Does more expensive mean better? Is premium brand gear worth the investment? Does bargain-priced gear automatically equate to junk? Multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer Bob Makowski shares his thoughts.
Does expensive mean better?
We feature some amazing equipment here at Gearnews; some of it cheap, some of it expensive, some of it somewhere in the middle! But will buying that €10,000 historic reissue Gibson take your playing to the next level? Is that luxury tube microphone automatically the best choice to record with?
So, the $64 million question: Does expensive mean better? I think the important thing to consider here is not necessarily the retail price of a piece of gear. The question we should always ask ourselves is, “Does this purchase represent good value?”
The importance of value for money
A long time ago, my old man told me, “The cheapest is never the best, and the most expensive isn’t necessarily the best value for money.” Irritating when your parents get it right, isn’t it? It’s a phrase that’s served me well in life and is extremely relevant to today’s post.
Let’s take microphones as an example. The price range for microphones is incredibly wide, from ultra-low budget mics to implausibly expensive classics. I did some digging and tried to find the price, when new, of one of the most iconic microphones ever made, the Neumann U47. In 1954, a Neumann (Telefunken) U47M was advertised brand new for $390. Adjusted for inflation that equates to $3966 in today’s money. So either way you cut it, that’s a lot of money for a microphone!
Look at the bigger picture for a moment, though, and it represents astonishing value for money! You see, if you’d bought that microphone back in 1954 and kept it today, you’d have had access to one of the world’s greatest microphones for 67 years. That’s the equivalent of $60 a year, about the cost of a cheap disposable microphone today. On top of that, that original U47 would now be worth somewhere around $20,000-30,000 on the open market!
So, while the initial purchase price was very high, over time that microphone has more than paid for itself. It’s a process known in business as amortization, or writing off the cost of an item over time. Now, we’re artists and musicians first, so the value of a purchase isn’t solely financial for us. However, the value in that purchase can be similarly measured – does the purchase price deliver long term value? Will that piece of gear pay for itself?
The Right Gear for The Job
There’s another aspect to consider here as well. In some instances a lower-priced piece of kit may suit your needs better. I’ll use another microphone as a great example here, and that’s the classic Shure SM57 and SM58 microphones. Thanks to the wonders of mass production, you can pick them up new for under €100.
That low price doesn’t mean it’s necessarily inferior to more expensive microphones though. It’s a microphone which is still the first choice of many artists and engineers both in the studio and on stage, for very good reasons. In this case, paying significantly more for a live vocal microphone, or guitar amp/snare drum mic may not yield better results.
Equally, there are times in life where your own skills and abilities may warrant the investment in a premium piece of equipment. If you’re really dedicated to your craft and can see this being a long-term investment, then premium gear is often a good choice.
We should also discuss the issue of resale value. This is where the big name, high ticket items always win. Luxury and prestige brands will always be in demand on the used market. Sometimes, regardless of our best intentions, life can throw us a curveball and we have to sell equipment. If you invest in good quality, evergreen kit, you’ll always recoup a good chunk of your investment.
If you’re really clever, you might even make money over time. But if we’re talking about investments, the best investment you can make is in the quality time you spend with that gear. My biggest piece of advice would be: buy the best gear you can afford that best suits your requirements, regardless of price.
Time for some personal favourites! I’ve decided to split this into three categories: Budget Gear that punches beyond its price, Mid-range Marvels that are objectively beyond reproach and Premium Purchases, high-end luxury purchases which will never let you down.
Some of this gear we’ve reviewed right here on Gearnews, some of it I purchased recently, and some of it I’ve had for my entire career. Hopefully, these will provide you with some food for thought when it comes to making that next gear purchase. You will probably have some different choices, too – let us know in the comments below.
Budget Gear: I can’t believe it’s not more expensive!
Squier Classic Vibe Stratocaster
Every now and again, you buy a piece of gear that completely exceeds your expectations. My girlfriend has been learning to play the guitar for the last few years now and the old SG copy she was using wasn’t working out. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was a genuine Gibson SG; the body shape and the dimensions just didn’t fit her.
So, after canvassing the opinions of my fellow writers here at Gearnews, I put an order in for a Squier Classic Vibe 50s Stratocaster. I was genuinely blown away by the quality, finish, tone and playability of this guitar. My girlfriend absolutely adores it and began playing guitar far more often, with the guitar pride of place in her bedroom.
I mentioned these mics earlier in the article, and I’m revisiting them because they’re the absolute icon of an affordable, world-class product. On guitar cabs and snare drums, they’re often unbeatable and as a live vocal and instrument mic, they’re superb. I’ve seen these mics endure unbelievable abuse, night after night and come back for more. I still have my first SM58 I got as a teenager, and it still performs flawlessly.
Boss SD-1 (or any Boss pedal!)
I’ve put the Boss SD-1 in here, as it’s one of my all-time favourite overdrive pedals. But I could have just written “any Boss pedal”. There’s a weird inverse snobbery in certain circles surrounding Boss pedals. Their ubiquity and adoption by legendary guitarists such as Prince and Robert Smith, however, speaks volumes. I still have my old Boss SD-1 and DS-1 pedals I bought in my teenage years and they still work flawlessly.
Epiphone Nancy Wilson Fanatic
It’s time for another guitar recommendation, this time courtesy of Epiphone. Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be sent a review model of the excellent Nancy Wilson Fanatic Signature guitar. From the moment I opened the case I was impressed and the more I played the more that admiration grew.
Everyone I showed the guitar to and who played it was seriously impressed; they were equally surprised when I told them the price! This guitar really proves that you don’t have to spend big money anymore to own a quality instrument.
Whilst we’re talking about guitars, what about something to plug them into? The better part of 20 years ago I bought a Marshall 6100 30th Anniversary amplifier head. I still own that same amp head, and it’s accompanied me on stage touring across Europe and in the studio all that time. Yes, I’ve changed the valves in it a few times but otherwise, it’s been solid as a rock.
Marshall doesn’t make the 30th Anniversary anymore; the closest equivalent is the JVM 410H. In the spirit of suggesting a mid-range amplifier though, how’s about the Marshall DSL100HR? You get all that authentic, classic Marshall tone at a truly affordable price point. It’s difficult to think of a better value amplifier head you can buy, brand new.
Let’s get straight to the point – Mackie SRM450s have put food in my fridge and dinner on my table in years gone by. The SRM450 was THE active PA speaker that proved you didn’t have to lug around big heavy boxes and separate amps anymore. For mobile DJ gigs, monitors for club shows or *anywhere* you need a good sounding, affordable, portable PA speaker that cranks, the SRM450 is a great tool.
I’ve owned a pair of V2 SRM450s for over 15 years now and they’re still working flawlessly. Difficult to fault that when it comes to value for money.
Behringer X32/Midas M32
The digital console that upset the live mixing apple cart, there’s a very good reason the X32 and it’s upmarket twin the Midas M32 soon became the de-facto small club mixer. Is it the best sounding live desk ever made? No. Is it the most durable digital desk you’ll ever buy? Debatable.
Can anything touch it for sheer value for money, features, ease of use and ubiquity, though? The X32/M32 gets the job done and, compared to a lot of the desks and outboard I started my career on, is more than adequate.
Now, we’re into the big guns, the “once in a lifetime” purchases. Choose carefully and these can often be the best value of all, and they’ll last you a lifetime and retain value like no other.
Ludwig Black Beauty Snare Drum
Back in 2006 I got a call to fly out to LA and join a band that had, at the last minute, been booked onto Gary Numan’s tour of the USA and Canada. The record label was sorting out the backline gear, and in a somewhat canny move, I negotiated a Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum in lieu of one week’s sessions wage.
That same snare drum is still with me and has proved an astonishingly versatile companion. Equally, at home playing jazz or death metal, I’m not alone in thinking that a Ludwig Black Beauty is the “one snare to rule them all”. My snare is the utterly beautiful 14×5 “brass on brass” edition. Both in terms of the music, I’ve made, and financially, it was an astounding investment.
I’m again going to return to microphones and again return to Neumann. The Neumann U87 is one of those rare studio microphones which sounds good on just about everything; It’s a multi-pattern microphone so deeply versatile as well; as a cardioid mic, it’s legendary as a vocal mic and instrument spot mic. Pop it in omni-directional mode and it makes a *stunning* room mic for drum recording, especially if you have a pair!
I can think of few microphones which offer genuinely better long-term value than a Neumann large-diaphragm condenser mic. Buy one today and thank me again in 20 years…
Neve 1073 Mic Preamp
A perfect companion to the U87 mentioned above, the 1073 is another legendary piece of kit. Combining a warm, rounded Class A mic preamplifier with simple yet “goldilocks” perfect EQ strip. A 1073 is a simple piece of kit but one you’ll undoubtedly come back to time and time again over many, many years.
You could spend a fortune on software plugins over ten years, and yet the 1073 will still be ready to do the job, time and time again, for decades. A deserved icon of recording history.
Your Favourite Gear
What bits of gear have redefined your conception of what’s good value for money? Let us know in the comments below.