Some products are more expensive than others, with investors linking a product’s cost to its perceived quality. It’s no different in the professional audio world. In this micro tutorial, costs are linked to three quality related properties: functionality, design and build quality.
First, functionality. It stands to reason that a 128 channel, 96 bus mixing console costs more than a 48 channel, 24 bus one. As a matter of fact, the number of input and output processing channels is a fair predictor of the price of a mixing console (within its class) - in this case leading to a cost difference of around a factor of 10. In addition the number of faders, the size of the touch screen, the number of DSP plug-ins and many more factors affect the price, as they all have to be designed and built - which all costs money.
Equally, other professional audio products have their own key functionalities, e.g. for DSP engines the primary cost factors are DSP power, i/o capacity, external control and scalability. For loudspeakers it’s power, efficiency and distortion. For power amplifiers it’s power rating, signal to noise ratio and distortion. For a networked infrastructure its channel count, interoperability and manageability. Finally, analogue i/o costs depend primarily on the supported dynamic range, gain error and controllability.
The second cost factor for any product category is design. This is defined in this micro tutorial as an indicator of how effective the product is in satisfying the customer’s expectations, given the product’s functionality. The ‘look and feel’ of the product tends to connect to the current ‘fashion’ in buyers’ taste - a design cost factor which often vastly outranks functionality. In consumer electronics there’s also a strong connection between the ‘look and feel’ of a product and the price customers are willing to pay. This also applies to professional audio, predominantly in three aspects: user interface look and feel (primarily of mixing consoles and DSP systems); sound characteristics and visual impression. The problem is that where ‘functionality’ is fully accepted by purchasers as an objective cost factor, design is a little more difficult to recognise as a cost factor, because its appreciation is more subjective.
The third cost factor is build quality. This includes both reliability and the degree of compliance - in other words, the guarantee that the product delivers what is promised in adverts, brochures and the user manual. The impact of build quality on the actual value that the product gives the user is significant. For example: the longer a product is able to provide the required functionality and design experience, the higher the value.
To guarantee a product’s lifetime, manufacturers can apply quality management procedures such as ISO9000-certified design and production procedures as an assurance of build quality. For Yamaha, whose laboratories and factories are fully ISO9001 certified, this boils down to one of the most sophisticated design and production quality management processes in the professional audio industry. For example, Yamaha has in-house large scale acoustic, thermal and electro-magnetic measurement and analysis facilities to ensure that emissions are below strict legal and functional levels. This process includes also the infamous ‘drop test’ for PM class mixing consoles. This test consists of dropping a flightcased mixing console from vertical to horizontal position, similar to what can happen while unloading a touring truck. With each test the internal damage is analysed, after which the mechanical construction is redesigned, repeating the cycle until the console is ‘drop proof’.
Yamaha is also investing in another aspect of build quality that is rapidly gaining importance: the impact on the environment. Both the design (e.g. power consumption efficiency) and production (e.g. efficiency in usage of materials) is engineered to have an as low as possible an impact on the environment, contributing to a sustainable world. As a result, Yamaha is listed in some of the world’s most prominent SRI (Socially Responsible Investment) indexes, such as the FTSE4 Good Global Index.
Apart from functionality and design requirements, the investment in a piece of professional audio equipment is a matter of balancing the build quality against the purchase price of the product. As build quality includes the assessment of the future costs of repairs, depreciation timescale and project failures, this is always a difficult task. Build quality is difficult to assess at the time of sale - it’s uncommon to open up a mixing console to check the mechanical mounting and wiring quality of printed circuit boards. Instead, the outcome of build quality assessment depends primarily on the long-term track record of the manufacturer.