When boutique's not so chic...
When I first got into 'professional audio', over 30 years ago, it really was an industry that existed almost entirely within the 'professional domain'. Most of the equipment we used was built by well-established, professional manufacturers, in proper factories with permanent staff and proper quality-control procedures.
That equipment was used by people who really were 'audio engineers' in the technical sense of that term: people who had a pretty good technical understanding of what they were doing with the equipment. Where they didn't, they were usually supported by staff engineers who could come rushing to help, should the need arise, from the maintenance department in the basement (why were they always put in the basement?).
What that meant was that the equipment worked as intended, and the users knew what to expect. Of course, those days are far behind us now. 'Music Technology' has been democratised, but not only for the end users. Equipment manufacturing has been democratised too.
These days it's relatively easy and affordable to start producing 'boutique' equipment in small production runs and sell it at a profit. In many ways, that's a great thing, and there are some fabulous 'boutique manufacturers' out there, producing fantastic stuff that mainstream manufacturers simply couldn't afford to do.
However, in my job I get to review a vast amount of equipment from both mainstream and boutique manufacturers and I've noticed something of a disturbing trend. Review equipment from mainstream manufacturers almost always works exactly as advertised, but a worrying amount of product from 'boutique' manufacturers just doesn't. I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say that I've had problems with about a third of all the review products supplied by 'boutique' manufacturers this year, and I think that's quite a shocking statistic.
It generally works like this: the review product arrives and I put it to use. I maybe notice something that appears to be wrong in some way, or perhaps something odd crops up when I put it on the test bench and hook it up to the Audio Precision test system. Our policy at SOS is always to check these issues directly with the manufacturer because products can get damaged in transit or I might have misunderstood how the thing is supposed to work. What usually happens with boutique manufacturers is that I'm told, "Oh yes, we know about that, and we've modified the new production units.” OK, that's great: but why did you send us a duff one to review, then? The original review unit is returned and a new one sent out, a week passes and I start all over again.
But what happens if inexperienced users buy a product and don't realise that problems they are experiencing are due to faulty design or manufacture, rather than their abilities?
What's more worrying is that sometimes I find things that the manufacturers didn't know about, but which really should have been spotted during the development stage by any critical user, and certainly by the Quality Control process.
Just looking through the list of 'boutique' preamps I've reviewed, I've found a 15dB resonant peak at 15Hz (enough of a spike that microphone handling noise could shake the monitor speakers apart), a multi-mode preamp in which the output polarity flipped when switching modes, and a preamp with ground-lift switches wired across the input sockets instead of the outputs, so that phantom power is disabled when the ground lift is switched in!
I could go on and on, because it's not just preamps. Similar issues have cropped up with pretty much every type of boutique product, but I didn't spend anything like as much time as I do now discovering anomalies in review products when they were all from mainstream manufacturers.
Quality control is absolutely critical for any manufacturer, and this is clearly an area where some boutique manufacturers need to improve urgently — and before they ship review samples, please, let alone the production units! Advice for the end user: check very carefully that everything works as it should, and don't just assume user error if strange things happen!
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Hugh Robjohns is technical editor for Sound On Sound magazine, and writes from his secret volcano lair.