Cheap and nasty

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In these difficult times people are tempted to buy cheap electrical equipment. That’s usually a mistake. If a radio, TV or whatever costs twice as much but lasts five times as long as the cheapest available – and performs better into the bargain – which is really the best value for money?

Perception

One of the problems with our trade is that there is often little discrimination between different levels of quality, performance and features: to many people a DAB radio is a DAB radio, never mind the make or type, and a 40in plasma TV (why do they call all big thin screens plasmas?) likewise. It’s quite different with cars, where specifications, features and build integrity are appreciated and valued, and where almost every make has a definite slot in terms of status and desirability.

With home electronic gear, brand loyalty is diminishing these days, and exists mainly amongst older people who can remember the original manufacturers and their products, and perhaps misguidedly associate with them current equipment bearing the same name. Hence the perceived value of once-famous brand names which change proprietors for lots of money. Looking at today’s brands, and leaving out audio equipment with its many specialist and esoteric marques, I believe that Pioneer (which plans to withdraw from the consumer TV business) and Sony are the two tops in mainstream TV and video, while Pure and Roberts products are the most desirable amongst well-known radio makes.

Infamy

As with TV and DVD equipment, the very cheapest DAB radio equipment can be incredibly bad. A year or two ago a friend of mine bought a portable (ghetto-blaster style) thing from a now-defunct chain of music, film and games shops. Its price was £40, for which it incorporated DAB and FM tuners, CD player and audio cassette deck, operated from internal batteries or an internal mains PSU. It bore no manufacturer’s name or logo whatsoever, and neither did its instruction book. The first part to fail was the cassette player, spasmodically chewing precious and irreplaceable tapes, and then refusing all tape functions. Next the CD section got into trouble, becoming more and more picky about which discs it would play. Cleaning the laser lens didn’t help, and finally the disc player croaked out altogether. That left the radio section, whose DAB tuner or decoder began to suddenly and randomly cut out, staying silent until reset by switching off and on again. As I write the FM tuner is the only function of this wonder-box which still works properly.

Design gaffes

Nor are reliability and build quality the only drawbacks of cheap equipment from the Far East: the design can be really bad. I have recently examined a currently available £35 DAB radio bearing a brand name which is exclusive to one of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains. It has just five radio presets, cutting right across the main benefit of DAB, a wide variety of simply-accessed stations. Its indicator panel, rather than scrolling, jumped sideways, flashing on and off at each hop. That made it impossible, for me anyway, to keep my eyes on it for long. This radio is mains or battery powered, but there is no facility for charging the six C-cells it requires, and the quoted consumption from them is 1A, corresponding to 9W total, not much of which emerged as audio output. Worse, the radio bore a dire warning not to use it on mains with the batteries still inside! So you have to put them in when you take the set into the garden, and remove them all again for use indoors from the wall socket – wow.

What the cheapo manufacturers are very good at is imitating the look of ‘proper’ merchandise, with construction, colours and styling which closely mimic those of leading brands. It’s easy, it seems, to achieve an attractive appearance, not so simple to get the attributes of quality and reliability.

Kaput

When this sort of equipment breaks down there is, of course, no viable repair possibility, not only because of lack of spares and service data, but also because its price and value do not justify the expenditure of skilled attention on it – acceptable, perhaps, with a cheap radio but very bad where a large TV screen is prematurely scrapped.

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