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Is Cheap Cheerful? Microphones & The Art Of Distinction

As always, just one man's opinion.

By Patrick Morvlyth March 24, 2011

There is a problem within the British milk industry.

Fifty years ago, most milk was sold at the doorstep, and though in big cities it might be the province of the large conglomerate dairies, in the majority of towns and villages, smaller enterprises held sway.

Many of these were run by groups of farmers who owned the entire production and delivery chain from grass field to milk van.

Much of this milk was of exceptional quality.

Shelf life was not a great priority, given daily deliveries, so heavy pasteurization was unnecessary and indeed some milk was pure enough for no treatment to be required at all. This allowed far more of the subtle flavor to be appreciated.

Today milk is sold almost entirely through supermarkets. The change of work and shopping patterns provided the impetus, and the effect on specialist suppliers has been dramatic and fast.

Against the rock-bottom commodity pricing of the supermarkets, the added-value cost of a delivered pint looks expensive. Prices get driven down.

Moreover, the supermarket version is always a “lite” item, never a top-quality one – good enough to pass muster but never outstanding. It has been downgraded to an article of trade, no longer a food and certainly not a luxury.

To add insult to injury, having grabbed the market, the trans-national companies now trade on the remnant perception of British milk as high quality merchandise, yet source much of it from cheap foreign producers who work to much lower standards, and then try to force the British price even lower “to compete.”

Permanent pasture of the right quality takes many years to establish, there is no such thing as a fast-start cow, and a lifetime’s fund of technical know–how takes, well, most of a lifetime to build up.

Once these businesses are lost, the chances of tasting top quality milk again are very, very low.

Freely Borrowed
What is happening within the microphone industry is not all that different. Microphones have been around for nearly a century and a half, and the major developments have taken place within a handful of companies, mostly (though not exclusively) in Germany, Austria and the U.S.

Many of these key changes were protected at some point by patent, but they’ve been around so long that they’re now freely borrowed – and often further developed – by newer companies.

Sometimes a company’s less publicly exposed expertise is also “borrowed” by disaffected employees who move on and make use of it, with dubious legality, in new businesses.

No industry remains static and these types of change are normal – they rarely cause serious disturbance to the fundamental structure.

However, this gentle evolution has altered radically over the last decade with the upsurge in cheap imports, largely from China.

Approximately 30 percent of the microphones on offer to the so-called professional market are goods manufactured in China, either under a Chinese name or badged with a Western marquee.

A logo by any other name… And sometimes, they are!

Before I go any further I should underline that this is not going to develop into a xenophobic diatribe. The fact that China is involved is merely chance – a particular circumstance of labor costs and commercial development at this juncture.

It could just as easily be another Southeast Asian country, the Indian sub-continent, Eastern Europe, the ex-Soviet dis-Union, Mexico or any other location with an adequate level of technical expertise and a labor force that is inexpensive.

At the moment the Chinese contribution is based to a great extent on mimicry. To take a large section of the market quickly, the easiest technique is to copy what is already there and sell it more cheaply.

There is a part of Western culture that prickles at this plagiarism, but such feelings are not universal and many of the copies are not only displayed and sold without embarrassment, but even with a degree of pride.

What is not so easily copied is the thought behind the original design. A Neumann or AKG classic microphone does not use a particular structure by chance.

Acoustics and the electrical demands of a design, and the materials available at the time it was conceived, are essential elements. When the classic was created, this was how it had to be, though a decade or two later different criteria might apply.

But a copy is inevitably just a parody of what is visible even if, with today’s more advanced knowledge, it does not really make much sense. This uninformed parroting also occurs with newer designs.


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