Cooper’s Column – It’s not all doom and gloom

Cooper's Column - It's not all doom and gloom

Gary Cooper finds something positive happening in the MI industry – and it has his cats very worried…

Amid all the doom and gloom about dwindling retail margins, bullying ‘big brands’, Internet discounters, rapacious landlords and all the rest of the purgatories the MI retailer must face, one thing that shines out as a beacon is the stunning quality and value for money of the best products available today. Let me give you an example.

I recently needed a new pair of speakers. Gone are the days when I needed (or could afford) actual studio monitors, but I did want something pretty decent.

Having just run a story in MIN about the launch of JBL’s new Series 1 104 powered,  ‘compact reference monitors’, Sound Technology very kindly offered to lend me a pair so that I could try them. Well, I have and, frankly, I am astonished. These speakers are currently retailing for around £150 retail and at that price they are exceptionally good. I’ve had a pair installed for a few weeks and have used them to listen to a fairly wide range of music, from Vivaldi performed on period instruments, which can be tricky at the best of times, to rock and all sorts of stuff in between.

Once you get into the early music world things can occasionally get a little weird. For example, when conductor Alessandro de Marchi read in the score of Juditha Triumphansthat Vivaldi specified the use of mutes con plombi(literally ‘with lead’), he went to the trouble of raiding local leather and fishing goods shops so as to make historically accurate lead mutes! Given such dedication to authenticity it seems only fair to listen on speakers that give you at least a chance of hearing the difference. Too much to expect for a pair of £150 speakers? Not a bit of it! All the detail of the superbly recorded Baroque masterpiece Judithais there, including the four theorbos playing in concert in O servi,volati,creating a superbly delicate and intricate sound. Perhaps even more impressive is the sense of space and separatedness you get with duets sung by some of the best voices in the early music world.

And what of rock and roll? I dug out Robert Plant and Alison Kraus’s Raising Sand, not least because of the thick swampy reverbs on that (largely) Nashville recording. This was meat and drink to the 104s – home territory if you like – and, of course, they aced it.

I’ll leave the final accolade to the altogether superior ears of my cats. One evening the television somehow found itself showing a YouTube of a clutch of newly born kittens in a Canadian cat sanctuary. The distaff side of the family may have had a hand in this. Now, the feline members of our household are quite oblivious to the sounds emanating from Mr. Sony’s thimble-sized speakerettes – but this time I happened to have the JBLs plugged in. Cue two very alarmed and puzzled cats, convinced there were alien kittens in the room – kittens which they couldn’t smell or see but could damn well hear. I doubt it would pass muster as a Sound On Sound review challenge for the golden ears of Fenland but it impressed me and it certainly impressed the cats!

And no, I am not being bribed, by the way. There is no way Sound Tech is getting these speakers back and I will be paying good money for them while considering myself extremely lucky to have been able to buy anything so good for so little. These JBLs are obscenely good value for money. And that gets me back to the point of this column – that we are currently living in a blessed era in terms of the value for money offered by many of the products our industry offers.

Even that great sage de nos jours, vintage guitar expert George Gruhn, has commented on the phenomenon. In a recent interview with an American magazine, Gruhn suggested that one of the reasons so few cheap instruments from the Fifties and Sixties haven’t survived (he specifically mentioned Kay and Harmony) was because they came out of the factories in pre-CNC days with bent necks and truss rods which, at your kindest, you might describe as ‘dysfunctional’. In contrast, Gruhn goes on to single-out the Canadian Seagull brand as being good enough to use professionally, while still being cheaper, adjusted for inflation, than a ’60s Harmony that was quite possibly junk.

In my opinion, he’s quite right about Seagull (and the rest of its Godin family members I would add) but value for money isn’t confined to North America. I recall walking round a friend’s warehouse a few years ago, shortly after he had taken delivery of a consignment of no-name Chinese-made acoustics. ‘Take one down and see what you think,’ he challenged. I did. Straight neck, nice action, intonation at the 12th fret ‘good enough for jazz’ and, most disturbingly, not far off in tune despite however many weeks it had spent in a container on a slow boat from China.

What all this means is that as an industry we can now sell stunningly good instruments more or less for peanuts. Not all of them, of course – I’m sure there is still some rubbish to be found but there is far, far less of it, certainly so than when I was reviewing products for Sounds, back in the 1980s, when some of the products we sent to review were unspeakable. Of course, in those halcyon days, reviewers were allowed to say so – how times change!

Not that this exceptional value for money isn’t without a potential downside, of course. If a cheap guitar sounds almost as good as a mid-priced one and a cheap pair of speakers are good enough to be used as monitors, then what’s to make customers want to trade-up in a few years time? Well, that’s where education and experience comes in and as an industry we all have our parts to play in that. People often need to be taught how to discern and appreciate quality. But what really matters is that we can be sure that most of the instruments we are putting into the hands of beginners are going to help their lifetime’s enjoyment of music and not, as happened too often in the past, put them off forever.

Surely, that’s one reason to be cheerful among all the gloom?

In memory of Jack 22/05/2019