Why Buy 'Boutique'?
As a purveyor of high-end guitar amps, I am frequently asked the question: Why should I spend more money on a boutique amp?
Perfectly fair question, and one I love to field!
While I've addressed this issue from various angles throughout this site, I'll take this opportunity to succinctly explore the top 5 reasons to invest in a boutique amplifier.
Tone is, hands-down, the most important aspect of an amp. If you don't have good tone nothing else about an amp really matters, does it? The fact is, and I realize it may sound a bit self-serving to just come out and say it, but the higher-end amps simply sound better.
It isn't all that hard to believe when you consider that is what they are designed to do. To fully understand this you have to look at the motives of a builder and how that translates to the final product.
When I was a kid, the phrase "made in Japan" was synonymous with "it's a piece of crap." As my business savvy and outlook grew, I discovered that the Japanese are (as most people today are aware), quite capable of building high quality products. When I became involved in ISO-9000 certification efforts, I also learned something abouty the concept of 'quality', at least as defined in that international standard: Quality is not some abstract measure of goodness or niceness or excellence. Quality is about compliance. In essence, it refers to the ability to build precisely what your customer/client requests, to the level of precision stated, in the time frame required, and, most importantly, at the price agreed. Hence, Japanese products weren't junk because the manufacturers were incabable of anything better; they were junk because greedy, amoral, bottom-line-driven, corporate scumbags specified that junk was what they wanted to sell to their customers, regardless of whether or not they were fit for the advertised purpose.
With dedicated, skilled artisans, the motive for building a certain article is quite different than some overpaid corporate CEO whose only goal is to maximum revenue to himself and his equally greedy investors.
Dedicated craftspeople are devoted to building the best products possible; products that will be a source of joy to discerning owners for generations to come. For boutique builders the idea is build the best sounding amp possible. For the corporate giants, the idea is to build
(a) the most cost effective and
(b) easy to produce amp possible that
(c) has the widest mass appeal.
It is pretty clear that these approaches are radically different, and inevitably result in products occupying diametric opposite ends of the quality spectrum.
In my experience, most skilled artisans are extremely passionate about what they do. They take pride in every aspect of their craft. When they design an amp, each individual component is selected based solely upon its performance. Naturally, this isn't the most cost effective way to build things )at least not in the short term), but that's not what they're concerned with. They want to build the best sounding amps possible. Period. They design and source parts with one focus in mind: Tone at all costs.
On the other side of the equation, you have the brand name mass producers. In these cases, decisions has far more to do with accounting than product design. The idea is to try and source the cheapest components possible and put them together in the quickest (and cheapest) way they can get away with.
Readers of guitar magazines will certainly recognize this scenario: In a review of high end guitars, they'll carefully say something like: "It's not a big deal, but we'd kind of like to see nice smooth fret ends on a $5000 instrument..." Inevitably, this is an instrument produced by some big-name company, riding on its past reputation, and (obviously) completely indifferent to value delivered to its customers. (And, coincidentally, the same company that regularly buys big color spreads in that same magazine.)
This is not to say that all mass produced amps are awful; just that they are designed with a completely different idea in mind. Mass producers have cost in mind when it comes to just about every decision involving their production. This translates to a lower production cost for them the producer and a lower initial cost to you the consumer (unfortunately, as mentioned above, this is not always the case, but that is another issue altogether).
In theory, this sounds like a great thing. Saving money is always a winning proposition. The problem arises when you look at how these decisions affect the performance of the amp in the long run.
Since that amp (or guitar, or whatever) was designed with cost cutting in mind, very little thought is given to how the amp will perform over a long period of time--just so long as it survives beyond the warranty period.
Tube amps endure quite a bit more abuse than the average electronics when you consider how they are used. The amount of heat and vibration produced with normal use is very hard on components. In my experience, it usually shows very quickly if sub-par components were used in the production of an amplifier as they tend to fail quite often and unfortunately quite significantly. Cheaply made tube amps don't tend to last very long. When you start figuring in the cost of repairs and ultimately premature replacement, that initial cost saving becomes less and less persuasive. In fact, in many cases it would have actually been cheaper to spend the extra money and bought a higher quality amp to begin with.
There is a reason why many vintage amps are so highly sought after. They were built very well and the components used in production were top notch. For that reason, most are still performing just as well today as when they came off the line 50 or 60 years ago. Most of the the boutique builders build their amps in a similar manner as their predecessors, but with even higher grade components. If history is any indicator it's probably safe to say they will still be rocking in half a century if not much longer.
I truly believe when you buy a nice amplifier it is an investment for life. Moreover, I would personally prefer to see my money go to an honest, dedicated artisan, rather than some bloated, amoral corporate douchbag!
Although most people give very little thought to what they're ultimately going to sell something for before they buy it, with how indecisive we as musicians can be, it's always something to consider. In my experience, musicians for one reason or another go through a lot of gear. Some of us spend just as much time scouting our next purchase as we do enjoying the gear we already own. There is an undeniable thrill to the hunt itself. Anybody who has done it for any period of time can tell you it can get expensive quickly. This is especially true when you buy new and sell used. It can be a nauseating experience to look at the resale value with some brands.
A lot of this goes back to the reasons identified when discussing the service life of some brands versus others. Some brands were never meant to last forever. Knowing this, and also being unsure how hard an amp has been played up until this point, can make buyers somewhat leery of certain brands in the used market. This leads to low resale value on certain brands.
I have found, and this is easily verified, that boutique amps hold their value drastically better than most mass produced brands. Take a look at some of the online auction sites if you really want to see this for yourself. The boutique brands tend to bring a higher percentage of their new price on the used market, and some even sell for many times their new cost. Buyers are just more comfortable investing money on a used item when they know it was built to high standards to begin with. It eliminates many variables and inspires confidence. Although, most players don't buy an amp to turn around and sell it, resale value (or lack there of) may be something to consider when you invest in an amp.
One huge benefit to amps being built one at a time, and the components being specified by the builder themselves rather than the guys in the accounting department, is the ability to build amps on a more custom basis. This type of manufacturing allows for much more freedom to build the exact amp the player wants. When shopping for boutique amps most builders offer quite a few options, both functional and aesthetic. They want to build the amp that is right for each player, and they understand that everyone has different needs/tastes. Personally, I think that is the really awesome part of whole boutique experience. It is nice to have exactly what you want, no more and no less. That is one of those rare things in life. I also understand that for some people, only Surf Green tolex is going to cut it. For those people, I salute you and think that is exactly what you should have!
Customer Service / Warranty
One of the most frustrating things a player can experience is having a piece of gear on the fritz and having the manufacturer leave them high and dry. It's sad to say, but that seems to have become the norm these days. Most players that have found themselves in this situation can tell you it is not all that rare to call a company and be on hold and transferred around the switchboard for hours only to be told you have to call back later. When you're finally "allowed" to send your amp in for repair, it 's not uncommon for it take months to get it back and very little effort is made in the way of communication.
Ask anyone who has had a warranty issue with some of the larger amp producers and they will tell you it is often a nightmare trying to get it taken care of.
No customer deserves to be treated like that and especially when it comes to a warranty repair. If anything this is when the manufacturer should treat the customer the best. This one thing that really sets the boutique guys completely apart from the rest. These guys will do almost anything for a customer when they have a problem with a product. It's very rare to ever have an issue with a boutique amp to begin with. The way that they are constructed as well as the components used limit the amount of things that can go wrong to such a degree that there just are not that many things that can break.
In the rare instance that there is an issue, in my experience most small builders are happy to go way above and beyond to make sure the customers are taken care of in a timely manner. In most shops, when there is a warranty issue it takes priority over everything else and repaired in a matter of days as opposed to months. Ie have actually seen items turned around in a matter of hours. It is not uncommon for the builders to drop everything that they are doing to get someone back up and running. These guys take an immense amount of pride in what they do. This is very evident in the type of service they offer after the sale.
Speaking for myself, I have one overriding principle that guides all of my dealings: Nobody is ever going to regret having done business with me!