My recent review of the Monoprice Monolith M300 earphones, and my friend Steve Guttenberg’s review of the M300s on CNet, have raised a timely question. The M300s seem to be a knockoff of one of Audeze’s iSine planar-magnetic earphone models, but they arrived so soon after the iSines’ introduction that it makes me wonder if some third party isn’t dealing to both sides. The provenance of the tech products we buy is increasingly unclear, a situation that prompts me to ponder: Today, what does a brand mean?
For consumers, a brand is a shortcut, a way to avoid at least some of the work involved in selecting what we buy. If I own a Sony TV and I like it, and I hear other people generally saying nice things about Sony, I’ll feel better about buying a set of Sony headphones, and I might be less inclined to find and read reviews of them before I buy them. From what I’ve seen, audio enthusiasts -- who are highly aware of the reputations of audio brands, and for whom pride of ownership and resale value can be major motivators -- are often even more brand-sensitive than is the average consumer.
Of course, practically every brand eventually fields a subpar product or two. But in this era of overseas production, stateless companies, and ’round-the-world collaboration through the Internet, a brand is an even less reliable sign of quality than it was in the days when step #1 in launching an audio company was usually to set up your own factory.
When visiting the offices of original design manufacturers (ODMs) in China and Taiwan, who design and build audio products that are sold under other companies’ brands, I’m often a little shocked to see an ODM-designed and -built product bearing a famous brand I never thought would outsource its design work. Sometimes these ODMs create what’s called a “reference design,” which forms the basis of products that are essentially identical, though they vary cosmetically and wear different brands. It’s possible that the product whose brand you trust is functionally quite similar to the product whose brand you abhor.
Outsourcing to ODMs is especially common in fields that lie outside the expertise of mainstream audio companies, such as headphones and wireless speakers. A small number of high-end companies, including Audeze, still build headphones in their own factories, but I can’t think of a single well-known audio brand that manufactures its own one-piece wireless speakers. In fact, SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider stunned me just the other day when he revealed that one of today’s best-reviewed headphones is actually an ODM product that was shopped around to various high-end brands. (Sorry, I can’t reveal which one.)
The fact that a product wasn’t designed by the company whose brand it bears isn’t necessarily a downside. It almost certainly reduces the product’s cost, possibly by as much as two-thirds. The engineers from the branding company may have been deeply involved in the product’s design. Or the branding company may have taken the route RBH has successfully pursued: saving money by starting with a widely available generic design, then fine-tuning it to their liking. Or the ODM may have brought in a big-name engineer to do the basic design work, or a skilled consultant to do the fine-tuning. Or the tuning might be outsourced to a competent third-party technology provider such as Dolby or DTS.
On the other hand, the branding company might just slap its logo on the product and make few changes to it, or no changes at all. Even a branding company with a string of successes can stumble when a key product manager leaves.
Monoprice, the company that inspired this article, seems to pursue practically every possible route in acquiring products to sell. It’s often accused of copying others’ designs, and the company has been successfully sued for infringing on others’ intellectual property. In many cases, though, Monoprice just buys a design from an ODM that’s selling it to multiple branding companies, then undercuts those competitors’ prices.
Few companies discuss these matters openly. Most want you to think that all of their products are unique and special, and that their brand is a mark of quality you can trust. Unfortunately, except for a few very small, boutique audio companies, consumers, enthusiasts, and reviewers rarely know who really designed an audio product, who manufactured it, who fine-tuned it, and whose technology it relies on. Brands have never been a smart way to judge the quality of audio products, but today brands mean less than ever before. As I said above, this situation can have an upside: better products at lower prices. But it requires consumers to abandon some of their faith in brands, and to spend more time researching the products they buy.
. . . Brent Butterworth