The Flexible Firms

Some years ago, we attended a hi-fi show in New York City where one of the exhibitors was RCA Victor. Their presence there would have been forgotten were it not for the fact that their exhibit, featuring their own discs played on their own line of phonographs, was producing some of the filthiest sound at the entire show. And that, in the proverbial nutshell, is why you never see reports in Stereophile on equipment made by RCA, Philco or General Electric.

The so-called Big Manufacturers always seem to be about 10 years behind the state of the audio art. One reason for this is of course their very bigness, and bigness in business (as in phono styli) implies inertia—resistance to change. But the major reason for this technological lag is the undiscriminating market for which the big firms produce their "home-entertainment" equipment. Their buyers choose features and cabinet styling; they do not buy sonic perfection, and wouldn't recognize it if they heard it.

The audio perfectionist is served by the small, sometimes-one-man "company" that is closely attuned to the desires of its potential customers, and is in a position to make changes in products at the drop of a critique. And since the audio perfectionist is never satisfied, the perfectionist manufacturer is never through improving his products.

In truth, the typical perfectionist manufacturer never intended to get into the manufacturing business at all, but was forced into it by the growing number of friends and friends of friends who heard the device, liked it, and wanted one of their own. The result of getting into business like this is, often, disaster!

Since such products are rarely field-tested, the manufacturer may have to build (in his basement) and sell a dozen or so of them before some users discover it interacts poorly with some other components and blows speakers or amps, it contains a "weak" part that breaks down after several months of use, and another manufacturer has just come out with a similar device that sounds a hair better. And it's back to the old drawing board.

Sometimes, the designer is able to remedy the problems and refine the performance enough to make the product at least competitive with the competition for a year or so, but more often it becomes an unending quest for perfection, subject to one in-production modification after another until there may be as many as 8 different "versions" of it out in the field, each one incrementally better than the last.

But that isn't really the problem, Most manufacturers, including the Biggies, make in-production changes to improve the durability or acceptance of their products. They just don't talk about it. The problem is that some of the small perfectionist manufacturers are so resolutely honest that they are compelled to make a public announcement of every product modification. The idealistic manufacturer reasons that, since people buy his equipment on the assumption that they are getting the very best available, he is morally obligated to tell them that the latest samples off the production line are better than the previous samples. He has thus leveled with his customers, and he feels better for it, but what does his announcement accomplish?

Are his customers grateful for his forthrightness? Well, the people who bought the previous version certainly aren't; they are likely to feel cheated, even though no manufacturer can be expected to freeze his design at some arbitrary point in its evolution.

His dealers won't be very happy either, because in salving his own conscience, the manufacturer has shifted the burden of truth to them, making them decide whether they will sell off their present inventory of units at a substantial loss, or try and palm them off at full cost as the latest ones.

But what about the people who had been planning to purchase the product but had not yet done so? They will undoubtedly be ecstatic at the news of the improvement, but will they show their appreciation for the manufacturer's honesty by then purchasing the newer version? No way! They will say "Well, I almost got stung by buying this before it was improved, so maybe I'd better wait a while before buying, just in case there are more improvements in the offing."

Our point here is that, while honesty is an admirable trait, there are times, as when a fading wife asks her husband if she is really as attractive as the day they were married, when honesty is not exactly the best policy. As advocates of the consumer viewpoint, Stereophile feels that it is our obligation to report news of product changes when we hear about them, and we expect manufacturers to 'fess up about such changes when asked directly whether or not one has indeed just been made. But if a manufacturer chooses to make an in-production improvement in one of their units without making any sort of announcement about it, we'11 understand why, and sympathize with them.

What happens, though, when we put a manufacturer on the spot by revealing a shortcoming in one of his products in a Stereophile report? He then has a couple of choices: He can submit a manufacturer's comment, the gist of which is that we're full of crap. Or he can announce, unabashedly, that he has changed the product in order to eliminate the problem. And if this admission upsets people who bought the unit before we reported on it, well, that's just tough luck!

There really is a way that is better for all concerned. If the new component were adequately field-tested for compatibility and performance (relative to its likely competition) before being supplied to strangers (as through a dealer, for example), the manufacturer may never have to grapple with the ethics of revelation at all, and everyone would be happy. Except, perhaps, the competition.—J. Gordon Holt

jimtavegia's picture

Maybe they will start coming to trade shows to take of that void or years ago. Probably not.

steve71355's picture

no conprenday

dalethorn's picture

Vinyl Resurrection article here: "We must not let Crosley kill the vinyl movement!"

willdao's picture


jmsent's picture

that RCA was quite instrumental in the development of hi fidelity and stereo, and throughout the 50's they made quite a bit of high end equipment themselves. Look up products like the RCA "Berkshire" that was introduced in the late 40's.. Consider Harry Olson's contributions with products like the LC1A. Take a look at some of their late 50's mono consoles that used ESL magnetic cartridges in highly tweaked changers. The power amps had huge transformers and boasted very good specs by any standard of their day. True that by the time JGH wrote this article, RCA and the others were completely out of the game, and had been basically building junk for at least 10 years or more.
Yet if you look at console sales during that period, they far outpaced those of component systems. Our parents had been brought up on the idea of "electronics as furniture"; a concept that went all the way back to the early days of radio. It was the soldiers bringing back the new fangled Japanese hi fi stuff from Vietnam that really turbocharged the component industry and finally killed the console trade once and for all. And it was the introduction of stereo sound that made the whole console idea obsolete. It was far too limiting to have a fixed relationship between the two speakers, and room placement limitations almost always meant that you were never seated in the right spot to get a decent "stereo effect".