Gino Robair is former editor of EM

Semper Caveat Emptor

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As a music journalist, I’ve met a lot of interesting people at every level of the MI world, from engineers, designers, and coders to marketers, sales, and upper management. I also have a lot of close friends who are musicians that work in the industry.

Consequently, I hear stories.

A recent one was about a company that, about a decade ago, put out an amp that offered two discrete 100W sections. But the marketing literature noted that it was a 200W amp. Apparently no one called them on it.

The vast majority of folks I know in this biz are honest, and are genuinely proud of the products they offer to musicians and audio engineers. But there is room for spin, exaggeration, and hype. We’ve all noticed it at one time or another (and, at other times, have probably not seen it early enough to prevent a misguided purchase). But the majority of the time, once you scrape away the hyperbole and exaggerated marketing speak from the well known brands, you get to the facts, and they are, for the most part, solid.

Sometimes, however, you have to search hard to get to the useful information. Occasionally, that means getting in touch with an acquaintance who is the engineer at a company, rather than going through the marketing person above them. That way, you get the exact details you need, without the company spin that can obfuscate them.

All of this comes with the territory when writing and reviewing products.

But two articles that recently crossed my desk piqued my interest in the way they relate to product awareness. The concepts they address affect those of us that use audio equipment of all levels—consumer, prosumer, professional.

I was particularly intrigued by “Why Most Hardware Specs are Total Bullshit” by Bryan Gardiner because, as a reviewer I’m always on the lookout for misleading marketing copy. Reviewers know there is plenty of room for fudging, if not downright lying, so we are naturally suspicious of specs and promises. And although Gardiner’s piece is clearly aimed at the consumer market (and for geeks who are not as gear savvy as they think they are), it came at a time when I was contemplating how our industry views technical information about products.

To say that most specs are total BS is, well, BS itself. Yet, as over-the-top as the premise is, Gardiner’s piece does make one re-evaluate the role of the specification list.

Who Reads That Stuff?
Of course, professional audio engineers not only know what the specs mean but, just as importantly, are more likely to rely on their ears than their eyes. Yet, in the growing prosumer market, people are easily distracted by numbers and marketing hype. And Gardiner is correct that there is a lot of misinformation out there, especially in the recording gear at mid- to low-price points.

Nonetheless, having access to—and an understanding of—a product’s specs is of the utmost importance for musicians and recordists. For example, if you’re planning to use a ribbon mic, you want to make sure that the preamp you buy has enough gain as well as the right impedance. At the very least, having that information helps you narrow down the list of candidates to a manageable size.

Of course, the specs alone don’t tell you about the sound quality of a product. From there, you would have to listen and determine if the preamp you choose gives you the audio quality you want from the microphones you own and the sound sources you’ll record.

Unbelievable as it may seem, you can have two products, such as microphones, that have identical specs but sound different. In fact, you can have two of the same model of a mic with consecutive serial numbers that don’t sound the same. It all depends on how the products were designed and built. But even with high-ticket items, you may notice subtle differences between two of the same model if you’re constantly working with them.

This is a major reason why magazines like EM and Mix don’t put products through bench tests. It’s more important to find out how a product sounds and performs in the real world—what the user experience will be—rather than solely noting if the specs are high enough, or even accurate. Of course, there has to be a balance, because many specs have an effect on the usability of a product. For instance, if the phantom power from a preamp is much lower than the standard +48V (and I’ve seen this), it will affect how your mic performs.

Missing Link
But the comment from Gardiner that really hit me this week was “The temptation to exaggerate is now so overwhelming that attempting to stay out of the gimmick game is now seen as akin to product suicide.” I’ve certainly noticed that, particularly in the world of consumer electronics, but not necessarily in the professional and prosumer audio world. What’s become most frustrating for buyers of music and recording gear is the lack of specs.

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that so much of this stuff is made so inexpensively overseas, and that manufacturers realize that many purchasing decisions are made on price alone, rather than sound or specs. So there’s a certain nonchalance about what a product is really capable of. It’s more important to keep the price point below, say, the $100 barrier, depending on what it is.

Of course, in categories such as microphones, overseas OEM products are often made in one of a handful of factories. So, if you want to get into the mic business, all you have to do is determine what price you want to pay per unit (based on what you want the product to sell for), then pick the basic design from the OEM company’s catalog. From there, you can get it customized to look like your brand, maybe select a few special components, then it’s up to your marketing prowess to make it fly off the shelves of a retailer.

So why bother with the details when you’re banking on the consumer wanting a Neumann U87 look-alike—and presumably sound-alike—for under $100? It’s at this level where the lack of basic information happens. Take the most common spec—the mic’s frequency response. You will almost always see 20Hz-20kHz. Fine, but the next question is how much deviation in dB is there within that range? Obviously, the frequency response alone isn’t going to tell you the entire story of the mic, but you can learn a lot from it before you buy, if you know that there is, say, a +/-15dB tolerance in there. In that case, yeah, it’s probably better for a company not to reveal that information if they actually want to sell them.

By contrast, the high-end companies are proud to tell you every single engineering detail about their products. And you can trust most of them. I say most of them, because it’s not uncommon for historically important brand names to be acquired by secondary companies who then put the brand on relatively inexpensive OEM products, but charge a premium based on the name. Semper caveat emptor.

Conspicuous by its absence
Beyond that, it’s not just the companies selling “me too” products that are becoming nonchalant about specs. I’m beginning to see a trend where important specs are being left off of the product literature of mid-level gear from companies who have a good track record.

The recent example I can point out is with the latest generation of Avid Mbox. I was keenly interested in finding out how much gain the new interfaces offer in their preamps. Initially, Avid provided surprisingly little information about the mic, line, and DI inputs or outputs. When I asked a company representative about the specs, I was told they were similar to those in a slightly higher level product in their line, but I wasn’t given the exact details. Eventually, Avid posted the info, though it takes a bit of searching to locate the data.

Nightmare on Main Street
Speaking of confidence, the article about C.F. Martin’s International Trade Nightmare is sure to shake all of us awake, both manufacturer and consumer. The 2011 NAMM show is nearly upon us, and I’m sure there will be serious talk about the issue of brand hijacking.

Cool Links
International Trademark Nightmare

Beatles’ Abbey Road zebra crossing given listed status

Seeking profit in the world’s toughest recorded-music market

Feeling Chills in Response to Music

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this blog post are those of Gino Robair and do not necessarily reflect the views of EM or Penton Media.

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