Q: You touched on bigger companies providing better value than some small high-end companies. What are some photo and audio products from smaller companies that outperform more expensive bigger brands?
A: This is much more prevalent in audio than with photography. With photography it is easy to put two photographs next to each other on a table or on a monitor and even an untrained observer can see differences. This makes it very hard to fool someone.
When comparing audio gear, it is easy to rig a demonstration. For example, if you play back the same music with just one more decibel of volume, it will sound "better," although the volume change is usually indistinguishable as a change in loudness to the listener. The listener will hear more detail because it is very slightly louder and think it sounds "better." This tactic has been used to sell a lot of expensive speaker wire. Lots of companies (Bose especially) have demo setups in stores where you can listen only to their specially prepared demo material. If you really want to test something, bring your own music and movies and check it out with material you like and are familiar with.
The first example of a small brand dominating a big brand is headphones. I recently raved about how great the $79 Grado SR60e headphones are and how much I enjoy listening to them. They have true audiophile sound that is rich, natural and detailed. I much prefer them to any of the Beats headphones I have tried, even the very expensive models selling for $300. If you seek out the opinion of other audiophiles you will find that they agree. Head-fi.org member JBAndradelIV expressed it very well in saying, "The Beats are worth around $30-$50 at most, with like $300 worth of advertising poured into them. The Grados are phenomenal."
You can read the head-fi.org thread at: http://tinyurl.com/gradobeats.
Grado doesn't have the big-money marketing power or flashy image of the Beats brand, so it is not as well known and doesn't sell as many headphones despite having a far superior product at a much lower price. Grado Headphones are made in the United States, and this very dedicated, family-owned company is worthy of your support (www.gradolabs.com).
I don't mean to single out Beats here, but the Beats "The Pill" Bluetooth speaker is the next example that came to my mind as a perfect example. The original small Cambridge SoundWorks OontZ speaker put the Pill to shame with its much better sound, while selling for about a quarter of the price. The Cambridge SoundWorks OontZ XL sells for around half the price of the Pill, and comparing the two is like comparing a stick of dynamite (OontZ XL) with a lady-finger firecracker (Pill.) You can see OontZ speakers at www.theoontz.com
In the coming weeks I will try to list more examples of products that should be more successful than they are — some true gems of the electronics world that enthusiasts know about but many in the general public do not.
Send questions to Don Lindich at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get more recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.