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From an Editor’s Notebook:  A Tale of Two Woes

02-17-2020 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 108

Life is hard and filled with sorrow. And sometimes you don't see it coming.

Two real woes for high-end audio are at hand. What their outcomes may be, or how they may affect audiophiles worldwide, are yet to be seen.

Woe Number One

I received a phone call and an email recently from a colleague at Positive Feedback. He was very concerned about the outbreak of the coronavirus, but for a different reason:  its depressive effects on high-end audio production.

The connection?

Simple. For a number of years now…going all the way back into the ‘90s…high-end audio production has outsourced more and more of its fabrication (especially machining and metalworking, an area that the West has allowed to slip out of its once-dominant grasp), design execution, and component production (both tubes and solid-state), to new homelands in places like Eastern Europe, Russia, and (surprise!), China.

This is no huge news, since it's been coming on for so long. I still remember when Mark Levinson started his new tubed audio company, Red Rose Music, in the days when DSD and SACD were emerging as the new top-quality audio formats for audiophile music. Red Rose Music components, packing quite a punch at their price points, were (an open secret, this) being produced in China.

And here's the concern for high-end audio:  These days, sourcing components, and even complete products on an OEM basis from China, has become a fairly common practice for American firms. There are quite a number of them under production, ranging from a small device or component here or there, all the way up to tubes, the machining of complete chassis, and major assembly of entire US audio designs.

Thus the connection between audiophile manufacturing and the coronavirus (designated COVID-19 by the med experts).

In a phone call and memo, my colleague's concerns include the following points, all of which are directly quoted from his communiqué:

  1. Given the outbreak of coronavirus, independent Shippers like DHL from China no longer pick up parts or gear from the factories. They must be delivered to the shipper, itself no longer an easy thing, since the Chinese authorities have clamped down hard on travel in some sections of China. This means that the Chinese manufacturers have to wait for the few flights to America to ship.
  2. The factories are mostly closed. A few are open with reduced personnel. Even if the parts get made, there is no one around to take them to the shippers.
  3. Even audio manufacturers who make their gear in America source some parts from China. All are scrambling to find other manufacturers in America...and if they can find them, the costs are TRIPLE according to my source.
  4. Even Audio Research Corporation chassis are made in China...in the same factory making PrimaLuna!
  5. Takeaways: Prices are going up. Buy now, do not wait. If you want to make a big purchase, get a loan and do it...interest rates are super low.
  6. Possible consequences:  Some audiophile companies will disappear entirely. Some will capture important market share. All will be affected as the "Schiit" hits the fan.

Cute, that last.

But my colleague's concerns are quite real, and the consequences listed are not highly speculative. The globalization of production in our time means that all areas of commerce are tightly linked, and problems in one locale will quite often cause significant effects in another, even at great distances. (That's because there are no "great distances" anymore.)

China is speculating that coronavirus will fade after April of 2020, but there's a certain amount of whistling in the dark in those pronouncements from Xi and others.

Audiophiles need to be aware of the cost-push elements to this disease outbreak, and plan their purchases accordingly.

You've been warned.

Woe Number Two

Have you heard?!

The biggest catastrophe since the fire at the Universal Music Group archives in Hollywood in 2008 (if unaware, read more about that awful audio holocaust HERE, HERE, and HERE) took place on Thursday, February 6, in Banning, CA.

The Apollo Master production facility was completely gutted by a fire that destroyed its ability to produce lacquers for LPs. (For more, read THIS, THIS, THIS, THIS, and THIS…or just Google "Apollo Master fire"...and run.)

What's the problem with that?

Uh…do you love LPs?

Well, Apollo Masters was the only US production plant producing lacquers for LP production, and was, to my knowledge, only one of two lacquer-making facilities in the world. (The other is in Japan, and wasn't nearly as large.)

Without lacquers, the global production of LPs will slow down significantly as the backlog of current stockpiles are used up in 2020. How long that will take is anyone's guess, but the supply is not unlimited.

If new production does not come online in the reasonably near future, then you can count on release delays for new LPs, higher prices almost certainly, and perhaps serious interruptions or shutdowns in future LP enterprises.

Yes, it is potentially that serious.

Due to its highly artisanal and arcane nature, LP production is a heavily specialized industry with several very vulnerable points of failure. LP cutting lathes, say, or the available supply of the skilled artists needed to guide same. Mastering engineers…plating facilities…and so on. Each of these all-too-few pressure points represent potential failure zones, bringing much, or most, LP production downwards and audiophile LP lovers to a place of severe pain.

So…once again, the time to buy your target LPs is now.

Until a way forward is found, the loss of Apollo Mastering will continue to haunt high-end audio for the foreseeable future.

Once again:  you've been warned.

Portrait of David W. Robinson by John Robinson; drawings by Dan Zimmerman.