Performance Audio Blog

Bite the Bullet and Buy the Good Stuff (by Nate Brown)

Posted: September 06, 2016

I'm a born and raised off-brand kid. Budget cereals, q-tips, toilet paper, shampoo, medications, cheese, clothes, car parts... name a product and I guarantee we bought the budget brand when I was a kid. Imagine my delight the first time I tasted real butter rather than margarine, or when I learned that toilet paper doesn't have to feel like it's made out of whole twigs and sandpaper. Have you ever taken no-name Valium? It is not for the faint of heart, my friends.

Higher quality products typically cost us more money. It's a tough pill to swallow (not as tough as generic Valium), but if experience has taught me anything, it's that quality brands are worth the expense. There is no industry in which this rings more truly than in audio. There are obvious exceptions to the rule: Marshmallow Mateys are leagues better than Lucky Charms and Cascade microphones hold up adequately against your upper-scale ribbon microphones, for example, but living your life based on the exception rarely ends well--especially in the audio industry.

I take no pleasure from informing one misguided soul after another that their budget-brand powered speakers are never going to sound like the million dollar J-Array that they heard at the Katy Perry concert they'll deny having ever gone to. The concept is completely lost on them--after all, to your every man $600 IS a decent chunk of money to drop on a couple of speakers. I get it. You'd be hard-pressed to find me spending $600 on a trip to the Emergency Room with a nail protruding from my head. However, I also am not foolhardy enough to not expect repercussions from visiting the budget doctor whose idea of a sterile operating room is wiping his hands off on his stained budget brand sweatpants before stitching my wounds with mom's sewing kit.

There is a reason why the 'good stuff' tends to cost more money, and the specs available online rarely give you the full story. There are plenty of $150 large diaphragm condenser microphones that boast a relatively flat frequency response from 20 to 20k, but somehow they just don't seem to ever quite fit in the mix quite like your 'fancier' models. Somehow they just don't seem to have the same life as your more 'professional' brands. At some point, you find a microphone that you don't have to fight with. It's like having a twin sibling that always knows what you're thinking, but they only use their powers for good and you don't have to share a birthday. The only problem with this microphone is that it's probably going to have a starting cost in the ballpark of $900. For a single piece of gear. That's a month's rent for some people. You haven't even begun to consider a preamp up to the task of boosting this microphone without all of the added noise... and THAT is a completely different topic to be addressed at another time.

Fact is, there are tiny details that make the premium gear... well, premium. Higher-grade microphone preamps use multiple small step gain stages in sequence rather than one big voltage swing right up front. This means that the preamp will grant more clarity and boost without all of the pesky noise floor that comes with pushing a budget-conscious pre-amp. (Pro tip: if you want to find out what your current preamp can and can't handle, plug an SM7 into it and see what happens when you boost it enough to hear the mic.)

So what's one thing that premium brands are not? A magic bullet. Nothing is going to replace experience. Put a rookie driver behind the wheel of the family hand-me-down Geo Metro and the worst thing that's gonna happen is that the family swing set may need to be straightened out, or you owe the neighbors a mailbox. Put the same rookie behind the wheel of, say, a formula one car and you have high-speed, high-octane, fiery horror. I've never seen PA misuse result in fiery death, but an untrained user at the business end of a quality piece of equipment can do some damage--both literally and figuratively. A quality speaker is designed to show you everything. Basically, if your premium PA sounds bad, it's not your gear's fault. But on the flipside, a quality engineer will go a long way in making a less than ideal PA sound as good as the equipment allows.

Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself if going with the premium option is worth the expense. I've often found myself in life facing the tough decision between taking my wife on a few dates, or buying a new microphone for my recording studio. My single tax filing status would indicate that I made the right choice, though I realize that not everybody's life trajectory merit the same actions. To those people, my advice is to wait and save whenever possible. You'll never regret putting the desire for instant gratification aside in favor of saving up for the gear that actually serves your purpose.
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