Sounds like you just described every industry in the free world. Brand names mean everything and nothing. Some to many times you cannot trust the major audiophiles mags either. The biggest secret in this hobby is coming to the realization that one must spend a lot of money to realize one does not have to spend a lot of money.
There are $30k products and name brands that smell and $200 products that'll make your system sing. And vice versa.
Your surest bet to prevent costly mistakes is to find somebody so well versed in this hobby, somebody who lives, sleeps, and drinks this stuff, and lean heavily on this person's advise for all gear purchases, even down to the electrical plug types and models. But that also means steering clear of the opinions of the masses. Because the majority are usually wrong anyway.
Stehno makes good points. I would just add that I think that "brand names" are VERY important to some audiophiles (you'll note I didn't say music overs), whereas uniqueness is very important to others and they don't worry about the manufacturers going tits up.
My own position is somewhere between the two: I do like the idea that a manufacturer is going to be around to service my gear for the long term, but name brand for the sake of "elite-ism" is not particularly important to me. My amp dealer went out of business, but fortunately re-emerged with another company (McCormack/CJ), and my pre-amp builder (Sonic Frontiers) has been bought and sold (how many times?). I suspect it is very difficult for small audio names to become mainstream, ie Levinson and Krell (and I have 2 Levinson pieces that sound great-- and I appreciate the build quality and name).
But having said all tis, it all has to SOUND GOOD TOGETHER for it to be worthwhile. I'm too damned old to be interested in "trophy equipment". Assess the risk(s) you're willing to take and go with what you like and sounds good to you, IMHO. Good Luck. Craig.
'Blue chip' mfrs are always the best way to go if you like playing with gear. I've nearly always stuck with ARC, Krell, CJ, Magnepan, Quad, Martin logan, Wadia, Linn, Levinson, et al. and hardly ever take a big hit on resale. This 'music lover' would rather preserve his dollars for more software than piss away my cash on 'garage-made gear' that will most likely have poor resale in years to come...
The opposite to the conventional wisdom is also true. There are always some absolute steals in used gear, because it is an obscure brand name; or it is a discontinued line from a well known company, that is unknown to those new to the hobby.
If you know what to buy, you can put together a great system, as good, or better than the well known brand names and product lines, for a small fraction of the cost.
No one wants a brand name until the company has earned a ruputation for having solid good sounding equipment. The key is to look for quality. If you find a piece of equipment with a name you have never heard before, take a look inside, see what's in there. Plug it in and listen. If it sounds good and is well built, does the name matter? To some people yes, to others, not so much. I admit I am partial to some brands more than others. Just because those companies have a reputation of good value/good sound and are well built. (atleast in my eyes) It all depends on what you like. Garfish brings up the "trophy equipment" idea and I agree with him. not about being old, about not really wanting stuff just to look at it. It has to perform it's task well.
Some brand names are important to me. Accuphase is a high end Japanese manufacturer that has to please the fanatical Asian audiophile, where there exists a sense of "honor" that has been lost to most of the western world. Reputation is EVERYTHING! Consequently, I know that when I buy an "Accuphase", the build quality, research & engineering, and resale value will always be first rate. Ralph Karsten at Atma-sphere has been building OTL tube amps and been doing it right for over 20 years. He is one of the few remaining larger independents. Think that when you call Levinson, Mark will be answering the phone? On several occasions, Ralph was PERSONALLY fielding incoming calls! This creates a kind of intimacy with the manufacturer and product that is rare today. Don't we all wish that we lived in a magical kingdom where we could audition all kinds of equipment combinations in our homes? In the real world sometimes reputation, reviews, and research has to take the place of an actual audition! Happy Tunes!
Good gear can be found with Brand Names and with No Names. The key is to know what you want and to do good research. Name Brand hints at a good product but does not guarantee it. No name hints at inconsistency and short life spans but does not guarantee it.
There is some outstanding quality and value out there among No Name gear but you have to do real good research to make sure you are getting the right thing. With Brand Name gear you have to make sure you are getting something worthy of the company’s good reputation, so you need to do good research. There is no pat answer that will serve you in all circumstances.
Here are some clear pros and cons:
Potential great value as they try to break into the market place (not always but often)
Potentially more personalized service since every customer is still a unique experience (as someone said above, the designer may still answer the phone.
Potential for customization/tweaking of gear to your needs
Innovation and design risk – looking for that magic bullet that puts them on the map
Everyone wants to be connected with the underdog they know is a winner. It is cool being part of an “underground” movement. Like when I read Lord of the Rings in High School or when I first heard of Eva Cassidy. You become one of the few “initiated” of the inner circle, one of the “in” crowd, someone who has the inside scoop. Everyone likes to have an edge and everyone likes to be the one to “discover” something special.
Often gear is literally hand made piece by piece so when you order something it is nice knowing they built it just for you.
Many of these business close because they can’t get a foot hold in the market. These companies are usually owned/run by the designer – a engineer/artist mix who usually doesn’t have as much business skill as design skill and soon the business suffers for it.
If word eeks out, like with Hovland, and they are “discovered” they can not always produce on a higher scale so manufacturing consistency may suffer and other infrastructure support departments (usually one or two people) can suffer. Areas like customer service, repair, etc.
If resale (the used market) is important to you the resale value is pretty bad for gear most people in the main stream of this hobby have never heard of.
Harder to find places to audition gear. Although because of this these companies will often let you have a free in home 30 day trial if you are a serious buyer…even if they didn’t offer it proactively, I would insist so you know what you are getting into.
History of reliability and longevity.
Often (but not always) means they have good support even if it is not as “personal” as the mom and pop operation.
Better resale opportunity (no guarantee but a better average). The bigger the name the better. Like Mark Levinson really holds its value as does Wilson and others.
Easier to find reviews and dealers who will let you audition the gear.
Usually designs stay in the line longer.
Usually better plans for upgrade so the last model doesn’t lose its value so quickly. Although the used market isn’t all that friendly to upgrades, but that is another story for another day.
You would think they could take more design chances but it doesn’t seem to work that way. The bigger they become the better their business practices are and the more financial savvy they become, which translates into “play it safe” make money do not set standards. Note: In all fairness this at least one larger, long term brand name that stays on the edge of defining new standards…Linn. I have no connection to them but they are impressive all around.
Even though there is better resale there are many more units for sale. Search “Levinson” in Audiogon, then search “Kharma” and you will see what I mean.
Often you are buying name only. Like I tell my son, “more” bass doesn’t mean “better” bass it just means “more” bass. “More” known doesn’t mean “better” known, it just means “more” known. (you have to say this with a certain sarcastic tone to get the full effect)
There are some wonderful Name Brand companies and there are some wonderful No Name companies. The most important thing you need to do is study and plan what you are getting into. This is all part of the hobby, if this doesn’t seem fun then the hobby will probably be a bore. If you just want to have a decent system and you really don’t care about gear (you just want something better than average to listen to your beloved music); get someone else to build a system for you and don’t worry about all this. But if you are a hobbyist in all areas (music and gear) then dig in, dig deep, and enjoy the journey.
"Brand name" is very important in audio because most successful companies spend more time and money developing it than they do audio equipment.
Clueless: What you are referring to, sounds like the Bose formula.
I think a trained ear is important, but it is good to hear from other people here, who confirm what I feel.
I have heard this before, but always like to hear it again.
It is hard to believe that with all the hype that catches a person, who innocently reads it.
Bbtuna, summed it up rather well. Lets remember that many of todays top names started out in garages. Today it may be more challanging to have the same growth due to more established competition, but the earlier pioneers may have had greater risk due to a smaller potential client base. I regularly compare the customer service reputations of established manufacturers vis a vis the value of current offerings. A manufacturer that continues to offer both good customer service and competive products (rather than resting on thier over priced laurels) will always get my attention.