In last month’s “How to Know You’re Getting Something Good Part One: Quality Control,” I discussed and gave examples of some critical nuggets of information contained in our SoundStage! Global factory tours that allow the buyer to exercise greater discernment in selecting high-end-audio products to audition. Quality-control measures are often overlooked processes that are not fully revealed in equipment reviews, but they are captured in many of our company visits. I feel more confident buying from a manufacturer that has in place a robust regimen of testing and evaluating its products as they are being made. Before it’s put in the box and shipped out, is the component you’re considering all it’s supposed to be? A good company will have ensured that it is.
Believe it or not, the research-and-development practices at high-end-audio companies vary even more than their quality-control measures. What passes as R&D at some companies is little more than someone sketching out an idea on a napkin, then ordering some parts to build the first prototype (which some companies actually sell at some point in time!). Although I hate to pick on the little guys, I’m occasionally asked about a product (of which there are more than a couple) made by a guy in his garage and sold on Audiogon at a “factory-direct discount.” I can’t say that such products are unequivocally bad, but I can warn you to be wary -- if you needed support for that product, what quality of support would you receive, if any? And how much real R&D was done to begin with?
Contrast this with the work that takes place at the Paradigm Advanced Research Centre (PARC), located in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. There you’ll find multiple Ph.D.s working in some of the most advanced design and research facilities dedicated to the advancement of high-performance audio that can be found anywhere in the world. Of course, the fact that Paradigm -- one of the largest, most respected loudspeaker manufacturers -- has a 33,000-cubic-foot anechoic chamber, and the ability to design, manufacture, and test their own speaker drive units, should give potential buyers of their speakers a lot of confidence that they’re getting something really good. Or how about the fact that Paradigm engineers wrote the software for their Anthem Room Correction? Or that they actually make some of the machines that are used to make some of the widgets used in their speakers? Garage operation or Paradigm? Big diff.
The SoundStage! Network's Hans Wetzel (left) with Marc Bonneville, PARC's director of engineering
Of course, a garage operation and Paradigm are poles apart, and good companies can be found all along the continuum between them. It’s not so much about size, but about knowhow, and the investment in the resources that make it possible to do the job right. Here are some clues that you can use to piece together the picture.
Measurements matter. So do a lot of other things.
Although you’ll read on some Internet forums that because there is no consensus among audio manufacturers as to which measurements matter most, therefore measurements don’t matter, you can rest assured that they do. Matter. A lot. I know of no legitimate audio company -- as in zero -- that doesn’t heavily rely on the use of measurements in the development of its products. You might be surprised to hear that computer simulation and various forms of virtual or actual measurements comprise 80 to 95% of the development stage of most audio products. I know this because, over the years, I’ve asked many designers for a number. Some companies admit that their products’ designs are rarely changed after this initial design phase, and some companies (and their engineers) will admit that the products are rarely listened to as part of the formal R&D phase a product undergoes. Some begin with a robust design and measurement phase and end with equally robust listening tests. Either way, measurements are intrinsic to the process.
In researching an audio company, look for indications that some advanced R&D is going on. Hopefully you’ll find evidence of professional engineers, test and measurement equipment, prototyping, etc., in a rigorously formalized process that results in the final product. Facebook postings, website sections and photos, white papers, the company visits documented on SoundStage! Global -- all can provide clues to what is actually happening inside a given company before it releases a product to market.
Hans (left) in Paradigm's chamber
Paul Wojciechowski, Paradigm’s director of engineering, summed up the company’s capabilities succinctly in a recent YouTube video, “Building Better Speakers: Paradigm Manufacturing Process”: “Industrial design, mechanical design, acoustics, electronics -- whether we’re working with the woodshop or we’re working with our machine shop or we’re working with painting, buffing, we get a lot of the teams to come [together and share] manufacturing techniques . . . and ask what can we do here together to make this the best possible product.” What Wojciechowski is saying is crucial: the development of a Paradigm loudspeaker is a truly ground-up endeavor, in that the company can design and manufacture all the parts needed for each loudspeaker because it possesses the engineering and manufacturing capabilities to take an idea to reality. Contrast this with our Audiogon speaker seller, who starts with ready-made drivers he mail-ordered and crossover components he bought from a website, and puts them in a cabinet -- the only part of the speaker he actually makes.
The difference is obvious. I’m not saying you can’t get a reasonably good speaker from the guy in his garage -- you might. But will it be as thoroughly designed and tested as a model from Paradigm -- or from any of the many other good companies that do similarly thorough jobs? And the message is simple: Know what to look for, be discerning, and be, ultimately, happier with your purchase.
. . . Jeff Fritz