Why is cheap gear a bad investment?
When buying equipment there are typically multiple options across a variety of price points. While there is a difference between “best gear” and “gear best for you currently”, the price is often an indicator or what you are paying for. I believe that more often than not, spending a little more on better equipment will save you money in the long run. What’s the point in buying equipment you are going to have to replace shortly because it’s not at the level you need? Buy once, cry once!
That’s not to say there isn’t affordable gear that has no right to be as good as it is for its price, because there absolutely is. Ultimately it comes down to knowing your priorities, how frequently you’ll use it, its lifespan, and what its return on investment will look like for you.
What are you paying for?
With such a disparity in costs, it’s easy to wonder what difference you can expect from high end sound equipment that costs ten times as much as the budget option. Wireless Lav Mics are a great example of this, you could get a budget option for around $115/channel, or you could spend $3800+ per channel of wireless….everything from sound quality, build quality, usability, and feature sets are going to be radically different in those two price points. So between at each end of the price spectrum, what are you even paying for?
One of the major selling points of high end gear are the feature set that differentiate it from its competitors. Often features & quality control are two of the first things to get cut back for budget products in order to hit their target price point. Obviously feature sets can vary significantly depending what type of gear you are looking at but that should be a major consideration before purchasing any new gear.
Build Quality & Reliability
Life on set being used day after day is hard on equipment, and being able to hold up to it is one of the key things I look for in gear when choosing what equipment to purchase. There are a lot of punishing and abusive conditions you may need to use gear under while filming. From extreme temperatures (both hot and cold), humidity, precipitation, and any potential mishandling when it’s outside of the sound department’s control, during transport, or even if it is accidentally dropped, these are all common conditions equipment needs to be able to withstand. Higher end equipment is typically built to last while under these extreme condition, and many manufactures take extreme reliability into consideration when designing products. For example DPA mics are designed to operate in temperatures as cold as -40º F and as hit as 115º F with 90% humidity, or Lectrosonics, who machines their transmitter bodies out of solid blocks of aluminum in order to create a transmitter that can take a beating.
Unfortunately low end gear often isn’t designed to handle this kind of abuse and will break down and fail when subjected to these conditions. Being able to count on the tools while working on location is hugely important when investing in equipment!
When things do go wrong and equipment needs repair, what does that service look like? If you are spending thousands on equipment, it’s only logical you’d want to be able to repair it if it ever stops working. Typically premium equipment manufactures have excellent service departments and can repair nearly any issue you encounter. Alternatively with cheaper gear when it fails, many times the manufacturers do not offer service, and even if they do the cost of getting it repaired may not make sense given the cost of the unit. I’ve had several expensive pieces of gear go down over the years, and being able to have serviced can save you thousands compared to having to replace it with a new one.
It’s no secret that generally high end gear often doesn’t loose resale value very easily. Cheap gear however often looses 50% of its value the second it comes out of the box. It doesn’t always make sense to hold onto gear for ever, so when it comes time to sell it, higher end gear will give you a better return on your initial investment. Some equipment that has a longer relevant lifespan, such as microphones or cinema lenses, can often appreciate in value once discontinued and continue to do so over time. It’s not unheard of for vintage mics to sell for several times their original new price.
Anyone who’s ever used high end equipment knowns there is a huge difference in quality between it and its cheaper counterparts. The quality of the end results are only as good as the weakest point in the chain. Whether talking about microphones, lenses, preamps, etc, the quality of the equipment fundamentally shapes the end results.
There however is a case of diminishing returns. The difference between a $200 mic and a $1000 mic is substantial, however the difference between a $1000 mic and a $2000 mic is much less significant. Once you get into premium options, they all deliver exceptional end results and becomes more a matter of tastes and having options for varying circumstances.
One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is sometimes costs are associated with paying for the brand name and the marketing it took for that company to establish itself and continue to stay relevant. While paying for a brand name, that is a cost that doesn’t necessarily benefit the end user. Neumann is a great example, while they make fantastic microphones, they often significantly more than similar spec options.
R&D Costs vs Market Size
How niche of a market vs how much it cost to develop a product is absolutely a major factor on price of equipment. When it comes to specialty equipment that has limited use cases, that gear is going to sell in low quantities. As such the cost of development gets passed onto the customer in the form of higher per unit costs.
Perception to Clients & Peers
Whether it is a good practice or not, people often get judged by the equipment they own rather than the skillset and knowledge they posses. When providing a referral to a colleague or a client is looking for who they want to hire, it’s not uncommon that gear gets used as a measure of how reliable and good at their job someone is. With the high costs of gear, how much and what gear someone has is often a sign of how well established someone is in their industry & career. Having never worked with someone before, who are you more likely to trust, the person with cheap gear because that’s all they have or someone with an extensive collection of high end equipment? I’m not saying this is the best measure of a person’s skills, knowledge, quality of work, etc, but it is often a measure by which people are judged.
It’s easy to get caught up in what gear is or isn’t the best, and anytime a need arises it’s something worth considering. If it’s a high cost item, how often will it get used and what will its return on investment look like? For gear that gets used frequently, I believe it’s often in your best interest to spend a little more and get something that will last your whole career (or at very least many years).