The perils of covering crowdfunded audio products

  • Crowdfunding is becoming an increasingly attractive option to the audio hardware manufacturer wanting to bring a new product to market with minimal financial risk. An exposition of function supported by a computer-generated 3D render of approximate form laid out on either Kickstarter or Indiegogo and our would-be manufacturer is good to go with fund solicitation.

    For would be backers, the upside is the potential to save big on (projected) retail pricing. Early adopters are rewarded with hefty discounts. A notable example is Neil Young’s PonoPlayer: the earliest of birds caught their worms for US$199, a full 50% saving on the in-store price.

    On Kickstarter, a backer’s credit card isn’t billed until campaign end. No charge if the funding target isn’t met. Over at Indiegogo, credit cards are charged immediately with a refund issued if the campaign fails to make target.

    It’s a win-win for both our would-be manufacturer and his backers.

    Where’s the beef?

    With funding target met and funds committed, our backer finds himself at the mercy of production delays as well as the related issue of the backer changing home address between order- and shipping- dates (as I did with Pono).

    Of greater concern are possible changes to form and function. The end product might look nothing like that offered in the original funding campaign. It might behave differently too. And with with no way of auditioning before signing on the dotted line there’s zero guarantee that what you are buying (backing) will sound any good.

    An example of this switcheroo was LH Labs’ GeekWave. Initially an add-on for your existing smartphone, the campaign was ‘rebooted’ (LH Labs’ words) several weeks later as something entirely different: GeekWave was now a fully-fledged digital audio player. LH Labs jumped from one to the other without ever tooling a production line.

    The GeekWave is a more extreme example of a manufacturer’s ability to jump around. It brings a lack of certainty to the consumer and it imbues hi-fi publication coverage with risk. For publishers, announcing crowdfunded products in one’s news section is a world a way from doing the same with products that journey from boardroom meeting to factory floor BEFORE the customer is asked to part with money or press-releases get sent.

    Then comes the issue of the journalist being played as a promo tool, tacitly backing the crowd-funding campaign with news coverage. Now our would-be manufacturer has ‘product’ and promotion nailed down with minimal financial outlay.

    It isn’t always plain sailing. Forums threads are the first to light up with complaints if something goes awry after funds have been collected. With sufficient hot air fanning those flames a journalist’s reputation gets singed; guilt by association.

    Any hi-fi magazine worth its salt must consider how its editorial policy treats this new way of bringing products to market. At one extreme, a well-known US-based publication refuses point blank to commit any ink or pixels to crowd-funded audio gear. At the other extreme, several ‘zines can be seen running stories on little more than the whiff of a press release.

    Pragmatists seeking a middle ground must navigate a potentially perilous land marked ‘Contradiction’.

    I’ve been pondering this for a while. How can DAR cover interesting products coming to market via the crowdfunded model whilst simultaneously minimising its exposure to issues arising from the seemingly easy-come-easy-go nature of design and production? Which campaigns should see coverage? And how will they be covered?

    Since letting the Voxtok Capsule through to the ‘keeper last June, I’ve been trialling a firmer policy.

    Firstly, coverage relating to changes in the campaign structure runs dangerously close to the journalist being worked as the manufacturer’s puppet. For example, an Indiegogo-fuelled product being switched up to ‘Forever Funding’ isn’t newsworthy. It’s the same product being sold through the same channel but with the campaign expiry date removed so that it can run indefinitely.

    Secondly, Kickstarter- or Indiegogo-funded products now require proof of life from their manufacturer before I’ll put fingers to keyboard. I need to see something beyond a CAD render or empty chassis, which translates to some form of hands-on qualification of the product at hand.

    A prototype sighted/heard at audio shows will suffice. That was the case with CEntrance’s Skÿn at CES 2015 and the PS Audio Sprout at the Munich High-End Show in 2014…and it will continue to be the case for a forthcoming post about a new line of products from the aforementioned LH Labs. (Although, as is my news announcing wont these days, that particular article will be more than simple press release dissemination).

    Another way for our would-be manufacturer to move from online abstraction to real life tangibility is a product loaner, sent via a return ticket to DAR HQ in Sydney. A pre-production model is fine.

    The latter method of qualification kicked a little harder in the other direction some weeks ago when a manufacturer bringing his headphone amplifier to market via Indiegogo contacted DAR regarding possible news coverage of the funding campaign. Understanding that I required (even the most basic of) hands-on time with the product he agreed to send a unit my way. Alas, the loaner never materialised (presumed unshipped) and therefore coverage from yours truly maintained its absence.

    None of this inures backers to changes that take place beyond the prototype or pre-production stages but it is a definite step removed from publishing news items on everything and anything that seeks cash from the crowd.

    Further information: Kickstarter Basics | Indiegogo Basics

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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