Probably, the most posted topic in any technical forum.
It’s really an important question that, unfortunately, is hard to answer objectively. Most of the time, you have to take the decision blindly because is usually hard, if not impossible, to try the gear before buying.
I am not going to talk about the objective (technical) reasons that should guide a purchase. I leave that to other discussion. I fact you can read more about this angle in the rest of the blog.
So, what can we trust? We should do like Indy in his third movie, walk over the bridge although we don’t see it. That is, try to add several subjective opinions hoping that, at the end of the process, will emerge some kind of objectivity. The problem can be worst when the buyer can’t tell the difference between products because his/her untrained ear or inexperience.
So we can find two, not very objective, reasons to decide a buy: product popularity and product placement in professional contexts and professionals. They are, respectivelly the quantity and quality reasons.
In the first case, is usual to apply the following logic: if lots of people have it, it should be good. And this, more or less, can be true. But in a capitalist market full of oligopolies this idea can be dangerous. Brands can be very strong and what genuine quality doesn’t achieve, can be achieve with marketing.
This is now even more relevant because the companies are merging and buying each other. We must assume that Neumann is not anymore a company, but a Brand (Sennheiser bought it in 1991). Or KRK which is now far from the genius of the engineer who give the brand its name (Keith Klawitter) since Stanton bought it.
Surely, this doesn’t means that this products cant’ be great. But in a certain way we are taking the buying decision based on the past quality, which may not be the same now. An this can be even worst. Everyone wants an U87 or an U67 and, for sure, they are great mics, but old schoolers will argue that their vintage models sound way better. So, are we basing our purchase in a prestige and quality that can be, partially, in the past?
Of course, companies are well aware of all this and they will always use the classical brands names. So, the key, resides in how much the company respects the brand legacy. Some times this respect is missing and we can usually find an economical shift form the manufacturing process to the marketing department.
Another example of this, is Pro Tools dominance. It’s a great software, no doubt about ut, but also Logic, Cubase and many other are very good options. So, is objectively better? In my opinion every DAW does basically the same and the best would be the one you are used to use. Maybe because your own workflow has grown around it.
But Avid (previously Digidesign) knows very well that they are the industry standard and the use this position to keep the prices high, specially in the HD product line.
The other tool we have to decide a purchase, which is even more relevant, is the quality of the people that uses it. We reads an interview to a respected engineer and we are hoping that they will ask him about what gear he uses. If he mention some of ours, we can’t avoid a little smile. We are fine. This guy with 2 oscars use the same pre-amp that I do.
Companies take advantage of this and they spend a lot of money in endorsements with the best professionals possible.
This last quality factor can be a good reference but we should not forget that is very important to know how to use the equipment properly. In my opinion, this can be even more important that the gear’s intrinsic quality. If you know what sound you want to achieve and your tools, I think this is the differentiating factor. Poor man’s consolation? Maybe.
Before going, I want to mention a different case. Line Audio is a small (garage small) company form sweden. Its existence has passed from person to person, almost like a secret. Without advertising or a strong distribution, their sales have gone up to the point that the owner and manufacturer had to stop taking orders last christmas.
Without talking much about the sound quality (wich I often hear is great) the surprising thing is the prices. The CM3, for example, is a small-diaphragm microphone popular in classical music recording and sound design. Without taxes and shipments it is worth 120€. A equivalent microphone from Neumann or Schoeps would be around 1000€. In this thousand € how much is paying the design, components and fabrication if a guy in a garage makes something similar for the tenth of the price? Is the price so artificially inflated like whan we buy a pair of Nikes? Maybe is a mistake to put the CM3 and a Schoeps in the same ground, specially when I haven’t try the microphone. But, you know, I have two subjective tools. A quantity one and quality one (I and II)