also built with the absolute best materials available on earth. The same holds true for some of A to D converters that cost the price of a car. They use military-grade components that are extremely stable both to temperature swings and vibration, so you know that your investment will sound exactly the same, year after year, after year. Which is exactly how we want a true industrial piece of gear to behave…. No surprises.
So while I can get goose bumps over an industrial device, I can also appreciate the engineering expertise that goes into prosumer gear. After all, if everything cost a year’s salary, then very few studios could afford to make music, and we would all be the losers. So treat yourself to a professional piece of gear for the critical parts of your sound chain (a few good microphones and pre-amps a good place to start investing your hard-earned bucks) but don’t be afraid to buy what you can afford now, rather than do without. After all, the most important thing to do is make music now and get it out for everyone else to enjoy. It’s like having children. If everyone waited until they were really ready, the population of the earth would plummet.
As Published in EQ Magazine December 1998
Copyright Mike Sokol – All Rights Reserved