The Quality Deficit

I grew up with a healthy disrespect—almost a dislike—for rich people. Though my home town, Winchester, Mass., is one of Boston's wealthier suburbs, and my father and grandfather were officers in a Boston-area company, my father grew up on a farm and I seemed to inherit his farm-grown distrust for those who have money.

It's ironic, then, that I've spent most of my professional life working for customers most of whom come from the upper third of society, economically—and a good deal are in the top couple of percent, as our recent subscriber survey shows. (My first 16 working years were spent as an auto mechanic, with a specialty in Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Porsche; for the last ten I've published Stereophile.)

In spite of my prejudice, I've come to admire the taste of well-to-do people. If you have to charge more for a superior product or service, wealthy people will buy it. Not-so-wealthy people will also scrimp and save to have the best even though it means much more sacrifice than it does for the wealthy. The not-so-wealthy frequently have better taste because the sacrifice is commensurately greater than for the wealthy.

These thoughts were my reaction to a discussion on "Sunday Morning With David Brinkley" this January 5th. The subject was President Bush's visit to the Far East, in which he lobbied the Japanese to buy more American cars. No matter your political philosophy, this was a foolish objective; taking along a herd of Detroit auto executives underscored the foolishness.

The thorny subject of our enormous trade deficit with Japan has many ins and outs, but some of the things being said on the "pro-American" side are downright nuts. The representatives of the US auto industry particularly are acting as if Japan has had a huge head start in making quality goods, and the poor old US should be given a chance to catch up. They seem to forget that people like me (and them, even more) grew up in an America where "Made in Japan" was a stigma. Japan came out of World War II stone broke and got where they are through tremendous hard work and sacrifice—sort of like the US during the first part of the 20th century.

When Toyota was launched in the US they had nothing like an automatic toehold. In fact, the cars weren't that great: not nearly as reliable as they are now, and not particularly well suited to Americans' needs. So what did those sneaky Japanese auto executives do? They changed the cars to better appeal to the customers! And they adopted a fanatical attitude toward automotive reliability that had never been tried by anyone—not (especially) the English, not the French, not the Americans, certainly not the Italians, and not the Germans, either.

The Japanese auto industry has accomplished a modern industrial miracle. It's damned hard to make cars that don't break at all for 60 or 70 thousand miles; for all the different companies of an entire country to have virtually the same standard is amazing. Say what you want about cheap capital, government-organized industry, and cartel buying arrangements; Japanese cars sell so well in Japan and the US because they're good cars and they don't break. The reason that US cars hardly sell in Japan, and sell with increasing difficulty in their own domestic market, is that they're not so good, and they break much more often.

What's this got to do with high-end audio? Well, American high-end audio sells with no difficulty in Japan, closed markets or no. In fact, the stuff to own in Japan, and most of the Far East, is American, with significant popularity also enjoyed by British, French, Italian, and German designs. Followed closely by the Swiss, Germans, Italians, and French, the Japanese are now the rich people of the world, and will be for the foreseeable future. And like the rich people whose cars I fixed, the Japanese appreciate quality when they see it. The US auto executives wasted their time going to Japan; they should be looking at the kinds of inspired and energetic people who run businesses like Audio Research, Martin-Logan, Krell, Vandersteen, Madrigal, Thiel, Jeff Rowland Design, Apogee, B&K, Classé, Mondial, Hales, Magnepan, and AudioQuest if they want some lessons on how to sell to the Japanese. It would help them more than President Bush will be able to.—Larry Archibald

ARTICLE CONTENTS
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COMMENTS
Osgood Crinkly III's picture

How pathetic. What a narrow-minded, parochial worm. Since when does one's bank account define one? This is the Obama collectivist, political correctness, the Death of the American Dream, the politics of resentment and envy. This is liberal guilt and hypocrisy. Do you wear a hair shirt and ration sex?

We arrived on these shores with little. I LOVED rich people. I wanted to be one. Tho not Christian, I loved Xmas decorations and songs (still do). I loved hi-fi's. I loved beautiful cars, the bigger the better. Most of all, I LOVED America, the land of plenty and endless possibilities. Damn your small soul.

remlab's picture

.

jhwalker's picture

. . . of course, you should note this column was written in 1992 and prominently features President Bush I . . . but don't let that spoil your rant.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Why in the world ... Talk about recycling. Talk about retro.

Don't see the contradiction? All the things "progessives" eschew, in other words, untaxed and unregulated wealth, capitalism, a market economy and a prosperous consumer society, make hi-fi and hi-end possible.

Catch22's picture

It's the ones that make me question the reviewer's ability to be objective in the first place that gets to me. I've had to ask myself many times why I'm placing any faith in the reviewer after he demonstrates with some sort of political rant that he isn't capable of being objective on something that isn't even related to audio, but felt the need to vent his spleen.

LA made no such error in that regard.

lostcomma's picture

Wouldn't be nice if we could look upon the world as simplest as possible. Black hat/white hat, good guy/bad guy, ............wait a second. Yikes...sure nice to be able to buy some of the world's best audiophile tech right here, right now, close to home! Sweet! I dream of magico's speakers , bryston amps, PSB's headphones wilson alexas, MacIntoshes tubes and many different rooms with many different setups. My soul feels larger because we got it so good!

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Amen.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like this will last, thanks to Obama and his absurd, reckless, collectivist policies:

Only 1 U.S. bank among world's top 10
China has four of the top 10 slots

http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/breaking/chi-only-1-us-among-worl...

John Atkinson's picture
Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like this will last, thanks to Obama and his absurd, reckless, collectivist policies...

Dow-Jones Index tops 17,000 - Obama judged "worst socialist evah!" :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

remlab's picture

But like Faux News has taught their followers, "IF YOU KEEP SCREAMING IT, MAYBE PEOPLE WILL START BELIEVING IT!" Ultimately, this will do nothing more than marginalize the conservative movement even further..

mancaphill's picture

So THIS is the first article I read after buying a subscription to Steeophile?? This is Unbelievable! I thought the newsletter was all about AUDIO - not politics! I live in Washington DC and work on Capitol Hill. I can get this crap all day and all night walking out my door. I wanted to learn more about audio, not the rants of right wing President haters. and then the EDITOR, John Atkinson chimes in?? What kind of newsletter is this? Is it conservative propaganda disguised as an audio newsletter??

I will be cancelling my subscription immediately!

remlab's picture

John Atkinson is a conservative? Ha! With conservatives like him, who needs liberals..

John Atkinson's picture
mancaphill wrote:
I will be cancelling my subscription immediately!

I felt the parallels drawn in this well-informed essay between the then-sickly American car industry and the then and still healthy American audio industry well worth republishing despite its age. Even the late John Chancellor joined in the discussion, on the second page. But goodbye.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

While this is a hi-fi forum and I never like to see matters of politics discussed, I was glad for the response to OC III's statements.

John Atkinson's picture
The poster was being silly so I thought I would be silly in response. But please, no more off-topic posts. The Open Bar in our Forum section is the appropriate place for political rants.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

[Content deleted by John Atkinson, following his request that off-topic messages like this be posted to the Open Bar section of the Forum.]

mancaphill's picture

Why was this article even (re) published in this newsletter??
I am very confused by a new subscriber, and am really disturbed by the mission and vision of the magazine.

John Atkinson's picture
mancaphill wrote:
Why was this article even (re) published in this newsletter??

See my earlier response to the same question.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

remlab's picture

..Larry Archibald was rich.. Relatively speaking, anyway.

dalethorn's picture

I've lived in the U.S. for a long time, saw many companies self-destruct while I worked there (Firestone Tire was one), and when you've seen what a sorry mess those factories in Akron OH were in in the 1970's, the strikes for more money and benefits when the factories were no longer competitive - you just knew to pull up your stakes and move on.

Quality of American cars in the 1970's was horrible. But there are some little-known facts about Japan you should know. My dad (Army Infantry) worked the Pacific beaches from just after Pearl Harbor until the end of the war. He picked up a lot of Japanese gear from ordinary soldiers, and he told me in no uncertain terms that it was far superior to the American soldier's gear. Japan had a short-lived reputation for 'cheap' in early transistorized gear, but underneath that reputation was an industrial giant known for quality before the transistor era and afterward.

Toyota, if you check Consumer Reports over a period of time, had many used cars in Consumer Reports' warning list, while Honda usually had none. Toyota was the corporation who almost single-handedly led the charge to bigger, more powerful (and wasteful) engines and vehicles *after* the petrol crisis of the early 1970's. I tracked their ads for a long time on that issue.

From what I remember, the Saint of Quality Control for Japan was a guy named Deming - he was not Japanese. But the Japanese really believed in quality, and we in the U.S. did not. However, as bad as our industry in finished automobiles was a few decades ago, American car parts were highly regarded then. So it's a mixed bag.

mvs4000's picture

It's stuff like this that reminds me why I let my subscription to Stereophile lapse a long time ago.

mancaphill's picture

I just read this as my FIRST time to sit down and read a Stereophile newsletter, and I'm SHOCKED!

Stereophile should NOT even exist if this is the crap they are going to post! I'm running this up the ladder. Or is this always how it is?

Muck!

remlab's picture

Yeeha.

JL77's picture

Being rich is good. Expensive audio is great. Inequality is a healthy result of free-markets. But tax-fiscal policy that allows too much wealth and inequality to accumulate into too few hands is not just bad for the audio industry, it's bad for the nation, perhaps fatal. Supply-side policy (since 1980s) has caused far too much wealth to accumulate into too few hands. Our 99% / 1% wealth inequality hasn't been this out of balance since 1929, the onset of the Great Depression.

This isn't, and really never was, a partisan issue. Eisenhower, 50 years ago, warned of its coming. It's been called many names: fascism, corporatism, plutocracy, oligarchy. Unless we start reversing the overt control of crony capitalism on our fiscal policies, we're clearly heading straight into another fiscal collapse, this time without buffers. And not just us, but every Western nation that is drifting further into gross socioeconomic imbalance.

Another billionaire comes clean:

www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us...

http://www.infohow.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Plutocracy-Reborn.jpg

remlab's picture

Damned liberals! Ha!

Catch22's picture

LA's message was very relevant for the period. Detroit's lowest point happened to coincide with audio's (arguably) highest point. And, it was at a time when audio was growing so fast that the pages of Stereophile was reaching into the 300s. Digital was coming of age and digital players were finally starting to catch up with the capabilities of the CD.

Achieving really good sound was getting cheaper, while really expensive gear was taking advantage of never-before technology that started finding its way into the less expensive lines.

North American audio gear was THE standard and LA was simply saying, hey, guys, start making good stuff that people want... like our industry is doing.

If you look at the state of music today, and the crap that is being presented to consumers, is it any wonder why the music industry is continuing to plunge in sales?

Never before has so many tools existed to make high quality recordings available and never before has high quality playback been as inexpensive and accessable to the public and yet those tools go unused.

Hey music industry...start making good stuff that people want to buy and fire your marketing department. Pissing on our leg and telling us it's raining isn't going to work anymore.

mancaphill's picture

[Flame deleted by John Atkinson]

es347's picture

Shocked? Appalled perhaps that Stereophile is a left leaning rag? Don't be...I've seen countless liberal rants posted by its journalists and even though subscribers cry foul it continues. I take it as an in-your-face to the conservative reader. I find it quite ironic that a hobby...the high end...which wouldn't even exist if not for good old capitalism attracts a majority of participants that espouse heart felt socialist values. If you are willing to overlook the hypocrisy then by all means subscribe. Sadly I've overlooked it in the past but will no more. Things have gotten so screwed up in this country during the past six years something's gotta change so in my own small way I eschew subscribing to S'phile...JA's progressive forum. I realize that my departure has about as much significance as the proverbial whizz in the ocean but that's ok. At least I can say I stood up for my values...pfffft. :-)

Al from Hudson Avenue's picture

I kinda agree that Stereophile should be a no-politics zone. The occasional jabs from the lefties that populate the magazine are probably just because they think that that is real.

But I think that saying that Americans are stupid isn't really that political. We really are. We are not sliding into the toilet, we are diving in. Our only hope is to die before the only people left are people who don't mind.

JaimeB's picture

Wow, what a time flashback! I recall this opinion article by Larry. The thing is that Larry, after having made his best investment at Stereophile - bringing JA from England - was able to sell Stereophile for millions and become part of the Richie Rich gang (ironically for him)...well, at least up there with the 5%, as JA never divulged the actual $$$ amount. Great for Larry and great for Stereophile, it was a win win situation.

And yes, it was an historically embarrasedly and shameful publicity and commercial stunt from Detroit's naive executives trying to sell their crappy wares. Yes, I now drive American, and no, I haven't re-subscribed to Stereophile in years, but I will do so again ASAP! All the great memories and audio entertainment from reading Stereophile since 1983 - PRICELESS!!!

remlab's picture

..the last time someone said anything left leaning was Art Dudley, and that was at least a couple years ago. He's gone totally apolitical since then(along with JA) This was just a stupid article from 92 by the publisher of Stereophile at the time. Big deal..

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