Profile of a Product
So I bought a new pair of speakers the other day. My old ones (Tannoys) still work fine, but I bought them as a cheap, "temporary" stopgap nearly 15 years ago, and speakers don't tend to last forever. My best estimate is that they have cost me less than 4¢ an hour for all the listening I've done through them—one of the highest-value products I've ever bought in my life, no question.
My "new" pair was purchased used through Audiogon, and I'm not going to name the make and model, for reasons which will become clear by the end of this post. I had to buy them sight-unseen, or rather unheard, since the maker doesn't have any dealers near me. They are the "budget" floorstanding model from a high-end audio company which has received a number of positive reviews for its mainstream mid-level $8,000–$12,000 models, and which also makes "statement" products costing many tens of thousands of dollars. I took a chance because a reviewer friend of mine, now tragically deceased, liked the higher-end models in the manufacturer's range, and had good things to say about the designer's fine ear.
I'll mention the first dirty little secret of high-end audio here: virtually all reviews are of higher-end models in a maker's lineup, but most sales to real people are of lower-end models. This is a disparity the manufacturers can quietly exploit.
The model I bought is a four-driver three-way (meaning, each box has four drivers, in this case two bass drivers, a "midrange"—more about those quote marks in a moment—and a tweeter). The model was manufactured for two years, and my pair are eight years old. They originally retailed for $2,500/pr., a competitive price-point.
And for that price, they are astonishingly cheap. The word "crappy" would not be out of place.
Or rather, I should say that everything but the cabinets is cheap. The cabinets are beautiful: heavy, well-braced, and gorgeously veneered. The connectors, however, are of lower-quality, soft plated metal. (If they could speak, what they'd be whispering would be the word "China.")
The drivers themselves are of adequate quality, but they're nothing special. The woofers, for instance, are of a type that probably retail to hobbyists for $50 or $60, and wholesale for less than that, and closeout wholesale for much less than that. The larger drivers don't quite fit their openings—there are visible gaps—and there aren't even any gaskets. That pales, however, to the tweeters, which are slightly too big for their openings, such that the faceplate of the tweeter sits flush on one side but sits on top of the cabinet surface on the other. I'm not sure I've ever seen that before—usually, even on cheap speakers, the makers are careful to keep the cosmetics looking good, since that's what customers can see.
And there were no guide-holes drilled—each driver was just slapped in place and a screw zapped into the MDF. You can tell because it raises a "burr" around the screw-hole that keeps the driver from sitting quite flat. (A soft gasket can hide that, but oh well.)
Worse was to come when we opened up the compartment in the base where the crossover was isolated (an isolated crossover compartment is usually a premium feature, and was no doubt touted in the product sales literature when these were new). We found two cheap coils, one for the highs and one for the lows, and one 6dB cap. That was it. What was no doubt advertised as a "minimalist, first-order" crossover was barely a crossover at all.
These cheap-crap components were stuck directly to the sidewall of the cabinet with gobs of silicone and connected with big "snot-shots" of solder, the telltale of poor solder joints that simply got "fixed" by adding more solder. (That was why I took the speakers in to be dismantled in the first place—the lows on one speaker weren't working. The culprit was a broken solder joint in the crossover.)
Think that's the worst? Read on.
We measured the speakers. There was a huge mid-range suck-out at the upper end of the "midrange" driver's frequency range. The tech thought he knew why. He looked up the part...and it's not even a midrange. Seriously. It's a small woofer. The type of small woofer intended for speakers like little two-ways, where it would be paired with a tweeter that reached down low. In this application, the driver simply couldn't reach up to where the tweeter rolled off.
The last thing you need to know is that my speakers are the "Mark III" model, of an eventual four. Remember they were only manufactured for two years.
So here's what I think is a very good guess as to the genesis of this product:
A. Some producer of drivers had made a large order of drivers for a much bigger customer, and had a few hundred left over. Our "high-end" manufacturer bought this "remnant" lot on the cheap to throw into his box as a "midrange"—never mind that the driver wasn't even designed to be a midrange.
B. Because his NOS of the "Mark II" budget product in his line was depleted—he had only made a few hundred, a couple of years' worth of sales—he simply discontinued the older model and redesigned the speaker around the new cheap "midrange." This was no doubt accompanied by a lot of marketing-speak about "new and improved" and "even better" and "builds on the success of," etc., etc.
C. He spec'd the boxes from China based just on measurements. Though very well-made, they were probably surprisingly cheap to buy—possibly considerably cheaper than you could get them for from China today.
D. Empty cabinets are shipped to California, where the drivers are dropped in. They don't quite fit, because it was just done to a spec'd measurement rather than manufactured all at once.
E. They're luxuriously triple-boxed for shipment, just as if they were a carefully-made luxury product. Oddly enough, the cardboard and foam outer boxes (made in USA) probably cost a significant percentage of the cost of the wood-veneered MDF cabinets of the speakers!
All of the above is a guess. That's why I can't name the make and model.
But I think it's a damn good guess.
They look fantastic. At least if you don't look too closely. Ninety-nine percent of buyers will never crack the box and look inside, much less measure the speaker.
Based on what I know about this stuff, I'm going to guess the dealer cost on these was about $1,500, and that each speaker cost the manufacturer about $250–$300 to make. I'd call it ~$115 for the nice cabinet from China, plus maybe $15 for shipping; maybe $80 for the three large deluxe cardboard shipping boxes; $40–60 for all four drivers, wholesale; literally pennies for the crossover parts, certainly not more than $3; and perhaps 12–15 minutes to slap it all together.
That means that, as befits a cost-competitive "budget" model, these had a fairly low profit margin. Most hi-fi stuff is aimed to cost about 25% of its wholesale price to build. These cost 30–40%.
The real value of these speakers was provided by the inexpensive but skilled Chinese labor. I've priced custom cabinets made in New England, and it would cost at least $600 to have one of these cabinets of this quality made here. Eight hundred dollars is more likely.
And there are probably two to eight hundred owners of these speakers out there, who are listening to music a little less often than they thought they would. And when they do, they think, "These are okay, but I really ought to look in to getting new speakers...."
And what am I going to do? More on this saga in a few months. In the meantime, I'll be shaving a few more thousandths of a cent off the per-hour cost of my old Tannoys.
"Open Mike" is s series of off-topic posts by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that appears only, but not always, on Sundays.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by robin: "Is there anything more difficult than buying speakers? I don't think so. None are ever good enough, especially as the rooms we put them in are deficient in so many ways. In an ideal world one should live near a pro audio dealer that carries 100 different models and will let you try them in your listening space. Since this is not an ideal world, the simplest possible advice I can give (as an audio engineer) is to forget about so-called audiophile (read: over-priced) gear and simply buy the most expensive Genelecs you can. Then, as you get more money, spend it all on room treatment. That one pair of speakers might well last a lifetime."
Mike replies: It's difficult all right. It can be a big job requiring time and expense to audition just a small selection of choices culled from reviews. The maker of this particular speaker doesn't have a dealer within a thousand miles of me, and this particular speaker has been discontinued for six years anyway.
Featured Comment by Bill Collinson: "Reading through all the posts in this very interesting thread. This is a conversation that could branch off in a thousand directions…but some core points to ponder. Mike, you said at the top of your post that the Tannoys were meant as a stopgap solution but that you have obviously enjoyed them for many years. I do admit that I am puzzled by your comment that 'speakers don’t tend to last forever…' It is true that certain components in loudspeakers age, capacitors in the crossovers are the classic example, but also the surround (front suspension of a loudspeaker) or the spider (the rear suspension) can also degrade (however this is by no means an automatic assumption, I have owned 30-year-old loudspeakers with perfectly sound spiders).
"But these problems are usually audible, and quite often correctable. So to me, a nicely-performing, good-sounding pair of loudspeakers are something to hold on to, maintain, and enjoy over a lifetime (sort of like a Leica M3, for example).
"Many people here have made suggestions of mid-range studio monitors, and these can indeed be great for critical listening. The problem here is that many of these monitors are intended for near field listening and integration to professional audio sources (with their +3db or higher input levels vs. the –10db of consumer audio). Nor are they particularly pretty speakers to integrate into a living environment. Also, a lot of people make the mistake that 'the speakers the music is mixed on should be the best for listening on.' This is partially true, in fact many great large format studio monitors have had their consumer equivalents. But, make no mistake, mastering of commercial recordings tends to take place on very esoteric, high end gear (decidedly not JBL 4310's for example)(although Brystons seem to be the amplifier of choice in both mixing and mastering rooms).
"Honestly though, my most enjoyable listening has been, over the years, on less than high-end equipment. Klipsch Heresy II for living room, the mighty Paradigm Atom for office, and the indomitable Minimus 7 for desktop. These are not perfect loudspeakers, yet each has given hundreds of those high value hours that your Tannoys have given you.
"It is certainly true that the pursuit of audio gear can obscure the message of the music just as the pursuit of photo gear can blind us to the light.
"Thanks for the thoughtful off-topic thread everyone!"
Mike replies: Bill, about the "won't last forever" comment, these speakers are more like a K1000 than an M3. They have served me very well, but I don't flagrantly love them, and they're only worth a few hundred dollars now so I wouldn't put a lot of money into keeping them running.
All I meant by the comment, though, is that they're getting old and although they're fine for now, who knows how much longer that will be true? I should probably add that I've tried to replace them several times now, but have ended up being more annoyed with the flaws of the replacements than I am with the flaws of the existing speakers.
That's long been their greatest strength: they don't annoy me. Not an easy trick for a cheap speaker.