Just recently, I received two fairly large boxes courtesy of FedEx. In and of itself, this is not a newsworthy happenstance, as non-Amazon packages arrive at the Thorpe residence with some frequency. Frequent deliveries are the blessing and the curse of the reviewer. Being a fairly materialistic male—or a gear whore, as my friend Neil calls me—the blessing part is obvious. I just loves me some box opening. The curse? Well, each component that arrives also has to leave, so I can’t just rip everything open like my daughter does on Christmas morning. No, I have to note the orientation of each bag, document, piece of foam and wire, and remember how everything fits together. I learned my lesson years ago, and now I take photos of each step of the unboxing so I can reassemble it all when it’s time to return the product to the manufacturer or distributor.
So it’s not surprising that I find myself ruminating about packaging and constantly eyeballing how well a component is presented in said packaging.
The large shipment I mentioned earlier arrived courtesy of two different companies: EMM Labs and Musical Surroundings. The latter box disgorged a multitude of sub-boxes. Once cataloged, I had on my table three components from DS Audio, the optical cartridge manufacturer (Musical Surroundings is the North American distributor of DS Audio products), and one Musical Surroundings Fozgometer azimuth meter, along with the required test record. The first box contained EMM Labs’ DS-EQ1 phono preamplifier, which is specifically designed to work with DS Audio optical cartridges.
You’ll be reading about the DS Audio DS 003 optical cartridge and its matching dedicated DS 003 phono preamplifier shortly, as I’m in the process of writing a full review for SoundStage! Hi-Fi. Following that, I’ll also be writing a separate review of the EMM Labs DS-EQ1. I don’t want to go into detail regarding the sound quality right now, so paradigm shift! astounding! and bonkers! will just have to suffice until I can get it all down.
But we were talking about packaging. I think we’re all totally familiar with the standard rectangular component that comes in a box of similar but larger dimensions. Sometimes the box is a single layer of cardboard; occasionally, it’s a double layer; and very rarely, it’s some sort of plywood. But some things remain consistent: It’s a box, and it’s generally very uninspiring. Equally as boring is the fitted cradle of foam that protects the component during shipping, and the coiled-up black-and-ugly power cord stuffed beneath the instruction manual.
As I regarded the Musical Surroundings Horn of Plenty, I noted the tape they used to seal the box. It was some type of brown paper tape, and it felt different from any tape I’d seen before. This tape had a sort of archival look and feel, as if it might be used to seal the inside covers of antique hard-bound books. At first, I didn’t think much about this, but it did elicit a little harrumph and made my eyebrows raise a bit. Zip—I used my pocket knife to open the box. (As an aside, pocket knives are just designed for this sort of thing. Using your keys to open boxes is just so inelegant.)
Hiding under layers of bubble wrap was a bunch of other boxes, two of which were sealed with the same brown tape. And each DS Audio box was adorned with a neatly placed gold sticker—“inspected and sealed, Musical Surroundings.”
Digging further, I opened the box containing the DS Audio DS 003 system—a combination of a cartridge and its dedicated phono preamplifier. Right on top was the documentation, nicely contained in a quality plastic binder, consisting of the owner’s manual, a full product catalog, test results, and a welcome note from Aki Aoyagi, CEO of DS Audio.
Below the documentation was a real surprise. The cartridge was nestled into a recess in the inner Styrofoam cradle, encapsulated in one very serious case. You know how in those Marvel movies there’s often some sort of McGuffin central to the plot? Some kind of device that needs to be carefully removed from a mechanized cradle, which is always accompanied by lots of juicy, shortbread-sounding clicks and high-tech beeps? Well, as I removed the cartridge from its nest, I half expected to see a red LED timer engaged in countdown mode.
That didn’t happen. But the cartridge case itself was made from thick, milled aluminum with a clear screwed-on plexi cover. I weighed this case on my kitchen scales, and it rang in at 12 ounces. That’s a serious chunk of metal—serious resources going into something that may never get used again.
Moving over to the EMM Labs DS-EQ1. There’s plenty to admire about the way this component was packaged. First off, it shipped in a sturdy double box with plenty of foam cushioning. But the standout here was that the first thing I saw after I lifted off the owner’s manual was a smaller box containing a high-quality Kimber Kable PK14 power cord. Putting aside the general coolness of receiving a quality aftermarket cord, EMM Labs had the smarts to put this little bonus right on top of their actual component, so it was the first thing I saw as I cracked the seal. It was a little Easter egg, and along with the care taken in the DS Audio components’ packaging, it added to the pleasure I took in decanting these items.
So really, what’s the actual value of all this packaging? Does it make the component sound better? Of course not. But I’ve been giving Jeff Fritz’s recent article on this site some thought. He states that two of his priorities for reference components are “fantastic build quality” and “reliability.” High-quality packaging doesn’t necessarily predict either of these traits, but it sure as hell points toward a component meeting or exceeding its goals.
So no, I don’t think DS Audio, Musical Surroundings, or EMM Labs is blowing smoke up my ass. If I were a purchaser of one of these products, I’d have likely already plonked down the cash and confirmed my decision, probably before I even received the item. So elaborate packaging, careful packaging, isn’t really going to sell that many more products. That said, a carefully packed product says, to me anyway, that the manufacturer cares about what they’re doing. Likewise, a well-written manual shouldn’t just be an afterthought—it’s an embodiment of the manufacturer entering my home, sitting next to me, telling me about this machine that they’ve developed. A couple of pieces of inkjet-printed, stapled-together A4 paper? That’s a bit of a let-down.
Of course, the more expensive the product, the more egregious the oversights, including poor packaging and shitty manuals. The EMM Labs DS-EQ1 retails for $12,500 (all prices in USD), which is a tidy sum, and for that kind of coin, you expect excellent packaging. But I keep going back to that power cord. It was a nice surprise at any price, and few similarly priced components that I’ve received in the past have arrived with such a carefully packed bonus.
The DS Audio DS 003 cartridge and preamp retail for $2500 and $3500, respectively. While not exactly cheap, these aren’t stratospherically priced by any means. And believe me when I say that I’ve received plenty of components at multiples of this price that are not even remotely this well presented.
By now I feel I’ve quite clearly gotten my point across: I’m right impressed by how well this last shipment was packaged. I am well aware, though, that I don’t have to pay for any of this stuff, and so, from my viewpoint, cost is really no object. You might not feel this way. As I said earlier, luxury packaging doesn’t make a component sound any better, and it’s certainly not a requirement for good sound or functionality. And it does cost money that, somewhere, somehow, someone has to cough up.
To swing things over to the other end of town, toward the functional standpoint, I present my Bryston 4B³ amplifier, which retails for $6795. The 4B³ comes packed in a sensible single cardboard box with practical foam inserts. There’s a generic but thick (and perfectly functional) power cord wrapped up in there, and it comes with a detailed owner’s manual that’s written on appropriate but non-archival paper. Nothing fancy here.
But the 4B³ has a 20-year warranty, and it sounds fantastic. There’s no way in hell you could call any aspect of the 4B³ substandard in any way. To reverse engineer Bryston’s thought process, I’d wager they’d be unable to understand why anyone would need to put any more effort into the packaging than what’s required to get the product safely to its destination. Better, I can imagine them thinking, we should put the money that would cost into build quality, or the finishing.
Bottom line: neither approach is wrong. I got a little frisson of pleasure out of the process of opening the EMM Labs preamp and DS Audio’s Aladdin’s cave. I appreciated and valued the time these two companies invested in presenting their products, and that feeling of appreciation has carried over into my listening sessions (which I can’t wait to tell you about). So I have definitely received some value for the money these two companies invested in the packaging. But flipping back to my Bryston 4B³—I unboxed it, and hooked it up, and for the last four-and-a-half years it’s just been sitting there, quietly doing its job. I don’t think I’ve even dusted it.
Maybe I should look in on the 4B³ and see if it’s feeling lonely. It’s probably fine, though. I forget where I put the box.
. . . Jason Thorpe