Some years ago, I purchased some rather expensive pieces of professional studio equipment from a well-known shop in Europe. One of them was handcrafted and the top of the line, manufactured by a company I have a long personal relationship with. This particular model was clearly intended for experienced audio professionals with a budget to suit. This particular manufacturer had a policy of no direct sales, handling all business through a global network of distributors.
As soon as it was installed in the studio I was constructing at the time, the first defect became immediately apparent: The two channels had been internally mixed up, so the left input would be directed to the right output and vice versa. In certain situations, severe distortion would unexpectedly occur, and in addition, the pots making up the multiple controls on the front panel felt and sounded like they were already worn out, on a brand-new unit! Puzzled, I opened it up to see what was going on inside. The circuit had some parts that looked very badly assembled, while other parts had the high level of craftsmanship I was accustomed to whenever I had looked at equipment made by that manufacturer. This all seemed really odd. Something wasn't right!
l then went on to conduct a few measurements and found pretty much everything to be way off, compared against the published specifications. This in itself was surprising, as I had known this manufacturer to be very conservative with their specifications. Their equipment usually far exceeded the published specs.
Due to my personal relationship to that company, I had the full schematics of this unit. I pulled them out to compare and found the badly assembled portions of the circuit to not conform to the schematics I had.
I snapped a few photographs of the internals of the unit and contacted the owner of the company, providing a list of things that didn't work properly. Reading through the e-mail before sending it, I instinctively added a sentence to the end: "This doesn't look like your work. Can you please check the serial number?"
Courtesy of Pixabay.com.
The reply was, "This is not our work!!!! I will call you!" During the telephone call, the evidently distressed owner told me that the serial number showed that this particular unit had been manufactured by them several years earlier and was sold through a different distributor in another country. He asked where I had purchased it from, and I showed him the invoice, which stated that it was sold as a brand-new item by one of their official distributors at the time, but it was a different one than what the manufacturer’s records showed! It arrived in the original packaging, with nothing to indicate that this was not a brand-new unit. Externally, it looked perfect.
It was only upon plugging it in that it became clear that something was amiss.
But how did this unit end up with a different distributor to the one it had originally been sent to from the manufacturer, in a different country, years later? The owner contacted the original distributor to request information regarding what they had done with that unit. They dug out their original invoice, showing that the unit had been sold to a studio local to that distributor, shortly after it had been manufactured and shipped out. The studio was contacted next and this was when things started getting really interesting.
It turned out that the unit had been accidentally damaged during a session and was subsequently sold to a company that specialized in purchasing damaged non-functional audio equipment. As we were to later find out, that company was active all around Europe and purchased damaged audio equipment, with a preference for the more expensive variants. They would then attempt to repair the equipment, often to extremely low standards, and supply the repaired equipment to a network of rogue distributors who would then sell them as new units, at the price of a new unit, entirely behind the back of the original manufacturers. It turned out that this was a lucrative business, with a large network of players spread across many different countries.
An industry investigation later revealed that the particular rogue distributor I had obtained this unit from had also supplied units of questionable origin to several other studios. These units often did not function properly, but the defects were often subtle enough that even many professionals in the industry would mistakenly attribute the flaws to the inherent design of the unit, or inadequate quality control by the manufacturer, tainting the reputation of perfectly legitimate manufacturers.
In some cases, tell-tale evidence had been left behind. On one occasion, a brand-new mixing console was purchased by a recording studio from the same rogue distributor. It had some issues and when it was opened up, it was found to contain the repair note by the technician who had worked on it, listing the damage that had been repaired on this "brand new" unit! That studio simply asked for a refund and returned the console, which was most probably then passed on to the next unsuspecting customer with the note removed.
In another case, the relevant manufacturer was contacted, but advised the customer that the issue should be solved with the distributor directly without their involvement.
However, the manufacturer of the unit I received did not take as kindly to the potential damage to his company's reputation through this operation. What followed was a lawsuit, which resulted in a significant sum paid to the manufacturer as compensation. The distributor was immediately dropped by the company and replaced by another distributor in that country with a much better reputation. I promptly received a replacement unit that worked flawlessly, constructed to the usual very high standards I would expect from this company.
Another famous fictional detective: Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
So is it a happy ending, then? Only partly so, I’m afraid. Despite the lawsuit, there is no indication that the rogue network has ceased operations. Even years later, when all of the people involved will be well past their retirement or even expiry date, there will certainly be someone else to take their place.
Increasingly, the concept of pride in one's craft is fading. I have heard stories of craftsmen who can make such faithful imitations of expensive-brand products that they even succeed in fooling the original manufacturer into issuing certificates of authenticity for them! I am certain that a craftsman of such skill would be capable of introducing their own, unique product, showcasing their talent and building up their own brand that they could be proud of. But in our status-oriented world, many are irreparably convinced that there is only demand for the already-established brand names. However, even these had to start somewhere, before becoming established.
I personally find it a waste of talent to direct one's efforts in illegally imitating someone else’s products. There is nothing to be proud about in that game. If you produce a mediocre imitation, or a badly-done repair, it just forever places you in the mediocrity hall of shame. If you succeed in making the perfect imitation, then you are undermining yourself, wasting your time doing something you will never be remembered for.
I have enormous admiration for cultures where craftsmanship is valued more than brand names, and where diversity in quality products is encouraged and supported by the market. It is only under these circumstances that we will be able to unlock the full potential of our workforce and let our creativity and inventiveness lead us into a brighter future.
As for the audio equipment world, if you were ever wondering why some manufacturers insist that all new units are registered with them, with the serial number, date and place of purchase and the details of the owner all held on record, perhaps this story will assist in shedding some light on the murkier corners of what can happen if you don’t. If in doubt about the authenticity of something you have purchased, I would encourage you to investigate. Companies that maintain a more personal relationship with their customers have an advantage here.
It is a strange world we live in and building trust is as important as it ever was.
Header image: Doc Watson and Sherlock Holmes, illustration from "The Greek Interpreter," which appeared in The Strand magazine in September 1893. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sidney Paget, cropped to fit format.