The Dilemma of Exotica

A persistent complaint from some of our readers concerns our seeming preoccupation with exotic components. (Presumably what they mean are scarce, unusual, or hard-to-find components, because "exotic" really means "from a foreign country," and there is sure as hell nothing hard-to-find about a Panasonic receiver.) "Why," you ask, "do you devote so much space to reports on components we can't buy from our local audio discounter? Why can't we have more reports about products from the old, established, reliable companies like KLH, Harman/Kardon, Electro-Voice and Sansui, whose stuff we can listen to at a local dealer before we commit our hard-earned dollars to a purchase?" One subscriber even cancelled his subscription because of this, claiming that the unavailability of the products we review makes our reports "irrelevant." Well, he had a point, but not a very good one.

We do on occasion test products from the larger manufacturers whose stuff is readily available. We have yet to find one that we felt to be cost-effective in terms of performance in comparison with what the smaller manufacturers of "exotica" have to offer. Which is why we seem preoccupied with exotica: it is almost always better than what comes from the big, established, reliable companies. It's that simple.

Certain brands of components, domestic and exotic, are commonly available because their manufacturers make them in very large quantities, and have the means to promote them in full-page ads in national magazines and the distribution network to spread them far and wide. To do this requires Big Money, which only a Big Business is likely to have. And bigness in business usually (although not always) implies a number of other things which almost guarantee that an audio product will not be very good—things like lack of imagination and ingenuity, technological inertia, and a design philosophy shaped by the results of market research rather than by personal or corporate views about anything.

The larger the company, the taller its hierarchy of decision-makers. And the more levels of decision-making there are, the longer it takes to make decisions. This is one reason why products from large companies are rarely modified or otherwise changed once they start rolling off the production line. (Of course, we complain about the small manufacturers when they modify their products all the time—a manufacturer just can't win.) A designer's request to make any change in a product must go "through channels," often all the way to the president of the company, and his decision must then descend through the hierarchy back to its source before the change can be implemented. And the answer is usually "No" anyway. This is not because the president of the company does not wish his preamplifier's distortion to be reduced from 0.02% to 0.01% (even if his market research showed that people can hear distortion of less than 0.02%). It is because the emitter resistor whose value must be changed in order to effect this improvement was stocked in a quantity of 10,000 units to meet anticipated production, and its manufacturer will not buy them back. Then when the product is changed, or rather abandoned for a new model, it's for marketing reasons rather than some real change in sound quality.

The small entrepreneur doesn't have this problem. He buys in quantities of a hundred or fewer units, and has less to lose if they are not used than he does if his product is judged by his marketplace to be inferior to the competition. The decision to make a product change is his and his alone, and can be made in less time than it takes to blow a fuse. He can even afford the indulgence of unpacking and upgrading the three amplifiers that were ready to ship when UPS stopped by later in the afternoon.

It is the speed and ease with which changes can be made—products designed from scratch and gotten onto the market—that allows the small manufacturer to keep abreast of the latest developments in the audio field. But this quick responsiveness to the state of the art can work against him and the consumer, by increasing the risk (and the temptation) of starting to market a new product before it has been properly field-tested.

Most small manufacturers will build three or four prototypes of a new design and farm them out to friends and reviewers for their reaction (footnote 1). If the reaction is negative, it's back to the ol' drawing board (or rather, back to the soldering iron). If it is positive, production can start as soon as all the parts are on hand. (And a quick trip to the local electronics dealer can get the ball rolling until the bulk orders of parts arrive. That's another thing you can't do at a big company.)

But four prototypes loaned out for two weeks may not be a representative enough sample of the product to reveal (for instance) that some of the filter capacitors break down at a lower voltage than others. And by the time that is discovered, there may be dozens of the units already in consumers' homes. (This kind of thing almost killed one manufacturer because the power-supply rectifiers in their products didn't start breaking down until they had been in use for several years, by which time there were hundreds of the units out in the some real change in sound quality, field and the failure rate approached 95%.)

Unfortunately, this ability of the small manufacturer to respond rapidly to changes in the state of the art can also induce a kind of spastic indecisiveness, as when a designer attempts to remedy every real or imagined sonic flaw that "underground" audio reviewers claim to hear. Because perfectionist reviewers tend to be so quixotic in their tastes, the consumer who commits himself to the purchase of a product at any given time is likely to get something which is less "state-of-the-art" than the version which becomes current two months later—although there's a fair chance the older version sounds better! All of which means it is impossible to actually own a "state-of-the-art" system (footnote 2).

Few small audio manufacturers are so insecure as to try and track every shift of their critics' winds. Most high-end (exotic) components undergo relatively few modifications during production, relatively infrequently, and very few of those "upgrades"—manufacturers' claims notwithstanding—yield sonic improvements even approaching the "dramatic." Yet the fact remains that, in a field that has been advancing as rapidly as audio, the small, flexible manufacturer has a real advantage over the big one. This advantage, however, is largely offset by the treadmill nature of his technological edge. If the state of the art stops advancing for more than a few months, his small-size competitors will start catching up, and before long, even the big companies will erode his lead and, eventually, his reason for being in the audio business at all.

Audio is not the only field where easy availability almost ensures a second-rate product. Flashlights are a perfect example. How often have you had to buy a new one because the switch on your old one fell apart? Are they all junky? Ask any policeman to show you the flashlight he uses, then try to buy one like that. Chances are there is only one store in a sizable city that sells them, and none in a small town. And you'll never find that store unless you ask someone who has dealt with it, because it doesn't advertise in "consumer" publications.

While you're at it, try to find a really high-quality screwdriver (that doesn't bend or chip under stress) or electric-light dimmer (whose knob shaft doesn't wiggle) or microscope (that gives a truly sharp, flare-free image) in a consumer outlet and you'll begin to see what I'm driving at. There's a supply "underground" for these, too, because their manufacturers recognize the difference between consumers and professional or industrial users. Just substitute the word "audiophile" for "professional" or "industrial" and you're talking about our field.

This has nothing to do with any conspiracy to keep quality merchandise out of the hands of J.Q. Public. It is a situation that came about through years of observation by manufacturers that, given the choice of a quality product and a piece of junk, most people will opt for the less expensive one. So the person who wants a flashlight—or a preamplifier—that is better than average must first realize that better-than-average means harder-to-find, and then make the extra effort to seek out a source for it.

Many audio dealers who carry exotica will mail-order purchases anywhere in the country. Buying an audio component is not all that simple, though, because more is at stake than the durability of its switch. Every serious audiophile has a taste for a certain kind of sound, and someone else's recommendation is no guarantee that its sound will suit your taste. You can get a good component by simply, blindly, following a recommendation in Stereophile, but you may not get one you like. To ensure that, you most listen to it first. And there's a way of doing that, too.

Some mail-order high-end stores will allow you the option of returning equipment for full credit (although rarely a refund) if you don't like it. In effect, you buy it on approval. Such stores are the ideal buying sources for serious audiophiles who don't happen to live near a nest of high-end dealers. In fact, mail-ordering components will often result in greater satisfaction with your purchases than buying them from a local store, because you have the opportunity to live with a component before making a decision to buy. (A few high-end stores will allow prospective buyers to borrow components for a few days—over a weekend, perhaps—but rarely longer. Inventories tend to be small, and the component you borrow will probably be the store's only demo unit.)

Buying any kind of high-quality product is usually more or less of a chore. Whether or not it is worth the extra effort is a decision only ,the buyer can make for himself, but the payoff in satisfaction is often directly related to the amount of effort involved. And isn't listening satisfaction what audio is all about in the first place?—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Stereophile's editors and reviewers do not act as consultants in this manner.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: So maybe we should stop worrying about state-of-the-art, an ugly term if I ever saw one, and save ourselves a big headache.—Larry Archibald