Colorless writings, part 19 – Component Quality

Are you talking about the marketing text  we see on many manufacturers’ sites and brochures?

Exactly. The phrases like “Only the best quality components have been used” and “Highest quality components” are something i tend to see around every now and then. I’ll start with this link: http://www.dirk-hendrik.com/boutique.html It is to Dirk Hendrik’s page and this page raises a few valid questions towards all boutique manufacturers. The main questions would be:

  1. Are carbon composition resistor better than metal film resistors?
  2. Are poly box capacitors the best type for an effect pedal?
  3. Are *insert brand name here* electrolytic capacitors the best for an effect pedal?
  4. and so on…

Before taking any of those questions on, i’d like to take a look at “quality” as a word. To me, it seems like high quality is always what we all are graving for, no matter what it means. And sadly, more than often it means the brand and feel of the brand than actual quality in components or actual build quality. I recall someone has said that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. I’m fairly convinced that this applies here too. Anyway. The word itself originates from latin, and we could roughly translate it to “level of excellence”. Now, the higher level of excellence is always better thing to reach after than a lower level of excellence. Right? But then comes the question, how do we determine high or low quality?

Yeah. How do you determine it?

Good question. And i did ask it myself before you, you know. We are on a slippery slope when manufacturer sets him/herself as producing things with high level of excellence. That’s like saying i’m the greatest swimmer in the world because i swim. It does not say anything worth mentioning about the water, the distance or the time. But i don’t consider myself to be the greatest swimmer. This all applies only to the build quality, so let’s get going and finally touch the real subject.

Of course there are differences in component quality between manufacturers and manufacturing methods. But do these differences matter and are they even relevant to sound or durability? I’m fairly certain that these two are the main issues when we try to determine the quality of an effects pedal. So. Are vintage style carbon composite resistors always better than modern, cheap metal film ones? No. For replicating a feature hiss for vintage fuzz face, you’ll need to use what the 60’s units used. But temperature changes will make those “mojo” components hiss even more (or less). So for a modern fuzz pedal, those are probably not the best thing to use. Thus, the quality isn’t better for modern application. As far as resistor go, i’ve rarely seen a broken resistor of any age. The only real difference between the cheapest 1/4W metal film resistor and the most expensive metal film resistor is the price tag.

But what about those poly box capacitors? Or electrolytics?

It’s pretty much the same thing as with the resistors. The audible differences between different plastics around the polybox caps are virtually non-existent. We are talking about 9V powered circuits here. And the signal we’re shaping is coming off from a coil that’s wrapped around a magnet. I can tell you one thing. Those 400V rated capacitors from top shelf brand name are not going to sound better than those modern, cheap chinese Panasonic brand caps that are rated for 63V. You can get 40 of those Panasonics for the price of one audiophile labelled capacitor. And you can take a wild guess which one will be at home in our 9V circuit. And how about those multilayer ceramics! Those are possibly the cheapest thing if we don’t take the plain ceramic disks in to account. So does the price have a say in quality in this case? To me, no. All MMLC (monolithic multilayer capacitors) have always been reliable, solid and cheap. Even the tolerances on those are usually well balanced. All this applies to electrolytics as well. Our 9V circuits are not as critical to caps as the high voltage tube amplifies, for example. Even in those, manufacturing method of a capacitor is more crucial than the price or the brand. May it be what ever. The chances are that the manufacturer will use what his/her chosen supplier has in stock, rather than doing real, objective testing to find out what capacitor is truly the best for his/her application.

The issue comes when these components are advertised as “highest quality”. Are they really the highest quality available in the world? Are they the best suited selections for the purpose? How have you tested or tried the components? Marketing text will always be marketing text, but trying to make yourself look good by lying isn’t probably the best way to go. That has a tendency of backfiring.

There are differences in components. These differences may and will affect the tone in many cases. In many cases the difference will be so small, that it can hardly be described as audible. In some cases the quality of a component may and will affect the life expectancy of an effect pedal. The phone jacks are a great example of this. Those cheapest non-brand jacks that you can get for 20 cents a piece. No. You don’t want to use those. But on the other end of this rope – will you get more life out of ten buck Switchcrafts when compared to Neutrik/Rean open framed jacks? Probably not. Will a pedal with the most expensive jacks be better in quality than the one with reasonable priced jacks that feel just as sturdy and will last the same amount of time and (ab)use? Maybe yes. But since the feel and life expectancy is the same, i see no harm in declaring the second option as a quality product too.

So once again, the quality is in the eye of the beholder?

We could say that. Quality isn’t that simple of a subject that we could just say “it’s like this”. Because it may not be. But we should not make the mistake of advertising the use of quality components if we have not done sufficient footwork to determine the quality. By ourselves. To quote Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

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