The SoundStage! Network’s SoundStage! Global website is one of the best resources I know of for researching manufacturers of high-end audio gear. The factory-tour articles published there can give you critical information about companies that you’ll rarely get from a review -- or most other places, for that matter.
I was reminded of this while editing the two tours Doug Schneider conducted just last month: of Magico, in California; and of Audio Research Corporation, in Minnesota.
I’ll explain the most important elements of our factory tours, so you can easily spot them -- or their absence -- in future tours. For the very first tour we conducted for SoundStage! Global, in February 2011, Doug and I visited Florida, the home of JL Audio. In the “Home Products Assembly” section of that tour you’ll see some critical processes in place at JLA that ensure that you get a subwoofer that meets its specifications every time. First, notice that each part of each subwoofer is individually tested before assembly. The raw driver is measured, the amplifier is measured, and the cabinet is inspected -- only then are they all put together to form a finished sub. But that’s not enough. Rather than assume that, since all the component parts are to spec, the final product will also perform optimally, JLA takes it a step further by measuring each fully assembled subwoofer. This is critical -- only at this stage will errors in assembly or inadvertent damage to subassemblies be apparent, any of which could result in the finished sub not performing to spec -- or not powering up at all. JL Audio ensures that this doesn’t happen by employing multiple stages of quality control at various points in the manufacturing process. This QC redundancy is crucial, and should set the buyer’s mind at ease.
All really good companies have similar processes in place -- something plainly visible in our factory tours.
Most electronics that fail do so within their first 24 hours of operation. Take a look at the “Testing and Quality Control” section of our tour of the Bryston factory, conducted in August 2011, which makes it clear that Bryston burns in each and every product -- something that’s crucial for electronics and speakers. Bryston tests their power amplifiers in a cycle of one hour on at just under full power, then one hour off, for four full days before final testing by a technician. Only then are the amps boxed and shipped. This torture test should amply reassure customers that what they’re buying has been thoroughly vetted before they place it on their racks. That burn-in time should be put on them at the factory, and that’s what Bryston does.
Take a close look at “Rockport Technologies Production and Testing” (August 2012) and scroll to the bottom of the page. There you’ll see that company owner Andy Payor personally acoustically measures every finished speaker before it leaves his shop -- but only if it has already passed previous stages of QC. You better believe that Payor’s keen eye examines every little squiggle on his computer screen.
“Magico’s Multistage Quality Control” (March 2014) shows how individual drivers are tested, as well as how, using a suite of state-of-the-art measurement tools by Klippel, each assembled loudspeaker is acoustically tested after being burned in for 24 hours. The Klippel suite costs around $50,000; you have to pay to have someone trained to use it; and then you have to pay them to use it, on each and every speaker. But guess what: When you buy a Magico, you can rest assured you’re buying a thoroughly tested loudspeaker.
“Audio Research Quality Assurance” walks you through a process that includes the testing and grading of individual parts, a burn-in period for each component, and more electrical testing after that. But that’s not all -- most impressive is that ARC’s Warren Gehl listens to each and every product before it’s boxed, as covered in “Audio Research Design and Listening.” Seeing this, and knowing how good Audio Research products tend to sound, makes me want one in my system!
A good quality-control process is a manufacturer’s best bet for making sure consumers get what they pay for. Given that, you might think that every company must have such a process in place. They don’t. I recently saw a thread on an Internet forum that showed a series of photos of a fairly expensive speaker being assembled. The cabinet was shiny, the little cosmetic flourishes were meticulously applied, and when the drivers were installed, the finished product completely looked the business. But after it was removed from the workbench, the next photo showed it being packed up in its large cardboard box. “Hmm . . . ,” I thought; “. . . are some photos missing here?” Perhaps -- but the photos were presented in chronological order in a way that seemed intended to represent a complete visual account of the manufacturing process. But if no photos were missing, then there was a problem: After final assembly, no acoustical testing was done. I would never buy a speaker from this company, because no one has ensured that the thing even works -- let alone works right. Sheesh!
Whether a company makes electronics or speakers or cables, I want to know that they have in place a robust quality-assurance program before I’ll even consider buying their products. This process should consist of multiple stages, at each of which expert technicians use sophisticated measurement tools to ensure that each unit that comes off the line performs to spec. You’ll see the details of these methods in SoundStage! Global’s factory tours, because we know how important they are. And don’t be shy -- ask company representatives what they do to ensure that each product is fully up to par. Then compare what they tell you with what you see these top-tier companies doing on SoundStage! Global. If the company you’re considering doesn’t stack up, I suggest you look elsewhere for your next audiophile purchase.
. . . Jeff Fritz