Our (amplifier) expectations... designers and their constraints
Good question. How do we define "first-grade". Indeed, I chose those words carefully.
Originally Posted by ryder
In my opinion, at the core of this issue is the integrity and motivation of the designers. Japanese multinational corporations have shareholders and hence a business agenda which imposes a certain approach to product design. In simple language: pressures are brought to bear on the designer and if he is under the hammer to minimise cost then he cannot simultaneously maximise quality. If he is tasked by management with maximising fuel efficiency then he must give up his personal dream of designing for incredible acceleration. Design is all about the art of compromise. But what compromise? Ones that you'd agree with?
We, the consumer, are not privy to the precise route map that a manufactured products took to market, nor the corners cut, performance trade-offs and (slight? major?) compromises here and there - certainly not after the marketing dept. have put a positive spin on the product.
If the product emanates from a smaller company - Sugden for example - it's possible to actually identify the designer, talk to him and get a feel for his challenges and how he balanced cost v.performance v. ease of manufacture v. size v. long term reliability v. retail price. I believe that the public (and the media) should be far more curious about identifying who the designer really is, what's in his head, what his design brief was, how he thinks he performed; that's why I'm here. In my opinion, you should be able to identify the designer by calling the sales office or emailing the company. If you don't get a satisfactory feeling from that contact then I'd be very cautious. Audio products designed by an anonymous committee just can't satisfy picky audiophiles.
So - to answer your question - I'd say as a general rule, if you can identify and build a bridge to the designer then he has a personal reputation to nurture, and this would most likely lead to a better product, a 'first grade' product. There are many examples of audio amplifiers (and designers) in this category. But, integrity or not, skill or not, ability or not, desire and goals or not, amplifiers are electronic devices that obey fixed universal physical rules: there is very, very little magic that even the most highly talented and motivated designer can apply without risking amplifier breakdown, unreliability, warranty claims, radio interference, whistles, hums and buzzes. The circuit design parameters have to fall within a very tightly controlled window in the interests of stability and reliability. Tizzy, neurotic, highly strung amplifier designs that just might have a minor sonic advantage are not marketable because the consumer will not tolerate the inconvenience and cost of random breakdowns (possibly destroying the amp and speakers) for a minor performance advantage. So the amplifier designer is highly constrained in what he can actually do with his circuit design* if he is to minimise after-care and stay in business.
Sadly - realistically - mechanical systems including microphones, turntables, gear boxes, car suspensions, car engines, rockets and loudspeakers are hideously complex in comparison with electronic systems, which is why there are so many variants available to the customer - and not one of them perfect.
* About 20 years ago a point was reached where all amplifier design concepts had been explored and those 'mainstream' designs which proved to be reliable were identified. No radically new approaches are possible with current technology unless the consumer is willing to tolerate random breakdowns and amp/speaker destruction. It's exactly the same situation with racehorses - highly strung champions burn themselves out but are thrilling on the day.
Alan A. Shaw
Harbeth Audio UK