David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: business, human nature, marketing hype, technology, @musings info

Do you really get what you pay for?

Recently a correspondent suggested that there's a direct correlation between cost and performance of MI gear. He commented that a $2,000 tube amplifier must sound better than a $400 modeling processor. Or to couch the argument in his terms, the modeling processor can only be "expected to sound like $400 worth."

I'll state my response right up front: This is utter nonsense.

With that out of the way, let's look at several ways in which the "you get what you pay for" argument falls apart:

The effect of "prestige pricing"

This one counter-argument covers a lot of territory. Prestige pricing is a polite name for what marketers do when they want to sell something to folks who tend to let their expendable income overrule their common sense. In other words, there are people who will buy a more expensive item simply because it costs more money. Few consumers take the time to really understand what they're buying in terms of the actual value of an object versus its cost. In the absence of objective criteria for selection, the customer falls back upon the old adage: "you get what you pay for". That one simple catch-phrase is the driver behind all prestige pricing.

You don't have to be rich to fall into the prestice pricing trap. Marketers have found that most of their customers will gladly pay a bit more money than they'd really like to pay, just for the promise that the extra expenditure will get them a superior product.

Marketers make a living at appealing to the snob in every one of us. Tube-amp players look down their noses at folks who run modeling rigs. And the modeling rig players feel sorry for the poor schmucks who "have to" play solid-state amps. Heck, there are even substrata within each technological niche, obsessively organized and vigorously defended by brand and price.

The "vintage market" really deserves a separate rant. Some of the old gear is undeniably good. But then, so is a lot of the newest gear. Unfortunately, vintage prices have nothing to do with quality. You're paying all that extra money strictly for the sake of owning a scarce artifact.

The really sad thing is that there is absolutely no correlation between the cost of the MI gear and the quality of music performed using that gear. I've heard absolutely incredible music performed on ratty old solid-state amps that a boutique snob wouldn't deign to chop up for firewood. Conversely, I've heard high-end gear used to produce music that ranges from forgettable to painfully bad. That's not to say that your music is necessarily going to be forgettable if you put a lot of money into your gear. All I'm saying is that great music comes from the player, not the gear.

Juxtaposition of dissimilar technologies

Comparing a modeler to a tube amp on any basis except sound will produce absolutely no meaning. A tube amp uses extremely simple 100-year-old technology to produce the kind of sounds guitarists know and love. (Ironically, the sound produced by a tube amp is contrary to the expectations of the pioneers in the MI industry, who viewed distortion as a defect.) A modeler uses an extremely advanced and complex incarnation of a 50-year-old technology to emulate the behavior of a tube amplfier.

There is no justifiable reason for comparing the cost of a tube amp to the cost of a modeler unless cost is the thing in which you have the greatest interest. Tube amps use uncommon components and require far more manual labor to manufacture; they're built to fulfill an aesthetic criteria. Modelers are solidly in the mainstream of consumer electronics goods; they're built to a price point.

Economies of scale

Consumer electronics is as inexpensive as it is because it's manufactured and sold in extremely large quantities. Common components are shared across tens of thousands of different products, which drives down the price of the components. Design and assembly is similar enough to allow the use of automated production techniques; the cost of automation is amortized across hundreds of separate products.

Contrast your typical consumer electronics item with a hand-wired tube amp. Many of the components used in the tube amp are anachronistic and available in limited quantities. Little of the work can be automated. In fact, some tube-amp buyers will consciously decide to pay more for an amplifier which has been assembled using as little automation as possible. This keeps quantities low and prices high. Low availability and high cost, of course, are plenty to guarantee snob appeal.


After that remark about snob appeal, I have to offer ammends to the tube snobs...

Hand-wired tube amps, when they develop a problem, are relatively easy to diagnose and service.

I know this for a fact: I spent a couple of summers in high-school working in a repair shop servicing consumer electronics. The vast majority of consumer electronics that needed servicing at the time (this was around 1968 and 1969) was vacuum-tube gear. Solid-state gear was starting to come into its own, pushing the heavier, bulkier, less-reliable vacuum-tube gear off of retailer's shelves.

A competent technician can practically intuit the underlying cause of a problem with a hand-wired tube guitar amplifier. Simplicity has its virtues.

By way of contrast, many good technicians will not take on a job to fix a solid-state amp. And I don't know of any technician that will attempt to fix a modeling processor.

So... do the tube amps win this round? It depends upon your expectations. If nothing but a tube amp will satisfy your sonic hunger, then you're in pretty good shape when it comes to ongoing maintenance.

A well-built hand-wired tube amp can be fixed by a competent technician just about anywhere in the world. Failed or failing tubes are responsible for most of the defects in tube amps. Tubes are a field-replaceable unit. You don't even need the assistance of a technician if you're willing to carry a few spares and invest a few hours in learning how to identify and replace a failed tube. That's the good news...

There are some folks out there cautioning that we won't always be able to get replacement tubes. (I think a lot of these folks would like you to hoard replacements today so they can sell more tubes.) Frankly, I don't see that happening any time soon. Vacuum-tube enthusiasts may be a niche market, but there's enough sales volume in that market to keep a few companies in business. You might be tempted to compare the vacuum-tube market to the market for analog tape (the world is down to one manufacturer of tape as of this writing). Bear in mind that digital recording has enjoyed much broader acceptance than digital guitar amplification. (At least for now...)

The bad news is that tube amps do fail more often than solid-state or modeling gear. If your prized tube amp fails in the middle of a show because of a shorted output tube, it's little consolation that you can fix the problem yourself in fifteen minutes. So you have to carry a backup amp "just in case". And tube amps are heavy enough when you're lugging just one...

Solid-state and modeling gear can't easily be resurrected when it fails. You're going to need a technician who:

  1. is versed in the modern technologies,
  2. has access to manufacturers' schematics and service manuals,
  3. has a stock of many common replacement parts,
  4. has quick access to a distributor for even more specialized parts,
  5. and has a well-lit work area equipped with specialized equipment.

In other words, don't expect to service solid-state and modeling gear while on the road. In fact, many technicians will advise you to replace - rather than fix - failed high-tech gear, and rightly so. Assuming gear not built to the lowest price points, most modern gear will function flawlessly for years before requiring any kind of service. By that time you'll be able to replace your failed gear for less money than it would cost to repair your old gear.

If you're on the road, you'll still need to carry spares. Even if you're using readily-available products, you can't always be sure that you'll be able to find a retailer in time to procure a replacement. At least the spares will be small, lightweight and relatively inexpensive.


So do you get what you pay for? Yes, but what you get isn't always get what you think you've paid for. By all means, buy what you want. But look past the mantra. More expensive gear doesn't always have the attributes you'd like it to have.

May 21 2007 21:18:00 GMT