Boutique gear, for purposes of this article, means any gear that comes from a "small shop". This is in keeping with the literal definition of the word "boutique", but leaves open to interpretation the meaning of "small". I tend to think of a small shop not so much in terms of the number of employees, but rather in terms of distribution. If I can walk into a Guitar Center anywhere in the country and see a vendor's products, then they are (as far as I'm concerned) almost certainly not boutique regardless of the selling price. On the other hand, if a company's products are available directly to the public and maybe via a small number of dealers, then that is almost certainly a boutique manufacturer.
With definitions out of the way, I'd like to explore this question: "What are the benefits of boutique gear?" I see the following benefits most often cited among afficionados of boutique gear:
- Availability of unique attributes
- Quality, reliability and longevity
- Enhanced resale value
- Improved performance
Availability of unique attributes
This seems to be a given. Boutique vendors typically deal in small production runs which leaves them free to deal in products which hold interest for only a small percentage of the guitar-playing population.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the market for reproductions of small tweed-era Fender amps such as the 5E3 Deluxe. These amps are in favor among guitarists who really want to get that thick overdriven midrange sound for blues and some classic rock. The 5E3s are great for limited-volume playing, but they're not very versatile. Don't try to get a decent clean sound out of a 5E3 amp at a volume above conversational levels. Because these amps are made in such small numbers, the price is high compared to production amps which are more powerful or more versatile, a consideration which contributes to the limited size of the market for these amps.
On the other hand, if you really want a product that's unique and have the money to spend, you can probably find a builder who can deliver to your specifications. This is really beneficial in the case of guitars. To me, a guitar is much more important than amplifiers or effects. A guitar is the primary means of musical expression given the way I play. It's wonderful to be able to specify a guitar to the last detail (rather than picking from a predetermined menu as is common in many so-called custom shops) and to interact with the builder regarding not only the physical attributes of the instrument but also the decisions leading to a desired tonal outcome. I'd rather rely on an experienced builder's expertise to achieve a desired result than to try to make all those decisions myself based upon my past experience (which is limited) and upon research on the `net (which is not known for its collective expertise).
Quality, reliability and longevity
This is one area in which guitarists make unfounded judgements based upon the evidence of their eyes, particularly with respect to electronic components and assembly techniques. It's true that certain construction practices may yield a more easily serviced product. I find it somewhat interesting that this is such a major concern given that the vast majority of guitarists don't hold on to an amplifier long enough to have to worry about changing tubes, let alone do any maintenance as a result of a failed component that isn't field-replaceable.
Owners of certain brands of amplifiers love to take comfort in the fact that the wiring inside looks like it was done to military specifications from the height of the cold war. If that makes you happy, I'm not one to deprive you of your joy. But MIL-spec wiring has no impact upon the music that comes out of your amplifier.
At any rate, time is the true arbiter of quality, reliability and longevity.
Enhanced resale value
To the extent that supply and demand helps to determine the market price of a product, boutique gear seems to benefit from the reduced supply. However, the demand side of the equation is also required to maintain resale value. Boutique products appeal to a smaller number of buyers to begin with, and tend to be subject to a "flavor of the month" type of boosterism.
This is another area in which guitarists tend to get sucked in by marketing hype. There are plenty of examples of buyers being impressed by a manufacturer's use of "special" wire, capacitors, connectors, etc. and insisting that the advertised feature is responsible for some perceived "improvement" in performance despite the fact thate they really have no basis for comparison. Even in cases where the "improved" product is a tweaked version of a well-known design, it's hardly justifiable to attribute the "improvement" to upgraded components when examples of stock products rarely have identical performance.
This is not universally true, of course. Changes to essential properties of key components such as transformers and speakers can indeed produce observable and predictable changes in performance.
How can you tell the difference? I think if you can make a series of recordings of the "stock" and "improved" gear and have listeners reliably tell the difference between the two, then you have a real diference. Or do the same kind of thing with a conventional double-blind test. But you don't trust the judgement of someone (vendor or purchaser) to give a reliable reading of the effect of changes.
And what about the argument that a player can feel differences that no one else can hear? Well, that may or may not be true. But the language that we use to convey nuances of playing feel is even more ambiguous and ill-defined than the language we use to talk about differences in sound. By all means, go ahead and judge for yourself and buy the boutique gear if you think it makes a difference. But at least pause to consider that the vast majority of players, including well-known artists, seem to be able to make good music with off-the-shelf gear.