Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Mystery of the Blue Chinese Snowball

Blue ("Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics") seems like a pretty cool company. Their web site says they are "Headquartered in Westlake Village, California... with engineering and manufacturing facilities in Latvia."

I was recently looking for a microphone for recording podcasts. I have a nice microphone, but no longer have a decent mic preamp and analog-to-digital converter, so after seeing the Blue Snowball on Sweetwater's site, I decided I wanted one. It's a microphone with a USB port instead of the usual XLR output. It has a built-in preamp, takes its power directly from USB, and has two capsules for different pickup patterns, as well as a pad setting for recording loud instruments. It sounded cool, so to speak, and the Blue designs look cool as well. It comes with a stand, although not a shock-mount. Sweetwater had it for about $160 with free shipping.

Before purchase, I examined the manual for the microphone, which is available on Blue's site. The manual is funny, with cute fake endorsements by Frosty the Snowman and other gags. Right after "Don't store your Snowball in the freezer," it says "Made in Latvia." This is the manual I looked at, along with the images of the mic, before buying it.

So, I bought it. From Sweetwater, a company I generally like doing business with. They have good prices, they have real people working for them, and they always send me some candy along with whatever product I buy. I'm a sucker for candy. MacMall never sends me candy!

When the microphone arrived and I unpacked it, the first thing I noticed was that it said "MADE IN CHINA."

The box also said "Made in China."

The printed copy of the manual that came in the box was missing the "Made in Latvia" line. It didn't say anything about the country of manufacture.

The microphone has a metallic band wrapped around the middle of the mic. If you are facing the front, the text is upside-down. If you're facing the rear (where the USB cable plugs in) it says, running clockwise, "(c) BLUE MICROPHONES * THE SNOWBALL * S/N (my serial number) * MADE IN CHINA (CE logo) (trash bin logo)[see end note 1]."

However, this isn't what you see when you look at the pictures on Sweetwater's web site, though.

Take a look at the images. Go ahead -- I'll wait. See anything strange?

The images have been altered to hide the country of manufacture. Do you think I'm just being paranoid? Look closely.

In the first image, the portion of the metallic band around the middle that says "MADE IN CHINA" on my microphone actually shows no text, although the CE logo is still visible.

But then look at the other photos, supposedly of the same product. They aren't consistent. The fourth image shows the same part of the metallic band as the first image, and you can see the end of the serial number and the CE logo. But the space in between, which is blank in the first image, now shows "BLUE MICROPHONES" again, upside-down relative to the serial number.

Look at the image that shows the opposite side. Someone took the "BLUE MICROPHONES" portion of the text from that side, flipped it over so the curvature would be consistent with the opposite side, and pasted it here.

Not only was the image doctored, but the first and the fourth images are inconsistent with each other. They don't show a real object.

Here's my theory: the photographs originally read "MADE IN LATVIA." According to the Blue forum, some of them were manufactured in Latvia, and this is what the rest of Blue's microphones read, at least according to the the photos of the other Blue microphones on Sweetwater's site. I suspect that Blue did not want to take new pictures, and it would have been a lie for the photos to say "MADE IN LATVIA," so they doctored the images.

The cardboard box the microphone arrived in, by the way, also has the doctored image of the microphone (the same as the fourth image from the Sweetwater site) with the "BLUE MICROPHONES" text occurring twice. This tells me that the doctored images probably came from Blue, not Sweetwater.

I like the microphone, but I have a bad taste in my mouth now. The material I studied prior to purchase misled me into believing that the microphone was made in Europe, by employees with legal protections against human rights abuses.

As far as I'm concerned, "MADE IN CHINA" may as well read "MANY BOTHANS DIED TO BRING YOU THIS PRODUCT AT THIS UNNATURALLY LOW PRICE, WHICH COULD ONLY BE ACHIEVED BY USING SLAVE LABOR AWAY FROM THE PRYING EYES OF HUMAN RIGHTS OBSERVERS." It's why I don't shop at Wal-Mart, ever. I'm not particularly impressed by whatever the American companies say about how modern and safe those factories are, and how well the workers are paid. Wal-Mart says that, too.

I've written Blue about this. I've have also written a note to Sweetwater. I haven't heard back from either, yet.

I'm willing to believe that the Snowball, being the lowest-end model, can't be manufactured in Latvia and sold at the target price point. But by building mics in China, Blue is diluting its brand -- and the deception is disturbing. Shouldn't they be manufacturing their microphones somewhere that they, and their distributor Sweetwater, are proud of?

I'll leave it to your own conscience to decide whether you want to buy a Snowball of your own. It's a nice microphone. I know that I wouldn't have bought it, if I had known where it was made. I don't like being lied to. I don't think I'll be buying anything else from Blue Microphones.


[Footnote 1]: this little logo seems to show a recycling bin with a line under it and an "X" through it. I'm not sure what it means. Don't recycle the microphone? Don't throw it away? It may have something to do with the mic containing toxics such as a mercury battery. The manual doesn't say anything about this, though.


ajd said...

Compare these two images:

In the first image, part of the band is blank; in the second, that part of the band is filled in with "BLUE MICROPHONES". The serial number is identical in both.

Reflex said...

The little "recycling bin" logo is something you'll see on most products, soon. It is a European logo that just indicates that the product should not be discarded because a recycling program is in place.

As for hiding the country of manufacture -- that's sleezy.

cobalt said...

I have a Blue Snowball Mic that actually has "made in latvia" on it. I don't see a "recycling bin" logo, though.

Starting on the right side of the mic, and reading around to the left, the band on mine reads:


All the text is in blue, except for the serial which is stamped in white.

They would appear to be manufacturing in more than one country. My guess is, they intended to manufacture in latvia, but were unable to keep up with demand, and ended up having to quickly (and cheaply) locate extra production space.

I'm wondering how a chinese snowball stacks up against a latvian one.

max cooper said...

"Sweetwater had it for about $160 with free shipping."

So, are you saying cost is a factor? Would you have paid $275 and been happy with the purchase?

I think there's a certain amount of culpability on the consumer end. Consumers love to get things for as little as possible. Which may be why manufacturers and sellers compete to the last nickel.

Paul R. Potts said...

Max: "would I have paid $275?"

I think it is fair to say "maybe." I was not actually that price-sensitive for this purchase; I could have spent a little more. I'm not sure I would have paid $275 for a microphone made in Latvia, but American manufacturing now seems so scarce that I definitely would have paid a premium for an American-made device. Case in point: I have recently been looking for some specific American-made guitars. I'm paying a premium to get instruments that were made in Tennessee instead of Korea.