By Frank Fendley
Today, let's talk about service issues on various musical products, and why it's a good idea to think about these things before you buy a particular brand or from a particular retailer.
When you buy a car, the thought of service most likely enters your mind. The car salesman probably mentions it, or might even take you on a quick tour of the service department. We all know that cars are going to need service. Not so much when it comes to musical gear. Perhaps it's because we'd rather not think about problems down the road. The salesman might mention the warranty, but they might not tell you exactly how the warranty terms are fulfilled (more on that later). And what about service after the warranty? Let me tell you my perspective on these issues, and hopefully it will make you a bit wiser when it comes time for your next purchase.
First, the brand. Different manufacturers are all over the map when it comes to how well they support their products, and in what manner they support them. I won't be as organized or detailed as Consumer Reports, but I'll run through the brands that come to mind, and tell you how well they stack up.
We'll start with guitar amps. Line 6 pops into my mind, because they are one of the better companies when it comes to support. They have field service centers all over the country, they honor their warranties, they are good at supplying parts to the service centers, so if you decide on a Line 6 product, you'll be in good hands. Now, they do stop supporting products after a few years … for example, if you own an AxSys from the late 90's or one of the original Flextones, some parts are no longer available. That's understandable, because Line 6 products are very similar to computers (actually, they ARE computers in many ways). If you own a 1997 computer today, it's obsolete and generally not repairable. Same goes for a 1997 Line 6 amp. Digital technology marches on.
What about the traditional companies like Fender and Marshall? In both cases, support is good. Lots of support, good parts availability, product documentation is strong for their flagship products. Consequently, a service guy like me can fix pretty much any problem that might occur in a Fender or Marshall amp, regardless if it is a vintage model from decades ago, or a new issue. One note about both Fender and Marshall … their lower end products (practice amps and smaller wattage units) are not field repairable under warranty – they have to go back to the manufacturer and are replaced with another unit. Turnaround from the time you take your broken amp to a dealer or service center until the time you receive your replacement can be 3-4 weeks. In addition, the manufacturers make no commitment to stock parts for these lower-end products after warranty service. So, your little Fender or Marshall practice amp may wind up being disposable should it break after the warranty has expired. This is not unique to these companies – most smaller amps from most manufacturers today are similarly throw-aways.
Peavey? Again, good support. In fact, Peavey has one of the best parts departments around today, and they stock many parts for their products from as far back as the 70's and 80's. Lots of service centers, lots of documentation – good product choice if you are concerned about repairs.
So far, so good, right? Well, I can't go any further without talking about the other end of the spectrum. First, I'd like to talk about Crate and Ampeg. About five years ago, if you had asked me to pick some brands that had really good support from the manufacturer, Crate and Ampeg would have been at the top of the list. Part of the St. Louis Music family of brands (SLM Electronics), there wasn't a better tech support and parts department around. But SLM was purchased by Loud Technologies in 2004, and it has been nothing but pure hell since then. And it's getting worse. Loud Technologies is a consortium of investors who decided to make money by buying up musical instrument manufacturers and outsourcing all manufacturing. So, they bought Mackie Products first, and closed the factory in Woodinville, Washington and moved production to China. Next, as I mentioned, they bought SLM and closed down all Crate and Ampeg manufacturing plants in Arkansas and moved the headquarters operation from St. Louis. More recently, they have purchased Martin Audio. Their technical support is non-existent, their parts department is a total shambles, their warranty support is horrible, their Chinese manufacturing subcontractor has stopped making new products due to lack of payment from Loud, their stock has been removed from NASDAQ due to their failure to file reports with the stock exchange for the past two years, and I expect them to announce bankruptcy any day now. It's really sad that they could take some brand name products and trash them as completely has they have. Bottom line – be very, very cautious about buying Crate or Ampeg. You won't find too many new products carrying these brands right now, since they are having manufacturing issues. But keep this in mind when buying used products, whether from a store, individual or on eBay. It might be difficult for me to fix it if a need a specific part and Loud Technologies has gone belly-up.
Okay, Frank, what about some high-end tube amps, such as Bogner, Engl, Mesa Boogie?. I can't say enough good things about Bogner and Engl – they take care of their customers. First, they build very good products, and they stand behind them. ‘Nuff said. Mesa Boogie builds a good product (lots of players love their Dual Rec or Triple Rec). However, some issues come to mind that cloud the Mesa Boogie picture. First, their design on many of their amps is suspect – they use a ton of photocell switching, and the photocell elements that they employ are not without problems. Next, their boards are hand-wired down to the chassis, making component replacement (such as one of the afore-mentioned photocells) very time-consuming and therefore more costly. Finally, they are not dealer or service-center friendly. Let's just say that they appear to have the "big head". They never answer their phone – you have to leave a message, and more often than not, they don't return calls. They do have parts support, but it's hard to order parts when you have trouble reaching them. They are very, very s-l-o-o-o-w-w in paying warranty claims, and so hardly anyone wants to be a Mesa Boogie service center (there is only one authorized service center in Kentucky, in Richmond). Now, I work on a lot of Mesa Boogie amplifiers out of warranty, and generally don't have problems getting parts because a lot of the parts are commercially available parts. But there are a few parts which are custom Mesa Boogie items, and those make it more difficult to service the unit. Just keep in mind when purchasing a ‘Boogie that service is not as smooth as it is with a Marshall, Engl, or Bogner.
Can't end without talking about Behringer. What Wal-Mart is to shopping in your community, Behringer is to the music industry. With Behringer products, all warranty service is in the form of exchange. You take your broken Behringer amp back to the dealer, and they arrange for a replacement unit. On occasion, they may be able to give you a replacement on the spot, if they have sufficient quantity in stock. But that is the exception rather than the rule, and in most cases you're going to have to wait until they get a replacement from the factory. Most of the time, that's about 2-3 weeks. Sometimes, however, it can be 6 months, if the warehouse doesn't have it available. After warranty, service is in the hands of non-warranty service centers, and all of those are stand-alone electronics shops. Behringer has a weird rule about not allowing dealers who sell their products to be a service center for them. So, you may have bought your Behringer from Mom and Pop's Music, but you're going to have to take it to Joe's Electronics for service, even though Mom and Pop's has a service center on premise. In Kentucky, there is only one Behringer service center, in Elizabethtown. There are none in Indiana. Servicing Behringer products is a challenge for non-authorized service centers, due to lack of parts and documentation. Even for the authorized service centers, parts supply is slow and unpredictable.
Finally, a word about buying online from companies like Musician's Friend, Sweetwater, American Music Supply, etc. Your problems with a broken unit are generally more complicated and frustrating when dealing with one of these companies than if you bought the same amp from a local brick and mortar dealer. Those of you who have experienced warranty issues with a product from an online retailer know that this is true, and have learned that buying local gives you a true friend in the music business. Today, you'll get pretty much the same price no matter if you buy it online or buy from a local dealer. So why not support your local dealer and buy here in town? Trust me, you'll appreciate the extra mile they'll go for you when the time for service comes.
Next time, we'll continue this discussion by talking about manufacturer support for PA gear, keyboards, and a little bit about effects units. Until then, keep on playin'. I'm Frank the Tech Guy.