Advantages of owning equipment from major audio brands vs. boutique shops?
As someone new to home audio, the many brands of equipment is overwhelming. I learn about a new brand almost daily. Today it was Valvet and their A4 MKII monoblocks. Is it correct to assume that advantage to owning equipment from the major players is a result of the dollars they invest in R&D and the company stability, translating to piece of mind via their warranty, and the ability to get a component repaired? I would think resale value also plays a factor.
Because the small shops often sell direct, cutting out layers of profit, there appear to be some good deals on well performing kit. Other than price, are there advantages to investing in boutique brand equipment? It seems the offset to a better price might be their instability in the market, resulting in possibly owning a very heavy, expensive paper weight should they close their doors and your component need service, and a lessor resale value.
I think it's more a matter of focus and capabilities.
I think the best thing you can do is develop your own level of understanding of what you like to listen to, what you want to hear, independent of reviewers or pundits (like me).
In terms of repair, the boutique gear is often more repairable. How many boutique preamp makers can afford their own custom VLSI chips and firmware? No, the gear will be much more basic, made from components that you can still buy decades from now. This goes for speakers as well as amps and preamps.
The advantage is in owning what sounds really good and lasts a really long time. When that is known to be the case nothing else really matters.
In other words you got it completely wrong. You are not investing in a brand, boutique or otherwise. You are not investing at all. You are building a music system. Focus on that, and that alone, and the eventual resale value of what you buy will take care of itself.
Stepping into the audio world is a long and winding road. If you can, go listen. If you get a chance go to a trade show. I’m lucky and get to attend one of the largest in the country as Denver is very close to me. Or, just go to a smaller show. Budget is key and finding what you like, whatever brand is a process. Usually, starting out with brands of long duration, and know quantities, is a good idea as they have heritage behind them and usually have a “sound” if you will. Most important... have fun. It’s a deep well, very deep. Toes first.
First of all, hi fi equipment is one of the worst investments you could possibly make. We throw our money away for the love of music although I suspect a fair number of us have our ego invested in it. I personally always believe it is safest buying your equipment from well established reputable firms with a track record of making great equipment. There are also several designers I follow closely. Although Millercarbon is right, simple equipment is easier to fix no piece of gear should break till it is at least 20 years on, at that point it is worth nothing and as tech moves on there is probably much better equipment available.
A lot of variables. Huge companies can be a nightmare dealing with to get a repair done (Sony, Marantz) and will eventually let the serviceability of a component expire. Also, look at the thread on repairing Esoteric.
Small companies may close, but if they don't you're likely to get years and years of attentive care, concern, and if necessary service.
Different companies also have different identities: look at Bryston and their fabulous after-market rep.
Different components are going to have different lifetimes--a loudspeaker vs. the latest DAC. You may well want to keep one going long after ditching the other.
Also, different components have different levels of repairability regardless of whether the original company is still around; again, a loudspeaker vs. e.g. a CD-player.
This doesn't even get into issues like specialization, commitment to a product type, experience, knowledge, R&D resources, etc. etc.
Thinking about speakers in particular, when you deal with small boutique shops you often can deal with the owner directly. Think of Legacy, Salk or Daedalus. They will work with you to find just the right speaker for your particular situation. I had the opportunity to tour the Salk facility and meet with Jim himself who is just a fantastic guy. While there, he told me how a guy sent a year old speaker in with a blown out tweeter. It was obviously over driven but Jim replaced it at no charge. Good luck getting that type of service from some of the big companies.
I wouldn't generalize about this. There are companies of all sizes creating great products and having great reputations for customer service and support, and there are companies of all sizes for which a bit of research will disclose histories that in one or both of those respects are controversial at best.
And yes, if the principal at a small company eventually retires or passes on there might be problems having a component repaired. But as has been said above such problems can also arise with large companies, for any number of reasons including poor customer service and unavailability of parts.
The good news, as you indicated, is that there are many choices. So choices can usually be found for which both sonics and customer service and support are exemplary.
There's a lot to consider here. Of course, there are companies of all size creating some great products. Since the choice is mine, I usually consider how easy it might be to sell a component when the upgrade bug hits in the future. I rarely change components, but when I do I want them to sell quickly. Highly touted companies, like Oppo, McIntosh or even Nakamichi sell quicker than their lesser-known counterparts.
Thank you all for your responses. As a small business owner, I want to champion and support small business. I love the idea of the little guy innovating in his garage or basement workshop. However, in such a fickle industry, and with such high stakes, it's easy to lean towards spending a few more dollars and going with the safer choice.
I have always picked equipment that has a reputation of great service to go along with a great product. You will hear stories here that are both glowing and much less so. So far for me the boutique route has led to service over and above. Zu, Audiopax, Trans-Fi, Zesto, BAT, have all provided great service when needed. Small business owner here also. In each case the owner personally saw that my concerns were addressed. Some really great equipment as well. In each case their only question was "How can I help you?" I would say the safer choice is with the smaller company.
I went through the same thing building my system. It's hard to choose components when there are so many choices and it's hard to hear everything. Reviews are all over the place and many times prefer boutique brands over major brands. I finally made my choices based on what I could hear, reviews and value for my money. I use a Yamaha integrated amp which I've read pros and cons on but it sounds great to me and was a good value. In the end, go with you gut. Enjoy the search.
A great example of a small company is Modwright. You can call and talk to Dan Wright or one of his wonderful staff. Small company, excellent products and excellent support. Dan talked me through tightening a bolt holding a transitor. It was loose and was shutting down due to overheating. He sent me photos and a detailed description. Tightened the bolt, problem fixed. I call Hsu about a sub plate amp. Dr. Hsu answered the phone himself and walked me through ordering a new amp. Those are the small companies I want to support. Same for PS Audio and Schiit. Try getting that from Sony or Denon.
The larger companies are trying to offer products that will appeal to the greatest number of people, while using their purchasing power to offer a huge variety of features at different price points. The boutique companies will never compete on that level, and leaves them free to tailor their products to their vision of what the best sound is for the price point they are offering that meets what they feel their market audience is. Many times you will not find as many features thrown in, but offering higher quality components, richer sound, or better level of controls on the features they hone in on as most important. Others ( I’ll use Trinnov as an example here) May offer industry best standards.
One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is economy os scale. A boutique company that might sell 100 units can’t make as much money as a larger company that buys parts in bulk and sells more units. I’d rather save some money and get better quality from a repetuble major brand. OTOH, sometimes the boutique brand busts their butt to make a customer happy.
One advantage is innovation. The big boys are often stuck in a rut, like Hollywood studios: Lotsa Bangs 17.
It took a boutique brand to bring us air bearing turntables. It took a boutique brand to bring us low torque turntable motors. The best buy in high end right now is the Trans-Fi Terminator air bearing tonearm, $1000, and performing as well as anything costing less than a new car.
And, as @tgrisham says, try getting the president of Sony on the phone for an hour to talk about how his products might work in your system (my experience of Bryston). Finally, boutique brands are more likely to work with you to modify or upgrade their standard products. Try that with Sony.
This is where dealers can play a big role too. My local dealers had a great relationship with the speaker manufacturer (vivid) and designer (dickie) and when a small repair was needed, they had them on the phone walking a local technician through the repair. I can’t tell you if they would have responded to me personally with the same generosity, but it was fun for them to help out in the context of their relationship with my dealer. Made me really happy and probably helped the dealer sell more units with that story to tell about their customer service.
Manufacturing has economies of scale. Many major brands hire competent engineers, including professional audio companies. Boutique audio companies will tell you it's as much about art as engineering and amplifiers and DAC's have to be "voiced" like a violin. The truth is the fidelity is mostly about engineering and looks and marketing is where most of the art is. Someone that sells a few dozen amps in a year has to charge an arm and a leg for them to stay in business. A company that sell thousands can charge much less. This is why cost and fidelity don't always correlate.
Tlong, it's more like LotsaBangs 22,317, the 22,317th ugly unoriginal formulaic Hollywood actioner, which seems all that they know how to make these days.
Rwortman, I think it is absolutely wrong to say that, "fidelity is mostly about engineering." Talented designers do a whole lot more than engineering, a lineage from today's Koetsu going back to Peter Walker, and before him, Lee deForest, and of course, one N. Tesla.
Of course there are economies of scale - sometimes almost making up for corporate and professional inertia.
I worked for a boutique loudspeaker manufacturer in Australia. Often asked to trade in well known brands, when selling his speakers to customers. He would take some of the very best reviewed speakers to help him sell his own. He'd have a weekend set aside for local audiophiles to come and listen to his latest design, or something to review and invariably the well known speaker would be put up against his (actually less expensive) speaker and when all was said and done, his sales would roll in. Mike Lenehan was asked to be an expert witness in a court case regarding a pair of Raidho speakers, I met the owner when he came into the factory to listen to these speakers that were touted as "better", he traded in a pair of speakers as well (no, not the Raidho's) that retailed more than what Mike sells his for. I've heard a lot of well regarded and well known speakers come in and out of the factory. When medium volume white noise playing a sweep through the audible spectrum showed up the glaring and inexcusable cabinet resonance from some famous brands, I heard where the difference was. I also know a designer and his son who makes DAC's that wipe the floor with well known brands 10 times the retail price, his don't come in a fancy enclosure, the fancy is inside, the components and implementation. However, you'll need to be reading forums to find these gems.
is correct, if you're really in it for the sound, a lifestyle involving the beautiful recreation of music, it's about building something.
I have found with boutique companies they are usually less costly and more flexible if I wanted upgraded capacitors , and other parts. Don Sachs preamplifiers is a good example of that . my friend. Owns one and it is very good . in digital I own a Lampizator dac and the only thing proprietary is the digital chips,and board layout,the rest my Vacuum tube tech friend did all my mods with just upgraded parts quality ,and a 5v rectifier transformer upgrade. I just bought the a New Jolida Now called Black Ice. audio F35 F integrated amp.the F is for Fosgate designed. I consider Black Ice a boutique company with excellent quality and service.BTW none are built in China !!
I guess most of my system would fall into "boutique" category, except speakers (and some other stuff I used to own) which are by far the most expensive pieces and are from a major brand. Now, which brands gave me most in terms of service, support, communication, upgrade path, etc?? The so called boutique ones! Mind you almost all the stuff I own are second hand items and out of warranty. When I had a problem with my mega brand speakers the support was laughable, I ended up having a local guy, not affiliated with the brand at all do the repairs because the obstacles the major brand presented, was not worth it. Also it was quite a bit less expensive (although not easy) to acquire those boutique items than what I'd consider major audio brands. Boutique doesn't automatically translate to expensive, just less known. For example Wilson Audio is absolutely not a boutique brand to me at all but sure one of the most expensive ones (I'm sure their support is great btw). So a lot depends on your definition of the word.
I have purchased products from Modwright and Linear Tube Audio and both companies have outstanding service before, during and after sales. These folks are not just in it for a buck like so many large companies. These small boutique companies are run by music lovers and audiophiles like me.
I wish I had listened to SALK speakers before I purchased mine. They sell direct and are able to build their speakers using much better drivers because they don’t have to cut corners selling to dealers. I listened to their Song3 Encores priced at $6,500 at the RMAF and they sounded better than a pair of $60,000 speakers down the hallway. Call Jim Salk and tell him Larry Edwards sent you,
There’s a lot to like about boutique companies, but one major downside: you don’t know if they’ll survive or not. I’ve owned a number of boutique devices myself, but I would never, ever want to be an early adopter. I prefer others to do the beta testing for me and to take the initial risk.
Here is my 2 cents. I have been into audio since college -1972. Moved from EPI speakers to Magnepan in 1980 and I have stuck with Maggie’s ever since. They are still around and still innovating. Please give them a listen - their speakers cover a wide price range. Started with Dynaco 400 amp and PAT 5 preamp. Now out of business. Switched to Krell 15 years ago - on my third Krell integrated now - the first one just died after 15 great years of service. Krell has been around a long time and migrated thru some tough times but they are still here and innovating, and servicing their equipment. Their new integrated is not cheap - $7,000, but the reviews are great. Should have mine in a week. Digital music is the way to go - CDs and Turntables are expensive. MultipleDACs are out their in multiple price brackets. I use a LUMIN D1 - it is a streamer and DAC in one box - I stream Tidal HiFi with MQA and am happy. Good luck on your journey - Happy Listening and Happy New Year!
Buy whatever sounds good to you and hasn't got a rep for unreliability.
I own several items long out of production, whose manufacturers no longer exist and that keep on giving me great service (phono stage made in total of 200, preamp with less than 300 made, big power amps that I own 3.5% of total production - 133 made.
A good electronics tech can usually rectify any age related issues that crop up as long as they can get parts or equivalents.